Post 1850
Up to 1750
1750 to 1850
Post 1850
Conclusion and Refs


The Third Period: Post 1850

Immediately following the passing of the 1850 Act Nathaniel Beardmore, MICE, was appointed engineer and six months later he was also designated surveyor, though his duties did not involve supervision of toll collection: it seems as though the Trust themselves had no clear conception of what the title should be for their officers. Beardmore's first major task was to improve the navigation between Old Ford Locks and the Four Mills at the junction between Limehouse Cut and Bow Creek. This section, known as Four Mills Head, was tidal as the water was used not only for navigation but to power the live large waterwheels of Four Mills tidemills and also the Three Mills tidemills together with a group of mills on the Back Rivers. When these mills were working after high tide the water was drawn down very quickly leaving barges grounded sometimes for several days before they could pass through the Bow tidal gates or even into Limehouse Cut. The problem was largely solved by the Trust purchasing Four Mills in 1847 after which the mills were only partially worked. The final solution came with Beardmore's construction of a proper barge lock at the entrance from the navigation into Bow Creek and the provision of tidal gates on the Back Rivers to prevent water flowing from the navigation into the mill streams when the mills were working. This work was started in July 1851 and completed in April 1853.26

Beardmore recommended raising the level of the navigation above Old Ford Locks up to Lea Bridge by the removal of Homerton Lock and in consequence there would be a lock-free length from Old Ford to Tottenham Lock, a distance of 4.25 miles. This was approved as well as the reconstruction of Old Ford Locks. These improvements were put in the hands of Beardmore's assistant R C Despard and were carried out between the end of 1855 and 15 November 1856 when the locks were formally opened .27 As there is no record of Despard having been employed by the Trust it is clear that despite his formal appointment as engineer to the Trust,  Beardmore was in fact a consulting engineer and still working in a private capacity - indeed on 2 February 1857 he gave notice that he wanted to succeed Rendel as consulting engineer at Holyhead and the Trustees agreed to give him a testimonial. However, for the next few years he continued to present monthly reports to the Trust.

The Lea valley was developing industrially and the local population was steadily increasing giving rise to growing pollution of the river particularly during the 1860s. Legislative control over the industrial and domestic wastes was the solution, but it was felt that the Trustees were not the body properly to exercise that control. In 1868, under the Lee Conservancy Act, the Trust was formally abolished to be superseded by the Lee Conservancy Board composed of local authority representatives as well as users of the navigation. Enlarged powers were granted including the power to take legal proceedings against pollution.

Under the revised constitution it was decided that Beardmore should continue under the title of Consulting Engineer whilst there should also be a full-time Resident Engineer. On 9.11.1870, Joseph S Forbes of Southport was appointed out of 71 candidates. Forbes resigned on 22nd March 1872 and was replaced by Joseph Child, formerly of the Aire and Calder Navigation. 

Joe Child, October 1895.


Photograph courtesy of Mrs Yvonne Ball, Joe Child's great grand-daughter

(and with thanks to Mrs Sheila Hawkins)


He was replaced  by Charles Nelson Tween MICE, on 14th May 1897 and he was succeeded by Ben Howorth AMICE. The latter two were both promoted from assistant engineers within the organisation, the former having started with the Board in October 1879 and the latter on 24 May 1912.

Major engineering works on the river were limited but the valley itself saw vast changes with the creation of a chain of reservoirs supplying water to London and its eastern suburbs. First came the group of small reservoirs in Walthamstow built between 1853 and 1904 but mainly in 1870 and 1895. But it was the King George's Reservoir at Chingford opened on 15 March 1913 which provided the water barrier in the Lea Valley envisaged under very different circumstances by the Duke of York just over 100 years earlier. The water was fed from the Lee by Humphrey gas pumps which relied on a gas explosion to lift the water through the discharge pipes into the reservoir.28 The water area of this reservoir is 416 acres and its capacity 3000 million gallons. A second equally large reservoir, the William Girling, capacity 3500 million gallons, was completed in 1951 and emphasised the barrier between the two sides of the valley. Together they supply 12% of London's requirements. These, of course were constructed by the Metropolitan Water Board under the direction of their consultants but in recognition of the part played by the Lee Conservancy Board, Charles Tween and his wife were formally presented to their Majesties at the opening of the King George's Reservoir.

Modern ideas also permeated the Lee Conservancy Board although the most interesting of these never came to fruition. In March 1901, Charles Tween drew the attention of the Board to a magazine article describing the use of electric haulage on the Charleroi Canal in Belgium. As new power stations were under construction in the Lea Valley he felt there should be no difficulty in providing an electric power supply for similar haulage on the Lee. Tween was sent to Belgium and examined the installations and also made enquiries from the suppliers of the equipment. He obtained estimates for electric haulage between Hertford and Ware using Brown Boverie haulage units. He had also been assured by the North Metropolitan Power Company, whose engineer was very enthusiastic about the project, that they would supply free for a limited period the electricity to demonstrate the value and efficiency of this pioneer project. Despite the interest initially shown by the Board the project was rejected on the grounds that the Board felt that the suppliers of equipment should fund the experiment which they could then use as a pattern for other canals in this country. There was an interesting sequel a few years later during the war. On 5 November 1915 it was rninuted by the Board that if the engineer's proposals had been adopted for electric haulage the problems arising from the shortage of horses would not have arisen in 1915.

At the southern end of the valley the various channels below Lea Bridge form a complex waterway system and all of them have played their part in the utilisation of the flow of the river. Immediately below Lea Bridge the Hackney Cut was opened to barge traffic in August 1769 to form the new line of navigation. The Old River Lea now flows over Lea Bridge Weir on the east of Hackney Cut and across the Hackney Marshes and Stratford. There, just below Carpenters Road Bridge, it divides into the Waterworks River, City Mill River, Pudding Mill River and the Bow Back River, while below the High Road there were the Three Mills Back River and the Three Mills Wall River. Further east still was another channel - the Channelsea River. Together these various channels are known as the Stratford or Bow Back Rivers. They reunite below Three Mills and flow into Bow Creek where the navigation rejoins them at Bow Locks. Their main use has been the powering of the waterwheels of the different mills, though some have also been used for navigation and some of the water was supplied to West Ham through the pumping station on the Waterworks River. Tolls could not be levied so there were no funds for maintenance and for remedying the defects due to silting and the varying levels consequent on tidal flow. By the early part of this century they had become a public nuisance due to regular flooding and pollution.

An agreement to relieve the conditions was reached between the Board and the Borough of West Ham and under the authority of the River Lee (Flood Relief, etc) Act 1930, new locks were constructed at Carpenters Road (Ward Lock), using radial gates, and Marshgate Road (Hollins Lock) to separate the tidal and non-tidal portions of the Back Rivers, and a new tidal lock at Bow (Nield Lock) to improve facilities for the barges passing between the navigation and Bow Creek. A new flood relief channel - the Prescott Channel - replaced the Three Mills Back River and general improvements were made to the different watercourses. This work was carried out between 1931 and 1935 under the direction of the consulting engineers W Lionel Jenkins MA MICE and S.J Griffiths MICE and with the co-operation of the engineers of the Lee Conservancy Board and West Ham Borough.29

Standard maintenance was the most that could be expected during the Second World War years before the complete change of control under nationalisation in 1948.



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