Exeter Canal History

The Exeter Canal story begins earlier than almost any other man made waterway in Britain. Only the Foss Navigation in Lincolnshire, which was originally cut by the Romans, is older.

1200’s
The Countess of Devon, Isabella de Fortibus 🙂 , spitefullybuilt a weir across the tidal River Exe, blocking the navigable route into Exeter which had been used for centuries by small boats. The weir, known as “Countess Wear”, can still be seen today.

1290
After much pressure – or possibly a whole new generation of Earls and Countesses – navigation was restored on the river.

1317
A new spate of greed over took the Devon family and the river was blocked again with more weirs being installed. The Earls also built a quay at Topsham where boats were forced to unload because of the blockages caused by the weirs. The Earls then charged heavy tolls for transhipment into Exeter which forced local traders to bring lawsuits against them. The court cases were won by the traders but the Earls refused to unblock the navigation and the weirs were left in place despite it being “King’s Law” that every man should be granted free passage on any English river.

1563
After 300 years of tolerating the Earls of Devon, the businessmen of Exeter decided enough was enough.

They employed John Trew of Glamorgan to engineer an artificial cut which would bypass the weirs and rejoin the River Exe in the centre of the city.

A quay would be built with a crane to load and unload cargoes. The cut was (and still is) paid for and maintained by Exeter City Corporation – and therefore it has always (in theory) belonged to the people of Exeter rather than any one company.

Unfortunately the finished cut was not quite what the people had hoped for.

It was built very small, just 3 feet deep and 16 feet wide. It was just 1¾ miles in length, running from just below Countess Wear to the city centre. It had 3 locks with vertical gates – the first ever pound locks to be built in Britain. As well as being very small, the cut was also not accessible in low tides despite Trew having promised to make it navigable at all times. All the same, it was still far better than having to pay the hefty tolls to the greedy Earls.

1677
For just over a century the Exeter traders put up with the uncertain tidal conditions of the entrance into the cut. During this time the waterway was not very well maintained and during the Civil War it was completely neglected. Finally the Corporation decided to improve the short waterway, they also extended it to a point farther down the Exe estuary to help alleviate the tricky navigational problems. The new entrance would now be opposite the town of Topsham.

1701
Major enhancements were made to the cut once again. These made the channel 10 feet deep and 50 feet wide. Large ocean-going sailing ships could now use the waterway and reach the centre of Exeter. The 3 original locks were removed during these improvements and a new single lock, confusingly called “Double Locks”, was installed. At the entrance to the canal, from the River Exe at the northern end, the Corporation built a flood gate which they called King’s Arms Sluice.Following these improvements the canal became very successful with hundreds of ships regularly docking in Exeter, having come from many places, especially southern Europe. Coal, slate, timber, groceries and the area’s two great exports, woollens and cider, were among many other goods carried on the canal.

During the 1700’s many other “artificial cuts” were planned in the Exeter area with Exeter being proposed as the focal point where most of these routes would meet. In the end – like many other plans in many other parts of the country at this time – no routes ever got further than the initial ideas.

1796
In the latter part of the century the biggest scheme of them all in the West Country, The Grand Western Canal, gained its Act from Parliament. The Grand Western Canal was to be just one part of a route which would connect Exeter to Bristol by crossing Devon to Taunton in Somerset where another canal would then carry the route on to Bridgwater with a third canal taking it to the Bristol Channel. Such a route would bring cargo and passengers to Exeter from as far away as south Wales, the Midlands and London. However, work was very slow in starting and it was over 15 years before the first stretch was opened – and this was a mighty long way from Exeter.

1820’s
The Grand Western Canal had sadly fallen well short of Exeter – in fact, it had fallen well short of everywhere! Exeter Corporation decided they needed to improve their own waterway in order to attract other waterway routes so a local man named James Green was called in to improve the navigation. He was well known in the West Country as he had already built a number of barge and tub-boat canals.

Green completely reconstructed the whole of the Exeter Ship Canal, making a cut which was 15 feet deep. He extended the entrance by a further 2 miles to Turf and he made it navigable to a depth of no less than 12 feet no matter what state the tide was at. All this was a great success but a very familiar story now befell Exeter’s trade. Its main business had been the export of woollen goods but by the time the canal was open to business, the wool trade had completely ceased! However, there were still some other goods being carried on the new canal, the main cargo being coal from London which could travel round the coast in 7 days – in good weather.

1832
Exeter Corporation supported a Bill in Parliament to allow a local company to build a railway (or tramway) from Credition to their canal basin in the city. However, the Bill was turned down by the government. A few years later the Corporation encouraged the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company to connect its lines to the basin and this time the Act was granted. However, the railway took a long time to arrive and before the line was finished, for some unknown reason, the Corporation backed off and decided that the railway could not connect with their basin after all.

1844
The Bristol & Exeter Railway opened their line into Exeter but continuous refusal by the Corporation to allow trains near the basin caused major (self inflicted) competition for themselves. The railway built its own dock and the canal could not compete. Eventually the canal profits fell so low that they were not able even to pay off the interest on the loan which had been taken out to build James Green’s improvements.

1867
By the time Exeter Corporation finally allowed trains into their canal basin (35 years after the first railway attempted to make a link) it was too late. The South Devon Railway was connected to the basin but by this time the canal was no where near big enough to accommodate the massive new steam ships which were now crossing the oceans. The canal was making a massive loss, creditors were called in and they took over the canal for the next 16 years.

The canal continued to enjoy a steady income for the next 100 years but by the 1960’s trade had begun to dwindle. During the 1960’s fewer companies used the canal every year until, by the end of the decade, only a handful of boats were to be seen.

1969
While commercial trade was almost dead on the Exeter Canal, tourism and pleasure craft were becoming more popular. This was greatly helped by the opening of a maritime museum in Exeter Basin. It contained a 23 boat collection belonging to Major David Goddard. The museum was popular from day one and became a great success over the years. As well as new additions to the collection the museum also included canal artefacts and exhibitions.

1972
The last commercial vessel to leave Exeter Basin was the Esso Jersey carrying oil to its terminal. This left very little trade though the local water board still ran a sludge tanker which dumped sewage into the English Channel.

1991
The maritime museum was forced to close due to lack of money though within a few months it was rescued and reopened by the International Sailing Craft Association which the museum’s owner, Major Goddard, was heavily involved in. Sadly, within 5 years the museum was in trouble again, closing its doors in September 1996. At the close of the year it was announced that the collection was to be saved from being split up though it was feared that it may be “shipped” abroad.

1996
Exeter council (who still looked after the canal) were becoming increasingly uncooperative towards boats. They refused to allow the use of the canal’s structures during a rally and refused to create slipways to allow portable boats into the canal. Early in 1997 the council banned all boats from the city basin.

1997
There was good news for Major Goddard’s collection of historic ships. It was announced that the International Sailing Craft Association were not going to have to sell them off after all. However, the collection was to be moved and split into two. Half of the boats were to go to Bristol Docks while the other half was to go to Oulton Broad in Suffolk.

In April it was announced that South West Water company were to end operation of their sludge tanker. The tanker was the very last commercial vessel on the Exeter Canal. It had been in service for over 30 years but new EU directives forbid dumping of sewage at sea. I don’t know if it is fitting or not that the sludge tanker is named Countess Wear.

Exeter Canal Route

The 6 mile long Exeter Canal is a very simple one to follow. It starts on the west bank of the Exe estuary around 2 miles south of Exminster.There is a sea lock, Turf Lock, at the entrance to the canal and the Turf Hotel is close by despite my road atlas showing no access to the lock whatsoever. Just above the lock is a basin where large vessels once moored to tranship goods to and from Lighters. The basin was also used as a holding place where ships would wait in bad weather until conditions out at sea became safe.

The canal has good towpaths on each side and both can be walked all the way to the terminus in Exeter. On the way there, about 1½ miles north of the entrance, the canal curves from its northerly direction to a more north westerly one. Here there is another entrance lock near the point which was once the start of the canal. The current lock, Topsham Side Lock, was built to give boats access to Topsham across the River Exe on the opposite bank. However, the lock has been closed and derelict since 1976. Just above the lock (somewhere) is the point where the canal started prior to 1820 when James Green extended it to Turf Lock. The exact site is not possible to determine because the later improvements and extensions completely wiped out all traces.

The M5 now crosses the route just north west of Topsham and then Lower Wear weir is rounded with Exeter Sewage Works Wharf near by. The sludge boat Countess Wear could still be seen here in 1997 carrying treated sewage from the wharf out to sea, thus keeping the canal (technically at least) a “commercial waterway”. Next on the route is the very busy A379. This bridge was once even busier before the M5 was built. It was the A38 trunk road and traffic was held up numerous times a day waiting for boats to pass through the opened bridge. The road is now a dual carriageway and it is boat crews who are now inconvenienced through having to lower their sailing masts.

Near this point is the original entrance to John Trew’s cut. Over to the east, on the river, is Countess Wear weir. Within ½ a mile the canal passes the Double Locks Inn to arrive at Double Locks, which is actually just one single lock. However, at over 312 feet in length and 27 feet wide it is the largest manually operated lock in Britain.

Past the lock the route continues on for about ¾ of a mile and then passes through a swing bridge. Then, after about another mile, it passes the Welcome Inn and arrives at a fork. Straight on is the canal basin built by James Green in the 1820’s. Thebasin is parallel to the river and was home to Exeter Maritime Museum before its recent closure.It is 900 feet long, 17 feet deep and between 90 to 120 feet wide. Sadly at present boats are banned by the council from using the basin. To the right of James Green’s newer stretch is the original course of the canal which once took vessels back into the River Exe and into the original quay. King’s Arms Sluice (which survives today) was installed at the river entrance in 1701. Trew’s Weir, built in 1563 by John Trew as a feeder to his cut, is immediately downstream (south) of the canal entrance while Exeter Quay is immediately upstream (north). The linear quayside, which was used by river traffic for many centuries before the canal basin was built, is well worth investigating. After passing Trew’s Weir and King’s Arms Sluice it runs north, parallel to the canal basin. Nowadays it is home to numerous boats and the Port Royal pub. On the west side (between the river quay and the canal basin) is the former Maritime Museum building which was formerly a warehouse. In summer a small passenger ferry operated between the museum building and a car park on the east side. Just past the car park the river and quay bend left to head west around the top of the canal basin. Cricklepot Suspension Bridge carries pedestrians across the river from the basin to the north east side of the quay. Small shops and cafes can be found here and the wooden Mallison Bridge crosses an inlet beside the old wharfinger’s cottage which is now the HQ for the Exeter Canal and Quay Trust.