River Arun

Vintage picture of river Arun

River Arun is the longest river entirely within Sussex at a length of 37 miles (60km). Its source is in St Leonard’s Forest in the Weald, to the south of Horsham. It follows an S-shaped course to Littlehampton on the English Channel. It is reputedly one of the fastest flowing rivers in the country. 

Evidence suggests that around 150 AD the river was called Trisantonis but later changed to the River of Arundel in the middle-ages. Between 1500 and 1530 the river changed course to its present position – it was connected to the Adur and did not have its mouth in Littlehampton. Over time the estuary become blocked causing the separation of rivers.  


History of the river

From the 1540s until the 1840s the river was used as Arundel’s port, but the arrival of the railways and changes to coastal shipping made Littlehampton the principal port town. 

In the 19th century, The Wey and Arun Canal and Portsmouth and Arundel Canal were built which established an inland route for trade between the south coast and London. This increased Littlehampton’s importance as a centre for trade and industry. Both canal systems closed to freight towards the end of the century as they were not profitable. 

Today, Littlehampton Harbour Board looks after the river between the mouth and Arundel Bridge. Commercially, the harbour caters for recreational activities such as motorised leisure craft, kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding, dragon boat racing, and fishing.  

The local authority is named after the river that flows through it. 

Fishing boat in Littlehampton Harbour, England
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How long is the River Arun?

37 miles

Swing Bridge

Before the installation of a bridge, small ferry boats would transport travellers either side of the river, or travellers would need to cross the river upstream at Arundel. This isolated Littlehampton from the communities to the west of the Arun. Over time, with the increase in passengers and industry on the wharf, it became apparent a more efficient means of transport was needed. A bridge was proposed but there were objections concerned about it as a navigational hazard. Instead, a chain ferry big enough to transport horses and carriages was created in 1825 to supplement the rowboat service. This remained in operation until 1908, when a bridge was finally built. The opening ceremony was such an event that the day was declared a public holiday with around 2,000 children given free tickets to a tea party to celebrate the occasion.

A new road and a permanent bridge were built a little upstream in 1973. A footbridge with a retractable central span replaced the swingbridge in 1981 and remains in operation on the site of the old bridge today.

Images Courtesy of Littlehampton Museum 
More about The Swing Bridge
Victorian horse and carriages carrying passengers over the Swing Bridge in Littlehampton, West Sussex
Attendants at The Swing Bridge across the River Arun in Littlehampton, West Sussex
The Swing Bridge across the River Arun in Littlehampton, West Sussex
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Before the bridge was built how did people cross the river?

By small ferry boats

The Portsmouth & Arundel Canal

The Portsmouth & Arundel Canal was built in 1823 connecting Portsmouth to Ford and formed a wider network that linked to London. It cost £170,000 to construct and was designed to transport small ships of up to 150 tons, but its short life was marred by various problems. It was a commercial disaster and was abandoned by 1855. Sections of the network have been restored and still exist to this day.  

More about The Portsmouth & Arundel Canal

The Waterways

Another canal system called the Wey & Arun Canal linked Pulborough with Guildford and opened in 1816. The waterways joined the Arun to provide a secure inland navigational route for trade between Portsmouth and London. However, the existence of a canal route to London encouraged coastal traders to use Littlehampton harbour and tranship to barges to travel inland. This led to the rapid expansion of Littlehampton’s harbour activity and final decline of Arundel as a port.

The railway company opened up a branch line along the quay at Littlehampton in 1863 to permit transfer of goods from ship directly to train. The competition this represented took its toll and the canal ceased to be operated commercially in 1871.

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How much did the Portsmouth & Arundel Canal cost to build?



River Arun has been used as a harbour for centuries with evidence of use in Roman times. Originally Arundel was the major port, not least because ships could be protected from possible attack. The creation of a coastal battery at the mouth of the Arun in 1769 provided protection to Littlehampton and gradually coastal traffic used Littlehampton in preference to Arundel. The opening of the Wey and Arun canal in 1816 and then the arrival of the railways in mid-century accelerated the decline of Arundel as a port and Littlehampton grew in importance.

Over the years work has been done to maintain Littlehampton harbour. The banks were reinforced and jetties built out into the sea to protect the river mouth. Access suffers from the coastal drift of shingle across the river mouth which creates a bar and restricts traffic at low water.

Today, the harbour is managed by Littlehampton Harbour Board who are responsible for safety, navigation, and some of the harbour’s infrastructure.

Littlehampton eventually lost out to the bigger and deeper harbours at Portsmouth, Shoreham, Newhaven and elsewhere as it is not able to accommodate the much larger ships used nowadays. The railway between Brighton and Portsmouth bypasses Littlehampton, which also reduces opportunities for trade. The harbour now focusses on, leisure activities as commercial trade has declined. The harbour has the space and facilities to offer excellent moorings for small boats.

The first lifeboat station opened in Littlehampton in 1884. In 1967, the first ever Blue Peter lifeboat, Blue Peter 1, paid for by donations raised on the popular children’s TV show, was stationed in a garage on the east bank of the river Arun. In 2016, after 49 years, the Blue Peter era at Littlehampton came to an end. The original boat has been replaced three times, funded by subsequent Blue Peter appeals, each boat bearing the same moniker, Blue Peter.

In 1972, a Marina was developed on the West Bank of the harbour. The east bank of the harbour underwent a significant regeneration scheme from 2001 to 2003. New public walkways, moorings, lifeboat station, Harbour Board offices, and residential properties completely redeveloped the waterfront. Before, the area had become derelict industrial wasteland. It is now an attractive and welcoming area for residents and visitors to enjoy.

Old black and white photograph of Littlehampton harbour with a ship sailing in
Littlehampton Harbour with promenade and boats
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When was the Swing Bridge demolished?



Shipbuilding began in Littlehampton in the mid-1600s when locally built sailing ships were exempt from anchorage and bondage (a tax) on their first voyage.

Littlehampton became increasingly important in the 19th century when Jeffrey Carver and John Corney opened a shipyard in 1804. Other companies soon followed. The West Bank became accessible with the opening of the chain ferry, and one of the larger shipbuilders, Harveys, established its yard on the Clymping side of the river. Two generations of Harveys ran the shipyard and were also prominent in the town’s civic life. By 1851, one in five townsmen were employed either in the shipping or shipbuilding industries.

During the late 1800s shipbuilding flourished in the harbour and grew to its height in 1880. Littlehampton continued its shipbuilding tradition into the 20th century, but the era of sailing ships gradually declined with the arrival of the steamship. In the first half of the century one of the most influential boat-builders was Hillyard’s which built pleasure yachts. The company continued here until 2009 producing more than 850 yachts which are now found all over the world.

The other major shipbuilder in the twentieth century was Osbournes which specialised in large motorboats. It built small naval vessels in both world wars and also a number of lifeboats.

Launch of The Wessex ship from Harveys shipyard, Littlehampton
Old photo of the harbour in Littlehampton, West Sussex
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How many boats did Hillyard’s build?

More than 850

Littlehampton-Honfleur Ferry

An across-channel ferry service operated in the 19th century between Littlehampton and Honfleur, France. The railway used to have a spur along the bank of the river to make the transportation of goods from rail to boat, quayside, easier. The operator of the line ran a ferry service on River Road – where the Steam Packet pub is – that transported both freight and passengers. The original service ran only twice a week but the frequency later went up to four crossings a week due to increased demand. The ferry ceased operating from Littlehampton in the 1880s, transferring to Newhaven where it continues to operate. 

The Honfleur Steamer ferry loading at Littlehampton Wharf
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Where did the ferry go from?

Honfleur, France

Sailing Ships & Seafaring

Before 1500, ships only traded around the coast and to Europe. After those improvements in ship design and navigational techniques enabled Littlehampton and other parts to develop worldwide trading links to South America, Africa, the Far East and Australasia. Britain’s shipping and the Navy led to the development of the British Empire.   

The 19th century was the high point in British sailing history. Littlehampton was a busy and important port throughout this period. It was at this time that Joseph Robinson set up his shipping business in Littlehampton. The company built a 3-masted barque, Atossa, which sailed from Littlehampton to Brooklyn, New York, in May 1888. Robinsons ships sailed from Littlehampton to many parts of the world including South Africa, India, North America and the West Indies.  

Harvey’s Trossachs was used to take the first shepherds and sheep to the Falkland Islands. The Ebenezer delivered coal to the town from Sunderland. It was owned by the Robinson family and became Littlehampton’s last sailing ship.  

Generations have gone to see on British merchant ships. It was a difficult life for the crews leaving Littlehampton. Work on board was physically hard and often very dangerous. Long voyages of up to nine months, and lack of contact, made family life especially difficult. Teamwork was vital for keeping the ship on course and afloat in all weather conditions. Any member of the crew who did not ‘know the ropes’ or could not work at the top of a mast on the heaving deck was of little use. 

Historical Three Masted Schooner Tall Ship in the North Sea - 19th Century
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What was the name of the ship that delivered coal to Littlehampton?

The Ebenezer


For over 150 years Littlehampton was an important trading point. In its heyday the port saw ships travelling to and from all parts of the world. The most profitable worldly trade was in wool from the many sheep grazed along the South Downs. Shipments of sheep and wool came in and out of Littlehampton Harbour throughout the 19th century.  

Trade grew in the mid-1850s and it was at this time that the Robinson family set up their famous shipping business. A sawmill handled the timber brought into the port and corn, butter, cheese, and fruit were also imported. Coastal colliers ran from the North East of England, carrying coal to the town during the late 1880s. The coal trade survived up until 1952.  

During the 1880s a further Wharf, known as the Baltic Wharf, was built to deal with grain, and timber from Scandinavia.  

Fishing was also profitable. In 1869 there were 189 fishing boats registered in the port, manned by 353 men and 11 boys. Fishermen would catch varieties of fish, lobster and crab in the English Channel throughout the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The fish caught were sold in local markets or small stores.  

Brickmaking was recorded in Littlehampton in the 1800s.  

Some commercial fishing has continued but port trade has nonetheless reduced. The harbour now increasingly focuses on leisure activities. Diving is popular off the coast, with chartered boats operating out of the harbour for diving enthusiasts. 

Old black and white photograph of Littlehampton harbour with a ship sailing in
Sheep in the Sussex Countryside, the South Downs
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Where did the wool come from that was sent from Littlehampton?

The South Downs

Littlehampton Town Centre

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