I was searching for a precedent whereby an unelected self- appointed body had decided to seek to change the fortunes of the town, writes John Norman, of the Ipswich Society.

I refer to the Ipswich Visions Group who met recently in the university to agree common aims for a strategic direction that will move the town forward. It comprised members of Ipswich Central, Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, Greater Ipswich Chamber of Commerce, The New Anglia LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership), University Campus Suffolk and both the borough council and the county council (officers and elected members).

Collectively they have (eventually) created a list of 21 priorities for Ipswich, proposals for shopping, for town centre housing but mainly for better provisions for the private car (access and parking).

The precedent was back in 1836 when a new group, the Dock Commissioners, effectively took the lead on creating the Wet Dock under the noses of, and against the wishes of, some members of the River Commissioners.

Ransome had moved his foundry from Norwich to Ipswich in 1789 to take advantage of the tidal river and its close proximity to the North Sea. Ransome could import pig iron, coal and other raw materials much more easily into Ipswich than he could into Norwich but Ipswich was still a difficult port to enter. The meandering river, the sharp bends such as Back-Again Reach (off the Strand) and changes to the wind brought about by the wooded banks all combined to make sailing difficult, particularly when there was little water in which to manoeuvre.

In 1797 the River Commissioners appointed William Chapman to undertake a survey and make recommendations for improvements. Chapman suggested a ship canal to bypass the shallows and meanderings of the river between the quays and Downham Reach (off Woolverstone). This canal was to terminate in an 11-acre basin incorporating the existing quays.

Chapman also prepared an alternative, dredging to straighten out channels thus allowing the tide to flow into Ipswich. In the late 18th Century the river was shallow and difficult, trade was hampered by the lack of navigable passage other than at high tide and Ipswich was in decline, however neither of Chapman’s recommendation were acted upon.

The Quaker entrepreneurs were not happy; Ransome and his bankers, the Alexander’s, together with ship owners and merchants were keen to see the decline in trade reversed and to enable sea-going vessels to sail into Ipswich. They persuaded the River Commissioners to purchase a steam dredger (one of the first in the country) with which to excavate a straight channel and they contributed financially to its purchase in 1805. Over the next 20 years the steam dredger cut new channels which, once open, needed to be dredged regularly. Access by sea-going vessels into Ipswich steadily improved as did the fortunes of the town (and its merchants).

This work however had been all about the river, the quays were still subject to the comings and goings of the tide and vessels were limited to sailing only when the tide was high. What was needed was a floating harbour; that is one where vessels float irrespective of the state of the tide. The River Commissioners were reluctant to commit to such a scheme, unable to justify the necessary expenditure without a guaranteed return. However, not all of the commissioners were against change, no doubt because of their vested interests in Ipswich’s maritime activities.

In 1836 a new organisation was formed with the remit to propose an Act of Parliament, effectively spending the River Commissioners’ accumulated reserves for the building of a Wet Dock. This new organisation consisted of some of the key (Quaker) entrepreneurs, men like John Cobbold, James and Robert Ransome, George Hurwood (ER & F Turner), ship-builder William Bayley as well as bankers Richard and Dykes Alexander. This new committee became known as Dock Commissioners and they appointed Henry Palmer as engineer (Palmer was also engineer to the new docks at Neath, Port Talbot and Penzance and a founding member of the Institute of Civil Engineers).

Palmer designed an enclosed body of water of some 33 acres, with lock gates into the New Cut, the diverted waters of the River Gipping. While the Act of Parliament was being prepared Welham Clarke of the River Commissioners proposed to pay all of the incurred expenses of the new committee providing that they “throw the Dock Bill overboard”.

Needless to say such a motion was swiftly defeated and the River Commissioners never met again. The Dock Commissioners were successful in getting the act through Parliament, in raising the finances and building the largest enclosed dock behind tidal lock gates in the country.

The act was signed by Queen Victoria just ten days after her accession; the heady days of Victorian enterprise were under way.

[Source: Ipswich Icons: Early dock vision improved town’s trading fortunes (EADT) by John Norman]

Links: Ipswich Society Image Archive; Ipswich Maritime Trust; Ipswich Borough Council Waterfront Regeneration document

See also our page on the Ipswich Tidal barrier.