The coastline of East Anglia has always been in a state of flux, and the present topography of the coastline between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, defined by Breydon Water and the ancient former Isle of Lothingland suggests that the waters of the Bure, Yare, Wensum and Waveney have, over the past two thousand years, taken various routes to the sea. Evidence for this in pre-Roman times is the existence of Lake Lothing to the south of Lowestoft, which Copinger says represents the old southern channel of the Waveney. This would have made a navigable passage from Lowestoft as far inland as Harleston. Copinger points to the existence of a muddy creek he named ‘Kirkley Ham’ as evidence of this former channel. On the 1905 OS map of Lowestoft, Kirkley Ham is marked as a small muddy southern inlet just inside the Inner Harbour. Late 18th century engravings show boats moored here not far from St Peter’s Church in Kirkley. The implication is that it was the basis for Kirkley once having direct access to the sea. In post-Roman times it has been suggested that there were two main channels, north (Caistor) and south (Gorleston), which connected the Breydon estuary with the sea. The northern channel, variously known as Cockle Water or Grubbs Haven, became silted up in the Dark Ages. Gillingwater in his historical account of the town of Lowestoft summarised the topographical processes as follows.
“The mouth of the former of these channels being entirely choked up by the north east winds, the whole stream fell afterwards into the latter and this last mentioned channel having its entrance so frequently blocked up by the sand banks formed by these winds that its course was greatly altered and extended a considerable distance to the south of Gorleston before it was able to discharge itself into the sea. These obstructions still continuing, the mouth of the haven kept proceeding still further to the south till at last it reached even to the south of Corton before it was able to force its passage into the ocean” During the Dark Ages a sandbank gradually accumulated between Caistor and Gorleston and by Domesday it was permanently above sea level and had been settled by a small community of 17 burgesses and 24 fishermen. This grew under the ownership and patronage of the King to become the port of Yarmouth the most important storm shelter for vessels plying between the Tyne and the Thames.
Yarmouth Haven therefore consisted of the combined channel of the four principle rivers draining Breydon Water and was dependent on the sea breaking through the bank to create a natural navigable channel. We return to Gillingwater’s description of the political situation, an interaction between families dependent on seafaring and the powerful uncontrollable physical forces which relentlessly moved sand and gravel southwards along the East Coast. The mouth of the haven from these obstructions being carried thus far to the south and having such numerous sands and hollows formed therein especially between the 10th and 20th years of the reign of Edward III that its navigation became extremely dangerous and but few ships of burthen could enter there with safety and consequently was so detrimental to Yarmouth that it greatly affected the trade which for many years had subsisted there as well as the commerce of the adjacent country. Whereupon the bailiffs burgesses and commonality of Great Yarmouth presented a petition to king Edward III in the 20th year of his reign for liberty to cut a new mouth to the haven nearer to Yarmouth than it was at that time, which petition being granted, a new communication with the ocean was accordingly opened and confined with piers opposite to the parish of Corton. This great undertaking was accomplished at an immense expense and was confined to this place for the space of twenty six years when it began again to be so much choked up with sand that no vessels of any called at Kirkley Road which was near the mouth of the said haven". "Yarmouth pleaded for a charter to unite Kirkley Road with the port and haven of Yarmouth for ever”.
The plea of the Yarmouth burgesses was granted in 1660. Regarding the fate of the Corton channel, which by the 14th century had became Yarmouth’s greatly elongated Haven, Suckling (1909) says ‘

“Corton is now situated upon a high hill and commanding cliff, and gives name to an anchorage much frequented by coasting vessels. Though not many centuries since it was an inland parish having the village of Newton interposed between it and the sea. The ruined church stands within a quarter of a mile of the beach and as the cliff is composed of a sandy loam, continually undermined by the sea it may in process of time share the fate of Newton". Tradition assigns the period of its greatest importance to the 13th century when the haven of Yarmouth extended nearly as far south as this village.
The population of Corton in 1841 was 442 souls but its more flourishing state in ancient days is argued from the size of its now ruined church, and the foundations of many old houses which are frequently discovered. The village of Newton, which formerly laid eastward of Corton, is now entirely destroyed by the sea, except for a small piece of land which retains the name of Newton Green. It was probably always an inconsiderable village and is chiefly remembered in local history by its connection with the mouth of Yarmouth Haven, which in the fourteenth century discharged itself into the ocean at this place
Newton was recorded as a small community of farmers in Domesday. In summary, it seems that the entrance to Yarmouth Haven had moved as far south as Corton by 1408 and this is accounted to be the third of several entrances of the Haven that came and went over the centuries.
By the mid 16th century Yarmouth was committed to excavating its seventh haven. A Dutch engineer Joas Johnson was in charge of the work to move the entrance back northwards to Gorleston, a task that was completed in 1613. Since then, this opening to the sea, much closer to Yarmouth’s town quay, has taken the discharge of Breydon Water to the present day. The digging of Yarmouth’s seventh haven was the end of a protracted dispute between Yarmouth and Lowestoft throughout the 17th century regarding the right to collect tolls on all herrings landed. The economies of both towns were dependent on North Sea fresh herrings and the movement of Yarmouth Haven southwards had inevitably increased the toll income of Lowestoft to the detriment of Yarmouth. This dispute was resolved in Yarmouth’s favour by a House of Lords ruling, which gave the town the right to collect tolls on landings within seven miles of Yarmouth. This was the distance measured from the crane quay of Yarmouth to the outskirts of Corton. As far as the Government was concerned Lowestoft was an outstation economically subservient to the legal rights of Yarmouth.
In terms of the influence of the vagaries of offshore currents on the local politics of trade, the rivalry between Yarmouth and Lowestoft was similar to the relative economic positions of the ports of Dunwich, Walberswick and Southwold further down the coast regarding competition between communities for control of the shifting mouth of the River Blyth, which they shared . For example, the effect of the new opening of Yarmouth Haven at Gorleston was to finally isolate Lowestoft, with its manorial connection with Corton, from maritime and river trade. This connection had been the basis of very profitable merchant enterprises in Lowestoft when the entrance to Yarmouth Haven was much closer to Lowestoft. Evidence for the prosperity of Lowestoft during the 15th century is the enlargement of its parish church of St Margaret’s.

These latter economic developments raise the question as to whether Lowestoft ever had its own harbour? In particular, did the River Waveney ever enter the sea through Lake Lothing?
The possibility was considered by George Edwards of Carlton Colville (1879) who distilled information from previous writers regarding estuarine silting, motion of the beach, and sea breaches of the shingle bank. He concluded that the answer regarding the existence of a recent major Lowestoft Haven was in the negative. However, further back in time Suckling takes the view that there was a relict passage of the Waveney at Kirkley Ham which: “gradually contracted but preserved a small communication with the sea, which proved unreliable whenever there was any unusual agitation’. To prevent inundation in tempestuous weather a breakwater was constituted but subsequently fell into decay for in the early part of the 17th century the sea entirely withdrew from the mouth of Lake Lothing and a firm narrow isthmus was formed which is able to resist the most impetuous attacks from the ocean.”
It was not until 1827 that work began on William Cubitt’s proposal to engineer a breach along the line of the parish boundary between Lowestoft and Kirkley, to the east of Lake Lothing, in order to gain permanent access from the lake to the sea. The objective was to make Lake Lothing a saltwater harbour for water-borne trade between Lowestoft and Norwich. This scheme was the final stage of a plan to link Norwich by water to the sea, a project, which was initiated in 1814 by the Norwich and Lowestoft Navigation Bill, promoted by the Norwich maltster Alderman Crisp Brown. Brown’s previous attempt to take a sea going waterway from Norwich through Breydon Water was opposed by Yarmouth townsfolk who gained much from the traditional transhipment of goods to and from Norwich by river wherries. This block to Norwich’s ambitions, together with the high port tolls of Yarmouth, had stimulated Norwich merchants to search for an alternative outlet to the sea.
Lowestoft was then still part of the manor of Corton and the manorial court governed the affairs of Lowestoft through the Court Leet, which was held there until 1770. A key event in the economic development of Lowestoft was its breakaway from the manorial controls of Corton. This was eventually achieved through the mental incapacity of two successive lords of the manor of Corton that led in 1810 to twentyfour Commissioners becoming the elected representatives of Lowestoft to administer their town’s affairs. The Norwich and Lowestoft Navigation Bill was their first opportunity to take the future of the town into their own hands. Lake Lothing, now Lowestoft’s inner harbour, was officially opened in 1831 as a 160 acre salt water haven. In 1833 the collier Luna completed the first continuous voyage from Newcastle via Lowestoft to the centre of Norwich.
This sets the scene for the ambitions of Samuel Peto for the economic development of Lowestoft. This idea came to occupy his thoughts around 1840 when he took up residence at Norwich to overseee the construction of a railway between the city and Yarmouth. At that time there was only one line in East Anglia linking Colchester to London. Weston, C. & Weston, S (1994) ‘Claimed by the sea’ Wood Green Publications