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River Lee Navigation
River Lee (Lea), Hertford to London at Greenwich
associated engineer
John Smeaton
Thomas Yeoman
date  1767 - 1771, 1779, 1782 and onwards
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  TL337138
The source of the River Lee, or Lea, is north of Luton in Bedfordshire. It flows south east to Hertford — where the River Lee Navigation begins — then south through London to join the Thames opposite Greenwich. Following proposals made in 1766 by Smeaton with the help of Yeoman, a 50km stretch of river was made navigable, shortening it to the 45km River Lee Navigation.
The riverís navigability was an issue for centuries, and in 1425 an Act of Parliament was passed for added improvements. Disputes between barge owners, who wanted locks, and millers, who needed water to power their mill wheels, delayed negotiations until 1594, when the barge owners won.
John Smeaton was consulted in August 1765 and July 1766, and with help from fellow civil engineer Thomas Yeoman, reported in September 1766. They proposed to convert the 50km Hertford-to-Greenwhich stretch of river, with a fall of 33.8m, into the 45km long River Lee Navigation.
Their report informed the 1767 River Lea Act, authorising the construction of locks, a towpath, various cuts to shorten and straighten the river, and the Limehouse Cut — a canal at the southern end. The estimated cost of works was some £'28,300.
The pens (single gate locks relying on a head of water) already in existance were replaced by pound locks with gates at either end. By 1771, about 18km of cuts and at least 12 of the eventual 21 locks were complete. The scheme was finished in 1782.
In 1850, another Act of Parliament sanctioned new cuts and locks. The 1868 Lea Conservancy Act changed the administration of the navigation to a new conservancy board. In 1922 a scheme of enlargement and lock rebuilding began, which enabled larger vessels passage along the navigation. Flood relief work was carried out in the 1930s.
When the canal system was nationalised in 1948, the Navigation passed to the British Transport Commission and thence to British Waterways. It is now used mainly for leisure pursuits.
Assistant engineer (1769-71): Edward Rubie
Research: ECPK
b i b l i o g r p a h y
"John Smeaton, FRS" by Professor A.W. Skempton
Thomas Telford Limited, London, 1981

River Lee Navigation