The Titchfield Canal V – 1611

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The late Ken Groves was an engineer by profession and in addition to his capacity for analysing facts he was also an intuitive and creative thinker. He brought all of these intellectual qualities to bear on his study of history in his later life. This article, published in 2011, assesses the historical evidence and also brings modern scientific knowledge to bear upon the problem. His close reasoning brings him to a traditional conclusion.



The town of Titchfield has had a long association with the sea and it was a small, but thriving, port connected to the Solent by, firstly the River Meon and, secondly, by a man-made water channel. There is no written history of the origin of this water channel, which is now known as the Titchfield Canal but, however, it is there for all to see. It is 2 miles long (3000 metres), between 16fit. and 20ft. (5 metres) wide and, originally, the water channel would have been a minimum of between 6ft. and 7ft. (2 metres) deep (there would have been between 2ft. and 3ft. of ‘freeboard’ above the level of water, as in all canals). The path of the canal is relatively straight, with few bends. The amount of material which would have been removed in the building of the canal has been calculated to be approximately 30000 cubic metres, equating to about 60000 tonnes of soil/aggregate.

With the very limited technology available until the Industrial Revolution, and the lower physical stature of the general populace, it is estimated that, at the time of the building of the canal, it would take 100 men one year to dig out and distribute that amount, by hand. This takes into account both the vagaries of the weather and the lack of daylight hours in the winter. In the 17th Century, there would not have been that number of available able-bodied men in the whole of the Parish of Titchfield, so a smaller number over a longer period is more likely, mostly sub-contracted from outside the district. Using modem costs, and allowing for overheads, this has been calculated as the equivalent to an outlay of between £2m and £3m. Why is there no record of this significantly large amount of monetary outlay, or the employment of the workforce?

We have, however, two records, from the period which contain facts of relevance to the situation in Titchfield Haven in the early 1600s; the Titchfield Parish Registers and the 1605/10 map of the Titchfield Manorial Estate. An earlier record states that John Leland, the renowned antiquary, visited Titchfield in 1542 and wrote that, ‘below Warebridge (identified as the river bridge on Bridge Street) the river ebith and floweth’; so was tidal. The Parish Registers state that, in June 1611, Titchfield Haven was shutt out by one Richard Talbotts, at the costs of the Earle of Southampton; this was Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624). The inhabitants of Titchfield Parish would have witnessed the sea coming in, up close to the town, twice a day, and then disappearing again as the tide went out. The area over which this apparent phenomenon happened is called T itc h fie ld Haven, and the reasonable interpretation of ‘sh utt out’ is that it refers to the sea as being shut out. There is some evidence that the passage from the sea to Titchfield had a very d ifficu lt entrance/exit to the sea, was not easily navigable from there to the town, and it has been suggested that silting-up might have been an increasing problem.

A further reference in the Parish Registers states that a Richard Talbutt died in 1629, and he was described as the Sirvayer of Water Woorkes at Meene lane end. ‘ Meene lane end’ can be interpreted as the end of the lane through the hamlet of Meon, which is exactly where the present sea-lock exists, and ‘Water Woorkes’ is one way of describing a sea-lock incorporated into a waterway system which, later, will be seen to have some significance.

The 1605/10 map of the Titchfield Manorial Estate has been researched recently and is, in all probability, genuine. It can be shown that the mathematical knowledge in the early 17th Century was sufficiently advanced to produce such an accurate map; this mathematical/engineering knowledge would, also, have been necessary in closing the estuary, and building a Canal New River. The 3rd Earl of Southampton was, as has been established, associated with at least two of the leading scientists and mathematicians of the day, Henry Briggs and Edward Wright, and they would have been available to him for providing the essential expertise.

The map in Figure 1 is a detail from the 1605/10 map and shows the Meon Estuary at low tide with no canal. The shingle bank is clearly seen, resulting in a narrow exit to the sea, and the river bifurcates outside the Estuary in the littoral region below the high tide mark, and amalgamates with the Solent. At high tide, this bifurcation would have been covered with water, and it is not known whether the shingle bank was covered; Figure 2 shows the river mouth at both low and high tide, and the existence of the shingle bank emphasises the narrow entrance to the Haven, which would even more hazardous if the shingle bank were covered at high tide. The distance from Meon Lane End to the Hill Head bluff is approximately 600 metres, and this is the minimum length of the barrier necessary to close off the estuary. The existence of the shingle bank would have been of great benefit to the construction engineers, and the higher the bank was above the low tide mark, the less in -fill material would be needed to complete he barrier. As will be explained later, the closure of the Haven would have been a lengthy exercise, probably costing far more than the sum, calculated above, to build the canal.

Until recently, the commonly held belief was that the 3rd Earl of Southampton built the canal in conjunction with closing the estuary. The lack of documentary evidence has caused this assumption to be questioned, together with references, through various sources of a later period, to land associated with a ‘New River’. On these later documents there is nothing to identify to where on the river they referred; the term ‘New River’ was used for man-made extensions to the River Meon system well outside the canal area. Another commonly held opinion was that the estuary was closed in order to reclaim valuable land from the sea which, on closer engineering examination, can be shown to be an impossibility, except for very small parcels of land in certain peripheral parts of the littoral area, to be explained later.
There is much evidence that Titchfield was a fairly busy, if small, port, and it can be argued, effectively, that Henry, the 3rd Earl of Southampton had every incentive to keep the port open. He was an early industrialist with a great interest in Virginia and the East Indies. He had Iron Mills at Titchfield and Beaulieu (also, he had plans for using Botley Mill). Continuing the export of wool and leather products and the import of goods (wine, for instance) was still a high priority, and frequent visits to the Isle of Wight, where he was Governor, would have been important; the plying of ships to and from London, and along the whole of the south coast, might have been equally relevant. Also, social visits to both Beaulieu and the Isle of Wight were important, especially if they involved Royalty, or other important people. All of the above indicates that having a channel open to enable vessels, whatever they might have been, to travel up to Titchfield would have pre-eminence amongst the 3rd Earl’s industrial, and private, projects.

A case has been made, therefore, for the 3rd Earl to build a canal, but what are the alternatives? A n interesting factual observation is that, in order to build the Titchfield Canal it is not necessary to close the Haven. Therefore, the fundamental question that can be asked is, why did he close the Haven? The conclusion sheds a new light on the whole Titchfield Canal enigma.

Firstly, we must consider the problem of how did Richard Talbot (modern spelling), possibly under the direction of engineers, Henry Briggs or Edward Wright, set about closing an estuary over a distance of 600/700 metres, using the rudimentary tools, and techniques, which were available at the start of the 17th Century. After much discussion with the engineering fraternity, it is concluded that there would have been only one practical method of creating a barrier 4 metre wide and 1.5 metres above the maximum high water mark, which is considered to be sufficiently robust to withstand the most severe of storms normally encountered in the Solent. This would be by, firstly, in-filling the deepest level, which was the main exit to the sea at the H ill Head bluff until the land level at that point was at the same height as the shingle bank and, then, progressively in-filling upwards, until the estuary was closed. Obviously, by gradually increasing the height over which the water flows during each tide, an ever larger lake is formed inside the estuary as low tide approached, and the level of sea-water dropped below the in-fill height. The addition of the layers could be undertaken at the speed of availability of in­filling material, but it is obvious that it would, quite quickly, restrict the draft of ships which could enter the Haven, and the size of the lake, so formed, would increase in depth with each in fill. This method would be the only choice for the restricted technology of the 17th Century. Finally, a lake was formed inside the Haven, which would be approximately the size of the previous water area at high tide; the water enclosed in the lake would have been part sea water and part fresh water. A n approximation of the lake formed in the estuary is indicated in Figure 3, shown overlaid on top of a modern satellite photograph; the outline approximates to the high water mark of the 1605/10 map but, clearly, the actual lake would have been different in detail. There might well have been some land reclamation, as mentioned above, which would have been relatively easy without the daily two tides, and there would have been some areas of the peripheries of the lake which were shallow enough to allow easy closing off to form dry land.

It has been substantiated that a lake would have been formed behind the barrier of the closure, and this would be fed by the main River Meon, the various tributaries within the estuary, run-off surface water from the surrounding countryside and sea water, both deliberately introduced and during the inclement weather periods, especially high south-west winds, to which the Solent is occasionally exposed. To compensate for this, not inconsequential, constant ingress of water, it would be necessary to insert a controllable sluice/lock system allowing excess water to flow out into the sea which, in consequence, would keep the height of the Titchfield Lake well below the closure barrier height. The lack of a road system at Hill Head Bluff, and the potential engineering difficulties associated with the tidal race at that point, the western end would be a favourite location. Referring to figure 4, the closure of the estuary has been completed, a sluice/lock introduced along the shingle bank, towards the Meon Lane End area and exiting directly onto the beach. As seen above, the Parish Register relates that a Richard Talbutt died in 1629, and he was described as the Sirvayer of Water Woorkes at Meene lane end. The assumption has already been made that this refers to our Richard Talbot, who was a man of some consequence, having organised the unique closure of a substantial haven, demonstrating his outstanding engineering skills. The term ‘Surveyor’ was given to such eminent figures as Henry Briggs, Edward Wright, William Oughtred, Edmund Gunter and other leading mathematicians of the age, and it is not unreasonable to conclude that the ‘Water Works’ referred to had some significance, justifying the continued employment of a man of such worth; there had to be a sluice/lock, and there was a Water Works at Meon Lane End, and it is difficult to imagine that they were not one and the same. The lock as shown in Figure 4 would have been quite rudimentary in operation and, it can be argued, that it was not necessary to employ Richard Talbot to look after it; we have to suggest more realistic alternatives.

Returning to the need of the Earl to maintain a port at Titchfield, the existence of a large lake, equivalent to high tide conditions in the Haven, would enable shipping to be used continuously between the closing barrier and the Town. Inevitably, the sluice/lock would need to be fa r more complicated than that suggested so far, but Henry Wriothesley, and his engineers, would have been able to obtain details of the type of lock which was b e in g used on the Exeter Canal, the first canal to be built in the British Isles in the post-Roman period, which had been completed some 40 years earlier; reports state that the lock used in Exeter was a pound lock which had never before been used in this Country. Such a lock would increase the importance of the ‘water works’ and further justify Richard Talbot as the surveyor. The use of a pound lock would extend, considerably, the period of time over which ships could enter the lake, especially if a relatively deep channel were created running from the lock to the sea, and thus, considering the advantages gained, the Earl would have a far more satisfactory access to the Port of Titchfield than previously. We have, therefore, found a very plausible reason as to why Henry Wriothesley closed out the Haven in 1611, which is far superior to the alternatives. For instance, desiring to have a lake for wild fowl ‘conservation’ for hunting, possibly allied to extending fish stocks, or that the possession of a large lake, subjected to conservative landscaping, would enhance his reputation and Estate, and impress those who need impressing (James I, for instance). It is difficult to see the economic justification for these other concepts, but extravagant follies undertaken by the aristocracy were far from unknown.

Existing sluice/lock at Meon Lane End is, clearly, associated with a later period in the canal’s history, and we have no records of what was put in position in 1611; it is interesting to consider possible alternatives as to where the first lock was positioned, and some possibilities as to where the shipping channel was located. From Figure 4, it can be seen that the position of the lock is not a favourable position for a shipping channel; examination of the littoral area inshore from the shingle bank shows a marshy and shallow area which would probably be unsuitable for the shipping channel. In Figure 5 the sluice/lock has been moved to approximately where the current lock is situated, with a channel to the sea, as would have been used for the canal when it was in operation. The shipping channel shown in the first drawing, avoids the marshy area mentioned previously, and joins the main river course. The second drawing utilises the current path of the canal up to where the Posbrook Brook (Pos Brook?) enters the Haven, using the path of this stream for the shipping route. These suggestions are conjecture only, and there is no evidence of any validity, but they illustrate that the lower canal could have been built by the 3rd Earl and feeding into the main river channel.

Examination of the urban part of the canal, between Bridge Street and Titchfield M ill, shows that that part of the canal is about 6 metres wide along much of its length, and those parts which are less in width can be seen to be overgrown , due to build-up of the banks by silt and vegetation, the result of poor maintenance, and could have accommodated small seagoing ships of the 17th and 18th Centuries. This urban section could have been built at the time of the Haven Closure, and joined to the main river in, or to the south of, the Bridge Street area. There is a later map of the Titchfield Estate, dated 1753, showing this urban section, which is included in Figure 6 together with a redrawn version, helping to clarify the details; comparing this map with current maps of the area show that it was drawn to a considerably high level of cartographic accuracy. One interpretation of these details is that there is plenty of room to sail, or tow, small sea-going ships, a berthing area and, it can be argued, room for them to be turned around. Once again, there is no written record of the building of this part of the canal, but it would have been very much in the Earl’s interest to have this part of the canal in place.

If further evidence is needed to prove that a lake filled the majority of the estuary on the closing off, a survey of the current topography and terrain is sufficient. The estuary is 2 miles long and between l/4 mile and 1/2 mile in width, and the land level is completely flat at, or just above, mean high water mark; a study of geology will tell one that this is indicative of silt deposit associated with river flooding. What is currently visible along the length of the estuary are meadows of a swampy nature, with no evidence of arable farming, along which flows the remains of the original River Meon, interspersed by small and larger lakes, especially towards the sea. Flooding still takes place in the upper reaches of the estuary and in the water meadows further upstream; measurements of the actual amount of silt deposited during these flood periods varies from year to year but, typically, of the order of 10 mm or 20mm, although the winter of 2010/11 has produced over 50 mm of deposit along the banks of the leat to Titchfield Mill. Having established that the River Meon is a silt bearing river, and as there is little reason to believe that it was not, also, silt bearing in the 17th Century, it can be seen that it would not take many years for the flooded closed-off estuary to silt up along the peripheries, the mud flats and the main littoral area of the original estuary and, inevitably, into the main shipping channel. This would have the effect of reducing the size of the lake, affecting the passage of ships, if that were still taking place, and it can be postulated that the silting-up could be seen to be effective within 30 years of the closure; there would be much further deposit over the years before the levels reach those seen currently. When the lake became too silted-up to allow the easy passage of ships is not known but, it is considered that this could easily have been so by 1660. If the canal were not built shortly after the closure of Titchfield Haven, the silting-up of the lake within the estuary could be cited as a reason why it was built, or why the two ends were joined together. It is thought possible that, as the silting-up became worse, the canal at the top and bottom ends was added to, in fairly short lengths, over a period of some years. Examination of the existing canal shows that there is some indication of variation in topography along its length, which might indicate that it was not completed in one piece, but this appearance could be due to variable maintenance on various portions of the canal.

It would be interesting to find out what had happened for other closures of estuaries but, so far, only one has been located. That is the closure of the river Wansbeck, in Northumberland in 1975, and they were under the impression that they were the first in the U K . They inserted a barrier about 500 metres upstream from the mouth of the estuary, and a lake has been formed upstream, over a distance of about 2 miles; the barrier includes a pound lock and a sluice to enable excess water to be discharged. Obviously, the engineering methods used were of the 20th Century, but the effect over the estuary was exactly the same as in Titchfield in 1611, and it is interesting to record that they are already, suffering from problems of silting, but the use of the closed river for navigation is minimal.

A further point to be discussed is whether an Act of Parliament would have been required for the closure; a considerable portion of land was to be acquired by the landowner, Henry Wriothesley, the 3 rd. Earl of Southampton. An Act of Parliament was required before the Exeter Canal was built, and this procedure continued for subsequent developments of a similar nature. Because there is no record of an Act of Parliament it must be assumed that Royal permission was received, without any written confirmation. The 3rd Earl of Southampton was seen to have the favour of James I and it has to be assumed that he obtained a special grant from the King. The next King, Charles I came to the throne shortly after Henry Wriothesley died, and his son made no contact with Royalty for some years, leaving his mother to oversee the Titchfield Estate. The build up to the Civil War commenced during this time, and it difficult to see that the closure of estuaries, and the building of canals had any precedence in daily affairs. Also, it is impossible to see that any permission would have been granted during the Commonwealth period, and subsequently, for the work at Titchfield to be undertaken without an Act of Parliament. The conclusion is that the 3rd Earl of Southampton was, uniquely, able to close the estuary, and build a canal, albeit in small portions. It has been established, clearly, that he closed the Titchfield Haven, but whether he built a canal is open to conjecture, but a case has been made. The position of the canal on the 1605/10 map is indicated in Figure 7.

After much due consideration, it is thought that the suggestion that the 3rd Earl closed the Haven, in order to use it as an improved shipping channel, to keep open the Port of Titchfield, is the only one which has a financially viable essence and, hence, is the most likely reason. However, we have no documentary evidence, other than the Parish Records, and the topographical evidence of today. It is closed from the sea, recorded in the Titchfield Parish Records, and we have a New River/Canal, with a sluice/lock, with contention, and conflicting records, as to when it was built; the sluice in Hill Head Harbour is an obvious, fairly modern, addition. The 3rd Earl had the incentive of requiring the town of Titchfield still to be classed as a port, and to have easier access to the town harbours, and the alternative reasons for closing the estuary have little to commend them, in comparison to the theory outlined above. The closing of the estuary was carried out at the costs of the right honourable the Earle of Southampton and, if the costs of the top and bottom sections of the canal were included in this cost, then the fact that no record of the huge cost of building the complete canal can be found, would be explained; the cost of joining up the top and bottom portions of the canal, maybe in separate sections, would be comparatively small and, therefore, not accurately recorded. The time-scale in carrying out this prodigious task is not known, but it could have taken years to complete and, possibly, modifications and improvements could have been annual events, together with the inevitable maintenance, largely the clearing of debris, dredging the channels and repair of storm damage.

If the 3rd Earl did not use the lake, formed when he closed the estuary, for the passage of ships up to the town of Titchfield, then he is the prime contender for building the complete Canal/New River at, or around, the time that he closed the estuary. The lack of any financial records for such an expensive operation, the need to have the Port of Titchfield in operation, the question of the lack of an Act of Parliament and the failure to establish anyone else who had the incentive, establish this contention. The question of building the new waterway as an irrigation channel is discounted because of the huge cost, the unnecessary size (length and width) and the swampy nature of the meadows to be irrigated. The alternative is that the 3rd Earl, at vast cost, closed the estuary because he could and, some 60 years later, an unknown person, with little incentive, built a canal, also at huge cost, and with no Act of Parliament, which has little credence. In circumstances where there is controversy, it is often sensible to invoke Ockham’s Razor: that which is the most logical and simple is usually correct.

Map (1753) .HRO WD331(1614); HRO WD332(1633); HRO 19M48137, Survey; 21M52

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