Devon Canals


The history of canals in Devon is exceptional. The county produced the first in Britain to have genuine poundlocks: but most of the mileage eventually built was on the tub-boat and inclined-plane system found only in the West Country and Shropshire.

The original Exeter Canal, built 1563-6, stretched only 1 miles (2.8 km) from the city to just below Countess Wear. With a depth of three feet (91 cm) and a top width of sixteen feet (4.85 m), it could take only craft up to sixteen tons; and since very few sea-going vessels, even in Elizabeth’s time, were as small as that, cargoes had to be transhipped into barges to reach Exeter by water. In 1675-7 the canal was extended a further half mile, and in 1699-1701 the whole channel was deepened and enlarged to take sea-going craft of up to 150 tons. This made Exeter again a port, and allowed West Country woollens to be shipped direct from the city and coal to be delivered to the city wharf. In 1810 work commenced on a canal which would have extended the navigation to Crediton, but after half a mile of cutting towards Exwick the work was abandoned.

Map of Devon Canals (including Tamar navigation)

The last major improvements came in 1825-7, with the extension of the channel two miles (3.2 km) further to Turf, and the raising of the banks to give a depth of fourteen feet (4.25 m). This admitted ships of up to 400 tons, and a basin for them was opened at Exeter in 1830. For some years after this the canal saw a vigorous trade, though silting by water coming down the Exe, which fed the canal, caused problems. But the opening of the railway to Exeter in 1844 began a decline which became more marked as small sailing vessels were gradually re­placed by steamers too large to use the channel. By the end of the nineteenth century the canal had ceased to pay its way, but the Exeter Corporation, as owners, kept it open as a public utility and charged the deficit to the rates. Though commercial traffic finally ceased in 1972, the canal is still main-tamed and used for pleasure boats, and the basin at Exeter now houses the famous Maritime Museum with craft from many different parts of the world.

Exeter Canal, Successive Sections

The second canal to be opened in Devon, after an interval of more than two centuries, was the Stover Canal from the River Teign at Newton Abbot to Teigngrace, in 1794. This had four locks in two miles (32 km), and took barges of 25 tons whose main trade was carrying pottery clay for loading aboard ships at Teignmouth. In 1820 the Haytor Railway -a horse tramway using granite ‘rails’ with an inside flange to retain the wagon wheels – was opened as a feeder to bring granite for shipment. This fell out of use in 1858; but the canal continued to carry clay until about 1930, along with the neigh­bouring Hackney Canal which was opened in 1843 for the same barges.

The Canal Mania of 1793-5 produced several ambitious schemes involving Devon, but no imme­diate result. One such design was for making the Tamar navigable with locks for thirty-one miles (50 km) up to North Tamerton: but nothing was done until 1808, when the three miles (48 km) from Morwellham to Gunnislake were opened to sailing barges of 130 tons and a single lock built at Weir Head. This navigation remained in use, in a small way, till the 1920s.

Another Mania scheme, for the Grand Western Canal from Taunton to Topsham, with branches to Tiverton and Cullompton, got its Act in 1 796 when the boom was already over. Not till 1810 was work started, aJ tLn not at either end, where communication was open to the English or Bristol Chan­nels, but in the middle-on the branch between Tiverton and Holcombe Rogus where it was hoped to raise a quick trade in limestone from Holcombe quarries. This section, a barge canal of eleven miles (17-61m) all on one level, was opened in 1814; but it cost more than the original estimate for the whole scheme, and funds ran out. For years no more was done, but it soon became clear that this isolated canal could never pay unless through communication was opened to Taunton. In 1830 the engineer James Green proposed a cut-price link by means of a small canal for eight-ton tub-boats, using an inclined plane with a rise of eighty feet (24-2m) and eight lifts with an average of twenty-four feet (7-3m) instead of the usual locks. The company scraped together the money and, after many delays due to mechanical failure of the lifts and plane, the exten­sion was opened in 1838. All but one of these interesting examples of canal engineering were in Somerset, but the lift at Lowdwells was just on the Devon border. It consisted of two adjoining wells of masonry, in which caissons large enough to float an eight-ton boat rose and fell alternately, connected and controlled by a chain passing over a large wheel. Motive power was the weight of an extra ton of water let into the descending caisson. Such lifts did the work of several locks, with much less loss of time and water, but they were perfected only when canal construction was already ending.

Devon - Balance Lift, Grand Western Canal

Ten years later the railway reached Tiverton, and the effect on the canal was immediate and drastic. To save something from the wreck the much-tried com­pany leased it to the railway in 1853 (paying their only dividend out of the proceeds) and finally sold it in 1864. The tub-boat section was closed three years later, though the Holcombe-Tiverton line was still used for quarry traffic till after the First World War. After many years of neglect, in 1971 the County Council took it over, made the whole eleven miles (176 km) again navigable, and designated it a ‘Country Park’; and since 1974 a regular pleasure-boat service has been run with a specially con­structed horse-drawn boat.

The Tavistock Canal, opened in 1817, was a remarkable peice of engineering. Though its main line was only four miles (64 km) long, it included a tunnel of nearly 11 miles (24 km) through Mor­welldown, an aqueduct over the Lurnburn, and an inclined plane with a fall of 237 feet (72 m) to connect with the Tamar at Morwellharn. It was also built, like a mill-leat, with a slight downward gra­dient to provide a current for driving the mill- and mining-machinery on its course and to help the more heavily laden downward traffic. The two-mile (32 km) branch to Millhill quarries, opened two years later, had another inclined plane up which boats were pulled in wheeled cradles by horse­power.

This was a tub-boat canal, intended mainly for the transport of ores and quarry stone to Morweliham Quay, and the cutting of the tunnel opened up more rich lodes of copper in the heart of the Down. The great inclined plane at the lower end had two lines of rails, on which ran trucks into which cargoes were transferred. These were worked up and down by a drum and chain, powered by a waterwheel. With the slump after the Napoleonic Wars, the quarry and mining business proved less profitable than had been expected. The Millhill branch went out of use soon after 1830, and the income from the main line seldom provided more than a modest two per cent on capital. After the railway reached Tavistock in 1859, trade fell off rapidly; and by 1873, when the company sold out to the Duke of Bedford for one-twentieth of what the canal had cost, it had practically ceased. Yet the canal was still to prove useful: in 1934 its channel was cleaned out and its current again employed, to drive a hydroelectric plant at Morwellham.

The most ambitious tub-boat scheme in the South-West (and in Britain) was the Bude Canal, built by James Green under an Act of 1819 and opened in 1823-5. About half of its 351 miles (57 km) were just across the Cornish border, but it cannot be omitted from any account of Devon canals. Its first two miles from Bude Harbour to Marhamchurch were designed for fifty-ton barges, but from that point it used four-ton tub-boats, worked in trains of half a dozen, and fitted with wheels to run on the rails of the six inclined planes. At Marhamchurch, with a rise of 120 feet (36-6 m), and at four other planes with rises of 51-60 feet (155-18’3 m), wheels driven by water from the upper level worked the chains: but at Hobbacott Down (225 feet or 686 m) Green employed the ‘bucket in well’ system by which a tank full of water, descending in a pit, drew up the boats with the help of bevelled gears. But the faulty iron-work of the time, and the difficulty of repairing it on the spot, led to many breakages and delays; and at Hobbacott a steam winding-engine had to be installed to take over when the water apparatus failed.

Inclined Plane, Bude Canal

The main object of this canal was to carry shelly sand from the coast as fertiliser for the poor hill-soils, and this it did for many years. But the trade never reached anything like the expected volume; and though the company managed to stay solvent until the appearance of railway competition, it never paid a dividend. The railway reached Launceston in 1885 and Holsworthy in 1879, and by 1880 the tolls could no longer cover running costs. Finally, under an Act of 1891, the main lines to Blagdonmoor Wharf and to Druxton were closed, but the branch to Alfardisworthy reservoir survived as a water-supply for Bude.

While the Bude Canal was still under construc­tion, the last Devon canal of any importance was engineered by James Green, on similar principles, up the Torridge to Torrington. This had a total length of about six miles (96 km), from its sea-lock and basin some 12 miles (28 km) above Bideford Bridge, along the west side of the river to Beam Aqueduct, and thence on the opposite bank to Torrington Town Mills. About one mile (1 6 km) from the basin was the single inclined plane, of sixty feet (183 m) rise, at Weare Giffard, which seems to have been identical with the smaller planes on the Bude Canal. The line was opened in 1825, and for years enjoyed a modest prosperity. A shipyard at Sea Lock built small sea-going vessels to bring in car­goes, and the chief traffic was limestone and coal from South Wales. When a railway was proposed from Blddord to Torrington, the owner of the canal, Lord Rolle, wisely decided to welcome rather than fight the new means of transport. The canal was closed in 1871, and section of its line used for the railway. The part above Torrington station became a toll-road to bypass the town (but failed as such), and Beam Aqueduct survives to carry the drive to Beam House.

No one made a fortune from canals in Devon, and most who invested in them lost heavily. Yet before the railways replaced them they were a useful means of transport for coal, lime and fertile sand, and of much more value to the districts they served than to their owners. Much of their courses can still be traced on Ordnance Survey maps, or, better still, on the ground.