River Lea Developments over the Years

Photo: Wikipedia.org
Photo: Wikipedia.org

26 October 2016

Clive Radley writes:

The following text is drawn predominantly from an Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36 by G. J. L. Burney and Marker, which was published in 1978. Minor additions in this article are from Wikipedia, and summarised by me. It is the story of how the Lee developed from the 12th century into a waterway suitable for competitive rowing.

The river Lee rises in Leagrave Marsh about three miles NW of Luton, meandering for 70 miles with a fall of 300 ft, and joins the Thames at Blackwell. 

Currently Lea is used to describe the valley through which the river flows and for Lea Bridge in Clapton and for various road names in the area and of course Lea Rowing Club. The name of the navigation sections was established by act of Parliament as Lee Navigation.

The spelling of the river has varied over the centuries and was first recorded in the 9th although there are probably much older spellings going back to the Roman era. 

In the Anglo Saxon period Lig(e)an in 880 and Logan 895 were typical names of the Lee. These were probably derived from a Celtic source lug, which means bright or light. This is also the derivation of a name for a religious figure, so lug might mean bright river or river dedicated to the god Lugus. 

In 1190 it was referred to as the ‘Water of Lin’, in the 14th century as the ‘La Leye’. The cartographer Saxton was probably the first to introduce Lea to map makers in 1576, but the commonest spelling was Lee. 

The names Luton and Leyton are places nearby both mean farmstead on the Lea. 

The first documentary evidence of the use of the river occurs in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. It relates that in the 894 the Danes of Mersey rowed ships up the Thames and the Lee, and then in 895 built a fortress 20 miles above London on the Lee. The local English attacked but were put to flight. Alfred camped nearby to safeguard the corn harvest, at the same time denying the harvest to the Danes. He then had the idea of obstructing the Lee to prevent the Danes retreating with their ships. 

Alfred started to build two forts either side of the river but before he had made much progress the Danes sent their women to safety in East Anglia, abandoned their stronghold and ships and marched overland to Bridgenorth. 

Moving on to 1190 William de Longchamps, Justinian of England, granted a licence to the Abbot of Waltham to turn the course of the Lin in the town of Waltham as he wishes without harm to anyone, and for the convenience of the navigation. 

Later in the time of Edward I the king ordered the sheriff of Essex to repair the walls and ditches of the marshes of West Ham. 

In the Middle Ages fresh fish were an important part of the diet. In all rivers fish weirs were built. The Domesday Book records that Enfield fisheries on the Lee yielded 8 shillings’ income. Fisheries could cause great problems for the river navigators limiting their passage. The importance of fish declined after the mediaeval period but a fishery was still a desirable asset as shown by in 1542 Henry VIII leasing to Robert Johnson of Walthamstow a fishery on the Lee.

Mills were also a problem for navigation, being used for the grinding of corn. Mill owners built weirs across the river to hold back the river and to form an artificial reservoir. 

Some weirs had gates which could be opened. When a barged approached from below, if a miller felt so inclined he could open the weir let a flash of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. 

A continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers and the watermen who required an uninterrupted passage. 

In spite of these problems the Lee formed one of the main routes into London and in the 16th century a number of projects were implemented for the straightening of the Lee or for its partial deviation by making new cuts. 

In the 16th century locks were constructed across the river Lee a difficult task. These locks were known as Pound Locks. Despite their introduction there were still numerous disputes in the late 16 th century between barge men and the mill owners etc.  

Wikipedia relates ‘that in 1609 work was carried out to bring a fresh stream of water from Hackney marsh to the City of London, and that during the great Plague of London of 1665 the Lee and the barges of Ware made a name for themselves in history. They continued to carry corn into London during the plague and saved the city from starvation.’ 

By the 18th century the original natural River Lee was developed with the building of the Lee Navigation and locks at Tottenham, Lea Bridge and Old Ford. This created a long stretch of water with a towpath. So by 1800 most of the conditions for boating on the Lee were in place. 

The evidence of early boating comes from numerous press articles of pleasure boat accidents on the Lee. The earliest report is from 1801 and refers to a boat being hired and subsequent deaths from drownings. These articles continued throughout the 19th century with many deaths occurring as few people knew how to swim.

It was in one such article that had the first documented evidence of my family’s involvement in boat hire on the Lee in 1844. My great-great-great-grandmother, Phoebe Radley, is described as hirer of boats at an inquest at Lea Bridge.

The earliest current known record of competitive rowing on the Lee is as follows:

Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle 11 July 1830.
Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle 11 July 1830.

In 1830, the Lea boat yards were situated south of High Hill ferry to just south of Lea Bridge and that was before my ancestors’ first involvement in boat hire in 1840.

In the 19th century, there was a large increase in the population of both people and industry in the Lea Valley and all the waste material went straight into the Lee untreated. By the 1880s, the Lee had become polluted and very smelly. This killed most of the pleasure boat hire trade on the river but the rowing clubs carried on, as they had nowhere else to go. The Lee boatyards that survived were Tyrrells and V Radley and Sons, who hired out club houses and racing boats etc to the local clubs. Late in the century, Waterworks were built in the Lea Valley and proper sanitation introduced and pleasure boat rowing resumed. During the First World War a number of munitions factories opened beside the Lee and their waste went straight into the Lee. This again caused a pollution problem but was only temporary.

The Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF), a rifle factory in the Lea Valley.
The Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF), a rifle factory in the Lea Valley.

Between the First and Second World Wars competitive rowing for both men and women developed predominantly at Tyrrells boat yard at Springhill and V Radley’s and Sons boat yard at Lee dock around a mile south of Springhill. In the late 1930s, a number of Lee-based crews had great success including City Orient which featured the famous O’Neill brothers.

By the late 1930s, Radley had moved to Springhill opposite Tyrells as their Lea dock boat yard had suffered a fire to the club house facilities and was abandoned as a business. After the Second World War, Lea based clubs continued to operate out of Tyrrells and Radleys boat yards until 1970 when Radleys ceased trading due to death of its boat builder Sid Radley and became a Marina.

The Radley-based clubs moved over to Tyrrells and they combined to form Lea Rowing Club in 1970. Lea Rowing Club expanded and its members rowed for GB in the Olympics and the World Championships and won many events at Henley. As a result, it out-grew its facilities and a project was started to greatly expand their boat house which was successful and was granted lottery money.

Lea Rowing Club has recently opened its new and greatly expanded boat house and I was invited to the opening ceremony where Sir Steve Redgrave performed the official opening with a golden key.

The future looks bright for Lea Rowing Club.

Lea RC today.
Lea RC today.

One comment

  1. The Lea rowing club was formed later in I believe 1980.

    In the 70’s the Lea was still individual clubs and the rowing standard was incredibly high, as each club was extremely competitive during training.

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