Very little is known about this waterway; it does not appear in the standard canal history books. There are those that claim that the canal was not intended for navigation but was built as an irrigation or drainage ditch. It seems that there is little firm evidence one way or the other.
In medieval times, Titchfield was a market town and port at the head of navigation on the west bank of the tidal River Meon. The small town/village lies about two miles upstream from The Solent.
It is thought that, prior to the 10th century, the River Meon was negotiable by small boats along most of its length, making it a viable alternative to road travel through the area. But the late 10th/early 11th century was the start of the construction of many water mills all along the river, mills that were used mainly for grinding corn but also in other industries, such as wool and cloth, iron, tanning, and salt. The mill at Titchfield, mentioned in the Domesday Book, was worth 20 shillings, but there were as many as thirty mills along the river’s length. However, it seems that, over time, the very development of the mills, and the associated bridges, weirs and other engineering works, especially those further towards its source, meant that river travel beyond Titchfield became difficult and eventually impossible.
By the 1330’s, Titchfield was one of Hampshire’s richest towns, despite still being relatively small and, in 1333, it was also one of Hampshire’s most heavily taxed towns, implying that it was both thriving and important. However, the town suffered excessively in the Black Death of 1349-50. The population was substantially reduced, perhaps by as much as 80%.
It seems that by the beginning of the 17th century, silting was making navigation of the estuary increasingly difficult. For this and other reasons, trade in Titchfield was declining.
In 1537, upon the Dissolution, land that included Titchfield Abbey was given to Thomas Wriothesley. A loyal servant of the crown, he was knighted in 1544 and three years later became Earl of Southampton. The third earl, Henry, was associated with Shakespeare and also became involved in Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth I. He spent several years in the Tower before being released by James I.
Henry Wriothesley was responsible for a number of developments in the Titchfield area: the building of ironworks at Funtley, Stony Bridge across the river near the Abbey, and the market hall in the town. He was also responsible for a full scale survey of the area from which a map was drawn up in 1610.
The biggest work, however, was the construction of a dyke or dam across the mouth of the River Meon at Hill Head making the river non-tidal. This part of the river is still called Titchfield Haven. The estuary of the river was about 600 yards wide and, although the mouth may have been partially blocked by a natural shingle spit, this was still a substantial undertaking.
On 24 June 1611 the parish register notes that “the same day Titchfield Haven was shutt out by one Richard Talbotts industrie under gods permisione at the costs of the right honorable the Earle of Southampton”. This has been taken by some to mean that a dam was built across the entrance to the river in 1611 preventing access to Titchfield by sea-going vessels. However, precisely what was done in 1611 is unknown. In addition, it has been said that the Titchfield Canal, or ‘New River’ as it was originally known, was built to provide a navigable replacement but no contemporary evidence has been found to confirm this idea.
It seems that in the 1670s additional extensive work was done in the Meon Estuary. In 1739, elderly residents stated in court that boats sailed up to Titchfield within their lifetimes. This was stopped when the heirs of the Earl constructed a barrier across the river. They were unclear about when this happened but their evidence could cover the 1670s as the time the river was shut off. Further, statements were made in the Titchfield Manorial Court in 1676 that the Lord of the Manor had cut the New River and “hath taken away and doth detain” parts of the copyholds of two tenants. This implies that the New River had been dug recently.
There is scant information about the exact reasons for building either the dam or canal. However, the result was that the estuary was flooded with fresh water, the level being controlled by sluices in the dam. This led to rapid silting up which created a large area of fertile land, which could be irrigated and flooded at will.
The local tradition is that the canal was constructed to maintain trade to the town and local industries. However, recent, extensive, local research would now seem to indicate that the canal was built not for navigation but to enable the adjacent meadows to be irrigated with fresh water. The canal runs along the west side of the Meon Valley just a few feet above mean sea level. Old maps show an inlet at Meon Shore on the west side of the estuary into which the canal ran.
The dimensions of the waterway mean that sea-going vessels could not have navigated to Titchfield, so transhipment to small boats would have been necessary. Obviously, such an arrangement would not be as convenient as prior to construction of the dam. No details have been discovered about the sort of boats that might have used the canal. By the 18th century, records state that no navigation was possible leaving it serving as an irrigation ditch. Old maps show many sluices under the ‘towing’ path most of which seem to no longer exist.
Remains of the Canal: A Portrait
A portrait in words and pictures of the route of the Titchfield Canal from north to south is given below.
It is possible to walk alongside the canal as a public footpath runs along the east bank for most its length. The channel is readily discernible albeit a bit overgrown in places especially in summer. After periods of heavy rainfall,the canal can overflow the footpath in places which in turn can become muddy particularly in winter.
Titchfield to Posbrook Bridge
Water for the canal leaves the river in the vicinity of Stony Bridge near Titchfield Abbey. This passes under the A27 Southampton Road and under the old road that the A27 now by-passes. It is not known how far upstream the waterway may been navigable but the site of a tannery (now an industrial estate) lies at the bottom of East Street next to the waterway and north of the A27 by-pass lies Titchfield Mill (now a restaurant). However, the public footpath alongside the waterway starts from a footbridge behind St Peter’s Church in Titchfield. Old Ordnance Survey maps do not suggest that the footpath went any further north. It is likely that the wharf for the town would have been in this area. It is tempting to think that brickwork along the bank here marks this site.
About 200 yards south of the footbridge, Bridge Street is reached. The road crosses the canal with less than two feet of headroom. Just south of the road lies a car park useful for walkers.
The canal and its accompanying footpath continue southward towards the sea through pleasant countryside. A few years ago, the path between the car park and Posbrook Bridge was surfaced although it is a little narrow for wheelchair users. Along part of this length, a fence was erected between the path and the canal.
On the east side of the path is the Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve which extends south to the sea. This covers 369 acres of the floor of the Meon Valley, encompassing a mosaic of natural habitats. River, fen, pools, reedbed and meadow are managed, giving protection to a range of special wildlife. Water Voles were re-introduced in 2013 and Ratty can now frequently be seen in the canal and ditches on the Reserve.
In less than half a mile from Bridge Street, the first bridge over the canal is encountered, known locally as Posbrook Bridge. With two small arches for the waterway, it is a low brick structure built to enable farm access to the meadows east of the waterway. It is more modern than the canal but presumably replaced an earlier structure. If the canal was indeed navigable at one time, the original structure was probably a wooden swing or lift bridge.
Posbrook Bridge to Meon Marsh Sea Lock
Immediately downstream of Posbrook Bridge, refurbishment work included steps in the wooden piling to ease access for dogs to the water. This was one of three such sets of steps built at that time to help prevent erosion of the bank when dogs scramble in and out of the water.
For about 600 yards south of the bridge, the public path uses a surfaced access road which runs beside the canal. Again a fence has recently been built between the two to prevent large animals entering the water.
After the access road comes to an end, the path is well used but unsurfaced. In places and when the canal overflows after rain, the path can become rather muddy.
The next feature of note is the private bridge across the canal near Lower Posbrook Farm which is three quarters of a mile south of Posbrook Bridge. This differs from the previous bridge as it is a more utilitarian steel girder structure with very limited headroom above the water. It appears to be little used as some vegetation has grown up between the path and the gates at the end of the bridge.
About a third of a mile further on is Hammond Bridge which appears to be a very similar brick structure to Posbrook Bridge. Crossing the canal, a public footpath runs along the edge of the field for about 130 yards then turns north along a track eventually returning to Titchfield.
Just over 300 yards beyond Hammond Bridge there is a concrete dam across the canal diverting the water flowing in the canal under the path into the Nature Reserve. This prevents too much water from entering the former tidal inlet beyond the sea lock but which is now landlocked.
South of the dam, there is usually some water in the canal but, without any flow, it is sometimes covered in duckweed. The Meon Marsh Sea Lock is a bit less than a quarter of a mile after the dam.
Meon Marsh Sea Lock
At Meon Marsh Sea Lock, a road (called Meon Road) crosses the canal using this structure with a right-angled approach at each end. Major work on this structure was carried out in 1994 by Hampshire County Council and Fareham Borough Council as part of their “Meon Shore Sea Lock Restoration Scheme”. The structure is now a Grade II listed building. This is supposed to be the entrance to the canal from tidal waters.
If navigable, the sea lock would have probably consisted of a single gate or a single pair of gates which could have been opened to allow boats to pass through when the tide made a level with the water in the canal. It is quite possible that there was a second pair of gates which, instead of pointing upstream in a conventional manner, would have pointed towards the sea to prevent a very high tide from forcing open the other gates and allowing salt water to flow upstream.
If the waterway was never navigable, the "lock" would presumably have consisted of a sluice or set of sluices to allow water to be discharged into the sea.
The structure has been much altered over the 400 or so years since the canal was constructed. At some time, probably in the 18th century, the bridge that now carries the road was inserted between the lock walls. This was constructed of crudely-cut stone and has 3 small round arches.
Meon Marsh Sea Lock to The Solent
Below the lock, the waterway used to open out into a wide, triangular pond, several hundred yards long. Although it is now overgrown with reeds and bushes, this is the remains of the tidal inlet where, presumably, cargo was transhipped between sea-going vessels and barges. The entrance to this inlet is now blocked by a shingle bank.
The Old Series One-Inch Ordnance Survey mapping at one inch to one mile mapping surveyed in 1806-7 (see map at the top of this page) shows a fairly wide tidal inlet open to the sea. Large scale Ordnance Survey mapping surveyed in the 1860s shows the sea lock as the “Highest point to which Ordinary Tides flow”. A narrow channel only a few yards wide connected the inlet below the lock to the sea. By the 1895 revision of the map, the inlet has become a pond that is no longer connected to the sea.
It would appear that the shingle spit that blocked off the inlet was built up by the sea washing material from the soft cliffs to the north-west of Titchfield Haven. This shingle spit is now occupied by a series buildings known as Meon Shore Chalets.
It should be noted that Meon Road is fairly narrow. It can be quite busy and is used as a ‘rat-run’ during rush-hours. There is public footpath that runs from a few yards north of the lock through the woodland beside the road on its eastern side. It should be noted that the water channels on this side of the road were NOT part of the canal.
There is car parking between the road and a sea wall east of the chalets for about quarter of a mile towards Hill Head although this can become quite crowded in fine weather.
Further information about the Titchfield Canal is available through the following links:
|Titchfield History Society||https://titchfieldhistory.com/
This is the web site for the local history society who might be able to provide further information about the canal. A section of the website includes a number of articles about the waterway.
Recently updated entry in this on-line encyclopaedia.
In 1995, a 32 page booklet ‘The Lost Port of Titchfield and its Canal” by Ken Davies (ISBN 0 9523902 2 1) was published. The author argues that the canal was built for navigational purposes. This book is believed to be out of print.
In 2021, the Titchfield History Society published a 16-page booklet entitled ‘The New River’ and subtitled ‘The Mystery of the Titchfield Canal’ by Bryan Dunleavy (ISBN 978-0-993421-36-5). It may be bought through the Society’s website.
The Southampton Canal Society thanks the Titchfield History Society for help rendered by members in the compilation of this page.