We may not have to look too far for reasons for the location of the church and village of Titchfield on the west bank of the river Meon. It was the first point on the river with a bank that would not flood in winter and easy access to water transport was available at all times. In medieval times roads and tracks were typically in poor condition and cartage, whether dependent on oxen or horses, was expensive and slow. Water transport was no faster, but a flat bottomed boat could carry a large cargo at low cost. Titchfield therefore became a port for the lower part of the Meon to carry grain and flour, hides and building stone. All traffic to Porchester, Southampton, the Isle of Wight, possibly Winchester and more distant coastal destinations would use this port.
The river was most likely navigable to Wickham at least, and probably further north. It is quote wrong to assert, as some writers have done, that the river was not navigable above Titchfield because the bridges would prevent boats from passing. This assumes that bridges were level crossings, as they are today, but in an age when water transport had primacy bridges over narrow rivers were ‘hump backed’ with a high arch to allow boats to pass underneath. The river served as an arterial highway with local tracks to cross country destinations. These tracks could cope with short-haul cartage; carts were drawn by oxen and later in the Middle Ages by horses, once the flexible harness had been invented but any road haulage was slow and never reached speeds above three miles an hour. Water transport, where available, was preferred. It was not much faster than by road but it was considerably cheaper. A single horse could tow a heavily laden barge along a river, whereas the equivalent cargo by road would require an expensive team of oxen or horses. Given Titchfield’s natural advantages merchants would look to the river first.
Titchfield did not get its first turnpike road until very late in the 18th century and a glance at earlier maps will show that the most southerly cross country road passed through Wickham. There were practical reasons for this – river crossings over the Meon, the Hamble and the Itchen were much easier as the rivers narrowed. Nobody at Titchfield minded very much as the river had always been an easier method of carrying goods since medieval times.
In 1605 the 3rd earl of Southampton became enthusiastic about iron production. His friend the earl of Rutland was making good money from his iron works at Rielvaux in Yorkshire and Southampton hoped to emulate this on the south coast. Ironstone at Hengistbury Head and the Hordle Cliffs was easily accessible and he had a ready supply of fuel beside the Beaulieu river and in Titchfield Great Park. Moreover, the relatively fast flowing Meon River was a source of water power for a mill. Accordingly he established a furnace at Sowley on the Beaulieu river to produce pig iron and a mill on the faster flowing Meon to refine the pig to wrought iron. Water transport must have been a key factor in founding these iron works. The transport of pig iron and finished iron goods was only practical if water transport was used. It is unlikely that the enterprising Henry Cort would have considered leasing the iron mill in the late 18th century without access to a navigable river.
There is a certain amount of regular sedimentary deposit in the Meon estuary but evidence shows that it is relatively light and regular dredging probably kept it under control. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the estuary had an open channel until at least the end of the 18th century.
All 17th century and early 18th century maps depict an open estuary at the mouth of the Meon. In 1759 a map drawn by Isaac Taylor shows what appears to be a canal, running in a straight line for about two miles to the village of Titchfield. The map also shows a spit protecting the estuary mouth and a road along the bank. The map is very close to the modern appearance, and it also accords with an undated chart1 which is believed to have been drawn in the mid-18th century. However, we must treat this cartographic evidence with care as we do not know whether these maps were copies of earlier maps or whether the map maker made a survey.
No earlier map illustrates this. Maps drawn by Norden in 1607 and Speed in 1611 depict an open estuary and make a point of indicating Titchfield Bay. Bleau’s map of 1645 shows no change and this is also true of Jannsen’s map published a year later. Morden’s map of 1695 and Kinchin’s map of 1751 show no change in the traditional drawing of an open estuary.
It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from this evidence. Cartographers did not always take a new survey and may have been tempted to copy information from previously published sources. Jannsen’s map of 1646 is inaccurate in a number of details and cannot be relied upon. One general point may perhaps be ventured: that the cartographers understood the river to be navigable and not closed off to river traffic.
The traditional account attributes the construction of the canal to the 3rd earl and rests entirely on an entry in the parish register on 23rd June that “Titchfield Haven was shut out by one Richard Talbottes industry under God’s permission at the cost of the Right Honourable the Earle of Southampton”.2 This entry has been interpreted as closing off the estuary mouth and that the canal would henceforth carry all water transport. Dissenters from this view claim that “shut out” does not mean closed off but rather protected by a shingle bank, the spit that has probably grown over the years as more shingle is washed up against it. Such a bank would protect the haven and act as a kind of harbour wall.3
The 3rd earl (1573-1624) was always interested in new ventures. No sooner was he out of prison in 1603 than he set about establishing his iron works at Sowley on the Beaulieu river and Funtley on the River Meon. For just over a decade after 1611 he was an active promoter of settlement in Virginia and he invested in exploration of the North West passage and the East India Company. He also developed a mill for making tin plate ware at Wickham in 1618. So the construction of a canal was the sort of project that would appeal to him. He also received a pension of £2,000 a year from King James in 1611, so he could afford to put money into such an enterprise. It is fair to note that it was entirely within the character of the earl to hazard an untried and risky venture as the creation of one of England’s first canals.
Which is not quite the same as saying that he did. What would be the point? The river was obviously navigable when he set up his iron works in 1603 and there is no reason to suppose that the river, having been navigable throughout the middle ages, suddenly silted up in this first decade.
The canal is between 16ft. and 20ft. wide. A minimum width of 5 metres is therefore sufficiently wide for a conventional vessel and could conceivably allow two narrow barges to pass. Wider vessels might experience some difficulty. The depth the channel would have been a minimum of between 6ft. and 7ft., a sufficient draught for any laden vessel. There was certainly a wharf beside the tannery and when the new A27 road cut through Mill Lane some timbers were discovered by the river, suggesting that there may have been a wharf beside the corn mill. Unfortunately these were not recorded by an archaeologist so the evidence is hearsay, but it is consistent with what we might expect.
There is a lock at the sea entrance which has been unused for many years. It has been theorised that the lock was open at high tides to allow passage of the boats along the canal. In the abstract, the canal makes good sense. Water traffic would theoretically move at a more efficient rate and there would no longer be a need to dredge the traffic lane in the estuary. The reality may not have been so successful. Passage of the boats would have to be well organised, with boats queuing up at high tide. It is a puzzle that the canal was not widened after the lock so that there could be a waiting bay for incoming boats.One writer4 has argued that such operation was impossible as there would only be a few minutes when the water levels were equal and once open they would be difficult to close because of the high water pressure. There was also a risk of salt water flooding the fields and causing contamination.
Some have suggested that the canal was intended as an irrigation ditch. Certainly that became its purpose in the 19th century. White’s Directory in 1859 states that the canal was “chiefly for the purpose of drainage and irrigation, and not now used for the navigation of barges’’. George Watts commented that ‘within living memory there were a regular series of small sluice gates along the canal, most of them now destroyed, which permitted the water in the canal to be used in this way.’5 It would appear that the canal was later exploited for this use rather than intended as such. An irrigation channel, if that was its planned intention, need not have been dug so wide and there would likely have been a series of dykes branching at right angles to the main channel.
In the 18th century we discover references to a ‘new river.’ These would tend to support the idea that the canal was intended for transport rather than for irrigation purposes. These documents do, however, raise questions about the earlier date of 1611. In a letter of 1752, the land agent Clement Walcot refers to a change in the area of land leased to the Stares family, supposing that the land was originally surveyed “before the New River was made”.6 The original lease in this case goes back to 1640 and would have been held by copyhold by succeeding family members. It must be inferred from this that the ‘new river’ was not cut before 1640. The 1611 reference to Richard Talbot ‘shutting out Titchfield Haven may also be put into another context as there is a lease to Richard Tamye dated 6th June 1614 includes amongst other things 20 acres of land “lately recovered from the overflowing of the sea”.7 Thus the construction of a sea wall, authorised and paid for by the 3rd earl may not necessarily be tied to the construction of a two-mile canal from the village to the sea. The Tamye lease supports the idea that the purpose of the sea wall was land reclamation.
There is some further evidence. On 4th October 1676 a volume of presentments at the Manorial Court of Titchfield8 included the following recently discovered entries: “Wee p’sent that ye Lord of this mannor by Cutting ye new River hath taken away & doth detaine one acre of Land from John Cooper which belongeth to his Coppiehold. Also wee p’sent that ye said Lord doth detaine Two acres of Land from John Landy which belongeth to his Coppiehold, Taken away by Cutting ye said New River.”
These references make a strong case for excluding the idea that the canal was built in 1611 and that the construction was more recent to the 1670s. A further court record from 1742 relating to William Churcher. The claim was that lands held in trusteeship by the Churcher family had failed to make payments to the Overseers of the Poor. William Churcher, in evidence, submitted that at some time after the death of his great-grandfather the River was diverted by the Earl’s heirs or assigns “for their benefit” and the consequent loss of the River brought about the rapid and total loss of the woollen trade and a collapse in the revenues derived from it. Robert Churcher was buried on 4 June 1643 and this offers us another piece of evidence to suggest that the canal could not have been built before that date.9 Given that no one was in a position to embark on such projects during the civil war period and the Commonwealth, when taxation was high and often arbitrary, it is unlikely that anything would happen before the Restoration, and during that period the 4th earl (1607-1667) was actively developing Bloomsbury and was much occupied with his duties as Lord Treasurer. The 4th earl, incidentally, when he came into his estates in the 1630s showed himself to be quite unlike his father. He was a practical businessman who recovered and built up the family fortune and showed little interest in the more creative projects that captured his father’s imagination.
At his death in 1670 the estate was divided equally between his three daughters. The “Titchfield third” passed to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Edward Noel, who later became the 1st earl of Gainsborough. He began to take an interest in Hampshire in these years. He was appointed Colonel of the Hampshire Militia in 1678. On 3 February 1681, he was created Baron Noel of Titchfield and entered the House of Lords. In 1682, he was given several local offices in Hampshire: Governor of Portsmouth, Constable of Porchester Castle, and Lieutenant of South Bere Forest. He succeeded his father in October as Viscount Campden and as Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of Rutland, and was further honoured at the end of the year when he was created Earl of Gainsborough on 1 December 1682. If we accept the documents that indicate that the ’new river’ was cut in the 1670s, perhaps we should look to the earl of Gainsborough as the instigator. As a new landlord he might well have been tempted by ideas that would bring the estate “up-to-date.” We can perhaps imagine that like many new managers he may have been seduced by the notion that he was the ‘new man’ who could drag Titchfield out of its medieval past. He may have taken advice from a local man who sold the benefits of such a scheme to a man who was completely unfamiliar with the Titchfield estate. He would not be the first or last man to endorse a scheme that accomplished the opposite of what he intended.
It may be also worth noting that the earliest use of the word “canal” in the sense of a waterway, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 1673, so although we today describe it as a canal, the Titchfield locals clearly understood it as a new river, the word canal not having come into general use in its modern sense.
Dating the canal to 1611 rests entirely on the interpretation of the words ‘shut out’ in an entry in the Parish Register. It has been inferred from this that the estuary was blocked off and of necessity the canal must have been cut at the same time. A date of somewhere in the 1670s rests upon four pieces of documentary evidence, and if we consider four documents as weightier evidence than two lines of hand-written text, the the later date has more plausibility. The cartographic evidence for both dates cannot be taken as definitive because we do not know whether they were based upon contemporary surveys or were simply iterations of earlier maps.
The new river may have been impractical, for the reasons outlined above. Sea locks can be designed to work effectively but this one was not. The canal may have been abandoned as a waterway and later adapted as an irrigation ditch. If the estuary had silted up the ironworks at Funtley may have been forced to transport their goods to Wickham, where they had a reasonably good road to Portsmouth. Even with this partial clarification, the canal remains a mystery.
In the village there is some folk memory that the canal had disrupted the lives of good people of Titchfield and this was blamed on the 3rd earl of Southampton. In fact this earl was a very benign landlord. From his majority until his death in 1624 he tended to allow copyhold leases to be renewed at their traditional rent and he never attempted any enclosures, which were then growing in popularity among the landed classes. In contrast to his active interest in North American settlement, the iron and tin plate mills and his duties at court, he showed very little zeal for change in the traditional management of his estates and was broadly content to leave his stewards to manage these affairs. Although one can argue that it was in character for the 3rd earl to indulge in the experiment of the canal, it should also be noted that 1611 was the beginning of his sponsorship of the Virginia colony and that alone was probably sufficient to occupy his interest. There can also be little doubt that some well-to-do and established farming families would have raised lawsuits had their land been carved up in 1611, as indeed proved to be the case in the 1670s.
I would also have to agree with John Mitchell that ‘shutting out” Titchfield Haven did not mean closing it off. The words should rather be interpreted as protecting the mouth of the estuary, which is what the spit bank does. There was also an instance later in the century when the sea wall was breached and had to be repaired. The Taylor map of 1759 illustrates bridges at both the canal and estuary entrances. These would have been hump back bridges which would allow a barge, but not a masted craft to pass under. This does raise a question or two about how un-masted vessels were propelled along the coast. Was the cargo moved from sea-going vessels and vice versa? There is little evidence of a dock at the estuary entrance which would support such a theory. So once more this leaves us with unanswered questions unless there were lift bridges at the harbour and canal entrances.
Keith Hayward’s revelation of the 17th and 18th century leases and letters makes a strong case that the new river was not constructed during the time of the earls but rather by his heirs and although he rightfully urges caution, the evidence supporting a theory of later construction stands up much better than the parish register entry which appears to pinpoint 1611.
On balance, construction during the 1670s appears to be a safer theory. The later date is also closer to the great age of canal building which began after the middle of the 18th century. The Titchfield ‘new river’ or canal did not present an engineering challenge; there were no steep slopes to negotiate by means of locks, tunnels and cuttings. Since it was entirely within the jurisdiction of a single landowner no Act of Parliament was required, and the landlord could authorise the project, which could then proceed quickly. £1,000 might have covered the cost of the project, a sum which was not beyond the revenues of the Titchfield estate, so it may have been paid for out of estate income with no special borrowing. This may explain the somewhat frustrating absence of any accounting for the canal construction.
We do know that the iron mill continued to operate into the 19th century and we have made an assumption that river transport was necessary to its commercial functioning. We also know that Titchfield’s trade certainly fell into decline in the 18th century. These two facts may not be contradictory. The creation of turnpike roads in the 18th century may have given Wickham and Botley and Bishop’s Waltham mills a strategic advantage in distributing their goods. Titchfield’s mill remained dependent on tides and the inconvenient operation of the sea lock. Changing times may have been against Titchfield. Water transport, which was the preferred option in the middle ages lost precedence to an improved road network in the 18th century. In the same period nearby Hamble deteriorated to a poor fishing village and Bursledon became a dumping ground for hulks.
If there is any further information to be discovered about the Titchfield Canal a likely source may be documents from the time of the earl of Gainsborough. These eventually descended to the dukes of Portland and their papers are mostly to be found in the Nottinghamshire archives.
1Hampshire Record Office. 1M46/1. Plan of Titchfield Haven.
2Titchfield Parish Register. 23 June 1611.
3John Mitchell. The Titchfield Canal: A Matter of Interpretation. Titchfield: A Place in History, p. 68-77.
4John C Lewthwaite. The Sea Lock. Titchfield: A Place in History, p. 82.
5George Watts. The Canal, Titchfield: A History. p.
6H.R.O. 5M 53/1129/43
7HRO 5M 53/331-3328
9Keith Hayward. Titchfield Haven and New River. Titchfield: A Place in History, p. 86.