The Rother Navigation was constructed between 1791 and 1794. It was promoted by the 3rd Earl of Egremont to improve trade by making it easier to move goods and agricultural products. The Navigation closed in 1888, as most of its goods traffic had moved to the railway which reached Petworth in 1859.
Until the end of 18th century roads were very poor, which made transporting goods extremely difficult. Carts with heavy loads often become stuck or toppled over. Ships were used to carry goods around the coast from port to port. Then rivers were used to transport the goods as far inland as possible before horse-drawn waggons, and carts were used for the final section of the journey.
After 1732, improvements to the River Arun allowed barges from Littlehampton to reach Fittleworth. In 1780s there were proposals for more improvements to the River Arun. This encouraged the 3rd Earl of Egremont to consider if the River Rother could also be improved. In 1783, he asked the well-known canal engineer, William Jessop, to survey the river.
A route for the navigation was prepared, using as much of the existing river as possible but cutting off the worst of the meanders and widening where required. A tow path was built to enable horses to pull the boats along. The improved river navigation would be 12 miles long with eight locks between the River Arun at Stopham and Midhurst. The 3rd Earl of Egremont obtained a private Act of Parliament to enable him to ‘make and maintain’ the River Rother Navigation, at his own expense. Construction work took place between 1791 and 1794, with the work at Coultershaw being completed by 1792. Here the river continued to flow through the watermill, with barges using the waterway and lock, a short distance to the south.
Barge traffic increased after the opening of the Wey and Arun Junction canal in 1816. These wharves were the busiest, handling over half of the navigation’s traffic. The tolls received for goods using the navigation were an important source of income for the Petworth Estate. As the Rother navigation ended at Midhurst, barges had to return the same way. Therefore all tolls were collected at Fittleworth, a few miles from Coultershaw. The heyday of the navigation was from 1823 until 1859, when the arrival of the railway brought its commercial use to an end.