River Waveney navigation, Norfolk Broads

In this extract, Daniel Defoe writes about navigation of the River Waveney, as it reaches the sea at Yarmouth and Lowestoft, in 1727. Lowesoft became a major port for the fishing fleets of the 19th and 20th centuries with the trawler ‘Roma’ seen leaving the outer harbour in this photograph from about 1908. East Anglia has many canalised rivers and remains a challenge to navigation today.

Barges ply the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk

Here is one thing indeed strange in itself, and more so, in that history seems to be quite ignorant of the occasion of it. The River Waveney is a considerable river, and of a deep and full channel, navigable for large barges as high as Beccles; it runs for a course of about fifty miles, between the two counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, as a boundary to both; and pushing on, tho’ with a gentle stream, towards the sea, no one would doubt, but, that when they see the river growing broader and deeper, and going directly towards the sea, even to the edge of the beach; that is to say, within a mile of the main ocean; no stranger, I say, but would expect to see its entrance into the sea at that place, and a noble harbour for ships at the mouth of it; when on a sudden, the land rising high by the sea-side, crosses the head of the river, like a dam, checks the whole course of it, and it returns, bending its course west, for two miles, or thereabouts; and then turning north, thro’ another long course of meadows (joining to those just now mention’d) seeks out the River Yare, that it may join its water with her’s, and find their way to the sea together.

Some of our historians tell a long fabulous story of this river’s being once open, and a famous harbour for ships belonging to the town of Leostof adjoining; But that the town of Yarmouth envying the prosperity of the said town of Leostof , made war upon them; and that after many bloody battles, as well by sea as by land, they came at last to a decisive action at sea with their respective fleets, and the victory fell to the Yarmouth men, the Leostof fleet being overthrown and utterly destroyed; and that upon this victory, the Yarmouth men either actually did stop up the mouth of the said river, or oblig’d the vanquished Leostof men to do it themselves, and bound them never to attempt to open it again.

I believe my share of this story, and I recommend no more of it to the reader; adding, that I see no authority for the relation, neither do the relators agree either in the time of it, or in the particulars of the fact; that is to say, in whose reign, or under what government all this happened; in what year, and the like: So I satisfy my self with transcribing the matter of fact, and then leave it as I find it.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies Letter 1 part 3: Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, 1727 (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)
Great Britain Historical GIS Project (2004) ‘Great Britain Historical GIS’. University of Portsmouth
Vision of Britain: Daniel Defoe