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1787 William Jessop was asked to survey the river with a view to extending navigation right up to Slaugham. Three years later the Upper Ouse Navigation Act was passed, enabling construction upon the navigation to begin. However, the initial estimates of cost were soon exceeded, and work slowed.
Eventually, about 1812, the canalisation of the Ouse was completed, and the river was navigable from Lewes up to Balcombe, West Sussex, the navigable part of the river terminating at Upper Ryelands Bridge. The navigation totalled 22 miles (35 km) in length, plus a 3/4 mile branch to Shortbridge, and featured 19 locks.
Trade along the Ouse Navigation consisted mostly of lime, chalk, manure, aggregates and coal. Whilst in 1801 there were 51 barges registered as trading on the river (21 of which worked the river above Lewes), the navigation was never a huge commercial success.
During the 1840s, as railways proved to be a cheaper and faster method of transporting goods, attempts were made to attract more trade by reducing tolls, but this had little effect. The Ouse Valley Viaduct, built in 1841, had 11 million bricks transported along the Ouse from the Netherlands for its construction, and by 1868 all trade above Lewes had ceased, although boats continued working on the Lower Ouse to Lewes right up to the 1950s.
Today, the remains of most of the old locks are still visible, although all are now slowly deteriorating. The Sussex Ouse Restoration Trust is promoting renovating the navigation.
Southease Swing Bridge was built in the 1880s, is the second bridge on the site and though the swing mechanism remains, it has not been opened since 1967.