Freedom News

Boaters cleansed from waterways as authorities bow to rowing clubs

The River Lee is one of the largest rivers in London and has long been a multi-use space shared by all kinds of craft. In recent years, however, the Canal and River Trust (CRT) – the charity that manages the river and the majority of Britain’s canals – has emphasised the rights of some river users over others.

This has become particularly evident as the Trust attempts to force through bans on mooring on the site of its so-called “Water Safety Zones” near two rowing clubs. These two zones – one on the Lower Lee, running through Hackney and Tottenham in east London, and the other further north in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire – will prevent itinerant boat dwellers from mooring in these locations for the 14 days which apply elsewhere on the waterways.

The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) represents liveaboard boat dwellers in Britain and has been campaigning against these zones since CRT attempted to enforce them without consultation in early 2021. The CRT claims that these zones are merely the enforcement of ‘existing rules and regulations’ and that these ‘no moorings zones’ have historically never been moored – however, historical research clearly shows that this claim is false.

The Lee Navigation is among the widest waterways in the country and there is scant evidence that moored boats cause collisions. Boats and large barges have been using and mooring on the Lee for many years, including in the exact places where CRT wants to ban moored boats. The photos below show boats and industrial barges moored at some of these very locations on the Lower Lee in east London.

Figure 1, from between 1950 to 1969, shows barges unloading at Hackney Power Station, near Millfields Park in Clapton, now the site of a recycling centre. Two stretches of canal here are threatened with restriction under the Trust’s so-called “Safety Zones”, where previously widebeam barges have moored for access.

Figure 1: Hackney Power Station, Millfields 1950-69

Judging from other photos from this period (fig. 2, 3, 4), this section of the Lee Navigation near the former power station has been used by considerably larger boats than tend to operate on the river today.

Not only this, but Lee Rowing Club, some of the most vocal proponents of the “Safety Zones”, operated on the navigation during these years, when timber and coal barges were evidently on the water too. The waterways have been shared for some time and it’s unreasonable that this should change now.

Figure 2: Hackney Power Station, Millfields, 1950-69

Figure 3: Hackney Power Station, 1950-69

Figure 4: Hackney Power Station, 1950-69

In a later photograph from 1973 (fig. 5), a barge is visible moored on the inside of the shallow bend leading round to Millfields Park.

Figure 5: London Hackney Marshes 1973

The CRT claims that more “no mooring” sites are necessary for the safety of other canal users, such as rowers and kayakers, as they say collisions with powered boats have risen. However, a Freedom of Information request to the CRT by the NBTA revealed that the number of collisions between rowers and powered boats has actually fallen in recent years. In addition, if liveaboard boaters have to travel further to find a mooring, then there will be increased traffic in the very spots the CRT are focusing on.

Across from the Princess of Wales pub, where CRT is proposing no mooring sections, figure 6 shows barges double-moored on the offside. Before the Lea Bridge was constructed, the river was crossed at this site by Jeremy’s and Smith’s ferries as early as 1747, according to A History of the County of Essex: Vol. 6. Passenger boats were therefore mooring at this site more than 200 years ago.

Figure 6: The Lea Valley, River Lea

It seems unlikely that today’s rowers have it worse than those of the past either. The protagonist of Jerome K. Jerome’s classic 1889 novel ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)’, notes: “I determined to go in for rowing proper and joined one of the Lea boating clubs. Being out in a boat on the river Lea, especially on Saturday afternoons, soon makes you smart at handling craft, and spry at escaping being run down by roughs or swamped by barges; and it also affords plenty of opportunity for acquiring the most prompt and graceful method of lying down flat at the bottom of the boat so as to avoid being chucked out into the river by passing tow-lines.

The scene in figures 7 and 8 will be familiar as the view from the eastern bank of the river in Hackney Wick opposite Omega Works and looking north toward Barge East. This photo also dates from between 1950 and 1969, and shows wide-beam timber barges moored at a site which the Trust considers unfit for mooring of boats which are homes, but perfectly suitable for more lucrative restaurant boats and water sports landings.

Figure 7: Hackney Wick, 1950-69

The CRT continues to claim that canal boats and liveaboard boaters have not been able to moor in its “Water Safety Zones”, for the benefit of other users. Clearly, there have been large craft sharing the river with others for some decades now. Sharing the space, open dialogue and educating all river users on safe navigation seems a far better route to ensure safety then, rather than unfairly targeting one user group.

An example of CRT’s determination to destroy these historical mooring sites took place on 2nd February 2023 when the CRT began removing mooring rings and historic bollards in east London, giving boaters moored there less than 24 hours notice.

In a text message requesting the owners remove their boats, the CRT claimed the towpath at Marshgate Bridge 15, near Homerton, was already a ‘no mooring’ zone so they had no need to provide a suspension notice and that the boats were blocking navigation.

Figure 9:Homerton Bollards Before Removal, 2023

Figure10:Homerton Bollards After Removal, 2023

Frankie Perry was moored in the spot opposite Matchmaker’s Wharf when she received a text at 3pm on 1st February telling her that the mooring rings and bollards would be removed at 9am the next morning.

It didn’t occur to me that there were any mooring restrictions in place: there were no signs, it’s not by a bridge or bend, the navigation is wide, and there were mooring rings to tie up to. I find it very disappointing that the Trust is using its resources — to which our licence fees contribute — to actively remove mooring rings when there is so much infrastructure within the London network in need of repair or improvement.

Exactly one year earlier, a member of Lea Rowing Club was photographed in broad daylight removing four safety bars from the bank just outside the club up river in another so-called “Water Safety Zone”. The club is one of two rowing clubs that lie within these Zones and who have been pushing CRT to implement mooring restrictions for years. These bars were designed to help people out of the water in an emergency. Rather than prosecuting for criminal damage CRT released a statement saying they “have informed the Rowing Club that such actions are unacceptable.

The NBTA argue that they are further evidence of CRT’s plans to prioritise leisure over living on Britain’s waterways. 

In celebration and defence of boater’s way of life, the NBTA is holding a Boaters’ Spring Fayre community event at one of the key sites CRT are trying to erase mooring spaces from. All boaters and non-boaters are welcome on Sunday 14th May where music, children’s activities and stalls will fill the towpath at North Millfields Recreation Ground, also known as the Clapton S bend (E5 9PB). From 12 noon, the community will be celebrating their resolve at this key site of resistance on the River Lee where boats have moored safely for decades.

Figure11:Boaters Spring Fayre Poster

National Bargee Travellers Association

Image: Figure 8: Hackney Wick, 1950-69

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