With the nationalisation of the waterways, which included the Lee and the Stort, in 1948, engineering became a centralised part of management with fewer decisions being taken locally but engineers are still vital to the efficiency of the organisation and the Lee has not been neglected. Industrially, the valley has changed since 1948, and though there is considerable activity transport is now almost entirely by road - there is rarely any freight movement by rail or by water. There are no longer any operational watermills on the Lea or any of its tributaries; the powder mills, later the Explosive Research Establishment, has closed down as also has the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock; even the power stations at Hackney, Brimsdown, and Rye House have been demolished, as well as the various gas works; the various timber importers no longer use the navigation; and the last major user of water transport, the Enfield Rolling Mills at Brimsdown closed in the early 1980s.
The River is still a considerable source of water for London via the reservoirs but the New River is no longer regarded by Thames Water Authority as an essential feeder for their resources and there is controversy over its future.
From the nineteenth century onwards there has been continued extraction of the gravel resources in the valley and though the earlier sites were abandoned after being worked out without any consideration for future use, present day practice has tended to landscape sites no longer required and to create nature reserves. In some cases, such as Hardmead, this has been extremely successful.
On the other hand there is a growing use of the river for leisure purposes such as angling and pleasure boating. A large part of the valley has been designated as the Lee Valley Regional Park and emphasis is directed to attracting visitors to the valley for footpath walking, bird watching and other aspects of natural history, and the creation of sports facilities. Riparian owners and developers have also recognised the environmental advantages of housing development on the banks of the river (shades of lake dwellings of over two thousand years ago) particularly since the recurrence of flooding has been virtually eliminated. Sites which were maltings at Ware and industrial premises at Sheering are now desirable blocks of houses and flats.
There have been many changes over the past thousand years both in the appearance of the valley and in the approaches that have been made towards its utilisation, and undoubtedly engineers have been instrumental in creating benefits from these changes. But the words which appeared on the Latton lockhouse on the Stort Navigation at Harlow are still, and will continue to be, relevant:
“Man may come and man may go but the river goes on for ever.”
Except as stated below all sources of information are from the Minute Books of the Lee Trustees and the Lee Conservancy Board held in the Public Record Office, Kew, under reference Rail 845. The assistance of Thames Water Authority in relation to New River material and drawings of the New Gauge is gratefully acknowledged.
1 Baker, C A and Jones, D K C: "Glaciation of the London Basin and its influence on the drainage pattern. A review and appraisal" in The Shaping of Southern England edited by Jones, D K C, Institute of British Geographers, Special Publication No 11, 1980.
2 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
3 Waulud's Bank. Victoria County History, Bedfordshire. Vol I p 268.
4 For a general history of the rivers Lee and Stort see Boyes, J H and Russell, R The Canals of Eastern England, Chap 2, David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1977.
5 Holmes, T V FGS'. "Geological Notes on the New Reservoir in the valley of the Lea, near Walthamstow, Essex", in The Essex Naturalist, Vol XII, 1901.
6 The Times, 1 August 1989: tree-ring dating of a Saxon oak canoe.
7 British Library. Harleian MSS 391f103.
8 British Library. Harleian MSS 391f4.
9 Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, 1348-1377. p 70 et seq No 189.
10 Calendar of Patent Rolls, Richard 11 1377-1381.
11 3 Henry VI c5.
12 Hills, Richard L.: Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988, Athlone Press, 1988.
13 Crocker, G (ed): Gunpowder Mills Gazetteer; Wind and Watermill Section, SPAB, 1988.
14 Needham, Joseph: Science and Civilisation in China, Vol IV 3, Cambridge 1971, p 353.
15 13 Eliz I c18.
16 For full description see Fairclough K "The Waltham Pound Lock", in History of Technology, Vol 4 1979, pp 31-44.
17 Rudden, Barnard: The New River: A Legal History, Oxford 1985; and Essex-Lopresti, Michael: Exploring the New River, KAF Brewin Books, Studley, Warwicks, 1986.
18 Rudden op cit p 32.
19 Rudden op cit p 33.
20 12 Geo II c32 and Lincolns Inn Library, Petitions MD102 f174.
21 The Minute Books of the Lee Trustees commence in 1739.
22 7Geo III c51.
23 Duckett, Sir George: Ducketiana, 1869 (British Library).
24 Library of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE): Reports of John
Rennie, Vol 3 114 and 115.
25 There are memoranda and correspondence regarding this scheme in PRO WO 30/56.
26 Minutes of Proceedings, ICE, 13, (1853-1854) Beardmore, Nathaniel: "Description of the Navigation and Drainage Works recently executed on the Tidal portion of the River Lee". 7 February 1854.
27 Minutes of Proceedings, ICE 17 (1857-1858) Despart, Richard C: "Description of the Improvements on the Second Division of the River Lee Navigation; with remarks on the position of Canals generally in reference to the development of their resources".
28 Smith, Denis: "The Humphrey Pump and its Inventor", Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol 43, pp 67-92. (1970-1971)
29 Comprehensive documentation of the Stratford Back River Improvements is held in the Newham Central Reference Library.
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