River Trent

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Trent Bridge in Nottingham
The Trent basin

The River Trent is one of the major rivers of the Midlands. It is 125 miles long; from its source in the Staffordshire Moorlands, on the southern edge of Biddulph Moor, it sweeps in a great loop through the heart of the Midlands, through Staffordshire, Derbyshire, the boundary of Leicestershire, and through Nottinghamshire until it joins the Yorkshire Ouse at Trent Falls to form the Humber, which empties into the North Sea below Kingston upon Hull and Immingham.

The Trent has a tidal bore, the "Trent Aegir". The area drained by the river includes most of the northern Midlands.


The name "Trent" comes from a Celtic word possibly meaning "strongly flooding". More specifically, the name may be a contraction of two Celtic words, tros ("over") and hynt ("way").[1] This may indeed indicate a river that is prone to flooding. However, a more likely explanation may be that it was considered to be a river that could be crossed principally by means of fords, which is to say that the river flowed over major road routes. This may explain the presence of the Celtic element rid (Modern Welsh rhyd), meaning "ford" in various placenames along the Trent, such as Hill Ridware.

Another translation is given as "the trespasser", referring to the waters flooding over the land.[2]

According to Koch at the University of Wales,[3] the name Trent derives from the Romano-British Trisantona, a Romano-British reflex of the combined Proto-Celtic elements *tri-sent(o)-on-ā- (through-path-augmentative-feminine), so "great thoroughfare".[3]

Migration of course in historic times

Unusually for a British river, the river channel has occasionally altered significantly in historic times. An abandoned channel at Repton is described on an old map as 'Old Trent Water'. Further downstream, archaeologists have found the remains of a mediæval bridge across another abandoned channel. The course of the river was altered in the area of Ingleby in Derbyshire, "moving" 300 acres from one side of the river to another. The river's propensity to change course is referred to in Shakespeare's play Henry IV - Part 1:

Methinks my moiety, north from Burton here,
In quantity equals not one of yours:
See how this river comes me cranking in,
And cuts me from the best of all my land
A huge half-moon, a monstrous cantle out.
I'll have the current in this place damm'd up;
And here the smug and silver Trent shall run
In a new channel, fair and evenly;
It shall not wind with such a deep indent,
To rob me of so rich a bottom here.[4]

History of navigation

Nottingham seems to have been the ancient head of navigation until the Restoration, due partly to the difficult navigation of the Trent Bridge. Navigation was then extended to Wilden Ferry, near to the more recent Cavendish Bridge, as a result of the efforts of the Fosbrooke family of Shardlow.

Paget's monopoly

Later, in 1699, Lord Paget, who owned coal mines and land in the area, obtained an Act of Parliament to extend navigation up to Fleetstones Bridge, Burton, despite opposition from the people of Nottingham. Lord Paget seems to have funded the work privately, building locks at King's Mills and Burton Mills and several cuts and basins. The Act gave him absolute control over the building of any wharfs and warehouses above Nottingham Bridge. Lord Paget leased the navigation and the wharf at Burton to George Hayne, while the wharf and warehouses at Wilden were leased by Leonard Fosbrooke, who held the ferry rights and was a business partner of Hayne. The two men refused to allow any cargo to be landed which was not carried in their own boats, and so created a monopoly.[5]

In 1748, the merchants from Nottingham attempted to break this monopoly by landing goods on the banks and into carts, but Fosbrooke used his ferry rope to block the river, and then created a bridge by mooring boats across the channel, and employing men to defend them. Hayne subsequently scuppered a barge in King's Lock, and for the next eight years goods had to be transhipped around it. Despite a Chancery injunction against them, the two men continued with their action. Hayne's lease ran out in 1762, and Lord Paget's son, the Earl of Uxbridge, gave the new lease to the Burton Boat Company.[5]


The Trent and Mersey Canal was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1766, and construction from Shardlow to Preston Brook, where it joined the Bridgewater Canal, was completed by 1777.[6] The canal ran parallel to the upper river to Burton on Trent, where new wharfs and warehouses at Horninglow served the town, and the Burton Boat Company were unable to repair the damaged reputation of the river created by their predecessors.[7] Eventually in 1805, they reached an agreement with Henshall & Co., the leading canal carriers, for the closure of the river above Wilden Ferry.

Though the river is apparently legally still navigable above Shardlow, it is probable that the agreement marks the end of the use of that stretch of the river as a commercial navigation.[8]

The Lower River

The first improvement of the lower river was at Newark-on-Trent, where the channel splits into two. The residents of the town wanted to increase the use of the branch nearest to them, and so an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1772 to authorise the work. Newark Navigation Commissioners were created, with powers to borrow money to fund the construction of two locks, and to charge tolls for boats using them. The work was completed by October 1773, and the separate tolls remained in force until 1783, when they were replaced by a 1 shilling toll whichever channel the boats used.[7]

Users of the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Loughborough Canal and the Erewash Canal next demanded major improvements to the river down to Gainsborough, including new cuts, locks, dredging and a towing path suitable for horses. The Dadfords, who were engineers on the Trent and Mersey Canal, estimated the cost at £20,000, but the proposal was opposed by landowners and merchants on the river, while the Navigator, published in 1788, estimated that around 500 men who were employed to bow-haul boats would have lost their jobs. Agreement could not be reached, and so William Jessop was asked to re-assess the situation. He suggested that dredging, deepening, and restricting the width of the channel could make significant improvements to the navigable depth, although cuts would be required at Wilford, Nottingham Bridge and Holme. This proposal formed the basis for an Act of Parliament obtained in 1783, which also allowed a horse towing path to be built. The work was completed by September 1787, and dividends of 5 per cent were paid on the capital in 1786 and 1787, rising to 7 per cent, the maximum allowed by the Act, after that. Jessop carried out a survey for a side cut and lock at Sawley in 1789, and it was built by 1793.[7]

At the beginning of the 1790s, the Navigation faced calls for a bypass of the river at Nottingham, where the passage past Trent Bridge was dangerous, and the threat of a canal running parallel to the river, which was proposed by the Erewash and the Trent and Mersey Canal companies. In order to retain control of the whole river, they supported the inclusion of the Beeston Cut in the bill for the Nottingham Canal, which prevented the Erewash Canal company from getting permission to build it, and then had the proposal removed from the Nottingham Canal company's bill in return for their support of the main bill. The parallel canal was thwarted in May 1793, when they negotiated the withdrawal of the canal bill by proposing a thorough survey of the river which would lead to their own legislation being put before parliament. William Jessop carried out the survey, assisted by Robert Whitworth, and they published their report on 8 July 1793. The major proposals included a cut and lock at Cranfleet, where the River Soar joins the Trent, a cut, locks and weirs at Beeston, which would connect with the Nottingham Canal at Lenton, and a cut and lock at Holme Pierrepont. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1794, and the existing proprietors subscribed the whole of the authorised capital of £13,000 themselves.[9]

The aim of the improvements was to increase the minimum depth from 2 feet to 3 feet. By early 1796, the Beeston cut was operational, with the Cranfleet cut following in 1797, and the Holme cut in 1800, with the whole works being finished by 1 September 1801. The cost exceeded the authorised capital by a large margin, with the extra being borrowed, but the company continued to pay a 7 per cent dividend on the original shares and on those created to finance the new work. In 1823 and again in 1831, the Newark Navigation Commissioners proposed improvements to the river, so that larger vessels could be accommodated, but the Trent Navigation Company were making a healthy profit, and did not see the need for such work.[9]


The arrival of the railways resulted in significant change for the Company. Tolls were reduced to retain the traffic, wages were increased to retain the workforce, and they sought amalgamation with a railway company. The Nottingham and Gainsborough Railway offered £100 per share in 1845, but this was rejected. Tolls fell from £11,344 in 1839 to £3,111 in 1855. Many of the connecting waterways were bought by railway companies, and gradually fell into disrepair. In an attempt to improve the situation, the Company toyed with the idea of cable-hauled steam tugs, but instead purchased a conventional steam dredger and some steam tugs. The cost of improvements was too great for the old company, and so an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1884 to restructure the company and raise additional capital. Failure to raise much of the capital resulted in another Act being obtained in 1887, with similar aims and similar results. A third Act of 1892 reverted the name to the Trent Navigation Company, and this time, some improvements were carried out.[10]

With traffic still between 350,000 and 400,000 tons each year, Frank Rayner became the engineer in 1896, and the company were persuaded that major work was necessary if the navigation was to survive. The engineer for the Manchester Ship Canal, Sir Edward Leader Williams, was commissioned to survey the river, while negotiations with the North Staffordshire Railway, who owned the Trent and Mersey Canal and had maintained its viability, ensured that some of the clauses from previous Acts of Parliament did not prevent progress. A plan to build six locks between Cromwell and Holme, and to dredge this section to ensure it was 60 feet wide and 5 feet deep was authorised by an Act of Parliament obtained in 1906. Raising finance was difficult, but some was subscribed by the chairman and vice-chairman, and construction of Cromwell Lock began in 1908. The Newark Navigation Commissioners financed improvements to Newark Town lock at the same time, and dredging of the channel was largely funded by selling the 400,000 tons of gravel removed from the river bed. At 188 by 30 feet, Cromwell lock could hold a tug and three barges, and was opened on 22 May 1911. The transport of petroleum provided a welcome increase to trade on the river, but little more work was carried out before the onset of the First World War.[10]


Increased running costs after the First World War could not be met by increasing the tolls, as the company had no statutory powers to do so, and so suggested that the Ministry of Transport should take over the navigation, which they did from 24 September 1920. Tolls were raised, and a committee recommended improvements to the river. Nottingham Corporation invested some £450,000 on building the locks authorised by the 1906 Act, starting with Holme lock on 28 September 1921, and finishing with Hazelford lock, which was formally opened by Neville Chamberlain on 25 June 1926. A loan from Nottingham Corporation and a grant from the Unemployment Grants Committee enabled the Company to rebuild Newark Nether lock, which was opened on 12 April 1926.[10]

In the early 1930s, the Company considered enlarging the navigation above Nottingham, in conjunction with improvements to the River Soar Navigation, between Trent Lock and Leicester. There were also negotiations with the London and North Eastern Railway, who were responsible for the Nottingham Canal between Trent Lock and Lenton. Plans for new larger locks at Beeston and Wilford were dropped when the Trent Catchment Board opposed them. The Grand Union declined to improve the Soar Navigation, because the Trent Navigation Company could not guarantee 135,000 tons of additional traffic. The Company also considered a plan to reopen the river to Burton, which would have involved the rebuilding of Kings Mills lock, and the construction of four new locks. An extra set of gates were added to Cromwell lock in 1935, effectively creating a second lock, while the Lenton to Trent Lock section was leased from the LNER in 1936, and ultimately purchased in 1946.[10]

Frank Rayner, who had been with the Company since 1887, and had served as its engineer and later general manager since 1896, died in December 1945. Sir Ernest Jardine, who as vice-chairman had partly funded the first lock at Cromwell in 1908, died in 1947, and the company ceased to exist in 1948, when the waterways were nationalised. The last act of the directors was to pay a 7.5 per cent dividend on the shares in 1950. Having taken over responsibility for the waterway, the Transport Commission enlarged Newark Town lock in 1952, and the flood lock at Holme was removed to reduce the risk of flooding in Nottingham. More improvements followed between 1957 and 1960. The two locks at Cromwell became one, capable of holding eight Trent barges, dredging equipment was updated, and several of the locks were mechanised. Traffic rose from 620,000 tons in 1951 to 1,017,356 tons in 1964, but all of this was below Nottingham. Commercial carrying above Nottingham ceased during the 1950s, to be replaced by pleasure cruising.[10]

Although commercial use of the river has declined, the lower river between Cromwell and Nottingham can still take large motor barges up to around 150 ft in length[6] with a capacity of approx 300 tons.[11] Barges still transport gravel from pits at Girton and Besthorpe to Goole and Hull.[12]

Navigation today

The river is legally navigable for some 117 miles below Burton upon Trent. However, for practical purposes, navigation above the southern terminus of the Trent and Mersey Canal (at Shardlow) is conducted on the canal, rather than on the river itself. The Trent and Mersey Canal connects the Trent to the Potteries and on to Runcorn and the Bridgewater Canal.

Down-river of Shardlow, the non-tidal river is navigable as far as the Cromwell Lock near Newark, except in Nottingham (Beeston Cut & Nottingham Canal) and just west of Nottingham, where there are two lengths of canal, Sawley and Cranfleet cuts. Below Cromwell lock, the Trent is tidal, and therefore only navigable by experienced, well-equipped boaters. Navigation lights and a proper anchor and cable are compulsory. Associated British Ports, the navigation authority for the river from Gainsborough to Trent Falls, insist that anyone in charge of a boat must be experienced at navigating in tidal waters.[6]

Experience is especially necessary at Trent Falls, a lonely spot where the Trent joins the Yorkshire Ouse, to form the Humber estuary. The timetables of flows and tides of the two rivers and the estuary are very complex here, and vary through the lunar cycle. Boats coming down the Trent on an ebbing tide often have to anchor or beach themselves (sometimes in the dark) at Trent Falls to wait for the next incoming tide to carry them up the Ouse.

Trent Aegir

The Trent Aegir seen from West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire 20 September 2005

At certain times of the year, the lower tidal reaches of the Trent experience a moderately large tidal bore (up to five feet high), commonly known as the Trent Aegir.

The Aegir occurs when a high spring tide meets the downstream flow of the river.[13] The funnel shape of the river mouth exaggerates this effect, causing a large wave to travel upstream as far as Gainsborough, and sometimes beyond. The aegir cannot travel much beyond Gainsborough as the shape of the river reduces the aegir to little more than a ripple, and weirs north of Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire stop its path completely.

North/South divide

The Trent historically marked the boundary between Northern England and Southern England. For example, the administration of Royal Forests was subject to a different Justice in Eyre north and south of the river, and the jurisdiction of the mediæval Council of the North started at the Trent. Some traces of the former division remain: the Trent marks the boundary between the provinces of two English Kings of Arms; the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms with jurisdiction in Ulster and north of the Trent and the Clarenceux King of Arms south of the Trent.

Beeston Weir
Barton Ferry in 1949

Places along the Trent

Cities and towns on or close to the river include:

Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre in Nottingham on the River Trent

Power stations

The River and Trent Valley provides cooling water to a large number of current coal-fired and later gas-fired electricity power stations along its route. Starting from the source to the sea, those adjacent power stations that continue to use, or have used the river as their source of coolant are: Meaford Power Station, Rugeley Power Station, Drakelow Power Station, Willington Power Station, Castle Donington Power Station, Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Wilford Power Station, Staythorpe Power Station, High Marnham Power Station, Cottam Power Station, West Burton Power Station and Keadby Power Station. Fuel in the form of coal was mainly supplied from the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire coalfields by way of Toton Marshalling Yards—this being now replaced by imported coal brought by ship from abroad.

There is one hydroelectric power station on the river, at Beeston Weir.


Among its tributaries are:

Outside links


  1. University of Wales Online Dictionary
  2. Charles Barber, The English language: a historical introduction, p101, (Cambridge University Press 1993), ISBN 978-0-52127-85709
  3. 3.0 3.1 Koch, J.T. (2005:1512) Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia ABC-CLIO Ltd (15 Mar 2006); ISBN 978-1851094400
  4. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt.I., Act III, Sc. I
  5. 5.0 5.1 Charles Hadfield, The Canals of the West Midlands, p15-17, (David and Charles 1985), ISBN 0-7153-8644-1
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Jane Cumberlidge, Inland Waterways of Great Britain, 7th Ed., p230, (Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson 1998), ISBN 0-85288-355-2
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Charles Hadfield, The Canals of the East Midlands, p42-46, (David and Charles 1970), ISBN 0-7153-4871-X
  8. C. C. Owen, Burton on Trent: the development of industry (Phillimore, Chichester 1978), 13–20.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Charles Hadfield, The Canals of the East Midlands, p74-78, (David and Charles 1970), ISBN 0-7153-4871-X
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Charles Hadfield, The Canals of the East Midlands, pp198-207, (David and Charles 1970), ISBN 0-7153-4871-X
  11. British Waterways, River Trent Water Freight Feasibility Study, p11, accessed 9 January 2010
  12. Nicholson Waterways Guide, Vol 6, (2006), Harper Collins Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-0-00-721114-2
  13. Richard Stone, The River Trent, (2005), p9, p124, Phillimore & Co Ltd, ISBN 1-86077-356-7