The Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation has long unbroken history starting in June 1793 when an Act of Parliament was passed authorising ìthe making and maintaining of a navigable waterway between the town of Chelmsford in the County of Essex, and a place called Colliers Reach.
The great canal architect, John Rennie, was appointed Chief Engineer, and though he rarely visited the embryonic waterway, his hallmarks can be seen in the mellow redbrick bridges and locks. Richard Coates became Resident Engineer, and completed the Navigation’s construction within four years, though trade to Little Baddow had commenced within three. Coates settled on the waterway and became a major barge owner and merchant – his name being remembered at Coates Quay in Springfield Basin.
In its heyday in the mid 19th century up to 60,000 tons of freight was carried along the 14 miles of the navigation, rising 77ft via 12 locks between Heybridge Basin, on the Blackwater Estuary, and Springfield Basin, close to the heart of Chelmsford. Much coal, corn and timber was transhipped in Heybridge Basin between seagoing ships and navigation barges, though local freight was carried, too, with every parish having its waterside wharf. Wood and iron was taken to Chelmsford to build the Great Eastern Railway, which, in turn, took freight away from the waterway, heralding its decline. With dwindling traffic, horse-drawn barges survived into the 1950s, and the last diesel lighter loaded timber from a Scandinavian steamer for Browns Wharf in 1972.
Soon after the last barge “Julie” took semi-retirement, the traditional passenger barge “Victoria” opened up the navigation’s tranquil waters to the public, and since the 1970s the Company has looked to leisure for its future, with moorings for private cruisers and narrowboats, canoeing, fishing and walking. The Canal Centre at Paper Mill, with its Old Stables Tea Rooms, river trips and hire boats, opened in 2002.