Signpost - Ellingham and Kirby Cane

Lost locks

“All these years I’ve lived here I’ve often wondered what that island on the river was about”. Brian’s words stirred old memories of my own when, as teenagers, my friend Kevin and I were paddling a dinghy along the River Waveney between Geldeston and Ellingham when we came across a small ‘island’.

We didn’t find much on the island itself, except for a swan’s nest, but peering down into the waters we could see traces of worked wood. We might have stayed to explore longer but were seen off by an irate swan!

For many years the Waveney had been navigable all the way from Yarmouth to Bungay. In 869 the people of Earsham were shocked and horrified when Danes pillaged their village, then sailed back to sea with their booty. However, over time the river became silted and blocked. Boats could no longer reach Bungay, so goods had to be transported by land from Beccles.

In 1670 an Act was passed to improve navigation between Beccles and Bungay. Locks were constructed at Geldeston, Shipmeadow, Ellingham and Wainford. Commerce improved.

It’s easy to identify the location of the locks at Wainford, Ellingham and Geldestone, but the fourth is more remote. A map from 1783 shows the one between Geldeston and Ellingham as ‘Boterys Locks’. A later document of 1815 referred to this as Daniel Mills’ Lock (most likely the name of the lock keeper) and in 1884, it was shown as Mills’ Locks. (the Lock at Geldeston was often referred to as Beccles Lock, for there had never been a lock at Beccles itself).

Wherries, with their shallow draft and large sail, plied goods and people along the Waveney for centuries. A now famous one, the Albion, was built for the firm of Bungay Maltsters, W.D. and A.E. Walker by William Brighton at his yard on the north bank of Lake Lothing in 1898. 65 feet long, the Albion carried 36 to 41 tons of cargo. Coal, amongst other goods, was moved from Lowestoft to Bungay for a shilling per ton.

In 1860 the railway opened from Tivetshall to Bungay, followed by the Ellingham to Beccles line in 1863. The use of the wherries declined and navigation rights between Geldeston Locks and Bungay were removed in 1934. The time of Boterys/Daniel Mills’ Locks was over.

The locks work no more, but it is still possible to canoe between Geldeston and Bungay (with a bit of porterage).