Two new commissions were set up, the first was wholly
against the navigation, gaining support from Bury St. Edmunds, Thetford
Corporation (who ran the River Little Ouse Navigation), local landowners,
numerous mill owners and land based carriers (who feared loss of toll
The second commission supported the navigation and told
Lambe he could carry on so long as his tolls were set considerably lower
than the land tolls. (Surely this could only disadvantage the land carriers
even more). Lambe (not surprisingly) was happy to agree to this and he also
said he would provide bridges and fords where appropriate. However, the two
sets of opposing commissioners were not so eager to agree.
Eventually it was decided that work could continue but more conditions were added to those that Lambe had
already agreed to.Although Lambe would be responsible for the whole navigation he would only be allowed to
charge tolls on the stretch from Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds (which is basically only the top half of the
river). He would also have to agree to pay compensation at 3 times the cost of any damage caused to mills. A
hefty rate of compensation would also have to be paid for loss of land due to the construction of a towing
path. Lambe could not agree to these conditions (and who could blame him) so he petitioned against them.
Strangely, this time he gained support from some of his previous opponents.
Disagreement continued for over a year until (in December) all parties concerned were summoned to appear before
the King in Council.
In April, Lambe was given license to make the River Lark navigable. He could receive tolls for loads carried
between Mildenhall and Bury St. Edmunds and he would pay the Crown a rent of just over £6 per year.
Despite Lambes' attempts to secure the rights to the River Lark being well recorded, there
are no details of whether he ever made the river navigable or whether it ever saw a boat in his time! Whatever
happened, it is certain that the river was unnavigable by the end of the century.
Henry Ashley junior, who already had control of the upper River Great Ouse navigation, was authorised to make
the River Lark navigable from Mildenhall to Bury St. Edmunds. A commission was set up to make a schedule of
toll charges. Items carried included farm produce, groceries, oil, wine and coal. Some coal was to be carried
toll-free for use by the poor in Bury St. Edmunds while "Gentlemen" were also allowed free use of the river -
for their pleasure craft.
Ashley had built 14 staunches and 11 locks on the river and the navigation was opened to boats despite it not
being complete.Extra money was needed to finish the job but once this was done, the navigation was a reasonable
The Master of Rolls became involved in a dispute over the ownership of the River Lark Navigation following the
death of Henry Ashley junior. Both of his sons-in-law had claimed ownership and neither were prepared to share.
It was decided that ownership should be given to Joshua Palmer and his wife Joanna (who - presumably - was one
of Ashley's daughters). For the next 4 decades the navigation continued to do fairly well though no
improvements were made and only vital maintenance was ever done.
Ashley Palmer, Joshua's son, now owned the navigation (and controlled the River Great Ouse navigation as his
father and grandfather had before him). Profits continued though these were only enough to earn a living rather
than make a fortune.
A proposal was put forward to connect Bury St. Edmunds to the Orwell Estuary at Ipswich. John Rennie surveyed a
line which was 31 miles long and would cost £75,000. The route would include a tunnel 1½ miles long and a total
lock climb of 315 feet. Sadly, the projectors fell way short of their money target and the idea was
Ashley Palmer died though his widow, Susanna, kept control of the River Lark Navigation. During her time in
charge the income from tolls increased but the cost of maintenance did the same and profits remained much as
they had before her husband's death.
Although income, especially from coal, was still reasonable, it was clear that improvements needed to be made
to secure the navigations future. An Act was obtained allowing tolls to be raised in order to pay for the
necessary work. The new tolls increased revenue but no work was started at this stage.
A new lock and staunch was added to the river near Isleham though this was not done to improve the River Lark.
It was part of the Eau Brink Act which was authorised to improve navigation on the River Great Ouse which was
struggling through lack of water.However, the River Lark was suffering equally badly with the lower sections
often being completely dry. Most of this was blamed on the commissioners of the Bedford Levels who were
responsible for land drainage and the building of sluices. Two extra staunches on the River Lark were
recommended to help retain more water though I have no record of them actually being built.
The South Level Drainage and Navigation Act was authorised. Work was carried out on all of the River Great
Ouse's tributaries including the River Lark where the South Level Commission took over the lower half of the
navigation (the portion where tolls were not collected). At Prickwillow, where the river ran into the River
Great Ouse, the commissioners made large scale changes. A new cut was created on the River Great Ouse from
below Ely to Sand Hill End, near Littleport, bypassing the meander through Prickwillow. This left the original
River Great Ouse channel unused to the south of Prickwillow while the channel to the north now became an
extension of the River Lark. Part of this was also realigned and all the work was completed by 1830.
Sir Thomas Cullum took over the River Lark from his Aunt Susanna Palmer when she died (he also inherited her
share of the upper River Great Ouse navigation). Cullum immediately began a large (and costly) restoration
programme which included rebuilding all of the locks and staunches. The work was a success and income increased
for several years.
Eastern Union Railway Company were the first to encroach on the River Lark. They built a line from the port at
Ipswich to Bury St. Edmunds. The cost of coal dropped instantly and suddenly nobody wanted to know about the
slow boats from King's Lynn any more. The decline of the navigation was very quick.
EUR took control of the River Lark and - presumably - speeded up its decline.
The Bury St. Edmunds Navigation Company was set up in an attempt to revive trade on the river. By this time
Bury St. Edmunds had been cut off from the navigation as the top 3 miles had become unnavigable. There was very
little trade anywhere on the river and none whatsoever heading downstream. The new company proposed to reopen
the route to Bury St. Edmunds railway station but they were unable to raise the necessary money. The scheme was
abandoned and within a few years the whole of the top half of the route was unnavigable.
The Railway and Canal Traffic Act was passed and the River Lark became one of only two rivers in the whole
country to be issued with warrants of abandonment.
New hope came to the disused route when Lord Francis Harvey and the Marquis of Bristol formed the Eastern
Counties Navigation & Transport Co Ltd. They bought the river from Bury St.Edmunds to just below Mildenhall
and began to restore the route. They removed 3 staunches, repaired others and converted one into a pound-lock.
They also made Tuddenden Mill stream navigable by dredging it, straightening it and building a staunch.
The work of the new company was completed and the River Lark Navigation was reopened. However, the work had
cost the company everything; they had overspent, used up all their loans and within 3 months the business went
into liquidation. The river from Icklingham to Bury St. Edmunds has not been used since.
The receiver sold the navigation to Parker Brothers of Mildenhall and they kept trade going
for many years, charging 2s 6d per boat through the town.
The last commercial cargo to be carried on the navigation was gravel from Isleham which was used in the
construction of some of Britain's earliest highways.
William Parker bought the navigation from Parker Brothers and he kept "control" until the Great Ouse Catchment
Board took over.
The River Lark is still navigable up to Mildenhall and is used by pleasure craft. In parts, the banks are lined
with holiday cottages and lodges and the river is very popular. Above the town the old River Lark Navigation is
not currently navigable but restoration plans have been mentioned over the years.
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The River Lark leaves the river Great Ouse at a junction about ½ way between Ely and Sand
Hill. It starts by heading south east for its first 2¼ miles, a minor road appears to cling to the northern
bank throughout this stretch though the river is obscured from view by the high flood banks. This portion of
the river was once the River Great Ouse's "main line" and before that it was part of the River Cam. At
Prickwillow it used to meander around the town and then head south west towards Ely but now the southern line
has completely gone.
Today, at Prickwillow the river still meanders severely. It turns from south east to north
east and then, within ½ a mile, it bends back towards the south east. The B1382 crosses the river at
Prickwillow and a minor road clings to the north bank from the point where it turns south east, but only for 1¼
mile - after which the road disappears!
The river now heads, dead straight, across Isleham Fen. There is no road access here though
a track appears to run along each bank. The B1104 runs parallel about ½ a mile to the west.
After 5 miles the route eventually comes to a bend and turns east.This lasts just ½ a mile
however before the river once again curves south easterly. Just around the corner is Isleham Lock beside the
aptly named settlement of Waterside. Above the lock is an island formed by the original meandering route to the
south and a straight artificial cut to the north. On the island are a number of holiday homes and lodges which
I have recently seen in the Blake's Holiday Cottage Brochure (1996/7). Such holiday sites are very common and
very popular in these parts. The small town of Islesham is a short walk away and is said to be well worth
visiting, especially a former church which is owned by English Heritage.
About 1½ miles east of Waterside is Lee Brook which enters the river from the south. This
marks the spot where the commissioner's control ended and the privately owned River Lark Navigation began. The
current navigation ends about a mile further east at West Row where a minor road crosses beside a pub which
provides moorings alongside its garden. This used to be a commercial wharf and was known as Jude's Ferry.
Past West Row my road map shows the river thin and meandering, marked as unnavigable.
Mildenhall is just 1 mile further east though the route is now very bendy. After about 1¼ miles, at Barton
Mills, the A11 dual-carriage strides across the river on a relatively new and very low bridge. This would be a
major problem for any restoration attempts - though it certainly wouldn't be the only problem.
Past the A11 the river crosses Turf Fen and after 3 miles it arrives at the village of
Icklingham where a minor road crosses over. A further 1½ miles up stream (still heading generally south east)
the A1101 crosses and West Stow country park is past on the north bank.There are just 6 more miles to Bury St.
Edmunds with 2 minor roads and the B1106 crossing the route at (roughly) 1½ mile intervals.
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