Samuel Armstrong: ‘Workhorse of the Orwell’

Samuel Armstrong – IMT Image Archive – David Mullett Collection

For many, the River Orwell looks unchanged. Its course, channels and the nature that inhabit the river look unchanged. Except of course, for the concrete Orwell Bridge running across the river. But since the early nineteenth century the Orwell has been dredged to allow bigger vessels up to the quays and wharves of Ipswich. Which were previously restricted due to silt blocking the winding channels up the river. The mud and silt collected was then used to fill in low ground around Ipswich, including Stoke and Pipers Vale.

Very little slit comes down the River Gipping into the River Orwell. The majority comes in with the tide from the North Sea and from the banks of the Orwell itself. As such constant dredging was and still is needed along the river. The focus of dredging was mainly to clear the channel, between Freston Reach and the Orwell Bridge. This is where the Samuel Armstrong came into its own, becoming the workhorse of the Orwell for over 30 years.

The Samuel Armstrong was not the first dredger employed by the Port of Ipswich to work on the river. In September 1805 the River Commissioners of Ipswich agreed to purchase a ‘Steam Dredging Engine’. One of the first steam dredgers to be put to work anywhere in Britain. Which was to follow plans to deepen the river and straighten the channels to enable vessels to reach the town. However, it suffered from long periods of maintenance during winter and costly repairs and parts. This meant there was more reliance on dredging and clearing mud placed on manual labourers working by hand. By 1817 though the repaired dredger excavated more than 35,000 tons in addition to that cleared by manual labour.

Samuel Armstrong c.1970 – IMT Image Archive – Ruth Serjeant Collection

Samuel Armstrong continued this work in the second half of the twentieth century, to keep the port accessible. It was the Ipswich Port Authority’s ‘grab hopper dredger’, built in 1956 by Thomas Reid & Son Ltd. Apart from going to the North Sea to dump mud and silt, it remained on the Orwell all its working life. It could load around 400 tons of mud in two hours and from the 1970s it started to dump mud and silt, around 35,000 tons a year, at Rough Towers just outside the Orwell Estuary.

There is one story told by Robert Simper, a local sailor and author, in his book ‘The River Orwell and the River Stour‘, that when the Samuel Armstrong first arrived in Ipswich, local dignitaries were welcomed on board for a demonstration. The visit was interrupted when an unexploded bomb was lifted aboard. Which had fallen in the Wet Dock during an air raid in the Second World War. As such the dignitaries had to abruptly leave, disappointed, as it was found just before they were to be served lunch.

Samuel Armstrong off Landguard Point – IMT Image Archive – David Mullett Collection

Today dredging is conducted by ABP, Harwich Haven Authority and their contractors. Who use a variety of methods to dredge the river and estuary including the use of suction dredgers. Environmental and ecological aspects are also taken into consideration, using more efficient and sustainable practises to keep port traffic moving and to look after the habitats and nature of the River Orwell.

If you have a local historic vessel or know anyone visiting Ipswich with a vessel and a story to tell. Then please get in contact with us and we may feature the vessel on our #VisitingVessels blog post series.

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