Itchen Navigation: Trade


Whilst similar in some respects to other river navigations in Southern England, it was also distinctive in other ways. Whilst most rivers had ports at their mouths, sea-going vessels could penetrate inland to towns such as Lewes on the Sussex Ouse and Arundel on the River Arun. On the Itchen, however, shoals prevented these boats going upstream of Northam which was outside the town of Southampton. Although the physical works of the Itchen Navigation stopped at Woodmill, it also had some legal powers covering the tidal river down to Northam.

Northam in the 18th Century was small settlement across the open fields from the town of Southampton. It was a centre for shipbuilding and was also a small local port dealing with coal amongst other things. This trade had the advantage, at that time, of being conducted outside the limits of the port of Southampton and so avoided paying port dues to the town. The town of Southampton (it was not a city until 1964) showed little interest in the Itchen Navigation.

The city of Winchester was the main force behind the construction and commercial use of the Navigation. Most of the traffic was upstream and bound for the city. However, the population was only around 4,000 in the early 1700s and was still less than 6,000 in 1800. Winchester was a quiet market town and had declined a long way from when it was the capital of England. In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that Winchester was a “place of no trade, no manufacture, no navigation” and in 1755 Horace Walpole called Winchester “a paltry town and small”.

There were no other large centres of population. Just the villages of Bishopstoke, Shawford and Twyford were near to the waterway and would not have generated a great deal of traffic. Eastleigh was only a couple of farms and a few cottages before the coming of the railway in 1840.


Three kinds of charge could be levied on traffic: tolls for the use of the waterway, carriage rates for the use of the boats, and wharfage for the use of the landing places.

The Itchen Navigation was never a busy waterway. Indeed it appears that, even at its busiest period during the Napoleonic Wars, six barges were sufficient to move all the traffic. The most important trade was coal and culm (coal-dust) brought to Northam in collier brigs from north east England and transhipped to barges, usually over-side, for carriage up the river, mainly to Winchester. Other cargoes included salt, corn, iron, timber and chalk. In around 1802, four barges were carrying the following trade annually. The average annual revenue was stated to be £3,735 (£100 would be about £7,800 at 2023 prices) but presumably this includes the proprietors’ freight takings as well as tolls.

Tonnages carried in 1802
Cargo Tons
Coal and culm 10,300
Salt 350
Chalk 1,710
Other goods 5,950
Total 18,310

By 1833, when no carrying was being done by the owner, receipts were only £1,870 and in 1839, immediately before the opening of the London & Southampton Railway, receipts were £1,821 (£100 would be about £8,300 in 2023).

A major problem was that traffic was unbalanced, barges often having to return downstream empty. This is illustrated by the tolls taken during the last years of traffic during the period 1866-69 (£100 would the equivalent of about £9,000 in 2023):

Tolls for the years 1866 - 1869
    Upstream   Downstream
Year   £ s d   £ s d
1866   160 13 8   15 19 6
1867   155 5 4   13 12 2
1868   122 17 10   7 9 4
1869   5 8 0      None

The equivalent values between historic times and 2023 are based on figures taken from the Bank of England website.