It is well known, for instance, that today the main course of the River Trent actually flows away from Newark in a wide arc some distance to the west, passing through the villages of Averham and Kelham.
Equally it is held in some quarters that the stretch of water, canalised in 1772, and flowing northwards beneath the walls of Newark Castle, draws most of its water from the River Devon at Farndon (beside Farndon Marina). Indeed, C.R. Salisbury writing in Vol.87 (1993) of the Transactions of the Thoroton Society (p.56), suggests that up until the 12th century this channel was fed exclusively by the Devon.
Such a situation may, therefore, prompt the question as to whether, far from being styled ‘on-Trent’, should Newark actually be known as ‘on-Devon’ ?
One of Newark’s earliest historians, R.P. Shilton, writing in 1820, suggests (albeit, one suspects, somewhat facetiously) that the only reason why the super-addition ‘on-Trent’ was adopted was out of civic pride; “The Devon,” he writes, “was useful in its way for turning the mill which supplied the inhabitants with food, but not thought sufficiently respectable when a superior was in view”.
The Old Trent Dyke : Fortunately for the integrity of the existing name, however, there is some evidence to suggest that the town did indeed, at one time, truly stand “on Trent” – or at least respectably close to it.
It comes in the form of a document written by Thomas Heron (whose family had been associated with Newark for many generations) and which was presented to another of Newark’s pioneering historians, William Dickinson.
In this manuscript, quoted extensively by Dickinson in his History of Newark (1805), Heron states that although we now recognise the main flow of the Trent as lying through Averham and Kelham, the river did, at one time, actually run much closer to the town – in fact at a distance of just 345 yards from the walls of Newark Castle.
This distance, when measured today, shows that Heron is placing the route of the former Trent as lying approximately in what we know as the Old Trent Dyke – now only discernable as a narrow meandering depression – but clearly marked (and named) on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (1 inch = 1 mile).
Modern research shows that the amplitude of the Dyke’s meanders could never have carried the full volume of the Trent, part of which must always have flowed down the gore which then, as now, joined the Devon 300 yards upstream of Newark Castle.
The remainder of the flow, however, could quite easily have passed along the Old Trent dyke, meandering northwards past Millgate and (according to Sanderson’s map of 1835) joining the flow of the Devon opposite the castle
River Trent via Averham & Kelham : The means by which the Trent changed its course and began to send most of its flow via Averham and Kelham (thereby starving the Old Trent Dyke) is described in most picturesque terms by the Heron manuscript referred to above.
Up to the early 16th century, says Heron, the route now taken by the Trent through Averham and Kelham was occupied by only a small brook. This, however, proved insufficient to power the watermills belonging to the influential Sutton family located at Averham. Accordingly (continues Heron) “a cut was made from the Trent near Farndon to the brook, which gave a turn to the whole current…. It then forced its way and formed that channel which is now seen” (ie via Averham and Kelham).
There is no doubt that the technology existed to perform such a feat at this time, and if Heron is correct in his description then the increase in flow through Averham was so great that existing bridges along the new course of the Trent were quickly swamped.
To preserve the vital arteries across the river at Kelham and Muskham landowners in these villages were obliged to construct new, stouter bridges straight away.
Turning the river towards Averham and Kelham, however, had adverse effects on the flow past Newark. The mills along Millgate are reported to have been deprived of power to turn their machinery and, says Heron, the millers instituted a lawsuit against the Sutton family demanding reinstatement of their flow. This, Heron dates, as some time during the reign of Elizabeth I.
The court hearing this case found in favour of the petitioners and directed that the Sutton family should build a weir across part of the new river to ensure that some portion of the flow was directed back past Newark. This was duly carried out and the construction named Upper Weir.
Regarding the true composition of the waters that have since flowed past Newark beneath the castle wars, Heron is in no doubt: “the river which at this day runs under the walls of the castle improperly called the Trent, is the Snyte (now called the Smite) or Devon. From Muskham bridge the Devon divides the parishes of Newark and Farndon, where at a small distance, meeting the branch of the Trent from the Upper Weir near Farndon, they take their course in the old bed of the Devon, by the side of the town of Newark”.
It is from this argument that Newark’s earliest historians – William Dickinson and R.P. Shilton – unite to claim that, in the interests of geographical accuracy, the town should be referred to as Newark-on-Devon.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Newark Advertiser newspaper on 26th November 1993 (p.24)