The fresh water springs attracted pre-Roman settlers. The river itself, running along the base of the higher land on which the Roman and early medieval inhabitants settled, was both a defensive barrier and a means of communication across and along its length.
These two images show the River Derwent running through Malton and Norton. One is a postcard taken from an original painting by AW Hardy in 1813. The other is an engraving of 1858 pasted into a scrapbook in the museum’s collection.
Navigable by small craft, it almost certainly influenced the Romans’ choice of the site. The water power to drive the mills was well appreciated, although in 1379 two hundred men rode to destroy the Priory mill dam blaming it for causing flooding up-river.
Weirs could be a nuisance but small vessels continued to be able to reach Malton, and the river played its part in the medieval wool trade.
In 1701, ‘the Gentlemen, Freeholders, Mercers, Drapers, Grocers and other Trades within the Borough of Malton’ petitioned Parliament for ‘Leave to bring in a Bill for making the River Darwent [sic] navigable’
The bill, passed in 1702 was firmly supported by most local landowners. This allowed the Derwent to become fully navigable for larger boats, leading to a rapid growth in wharves, warehouses, mills and other industrial buildings along the banks.
Some of these buildings can be seen in the images above. Public houses and food traders proliferated to cater for the thirsty boatmen, factory workers, mill hands and coal miners.
Goods such as bricks and stone were going from Malton to supply the builders of industrial Leeds, and corn for the flour mills of the West Riding, would be taken the whole way by water.
Paper cuttings from the turn of the century reference a Frank Anderson, as the last river captain. He was the son of a water captain who worked on the keels (barges), he also worked on the river as a lad, before becoming a member of Russell’s fleet of vessels. After retirement, he became foreman at Malton Gas Works.
The arrival of the York to Scarborough railway brought major change, and challenged the river’s monopoly of trade.
The journey of food and trade is discussed further in Malton Museum’s, new recipe book ‘Malton Goes to Market. The book which was co-produced by food historian Peter Brears, contains recipes from local people and explores the history of food in Ryedale.
l Malton Museum is open Thursday-Saturday each week until the end of October. For details of exhibitions and other events see www.maltonmuseum.co.uk website.