Runnymede's Rivers

The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.

Rt. Hon John Burns, MP, 1929

If the Pennine Hills are the backbone of England, then the rivers and waterways are the arteries – circulating people, goods and wildlife around the country. For many centuries they have been the lifeblood of the nation; marking political boundaries between ancient tribes, providing energy and food, enabling trade and commerce and providing relaxation and entertainment. The Borough of Runnymede has two main rivers: the Chertsey Bourne, which flows from Windsor Great Park through Virginia Water and into the Thames at Chertsey, and of course, the Thames. In addition to these there are other rivers which include the Addlestone Bourne, which rises in Bisley Common and flows through Addlestone before joining its Chertsey namesake; the River Wey, which flows into the borough at Wey Meadows, joins the Wey Navigation, and joins the Thames at Hamm Court; and the Abbey River which flows out of the Thames at Penton Hook and back in at Chertsey Bridge. However, a quick glance at an old map would make one realise just how many rivers, tributaries and water run off ditches have been built over as the borough’s towns expanded to meet the demands of population growth.

This exhibition takes a look at some of the Borough’s rivers; their history and their impact on the lives of those who live and work on them.

The Borough's Rivers

The Thames

map of borough rivers

The Thames is the longest river in England. It starts its 215 miles journey in the Cotswolds and winds its way eastwards to Essex and into the North Sea. The origins of the name are most likely the Middle English word Temese, derived from Celtic, meaning “dark”.  The origins of the river date beyond the old English of the 12th century to over 30 million years ago when the river first emerged. At this time Britain was still part of mainland Europe, and the Thames was a tributary of an even larger river which flowed across the continent; the longest remaining stretch of which is now called the Rhine.  It originated in Wales and flowed across England to Hertfordshire, into Essex before flowing into a lake near modern-day Harwich; much further north than its current estuary. During the era known as the First Northern Glaciation, approximately 1.25 million years ago, ice pushed the course of the river southward and created today’s Thames Valley.

The course of the Thames was an attractive place for early dwellers to settle. At some point c.450,000 BC people from central and western Europe arrived in the Thames Valley area, although very little is known about them. Much of the evidence of their existence has been wiped out by successive periods of glaciation, the last of which ended c.12,000 years ago.

After the last ice age, which had lasted almost a thousand years, settlers returned to the area and the Thames corridor has been continuously occupied ever since. Animals also made the journey; elks, reindeer, hippos and elephants all roamed the borough at this time. These borough inhabitants lived by hunting and fishing which is evident by the microliths, small stone tools, they left behind. The next wave of settlers came in c.3,500 BC bringing with them new ways of existing; farming implements, stone axes and pottery finds illustrate the development of the Neolithic residents.  There is evidence, in the form of post holes or ditches, of more than 80 Neolithic settlements along the stretch of the Thames from Mapledurham to Old Windsor.

Abbey River

Abbey River

The Abbey River flows for 3.2 km between Penton Hook and Chertsey Weir, and is a backwater of the Thames, widened and deepened in the 11th century on the order of the Abbot of Chertsey. It has been variously known as Oxley, Oxlake and even Oaklake Mill River. Today it is a much slower flowing river compared with the fast running mill race powering the abbey’s watermills which had a local monopoly for grain.

When Erkenwald founded Chertsey Abbey in 666 AD he did so on ground given to him by Frithwold, the Sheriff of Surrey. In its heyday in the 13th century, the abbey had land that covered 50,000 acres, and was home to hundreds of Benedictine monks. The original Abbey buildings were situated on an island formed by the Thames to the east and the Abbey River to the west. It would have been a boggy landscape but the Benedictines were famed for their agricultural skills, in particular the reclaiming of marshland.

Over time the location of the Abbey shifted slightly, but the river remained important to them. It enabled the monks to transport the stone they needed to rebuild the Abbey; sandstone from Berkshire, puddingstone from Hertfordshire.  It powered their watermills, of which there were two, enabling them to grind wheat into flour, and it connected them to the Thames so that they might travel backwards and forwards to London. In May 1471 a Chertsey monk wrote how he travelled by river from London to Chertsey, clearly not a totally pleasant experience for there was “a smel ther was as grete as deth, but for no berien [burial] was it mad.”

The Bournes

River Bourne, Virginia Water

River Bourne, Virginia Water

There are two River Bournes running through the borough; the Chertsey Bourne and the Addlestone Bourne, which converge at Chertsey Meads to join the Thames. The Chertsey Bourne begins in Windsor Great Park as a series of smaller streams which flow into Virginia Water Lake. The lake was dug in the 1750s by the soldiers of William, Duke of Cumberland, just after the Battle of Culloden, and formed by damming the river. In the late summer of 1768, heavy rain caused the dam to break and parts of Thorpe and Chertsey were flooded.  For some time the lake was forgotten, until George III decided to restore it and build the Cascade, a picturesque waterfall constructed with stones from Bagshot Heath, to disguise the dam which prevented the lake from flooding the local villages once more. The river flows out of the lake, through the Wentworth Estate, forming the southern boundary of Thorpe and the northern boundary of Lyne before continuing through Chertsey to the Meads.

The Addlestone Bourne begins its journey to the Thames in the Swinley Forest, near Bagshot Park. It flows through Bisley, north Woking, Woodham, New Haw and Addlestone. It enters the grounds of St. George’s College, formerly Woburn Park, where it flows along a manmade channel to join its Chertsey namesake and finally, the Thames at Shepperton.

The River Wey and the Wey Navigation

Wey Navigation

The River Wey starts as two separate branches which merge at Tilford and then flows east, through Guildford, onwards through the Borough of Runnymede, to join the Thames between Hamm Court and Shepperton Lock. It is suggested that the name ‘Wey’ comes from the Old English word Éa meaning "river". The river has always been of huge economic worth, with over 22 mills along its course in its heyday, as it provided a key transportation route from the Surrey agricultural growers up to the Thames and the London markets. However, the river became silted and difficult for large barges to use. A wealthy Guildford landowner, Sir Richard Weston (1591 – 1652), had the idea to cut a man-made channel along part of the River Wey to provide all-year-round navigation. His plan was to create a shorter route that was deep enough to allow heavy barges to travel, and in return he would collect tolls for its use. Despite local opposition Weston received royal backing from King Charles I in 1635. However, when the Parliamentarians took control of the country many royal sympathisers, like Richard Weston and his family, fled the country. Weston was compelled to sell his estate to Parliamentarian Sir Richard Onslow. However, thanks to lobbying by Major James Pitson, the Commissioner for Surrey, Weston was pardoned and able to return to England to reclaim his land.

In June 1651 an Act was passed enabling the building of the Wey Navigation. Weston put up over half the money required himself, with the rest raised through share options. Now a team of 200 navigators or navvies could begin digging the 15 ½ miles of navigable waterway and constructing 12 locks, including the one at New Haw, all by hand. Alas, with only a few miles until the project was completed Weston died. The project was completed and the waterway officially opened in 1652, having cost £16,000 to construct. Despite financial difficulties the Navigation was ground-breaking. It was the largest and first commercially viable waterway in the country, and was the inspiration behind the extensive canal network that was constructed across Britain a century later.

Ancient Occupation

The Surrey stretch of the Thames has offered up an impressive array of objects which give some idea of the lives of early settlers. The Borough of Runnymede, and the surrounding area of northwest Surrey, is also peppered with gravel pits; the remains of bygone water courses. Gravel extraction became a thriving industry which, by the 1960s, saw 25% of the country’s production originate from these Surrey pits. When the gravel became too difficult to extract many, such as the Egham pits, were filled in whilst others, such as those at Thorpe Park and Penton Hook were converted into leisure sites. Over the years, the extraction of gravel at these pits has uncovered some truly remarkable finds; abandoned objects discarded in long forgotten rivers.

Abbey Meads

Chertsey Sheild

replica Chertsey Sheild

One of the most surprising finds was the large shield, dating from c.400BC-250BC, which was found at Abbey Meads in 1985. The Chertsey Shield, now on display in the British Museum, is the only Iron Age shield in Europe made entirely of bronze. Other shields of this age were made with a wooded core with a sheet-metal covering. The wooden centre would have made the shield more robust during battle, and therefore it is probable that the Chertsey Shield was not made for practical use but rather for display and as such was probably deliberately placed in the Thames as an offering.

Mixham's Pit

Viking sword

10th century sword

During gravel extraction at Mixham’s Pit, now part of Penton Hook Marina, in 1981 a magnificent 10th century sword was discovered. Made in the Rhinelands of Germany for export to Scandinavia, this type of sword was greatly prized by the Vikings. They were treasured possessions, often given names by their owners. They were eulogised over in Norse tales and poetry, and were passed down through the generations from father to son. 

Swords were expensive, especially ones like the one at Chertsey Museum. On one side of the blade is the maker’s name ‘ulfberit’, usually known as ‘Ulfberht’, a famous 10th century smith from the Rhine region whose blades can be found all over Europe. 

By the 9th century there were Viking raids all over southern England, and Chertsey Abbey was targeted in 871AD, 884AD and again in 1011. The raiders would have attacked the abbey on foot, having moored their ship on the Thames.  During the first attack the Vikings set fire to the buildings, killed the Abbot, Prior and 90 monks. Maybe that is how the sword came to be discarded in Thorpe, lost in battle or more likely, deliberately left as a sacred offering. Recent research into our sword has raised questions about the legitimacy of its claim to be an Ulfberht creation. Analysis shows that the metal content is not of the same quality as other Ulfberht swords, and the blade is longer than his usually are. This has led to some speculation that it might in fact be a 10th century forgery. If so, then did the original owner know this to be the case or had he been deceived?

Charlton Gravel Pits

socketed axe

Socketed axe

In September 1985 a remarkable group of objects were uncovered by two workers at the Charlton gravel pit on the Shepperton Ranges. The most unusual objects recovered were an axe-head and a Celtic sword from the bucket of the machinery. These finds were donated to the museum by Tarmac Roadstone Ltd. and some of them are on display in Chertsey Museum.

The star piece was a late Bronze Age (c.800-600 BC) socketed axe head cast in bronze, which was a unique discovery as it was complete with its jointed wooden haft or handle. Axe heads are one of the most commonly found late Bronze Age artefacts, but prior to the discovery of this one, it was thought that the handle was made from one piece of L-shaped wood. Indeed, other axe heads from this time have been found with handles made from wood selected from a knarled tree-root or from the point where a branch joins the main trunk.

The socketed axe was not the only item of immense archaeological importance to be discovered at the site. The gravel pits also offered up a La Tène type Iron Age sword dating from c.250-100BC. La Tène type is a term used to describe Celtic art which came from central Europe, named after a town in Switzerland where thousands of objects of this age and style were discovered deposited in Lake Neuchâtel. However, it was not the double-edged blade which made this a unique find, but the remains of the bronze scabbard mounts which also survived. The leather scabbard had disintegrated over the centuries of damp conditions, but the mounts were at the time of discovery the only complete example of their kind known to have survived. Slight corrosion has gently fused the surfaces of the two metals together but the repoussé pattern beaten into the bronze sheet is still sharp. It is clear from the expert craftsmanship shown on the mounts that this was an expensive weapon belonging to someone of high standing and wealth, but what is less clear is the reason for it being in the gravel of a long forgotten river. As a human skull was also recovered from the site it could be that it was part of a burial where the rest of the remains had been washed downstream, or it could be that both the sword and the skull were part of a religious ceremony.

Also in the quarry was an Iron Age cauldron which was used in c.500 BC. Thin sheets of bronze were riveted together to form the bowl which was obviously well used as there is evidence that the metal was patched to repair a hole. Unlike the sword or even the axe, it is unlikely that the cauldron was deliberately deposited in the ancient river as a ritual item, more likely it was discarded when the owner got a new one.

Runnymede Bridge Settlement

Runnymede Bridge dig

Runnymede Bridge archaeological dig

In the mid 1970s work began on building the London Orbital Motorway, or the M25 as it is known, and during construction of the stretch between junctions 12 and 13 an important archaeological site was uncovered. With evidence of occupation from at least six phases from the Neolithic to post-Medieval, it was clear that this had been a significant river site for over two millennia.

On the site a number of post holes were discovered indicating that a number of round houses were constructed there. Post holes for two complete dwellings show that the round houses were approximately 5 metres in diameter, and one of them had additional smaller holes within the circle from an interior wall. Artefacts left behind give a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived on the site. Cattle and pig bones indicate that the inhabitants ate meat; sheep bones and red deer antlers were used as tools, and loom weights show the popularity of spinning and weaving. Burnt food left behind in several pots include fruit, malt, pork dripping and honey. There was also evidence of burning, either accidentally or perhaps when the site was abandoned. It was possible to determine that silt from the Thames had begun to build up at the Runnymede Bridge site whilst it was still in occupation. The light top soil became eroded, causing silt in the river, which increased the likelihood of it flooding the settlement.

It is not just the type of artefacts uncovered that are of interest but the quantity of them too. Foreign pottery was discovered. Horse harness bits, probably of military origin, were discovered in large numbers. High quality bronze tools and weapons suggest that a talented metalsmith occupied the site and recycled metal which originally came from Northern France indicates that large scale manufacturing was taking place. This was an industrial area, using the Thames to deliver raw materials to Runnymede, and transport items for sale to distant markets. This idea is supported by the discovery of a row of wooden stakes, a palisade at least 50 metres long, which had been driven into the river banks. These stakes would once have supported a wooden structure, most probably a wharf. This suggests that the site was a substantial trading post meaning that the local inhabitants would have had social as well as economic exchanges with their counterparts across the country and the continent.

Rights & Access

Sealing of Magna Carta

The granting of Magna Carta

The right to access and use the country’s rivers has always been hotly contested as with it comes the ability to power mills, to transport goods and, in some cases to levy charges. Before the 12th century there were no laws against trespass so everyone could move freely around the country as long as they did not enter any buildings or cause damage. This was true of rivers as well as land. With the beginning of written law in England, in 1189, people’s rights and freedoms began to be codified including stipulating that everyone was free to use any river until such time as a law was passed against it, or until the river became unnavigable.  It is this term, ‘navigable’, which has been contentious over the centuries. Navis is Latin for a type of large barge-like vessel and so navigable was originally used to describe certain rivers that are passable by barge. Over time, however, it became a more general term.

There were clearly individuals who did not adhere to the law as in 1215, when the Barons met King John at Runnymede to put their demands to him, it was written that “all fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast”. It was important to those who lived and worked on the rivers as weirs slowed down the flow of the water resulting in sediments being deposited until silting of the river meant it was no longer navigable, affecting trade. The barons included the provision in Magna Carta primarily to benefit the City of London who had control over the Thames, and the Archbishop of Canterbury who owned substantial property on the Medway. However, the freedom to navigate rivers was perceived as a universal right and as such is one of the most cited clauses of the Great Charter, remaining in English law until the 1960s.

Court documents from the 13th century show that the law was still being flouted; so much so that various commissions were established to ensure that the Thames in particular, remained clear. However, between 1351 and 1472 there were a series of Acts passed requiring the removal of all river obstructions created since the reign of Edward I. The financial penalty for breaching these Acts was severe, and anyone wishing to build a new bridge had to ensure that it was sufficiently high for boats to pass under unimpeded.

The Thames, as a royal river, was regulated from at least 1066 when Edward the Confessor, shortly before he died, stated “if mills, fisheries or any other works are constructed to their [royal rivers] hindrance, let these works be destroyed, the waters repaired, and the forfeit to the King not forgotten.” During the reign of Richard I, control over the Thames was sold to the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London who immediately ensured that all illegal weirs were removed. It is thought that they bought control over the whole length of the river, although later their responsibility covered the stretch from Staines to the estuary and was marked by the London Stone which was placed at the foot of Staines Bridge in 1285. The Corporation collected taxes and charges due and in turn paid duties to the Crown on all merchandise transported on the Thames. For 660 years the Corporation of London was responsible for the Thames up to Staines, until, in 1857, the Thames Conservancy was established.

The importance of the Thames to the Borough’s economy cannot be underestimated. In the late 18th century 5,470 tons of cargo travelled on barges from Chertsey to the London docks at Queenhithe each year, compared with just 1,000 tons from Weybridge. These large flat boats were pulled along towpaths which were increasingly overgrown and dilapidated. Due to the lack of upkeep and river obstructions, severe flooding occurred resulting in a Commission to improve the Thames from Staines to London. As a result of their findings the Corporation of London embarked on a programme of improvements, began purchasing all the towpath tollgates from Staines down to London, and levied a navigation toll to fund it all. From 1777 rates were fixed from London to Brentford at a halfpenny per ton but that increased to a further halfpenny per ton each time a commercial barge passed the stages at Richmond, Teddington, Kingston, Hampton, Shepperton, Chertsey and finally at Staines. This was deeply unpopular and many bargemasters were unhappy that there were still obstructions preventing them navigating the Thames quickly and safely despite the tolls which were to pay for improvements. At the turn of the 19th century a report was published setting out the concerns of the barge owners and stating that “Laleham Gulls, Oxley [Chertsey Abbey] Mills, Chertsey Bridge Hill [a sandbank 70 or 80 yards below the bridge on the left bank], Ballinger’s Weir [3/4 miles below Walton Bridge], Sunbury Flatts and other places below Staines, many Shallows and rapid Currents rendering that part of the navigation difficult, dangerous, tedious and very expensive”.

River Crossings – Bridges & Ferries

In the Middle Ages official river crossings were limited as ferries needed a suitable crossing place and the cost of building bridges was the same as building a parish church, but by 1500 there were already 18 bridges across the Thames. The majority of these had been in place by 1300 because it was economically advantageous. The Thames Valley was a hive of commercial activity in the Middle Ages with goods being imported from and exported to the Continent. With busy ports established in Southampton and Bristol it was imperative that goods could get to the markets of London as easily as possible. The quickest way was to build bridges across the rivers, even though they were expensive to build and maintain. With meandering rivers and poorly defined banks, constructing footings was a difficult task. Some bridges had toll charges to contribute to their upkeep, but the vast majority were free to cross because they were considered part of the King’s highway and therefore passage had to be free.

Chertsey Bridge

Chertsey Bridge, 1820

Chertsey Bridge, 1820

Before 1300 travellers crossed the Thames at Chertsey by ferry at a point close to the current crossing. The first Chertsey Bridge was made of wood and was 210 feet long and 15 feet wide. It stood slightly downstream of the present bridge, and suffered much damage from the ravages of the Thames flowing beneath it, and the frequent collision of barges in to it. By the 17th century the bridge needed to be rebuilt, and repairs took place regularly until 1779 when once again it had to be reconstructed. The bridge committee met to find a solution to the problem, and it was discovered that the ait projecting from the Surrey side was causing the currents of the river to flow against the abutments of the bridge, weakening the structure. Architect James Paine of Sayes Court, Addlestone, was given the job of investigating the costs of such an undertaking. His recommendation was not only to remove the part of the ait, but that the wooden bridge should be replaced with a 5 span stone one at a cost of £7,325.

On 26th June 1782 the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Onslow laid the keystone for the new bridge. The project immediately ran in to difficulties. Working from the keystone outwards, the five- span bridge was gradually built, but it soon became clear that, possibly due to an oversight by Paine, the bridge did not reach across the river and a further arch had to be constructed on either side.

Runnymede Bridge

Runnymede Bridge

Runnymede Bridge, 1961

The river crossing known as the Runnymede Bridge is actually two bridges, side by side. The original single-span bridge was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1939, but due to the outbreak of war, work did not begin until the late 1950s and it finally opened in 1961. It carries the A30 Staines Bypass across the Thames and was, until the opening of the new bridge at Walton, the first single-span bridge upstream from the mouth of the Thames. The second bridge, the New Runnymede Bridge, runs alongside its namesake to the east and was designed by Sir Ove Arup in the late 1970s.

Steven’s Bridge

From at least 1313 the area to the south of Chertsey was a separate suburb known as Styvinton which was separated from the main town by the River Bourne. Abbey records state that John de Rutherwyk, Abbot of Chertsey, rebuilt the bridge at Steventon End (by Chertsey Library) in the reign of Edward II (1284-1327) but by the reign of Henry IV (1367-1413) it was again in disrepair. This time it was rebuilt in stone under the king’s licence.

Staines Bridge

The first bridge at Staines was built by the Romans, probably sometime in the mid first century AD. The Roman road leading from Londinium to Calleva Atrebatum, modern Silchester, crossed the Thames at this point. It is the only known Roman bridge on the Thames apart from that at London. The Roman town of Staines, called Pontes after the bridge, grew up around the bridgehead.

From 1228 mention of a wooden bridge at Staines appears in several documents, often in connection with it needing repairs. It remained until the 17th century when, during the Civil War, it finally needed replacing. Once again, it was made of wood and remained until the early part of the 19th century when plans were drawn up to build a stone bridge. The replacement was built alongside the old wooden bridge in 1797 by Thomas Sandby but it soon subsided. This time it was replaced by a cast iron bridge to the design of Thomas Paine, which had to be propped up after cracking. Finally, in 1829, a new site upstream was selected by George Rennie for the present bridge. The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Clarence, who returned in 1832 as King William IV to open it. The bridge was originally a toll bridge, but the tolls were abolished in 1870.

During the Second World War a temporary bridge was built alongside to ensure this important transport link was maintained in case of bomb damage. For a while after the war the temporary bridge was used by pedestrians, but it was eventually demolished in 1958 when widened pedestrian paths were added to either side of the main bridge, leaving it looking much as it does today.

Durnford Bridge

A bridge over the River Bourne at Ottershaw has been at the existing site from at least as early as the mid 1500s. It lay on the boundaries between the Manors of Walton Leigh and Pyrford, and as such suffered from divided responsibility for its maintenance.

In 1804 representatives from both manors and local landowners formed a committee to oversee the upkeep of the bridge which was only open to wheeled traffic when flooding meant that the ford next to it was too dangerous to use. The committee stated that the Duke of York and Lord Onslow, as Lords of the two Manors, should rebuild the bridge with one that had a 10ft wide arch so that wheeled traffic could use it, but this was never done. 

In 1897 the Local Highways Committee recommended a new brick bridge, and work started on it the following year. However, with the ever increasing level of motor traffic during the 20th century, it was the site of many accidents and had to be rebuilt again in 1957 when the road was widened.


Whilst rivers provided means of transportation they are also an obstacle to those living and working on either side of them. Settlements grew near areas where it was easy to cross, such as Oxford or Brentford, because permanent river crossings were expensive and the prerogative of the king or lord of the manor. From medieval times the king owned the Thames and all its crossing points. As the Thames became busier and deeper it was no longer possible to rely on fords, and ferries were introduced. Initially this was done on an ad hoc basis but soon it became a more formal arrangement with legal implications. In 1930s there were still 18 ferries across the Thames, but by the end of the Second World War most had stopped as better alternatives now existed. However, London’s Woolwich ferry still runs and it enables 20,000 vehicles and 50,000 passengers to cross the Thames each week.

Chertsey Ferry

Chertsey Ferry, 1971

Chertsey Ferry, 1971

Before the first wooden bridge was built at Chertsey, crossings were made by ferry. Initially The first mention of it is in the accounts of Edward I when, in 1299, three shillings were paid to “Sibille, the ferrywoman of Chertsey and six men” who took the King across the Thames. Half a century later Edward III gave the ferry to William de Altecar, Yeoman of the Chamber, for life. However, with the building of Chertsey Bridge in the 15th century there was no longer need for a ferry.

Laleham Ferry

Laleham Ferry

Laleham Ferry

Laleham Ferry was initially run on behalf of the king by the Abbot of Chertsey, and connected the Abbey to the Thames via Ferry Lane. 16th century accounts state that it was used by local farmers to take their cattle across the river when the water level was too high for them to wade. By the 19th century the ferry was being run by Richard Trotter of Chertsey who paid £100 per year rent for the ferry house, garden and ferry, but was able to keep the 1d per person per crossing he received. Some locals, such as George Hartwell who owned the ferry house and Lord Lucan who owned the manor of Laleham, paid an annual charge to cover the cost of all crossings made by themselves or their family.

When the Burway became a famous cricket ground the ferry was useful for golfers travelling from Chertsey to Laleham (formerly Chertsey) Golf Club. Passengers included Bob Hope and Bing Crosby who took advantage of the course whilst filming nearby.

Tims Ferry, Thorpe

When Staines Bridge was damaged during the English Civil War a ferry service operated between Staines and Egham Causeway. Even when the bridge was replaced the ferry still existed, but it moved downstream close to Tims & Son’s boatyard, by the modern-day railway bridge.

Weirs and Locks

For thousands of years people have tried to control and divert the nation's rivers for their own ends. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers first perfected the art of building kidels or fish-weirs across rivers to trap fish to feed their families. When any obstacle is placed in a water course it affects the flow and nature of the river, slowing it down which in turn causes sediment to be deposited, resulting in flooding and eventually even a change in direction of the river itself. Therefore it is not surprising that medieval legal records are full of disputes over the building of weirs. Magna Carta clause 33 noted there were to be no weirs on rivers, but even this unequivocal statement was open to interpretation. Some weirs were necessary to facilitate the passage of boats, which is why Henry III appointed Wilfred de Lucy and others to inspect and measure all weirs in the country to ensure that they were not hindering transportation. Despite several orders that weirs should be removed or restored to the size as in the reign of Richard I, the problem continued. So much so that in 1274 Edward I ordered the Thames to be widened so that ships and barges could still navigate from London to Oxford despite the weirs along the way.

At the beginning of the 17th century locks began to be built to aid navigation. As boats got bigger and heavier rivers needed to be deeper and faster in order for them to be able to move up and downstream without getting stuck. Initially this was achieved by building weirs and flash locks.

By the 19th century it was impossible for barges laden to the usual depth of 3’ 10” to pass along the Thames at low tide, and so the construction of three new locks was proposed. The Thames Commissioners suggested that three new locks be built: one immediately below Laleham Gulls which was eventually built at Chertsey, a second at Sunbury and one at Kingston Overfalls which was actually built at Teddington. A further lock was proposed at Fisherhouse Point, which eventually became Penton Hook Lock. However, the Corporation of London did not take kindly to the proposal due to its cost and its criticism of them. Instead it needed an Act of Parliament to get the locks constructed, the first being built at Chertsey just to the north of where the Abbey River joins the Thames. The Act stipulated that the lock should be less than 150ft long and 20ft wide, and was to have three pairs of gates which could be opened by the bargemasters without the need for a lock keeper. At the same time, the tolls were increased so that it cost 28d per ton from London Bridge to Chertsey.

Chertsey Lock

Chertsey Lock

Chertsey Lock

A scheme to build a lock at Chertsey was first proposed in 1793 but did not receive Parliamentary backing. Not to be deterred, a modified plan was submitted in 1805 to make a cut from the southern tip of Penton Hook to Chertsey Bridge, a distance of about 1.5 miles, and construct a poundlock but this too was rejected after resistance from local landowners. Finally in 1810 an Act of Parliament was passed permitting a weir to be constructed “just above the tail of Chertsey Abbey Mill”, to retain water during the summer so that the shallows at Laleham would remain navigable, and a cut made to Dumsey with a poundlock. However, after opposition from Lord Lucan, who didn’t want the lock spoiling the views from his land, the proposed site was moved once more. The lock was eventually opened, on its current site, in 1812. A lock-house was built in which James Smith, the first lock-keeper, lived until his death in 1833.

Despite efforts by the local council to preserve it, the lock-keepers house was demolished by Thames Water in 1980.

Bell Weir Lock, Egham

Bell Weir Lock

Bell Weir Lock, Egham

Bell Weir Lock takes its names from Charles Bell, the first lock-keeper and owner of The Anglers Retreat Inn. The lock was first built in 1817 as a result of the work of the Thames Navigation Commission. Originally they had proposed a site slightly upstream before settling on its current location near to the Runnymede Hotel.

Heavy winters in 1827 and 1866 resulted in the collapse of the weir and lock, respectively, under the weight of the ice on the Thames; both were rebuilt in 1867. The lock was again rebuilt, this time in stone, in 1877 and a new weir was completed in 1904.

Penton Hook Lock

When Penton Hook Lock was completed in 1815 it was the furthest lock, upstream, controlled by the City of London Corporation. The weir was built later, in 1846, below the point where the Thames loops and flows into the Abbey River. Initially only cargo boats paid tolls on the river but in 1870, due to the increased popularity of boating as a pastime, a 3d toll was imposed on all pleasure boats at locks from Penton Hook downstream. The lock was rebuilt in 1909 and is now, at 81 metres, the third longest lock on the river.


Watermills formed part of the working life of the country from Roman times through to the 19th century, and were the earliest form of non-animal, non-human generated power. The Domesday Book of 1086 listed over 5,000 watermills in the country, and records that many of them had been established for quite some time. Within 125 years this number had doubled. Over time the purpose of many of these early watermills changed from grinding grain to powering the country’s post-industrialisation textile industry. Whilst no Romano-British mill buildings survive, evidence of later Anglo-Saxon mills is easier to find. Legal documents and estate plans from the Middle Ages give details of the use, location of the wooden mill buildings and ownership – mostly religious orders. Mills were of great economic benefit to the owner and the local economy, reducing the time needed to grind the flour and hence the cost. Water mills could be used for many different purposes: grinding grains, tanning hides, pressing vegetables for oil, forging metals. Mill owners traditionally held all the power, both literally and economically for they could levy charges as compensation for loss of power as boats passed through the millponds.

Abbey Mill, Chertsey

Abbey Mills

Abbey Mills

Abbey Mill was, until the early 20th century, to be found close to Chertsey Bridge in what is now the grounds of Abbey Chase. The Domesday Book gives mention of a flour mill at Chertsey, but does not stipulate where it was. Originally known as Oxlake Mill, the first record of it dates to 1197 when Guilbert Fitzhalph leased it from Chertsey Abbey. The 15th century map in the Chertsey Cartulary of 1432 clearly shows the two mills on either side of the Abbey River, and it is thought that this illustration is the first English depiction of a watermill.


The mill was part of the Abbey’s possessions which became Crown property at the Dissolution in 1538. It is said that shortly afterwards the structures were demolished for building materials, however, in 1546 there is mention of a mill on the same site; this time called Oxlake Mill. By 1700 new mill buildings had been built on the site by then owner, Sir Nicholas Wayte, and by the end of the century David Ireland, the tenant miller, insured the mill in 1778 for the large sum of £200. The insurance value of the mill gives a good indication of the extent and importance of the mill complex at this time. It was further enlarged by the La Coste family, in residence from 1805, who sold it to Nathaniel Cook in 1877. Alas, the mill was again sold, in 1899, when it was demolished and replaced with Abbey Chase house.

Durnford Mill, Ottershaw

Durnford Mill

Durnford Mill by John Hassell

The first mill in the area was built in 1783 by Sir Thomas Sewell of Ottershaw Park estate. It was situated about ¼ mile upstream from Durnford Bridge (now called Dunford Bridge) on a piece of copyhold land on the south bank of the River Bourne called Ottershott. The original mill was replaced in 1797, by Edmund Boehm, also of Ottershaw Park. He built the new mill just above Durnford Bridge on the north bank of the river, and dug a mill pond which also acted as a decoy pond. Durnford Mill was a corn mill. It had two pairs of stones driven by an external breast shot wheel, housed in a two storey building.

When Boehm became bankrupt in 1819, the mill came into the hands of Mrs Boehm’s trustees and then was sold to a Sir George Wood. In 1827 it was sold again to Thomas Weeding, a merchant of the City of London, and when he died in 1855 it passed to his heirs, including Thomas Weeding of Kingthorpe in Addlestone. Later it was acquired by L.J. Baker of Ottershaw Park. By L.J. Baker’s time it had a second water wheel which was used to power a saw, and a third pair of mill stones. A miller’s house, stable dairy and garden had also been added. However, by the time Baker sold Ottershaw Park in 1909, the mill had disappeared and the pond had been filled in. A row of four estate cottages had been built nearby, and these were purchased after the First World War by the bailiff Charles Taylor and converted into one dwelling.

Thorpe Mill, Thorpe

Old Mill Thorpe

The old mill, Thorpe by Margaret Lake, 1971

Thorpe Mill stood on the southern boundary of Thorpe parish on a mill stream or leat, cut from the River Bourne.  The exact date of the mill is not known, although it is first mentioned in 1518, but the main fabric of the timber framed and brick buildings dated from the seventeenth century.  The mill is believed to have ceased working during the early part of the 20th century although it was still described as Thorpe Mill in 1910 when Frederick Gosden rented it from Henry Wolley Leigh Bennet.  Frederick Gosden died in 1919 and the mill was sold.

The mill was purchased in 1924 by Mr and Mrs Thomas Dudley Honnor who took over the farm and milk round.  Mrs Honnor opened a tea room in 1938 which later developed into a very popular restaurant which they ran until the 1960s.  The mill was subject to a Compulsory Purchased Order and demolished in 1971 to make way for the M3, although the motorway’s route now passes over the nearby field rather than the mill site.

Trumpes Mill, Virginia Water

Late 13th century records mention Chertsey Abbey had a mill on the Bourne as it runs along the boundary between Egham and Thorpe, and by the early 16th century it was known as Trumpes Mill. It was at this time, 1519, that the Abbot granted the mill together with the Milton Manor to the College of Corpus Christi, Oxford. The college continued to pay tithes to the Abbey and then the Crown, until at least the 18th century.

The mill continued to function until its closure in 1909, by which time it had been rebuilt in brick, to the first floor, with two further floors of white weatherboarding. The mill house still survives as a private residence.

Coxes Lock Mill, Wey Navigation, Addlestone

Coxes Lock Mill

Coxes Lock Mill

A mill was first built on the Coxes Lock site in 1776 and despite not having permission to cut in to the canal bank to provide room for a waterwheel, the mill started operations in April 1777. It seems likely that the first owners were Alexander Raby who was the ironmaster from the mill at Downside, Cobham, together with Obadiah Wix Rogers an ironmaster from Bermondsey.  By July 1782 Raby and Rogers had secured an agreement, at a rent of £130 per annum, to cut channels into the canal to obtain water to drive their mill wheels. In 1783 further permission was obtained to build a corn mill.  In the same year Raby acquired more land and constructed a large reservoir beside the canal in order to maintain his water supply.  This reservoir remained until the site was redeveloped in 1982.

In 1807, John Taylor, iron merchant of All Hallows (beside Cannon Street Station, London took the lease over from Raby and Rogers.  However, within 3 years William Thompson and William Forman, iron merchants, of the Steelyard, Upper Thames Street, London held the licence. There is evidence that in November 1816 John Bunn, the Weybridge Mill ironmaster, started manufacturing at Coxes Mill although he did not acquire full interest in the mill until 1819 – the same year he became owner of the adjoining Crockford Bridge Farm.  He maintained his interests in the mill until 1829, but the records show that the occupier of the mill in 1821 and 1822 was a J. Dunlop and between 1826 and 1829 a J. T. Taylor. It seems likely that the making of iron at the mill stopped in about 1829 when Bunn disposed of his interests.  Subsequent use of the site has been as a silk mill and more extensively as a corn and flour mill.  The mill was rebuilt in 1900 and no longer used water power. It was about this time that the old single storey building was demolished and the new multi-floored building for flour milling was built on the old foundations.  

During the early 1880s the 18th century Mill House had a charming and large garden, and Connie Gilchrist, the famous music-hall actress, rented the house as her country residence.  In 1900 the building of the 100 foot tall wheat silo overshadowed the Mill House which was then occupied by the mill engineer and his family.  Soon afterwards it became the Mill Office. Coxes Lock Milling was a family business until the early 1960s when it was taken over by Allied Mills Ltd.  In the 1970s the mill was producing over 4,000 sacks of flour a week for distribution in the south of England. At that time it was the last surviving working mill below Guildford.  New buildings were added to provide a silo and the older part of the mill became a conditioning plant. The Wey Navigation saw its last trading barge in 1969 when it delivered to Coxes Lock mill. In 1983 the mill was closed making 55 workers redundant, and by 1989 the site had been developed into luxurious apartments with views over the canal and a lake. 

Work, Rest & Play

For those who live and work near the nation’s rivers they are, and always have been, a focal point for the community. They have helped provide protection, sustenance, occupation and a place of rest and relaxation.  Today traditional river trades such as fishing and milling continue but have adapted with advances in technology.  Others, for example rope making and osier growing, have disappeared altogether. 

River Industries

Chertsey Weir

Chertsey Preserve by William Robert Earl, 1836

Fishing is one of the oldest river professions.  A variety of different methods would be used depending on the type and quantity of fish to catch.  Fishing weirs, often a temporary and crude type of trap set across a stream, could catch large quantities of fish.  Wooden stakes excavated at Shepperton are believed to have been from a fish weir of the medieval period.  Eel-bucks, set in a framework that could be easily raised and lowered, or kidels, which caused a shallow to build up on their downstream side for the catching of lampreys, were of a more permanent nature. From the thirteenth century ‘deeps’, that is areas in the river 200 - 300 yards in extent, were granted by the City of London to towns and villages between Staines and Richmond to be preserved exclusively for angling.  Crayfish were also a significant catch from Cricklade down to Shepperton until the end of the last century.

Willow or osier growing is possibly as old a trade as fishing.  Large areas were devoted to their cultivation. In 1794 a land surveyor called Peter Foot reported that “from Fulham to Staines the banks of the Thames were profitably utilised in the cultivation of willow” with plantations of osiers worth £4 to £5 per acre to the basket makers.  Certainly osier beds appear on both the 1814 Enclosure map and the 1870 OS map and are also mentioned in trade directories for the late 19th century.   Owners of osier beds included Lord Lucan, Edmund Tattershall, and Thomas and George La Coste. 

Dugout log boats were being made on the Thames at least 2,000 years ago.  The industry reached its peak, however, with the increased popularity of boating for leisure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Professional fishermen who had built boats as a sideline found it growing so profitable that they became full-time boat builders.  Thomas Taylor of Chertsey, for example, was listed in trade directories first as a fisherman in 1867, both boat builder and fisherman in the 1880s, and simply as boat builder in 1890. Notable boat builders included John Tims of Staines, by appointment to H. M. King Edward VII and George V; and Taylor and Bates, who exported launches to many parts of the world.  There has been a gradual decline in boat building and many yards have now closed or diversified. However, Michael Dennett Boat Builders based at Laleham Boatyard still build and repair wooden boats using centuries old traditions. 

Leisure Pursuits

pleasure boat at Chertsey Lock

Chertsey Lock

It is likely that the Thames has always been used for recreation.  However few records survive and the first references seem to have been made in the Universal Gazetteer of 1801 which devoted a substantial section to Thames holidays.  The 19th century was the River’s heyday, particularly the second half when railways made the Thames valley much more accessible to Londoners, and boating for pleasure became hugely fashionable. “A year on the Thames” reports that “Many Victorians and Edwardians had so much fun on the River that they decided to turn visits into huge family gatherings, so domestic staff had to go along as well.”

By the mid-nineteenth century most boat builders were advertising the hiring of rowing boats by the hour, day, week, month or season, as well as house boats “both furnished or unfurnished and even built to order”.  Boat builders became quick to fit iron hoops and canvas covers to sculling craft and punts, making it popular to take boats out not just for the day but overnight, sleeping on board or camping by the River. Often boats were hired with an inclusive fee covering the cost of the return journey by rail.  A variety of steam and electric launches, suitable for large or small parties, were also let for picnic and river excursions.  Motor cruisers became generally available for hire in the inter-war period, but it was not until after the Second World War that they were used extensively for holidays.  Many of the old established boatyards did much to encourage holidays afloat and Bates of Chertsey and Duntons of Shepperton were among the founding firms of the Thames Hire Cruise Association in 1955.

Passenger boats first started operating between Oxford and Kingston in 1878 during the summer months.  Originally the return trip took three days with overnight stops at hotels in Windsor and Reading.  As more boats came into service it became possible to allow day trippers to change boats if they wished to return by steam.  Combined rail and steamer tickets were also available.  The size of steamers varied with the largest accommodating up to 180 passengers. These river trips were very popular among various church groups and societies and were also hired out by firms for annual staff outings, including staff of the Gogmore Lane Herring Foundry and Chertsey Fire Service.

Both Chertsey and Egham have a long history of regattas. Egham’s regatta started in 1909 and was held on the reach above Bell Lock. The idea was originally mooted in August of that year, and a month later on 9th September, the first races took place. The town band entertained the spectators and steam launches as well as skiffs and punts participated. Egham regatta, the last on the Thames before Henley, is still held every year although now the date has moved to the end of June. Chertsey regatta is one of the oldest on the river. It was first held, it is thought, in 1851, although there is some uncertainty. Committee minutes from 1951 note that there was some uncertainty as to whether it was 1851 or 1852, and they decided on the earlier of the dates. It was a less formal occasion in the early years with funfairs and brass bands. The regatta struggled in the years between the First and Second World Wars, but was revived in the 1950s. Since then the course has altered three times. Until 1962 it was held on the Middlesex side of the river, as it is now, then it moved to the Surrey side. In 1964 the Regatta was held on the Laleham Amateur Regatta course just above Chertsey Lock. From 1965 to 1987 it was held on the river by Chertsey Meads and so the course was changed once again. It is now held on Dumsey Meadows, alongside Chertsey Bridge.

Click here to see our Year on Runnymede's Rivers film by TJ Lane which was commissioned for the exhibition