How important have the Harbour and River been to Southwold?
In the beginning Southwold did not have the benefit of an outlet to the sea and thus had no harbour. The River Blyth turned south behind a great shingle bank before entering the sea at Dunwich which had been a prosperous port since Roman Times. As a result Southwold’s traders and fishermen were forced to pay harbour dues to Dunwich leading to centuries of disputes.
As late as 1724 Daniel Defoe writing of his Tour through the Eastern Counties said:
Records from as far back as 1328 refer to the silting up of the river and it being blocked to shipping. This continues right through to the 16th century. Eventually, the men of Southwold and Walberswick took matters into their own hands and , in 1589, forced a cut for the river through at the point where it now meets the sea.
Having its own harbour helped Southwold to prosper but keeping it open was a constant drain on resources. As early as 1609 the Government was informed that £6,000 was needed to repair the Haven.
In 1754 the town had to abandon ownership to a group of Commissioners, drawn from County families and appointed under an Act of Parliament. That Act, of George II, also provided for opening, cleaning, repairing and improving the Haven.
In 1757 the Blyth Navigation was formed by Act of Parliament. The intention was to make the river navigable up as far as Halesworth by widening, dredging and putting in locks. A public company was formed and the work was completed. Soon wherries were transporting goods to and from Halesworth and Southwold's Blackshore and trans-shipping to coastal vessels for onward movement to almost every port in the United Kingdom.
But conditions at the river mouth remained a constant problem. In 1820 the engineer John Rennie reported that the harbour had become shallower. Whilst his report was ignored, in 1829 a scheme prepared by Lt Francis Ellis was accepted and works costing a total of £6,000 including repairs to the piers were completed in 1835.
While this alleviated the problem the harbour continued to be blocked by sand bars. In 1839 the town sold its farm estate at Walpole to raise money to pay for keeping the river and harbour open. Trade in the harbour dwindled, as no other assistance was forthcoming and it finally closed in 1884 and was derelict in 1888.
Two things happened to reverse this sorry state of affairs: a vigorous and determined Town Council and an upsurge in the herring fishing industry. Funds were raised, Government financial assistance given and the Southwold Harbour Co established. The harbour was leased to the Company and £45,000 was spent on improvements, sea walls, piers, a fish market and an extension to the railway were all put in. The harbour prospered until the onset of World War One but the decline of herring fishing led to another failure.
Finally in 1931 the Corporation bought back the lease on the Harbour which remained much as you see it today.