The River Gipping was navigated occasionally in mediaeval times, and a proposal was made in the early-18th century to make it regularly navigable. That was dropped in the face of opposition from Ipswich Corporation, but later in the century the need for improved communication from Stowmarket down to Ipswich became more pressing. In 1789 William Jessop, then taking over from his old master, John Smeaton, as the leading canal engineer of the day, was commissioned by some local landowners to survey the valley to provide proposals for a navigation. Jessop was engaged at the same time with the River Thames, the Basingstoke Canal, the Cromford Canal and the Grand Canal in Ireland. In view of his work on the Gipping, it is interesting to note that he reported to the Thames commissioners that ‘The making of walls at all in the chamber of a lock is not absolutely necessary: but without them the earth would be liable to be washed away, or the chamber by having too large a capacity would in canals waste much water, and where water is plentiful, will at least waste time in filling it …’
The survey was made by Isaac Lenny, a surveyor from Norwich, and on the basis of his report, endorsed by Jessop, an Act was passed on 1 April 1790. It authorised works on the river from Stowupland Bridge, Stowmarket to Handford Bridge, Ipswich, the upgrading of the River Orwell from there to Stoke Bridge in Ipswich and a lateral cut in Stowmarket to the turnpike road; this last was never made. The Act appointed six trustees, rather than creating a company of proprietors; they were empowered to borrow £14,300 and raise a further £6000 by mortgaging the property, if required. The waterway, including the towpath, was to be no more than 18 yards wide, or 20 yards at winding places or where the banks were more than three feet high.
Following his usual practice, having helped to steer the bill through Parliament, Jessop provided general drawings and specifications and then retired from the scene. On 17 June the trustees appointed James Smith of Reading ‘Surveyor of the whole work in the navigation from Ipswich to Stowmarket with a salary of three hundred pounds’ from 21 July 1790 to 1st October 1791 (by which time they expected the works to be completed) ‘he to be constantly resident on the spot ….. allowing to the said James Smith an absence of one week in each quarter of the year on his appointing a proper person to be approved by the Trustees to supply his place during that period, the salary to be paid quarterly …’
On 17 April advertisements had been placed in the Oxford, Birmingham and Cambridge newspapers for contractors, to be sent in by 24 May. Tenders were received from Samuel Weston and (John) Dyson & (George) Pinkerton. Weston already had 20 years experience both as engineer and contractor on the Chester, Leeds & Liverpool and the Oxford Canals and Dyson had been active since 1767, mostly on large-scale drainage works. After some negotiations with the trustees, who wanted to alter the terms of their tender, Dyson & Pinkerton were awarded the contract on 3 July. Unfortunately, in their keenness to proceed with the work, the contractors entered onto lands that had not been purchased. A lawsuit ensued that put a stop to works at the Ipswich end for some time, and the dismissal of Dyson & Pinkerton on 26 October 1790. In early December, John Treacher, Surveyor of the Upper Districts of the River Thames where he was associated with William Jessop, examined the contractors’ work and valued it at £214-19-11. They appealed against this and in arbitration award dated 14 November 1791 Robert Mylne, the leading architect/civil engineer, awarded them £651-7-0; they received the outstanding balance on 24 January 1792, 15 months after they had been dismissed.
After the contractors left the site, Smith took over, presumably employing the late contractors’ workforce to keep the works going where they were not affected by the litigation. Samuel Wright of Ipswich contracted to build six locks between June 1791 and June 1792, and had probably completed Stowupland, Badley and Needham Locks within the first six months of his allowance.
After the lawsuit had been settled on 14 November 1791, John Rennie was asked to survey the works. At the time he had been involved in several surveys for canals but had not yet taken any of them to construction. He spent three days going over the line and one week later, on 22 December, submitted his report to the trustees. He noted that the works from Stowmarket to Needham were nearly complete, and that the locks and bridges were of timber. While he agreed that local road bridges should continue thus, he recommended brick for public roads and the locks. It would be absolutely necessary to find a resident engineer who understood brickmaking and brick building. By this time the canal mania was gathering force, and he would endeavour, but could not promise to find such a person. On 1 March 1792 by Richard Coates, who had probably been a mason/contractor previously, was appointed at a salary of £200 p.a.; James Smith’s accounts end on 24 March. By the middle of April, when Rennie visited the works again, John Hamer, a bricklayer and James Wilkins, a carpenter had arrived from the Basingstoke Canal to take charge of the structures.
It was now necessary to apply to Parliament for a further Act to permit the raising of another £15,000, and with evidence from Rennie, this was passed on 28 March 1793. Work now proceeded rapidly, and the navigation was opened to traffic throughout on 14 September 1793. Richard Coates left on 29 October to work on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation, where Rennie was also the Engineer. Work on upgrading the Ipswich & Stowmarket, for instance mason’s work at Handford and Claydon Bridges, continued until 1798 under George Coates, Richard’s brother, who had until now been his assistant.
The navigation was a broad one, designed to take barges measuring up to 52ft-6in. x 13ft-6in. The pre-existing watermills were bypassed. There were 15 locks, including the one at Handford into the tidal Orwell. There were no spectacular engineering works.
The navigation was leased to the Eastern Union, later the Great Eastern, Railway from 1846 to 1888, by which time there was very little traffic. By the 1920s the accumulated funds had disappeared and the trust was going deeper into debt. The navigation was effectively closed in 1932 and the last meeting of the trustees was held on 16 March 1934.