Plymouth Archaeology Society

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Leader: Robert Waterhouse

Monday 7th July 2008

After a weekend of torrential rain, forty members joined Robert Waterhouse, the Morwellham archaeologist, for a walk along half of the Tavistock Canal.  This 4.5 mile canal runs for nearly two miles under Morwell Down and was as much a mining speculation as a transport venture. However because the tunnelers encountered such hard rock the construction took from 1803 –1817. Robert was as usual a fount of knowledge – from the leat that preceded the canal - to the annual maintenance which has ensured that for seventy five years, Tavistock has been the only town in England supplied by hydroelectricity.

There was other innovative technology in this canal, which took water from the Tavy to a point 240 feet above Morwellham Quay. In addition to working mine pumps and bringing water power to some of the Bedford Estate farms, the water also worked the water wheels for two inclined planes. One brought trucks up from the quay at Morwellham to the wharf at the end of the canal and the other hauled trucks to the top of a large lime kiln just adjacent to where the Leisure Centre now stands. Robert had found some of the remains of one of the wrought iron boats built by the Mount Foundry specifically for the canal. These were shaped like a canoe, carried 4.5 tonnes and had a removable rudder which could be placed at either end. The Foundry also provided wrought iron sheets to line the aqueduct.

Coal and limestone were brought by sailing barges up from Plymouth Sound, transferred to trucks to get them up Morwell cliff, transferred again to boats which were poled through the tunnel and then hauled by heavy horses to Tavistock wharf. The return cargo was either metal ores or granite – principally copper and lead. The boats floated down the canal to its only lock at Lumburn where for a short period a side arm brought slate down from Mill Hill. Eventually the canal was superseded by the railway and ceased to be used by 1873. Having walked through some of the most spectacular stretches to Shillamill, our party returned to Tavistock Wharf and then the heavens opened.

Joan Price


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