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The River Great Ouse ( ) is a river in the east of Englandmarker. It is long which makes it the major navigable river in East Angliamarker, and the fourth-longest river in the United Kingdom. The name Ouse is from the Celtic or pre-Celtic *Udso-s, and probably means simply "water". The lower reaches of the Great Ouse are also known as "Old West River" and "the Ely Ouse", but all the river is often referred to simply as the Ouse in informal usage (the word "Great", which originally meant simply big, or in the case of a river long, is used to distinguish this river from several others called the Ouse).


The river has several sources close to the villages of Syreshammarker and Sulgravemarker in Northamptonshiremarker. It flows through Brackleymarker, Buckinghammarker, Milton Keynesmarker at Stony Stratfordmarker, Newport Pagnellmarker, Olneymarker and Kempstonmarker, which is the current head of navigation. Passing through Bedfordmarker, St Neotsmarker, Godmanchestermarker, Huntingdonmarker, Hemingford Greymarker and St Ivesmarker, it reaches Earithmarker, where there is a short tidal section connected by the Old Bedford River and New Bedford River to the lower river at Denver. The old course of the river passes through the cathedral city of Elymarker and Littleportmarker, to reach the Denver sluice. Below this the river is tidal and passes Downham Marketmarker to enter The Washmarker at King's Lynnmarker. It has a catchment area of and a mean flow of per second.

The river is navigable from the Wash to Kempston Mill, which is just beyond Bedford, a distance of . This section includes 17 locks, which are maintained by the Environment Agency, who are the navigation authority and who attempt to attract more boaters to the river.

The Ouse Washesmarker are an internationally important area for wildlife. Sandwiched between the Old Bedford and New Bedford rivers, they consist of washland which is used as pasture during the summer but which floods in the winter, and are the largest area of such land in the United Kingdom. They act as breeding grounds for lapwings, redshanks and snipe in spring, and are home to varieties of ducks and swans during the winter months.


The river has been important both for drainage and for navigation for centuries, and these dual roles have not always been complementary. The course of the river has changed significantly, and does not follow its ancient route from Cawdle Fen near Ely to Kings Lynn. Originally, it turned to the west at Littleport, between its present junctions with the River Little Ousemarker and the River Larkmarker, and made its way via Welney, Upwell and Outwell, to flow into The Washmarker near Wisbech. At that time it was known as the Wellstream or Old Wellenhee, and parts of that course are marked by the Old Croft River and the border between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. It was initially diverted to join the River Nar after flooding at Littleport in 1236, and so joined the Wash at Kings Lynn. Parts of this course were later used for the River Lark, which flows in the reverse direction along the section below Prickwillow, after the main river was moved further to the west

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1600 which allowed Adventurers, who paid for drainage schemes with their own money, to be repaid in land which they had drained. The Act covered large tracts of England, but no improvements were made to the region through which the Great Ouse flowed until 1618, Arnold Spencer and Thomas Girton started to improve the river between St Ivesmarker and St Neotsmarker. Six sluices were constructed, and Spencer attempted to obtain permission to improve the river to Bedfordmarker, but the Act was defeated, despite support from Bedford Corporation. Some dredging was done, and Great Barfordmarker became an inland port, but he lost a lot of money on the scheme, and the condition of the river worsened.

Below Earithmarker, thirteen Adventurers working with the Earl of Bedford formed a Corporation to drain the Bedford Levels. Cornelius Vermuyden was the engineer, and a major part of the scheme was the Old Bedford River, a straight cut to carry water from Earith to a new sluice near Salters Lode, which was completed in 1637. The sluice was not popular with those who used the river for navigation, and there were some attempts to destroy the new works during the turmoil of the civil war. A second drainage Act was obtained in 1649, and Vermuyden oversaw the construction of the New Bedford River, parallel to the Old Bedford River, which was completed in 1652. There was strong opposition from the ports and towns on the river, which increased as the old channel via Elymarker gradually silted up. Above Earith, Samuel Jemmatt took control of the river, and navigation was extended to Bedford in 1689 by the construction of new staunches and sluices.

Between St Ives and Bedford, there were ten sluices, which were pound locks constructed at locations where mill weirs would have prevented navigation. There were also five staunches, which were flash locks constructed near to fords and shallows. Operation of the beam and paddle provided an extra volume of water to carry the boats over such obstructions. On the lower river, a combination of high spring tides and large volumes of floodwater resulted in the complete failure of Denver sluice in 1713. While there were celebrations among the navigators, the problem of flooding returned, and the channel below Denver deteriorated. Charles Labelye therefore designed a new sluice for the Bedford Level Corporation, which was constructed between 1748 and 1750 and included a navigation lock. No tolls were charged on the river below St Ives or on the New Bedford, and those responsible for drainage complained about damage to the sluices and to banks by the horses used for towing boats. An Act of Parliament to regulate the situation was defeated in 1777 after fierce opposition, and it was not until 1789 that a Haling Act was passed, which ensured that tolls were charged and landowners were repaid for damage to the banks caused by horses. These measures were a success, as there were few complaints once the new system was in place.

Port of Kings Lynn

After the river had been diverted to King's Lynnmarker, the town developed as a port. Evidence for this can still be seen, as two warehouses built in the 15th century for trade with the Hanseatic League have survived. However, the harbour and the river below Denver sluice were affected by silting, and the problem was perceived to be the effects of the sluice. Sand from The Wash was deposited by the incoming tide, and the outgoing tide did not carry it away again. Colonel John Armstrong was asked to survey the river in 1724, and suggested returning it to how it was prior to the construction of the drainage works. John Smeaton rejected this idea in 1766, suggesting that the banks should be move inwards to create a narrower, faster-flowing channel. William Elstobb and others had suggested that the great bend in the river above King's Lynn should be removed by creating a cut, but it took 50 years of arguing before the Eau Brink Act was obtained in 1795 to authorise it, and another 26 years until the cut was finally opened in 1821. During this time, most of the major civil engineers of the time had contributed their opinions.

The work was overseen by John Rennie and Thomas Telford and construction took four years. It proved to be too narrow, resulting in further silting of the harbour, and was widened at an additional cost of £33,000 on Telford's advice. The total cost for the cut was nearly £0.5 million, and although the navigators, who had opposed the scheme, benefitted most from it, there were new problems for drainage, with the surrounding land levels dropping as the peaty soil dried out. The Eau Brink Act created Drainage Commissioners and Navigation Commissioners, who had powers over the river to St Ives, but both bodies were subject to the Bedford Levels Corporation. Although often in opposition, the two parties worked together on the construction of a new lock and staunch at Brownhill, to improve navigation above Earith.

The Railway Age

Denver sluice was reconstructed in 1834, after the Eau Brink Cut had been completed. Sir John Rennie designed the new structure, which incorporated a tidal lock with four sets of gates, enabling it to be used at most states of the tide. Sir Thomas Cullam, who had inherited a part share of the upper river, invested large amounts of his own money in rebuilding the locks, sluices and staunches in the 1830s and 1840s. The South Level Drainage and Navigation Act of 1827 created Commissioners who dredged the river from Hermitage Lock to Littleport bridge, and also dredged several of its tributaries. They constructed a new cut near Ely to bypass a long meander near Padnall Fen and Burnt Fenmarker, but although the works cost £70,000, there were too late to return the navigation to prosperity. Railways arrived in the area rapidly after 1845, reaching Cambridge, Ely, Huntingdon, King's Lynn, St Ives, St Neots and Tempsford by 1850. The river below King's Lynn was improved by the construction of the Marsh Cut and the building of training walls beyond that to constrain the channel, but the railways were welcomed by the Bedford Levels Corporation, for whom navigation interfered with drainage, and by King's Lynn Corporation, who did not want to be superseded by other towns with railway interchange facilities.

A large interchange dock was built at Ely, to facilitate the distribution of agricultural produce from the local region to wider markets. In addition, coal for several isolated pumping stations was transferred to boats for the final part of the journey, rather than it coming all the way from King's Lynn. Decline on most of the river was rapid, with tolls halving between 1855 and 1862. Flooding in 1875 was blamed on the poor state of the navigation, and it was recommended that it should be abandoned, but there was no funds to obtain an Act of Parliament to create a Drainage Authority. The navigation was declared to be derelict by three County Councils soon afterwards. It was then bought by the Ouse River Canal and Steam Navigation Ltd, who wanted to link Bedford to the Grand Junction Canalmarker, but they failed to obtain their Act of Parliament. A stockbroker called L. T. Simpson bought it in 1893, and spent some £21,000 over the next four years in restoring it. He created the Ouse Transport Company, running a fleet of tugs and lighters, and then attempted to get approval for new tolls, but was opposed by Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire County Councils. Protracted legal battles followed, with Simpson nailing the lock gates together, and the County Councils declaring that the river was a public highway. The case eventually reached the House of Lordsmarker in 1904, who allowed Simpson to close the locks.

The Leisure Age

The Great Ouse at King's Lynn
Simpson's victory in 1904 coincided with an increased use of the river for leisure. As he could not charge these boats for use of the locks, the situation was resolved for a time in 1906 by the formation of the River Ouse Locks Committee, who rented the locks between Great Barford and Bedford. Over 2000 boats were recorded using Bedford Lock in a three month period soon afterwards. Despite pressure from local authorities and navigation companies, the upper river was closed for trade, and a Royal Commission reported in 1909 on the poor state of the lower river, the lack of any consistent authority to manage it, and the unusual practice of towing horses having to jump over fences because there were no gates where they crossed the towing path. The Ouse Drainage Board was formed in 1918, but had no powers to deal with navigation issues, and it was not until the powers of the Land Drainage Act (1930) were used to create the Great Ouse Catchment Board that effective action could be taken.

The Catchment Board bought the navigation rights from Simpson's estate, and began to dredge the river and rebuild the locks. There was an upturn in commercial traffic from 1925, when the sugar beet factory at Queen Adelaidemarker near Ely was opened. They operated six or seven tugs and a fleet of over 100 barges, and three tugs and 24 barges from the Wissington sugar beet factory on the River Wisseymarker also operated on the river. Local commercial traffic continued around Ely until after the Second World War. The sugar beet traffic ceased in 1959, and the last commercial boat on the upper river was "Shellfen", a dutch barge converted to carry of diesel fuel, which supplied the remote pumping stations until 1974, when the last ones were converted to electricity.

Below Denver, the situation was complicated by the fact that there were six bodies with responsibility for the river in 1913. No dredging took place, as there was no overall authority. The training walls were repaired in 1930 by the King's Lynn Conservancy Board, and the Great Ouse Catchment Board reconstucted and extended them in 1937. After major flooding in 1937 and 1947, and the North Sea flood of 1953, flood control issues became more important, and the Cut-Off Channel was completed in 1964, to carry the headwaters of the River Wisseymarker, River Larkmarker and River Little Ousemarker to join the river near Denver sluice. The Great Ouse Relief Channel, which runs parallel to the main river for from here to Wiggenhall bridge, was constructed at the same time. It joins the river at a sluice above King's Lynn, and was made navigable in 2001, when the Environment Agency constructed a lock at Denver to provide access.

The upper river was reopened to Bedford in 1978. The reconstuction by the Catchment Board had reopened the locks to Godmanchester and then to Eaton Scoton by the onset of the Second World War. To continue the progess, the Great Ouse Restoration Society was formed in 1951, and successfully campaigned for and assisted with the restoration. Since 1963, the river has been the responsibility of the Environment Agency, who issue navigation licences.


The Great Ouse at St Neots
The non-tidal reaches of the river are used for leisure boating, but remain largely separated from the rest of the British inland waterway system. Several of its tributaries are navigable, including the River Cammarker, the River Larkmarker, the River Little Ousemarker and the River Wisseymarker. Close to Denver sluice, Salters Lode lock gives access to the Middle Level Navigationsmarker, but the intervening section is tidal, and deters many boaters. Access to the Middle Level Navigations is also possible via the Old Bedford Rivermarker and Welches Dam lock, but this route is only open for a few weekends each year, and was heavily silted in 2009. The proposed Fens Waterways Link, which aims to improve navigation from Lincolnmarker to Cambridgemarker may result in this section being upgraded, or a non-tidal link being created at Denver.

There are two more proposed schemes to improve connections to the river. The first is for a Bedford to Milton Keynes link, to connect the river to the Grand Union Canalmarker. This was first suggested in 1812, when John Rennie costed a canal to join the canal, then called the Grand Junction Canalmarker at Fenny Stratford. His estimate of £180,807 scared investors, and no progress was made. In 1838, there was a proposal to link the river to the Newport Pagnall Canal, and again in the 1880s, the Ouse River Canal and Steam Navigation Ltd bought the river with the aim of creating the link. An enabling Act of Parliament was defeated, although Major Marindin, acting for the Board of Trade, was optimistic about the likely benefits. The idea was revived in 1994, by the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust, who have formed a partnership with 25 bodies, including local councils, British Waterways and various government agencies. A feasibility study was carried out in 2001, which looked at nine possible routes, and by 2006, the cost of the preferred route was between £100 and £200 million.

The second scheme is for an extension of the Great Ouse Relief Channel to link it to the River Nar, and provide a non-tidal link to King's Lynn. The project would include a large marina, and would be part of a much larger regeneration project for the south side of the town. Two locks would be required to raise boats from the Relief Channel to the River Nar.


Tributaries of the River Great Ouse: (upstream [source] to downstream by confluence)


In 1944 the annual boat race between the Oxfordmarker and Cambridgemarker universities took place on this river, between Littleportmarker and Queen Adelaidemarker, the only time that it has not been held on the Thames; it was won by Oxford. The Great Ouse is used by three clubs from Cambridge University for the training of rowers, with the Boat Club ,

the Women's Boat Club

and the Lightweight Rowing Club , all using facilities at Ely. Rowing is popular in several of the towns on the Ouse, especially Bedford, which is one of the most active rowing centres in the UK.

See also


  1. Rivers and the British Landscape, (2005), Sue Owen et al., Carnegie Publishing, ISBN 978-1-95936-120-7
  2. Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch:entry 9
  3. Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names (2003)
  4. The River Great Ouse and tributaries, (2006), Andrew Hunter Blair, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson Ltd, ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5
  5. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Ouse Washes
  6. The River Great Ouse and tributaries, (2006), Andrew Hunter Blair, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, ISBN 978-0-85288-943-5
  7. The Canals of Eastern England, (1977), John Boyes and Ronald Russell, David and Charles, ISBN 978-0715374153
  8. Jim Shead's Canal pages
  9. Inland Waterways of Great Britain, 8th Ed., (2009), Jane Cumberlidge, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, ISBN 978-1-84623-010-3
  10. Inland Waterways Association: Kings Lynn to the Great Ouse Flood Relief Channel Link, accessed 2009-10-10
  11. CUBC: Facilities
  12. CUWBC: Facilities

External links

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