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HER Number:MDV123232
Name:Tavistock Canal


The Tavistock Canal, constructed between 1803 and 1817 (under engineer John Taylor), from Tavistock to the Morwellham, was built to transport minerals from the mines near Tavistock to the quay at Morwellham for transportation. See associated records for details of individual features, structures and buildings.


Grid Reference:SX 463 722
Map Sheet:SX47SE
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishTavistock
DistrictWest Devon
Ecclesiastical ParishTAVISTOCK

Protected Status

Other References/Statuses

  • Old DCC SMR Ref: SX47SE/27
  • SHINE Candidate (Yes)

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • CANAL (Constructed, XIX - 1803 AD to 1817 AD (Between))

Full description

Waterhouse, R., Plans of Tavistock Wharf (Plan - measured). SDV351507.

Waterhouse, R., Tavistock Feeder Canal Bridge Drawings (Plan - measured). SDV351513.

Ordnance Survey, 1855-1895, First Edition 1:500 Town Map (Cartographic). SDV338879.

Map object based on this source.

1867, 1867 Map, Tavistock Canal Incline, Morwellham (Cartographic). SDV360348.

Partial image of 1867 Tavistock map showing canal incline, Morwellham.

Ordnance Survey, 1904 - 1906, Second Edition Ordnance Survey 25 inch Map (Cartographic). SDV325644.

'Old Canal' marked.

Hedges, C., 1975, The Tavistock Canal. A Short History (Monograph). SDV361772.

Minchinton, W. E., 1976, Industrial Archaeology in Devon, 30 (Monograph). SDV7016.

The Tavistock Canal was built by John Taylor between 1803 and 1817, to connect Tavistock to the Tamar at Morwellham. This canal carried copper ore to Morwellham, and coal, lime and sand in the opposite direction. Its usefulness declined after the railway was built in 1859 and it was closed in the 1880s. The canal is now used as a source of water to power the Morwellham generator of the Central Electricity Board. From Tavistock the towpath can be followed to the northern entrance of the tunnel cut through Morwell Down.

Timms, S. C., 1976, The Devon Urban Survey, 1976. First Draft, 172 (Report - Survey). SDV341346.

Waterhouse, R., 2012, Tavistock Canal: Surveying a Forgotten Marvel of the Industrial Age, 35-38 (Article in Serial). SDV351508.

The Tavistock canal was the subject of many ‘firsts’ now taken for granted in transport engineering, including containerisation, the earliest documented use of wrought iron for boats, systems designed to reduce goods handling, and tunnel ventilation. Unlike most canals, the main line and parts of its branch (known as the Collateral Cut) were designed to flow. This powered several waterwheels erected along its length and served an extensive system of leats beyond its western end, along the Devonshire bank of the Tamar. Flowing for more than twice the length of the navigable canal, these leats delivered water to around 15 mines and associated service industries over 3 miles distant. See article for full details.

Waterhouse, R., 2017, The Tavistock Canal. Its History and Archaeology, 1-18, 19-74, 115-150, 289-314, 316-329, figs; numerous (Monograph). SDV361789.

Built between 1803 and 1817, the Tavistock canal was four and a half miles long, connecting Tavistock and Morwellham. A two mile long branch line up the Lumburn Valley was added between 1817 and 1819 to the slate quarries at Mill Hill.
The canal transported minerals (copper, lead and tin ore) from the mines in the Tamar valley to the quay at Morwellham, bringing in timber, coke, limestone and coal to fuel the mining industries, as well as for domestic use. The water from the canal was also used to power many mines and industries. The canal is important for its early use of wrought iron barges, containerisation and technical aspects including the use of canal water for power. Canal features several unusual features, including a 1.5 mile long rock-cut tunnel, inclined haulway, horse railways at Morwellham, powered incline and extensive use of plateways; one of the most complex canal set-ups in the south-west. The Canal Company's mining activities are extensive and almost unique in British canal history.
Railway competition from 1859 reduced the canal's traffic and it closed in 1873.
The Tavistock Canal was first conceived in the late 18th century, in order to allow the expansion of the regions’ mining and quarrying enterprises by providing better transportation links. In particular it was key in providing transport for the ores produced by the landlocked but rich Wheal Friendship mine and other local mines to market, as well as developing Tavistock as an industrial centre.
John Taylor (1779-1843), who later rose to become one of Britain’s foremost mining engineers and mine managers, but was then only 19, visited the district in 1798. Previous historians have firmly credited Taylor with the idea of linking Tavistock to Morwellham, but there are no primary sources to support this and a canal to Tavistock had already been discussed in the early 1790s. Taylor was certainly involved with the pre-construction planning process from 1802 however, when he surveyed the proposed course of the canal (his original hand drawn plan survives in the Bedford Papers and is interesting in its inaccuracy as far as the levels were concerned; an issue which prompted several significant changes in course once construction occurred.
Taylor’s was resident Engineer to the Canal Company from 1803-1812, managing two captains; Henry Brenton and James Remfry, who Waterhouse suggests were the instigators of a number of the innovations previously credited to Taylor, who may be understood to have been less an ‘engineer’, more a highly professional manager. Biographies of Brenton and Remfry are included, although relatively little is known of these two individuals. Details of relevant Dukes of Bedford during the working life of the canal are included, as well as that of the Estate’s agents.
Detailed summary of the documentary sources relating to the conception and planning of the canal as well as the construction between 1803-1819 are included by Waterhouse in Chapter 2.
Proposals to connect Tavistock with the River Tamar began as early as 1790; a meeting of over 300 people in 1793 was followed with a parliamentary bill. Notes and letters relating to the planning and construction of the canal survive in the Bedford Papers and reveal two proposed alternative routes, both ending at Morwellham. It was to be called The Tamar Manure Navigation. Plans were fairly grand and a number of issues with potential costs and the challenging topography of the routes caused revisions to the plans. Work on the Tamar Manure Navigation ceased in 1801, having only raised a small amount of funding from subscriptions. Only 2.5 miles (4 kilometres) of navigation had been completed; including deepening the river from Morwellham to Weir Head and modifications of a number of river quays and constructions of wharfs at Weir Head, Impham, Netstakes, Gunnislake and Morwellham.
Construction of the Canal
Waterhouse covers the construction of the canal between 1803 and 1819 in detail, breaking the process down using the annual reports of the Canal Company Committee, supported by other sources, including the Valuation of April 1811, which provides a remarkable level of detail concerning the costs of materials, tradesmens’ jobs etc.
1802-1803 saw the planning of the canal, including meeting regulations and applications to Parliament etc. Further meetings of the canal proprietors during 1803-1804 are detailed, which include alterations to the course, including changing the position of the Lumburn aqueduct, lessening its height and length (decreasing its cost). The other major change (although not referred to in the minutes of 1804) was in the position of the rise in level between the two pounds of the Collateral Cut to Mill Hill, moving it from Middle Lumburn Bridge to the Newton Valley. Other changes in course include the southern terminus of the main line and the position of the Lumburn Aqueduct (300 metres north of its original proposed position).
Construction began (29/08/1803) at the northern end of the tunnel, rather than at Abbey Weir in Tavistock, by sinking shafts to commence the driving and cutting of the tunnel itself. Few buildings had been built at this early stage, although it was noted that they would soon be required; a temporary smith’s shop had been built at the north end MDV116052 (and a permanent one at the south end) of the tunnel (MDV72855). Problems with bad air in the tunnel due to fumes had to be solved, so two ventilation shafts were sunk, close to the tunnel ends. This issue became so bad that it caused construction to be abandoned, or severely slowed in 1804-5, with small machines introduced to aid ventilation.
Discovery of lodes while driving the tunnel had a material effect on the progress of the construction as these were investigated, the hardness of the rock also caused problems, with the tunnelling process costing more than anticipated. By August 1805 the drive from the north tunnel end was 106 fathoms, while 83 fathoms had been reached from the southern end. The construction of the Lumburn Aqueduct had proceeded rapidly around this time and the construction of the remainder of the surface canal was necessitated earlier than planned, due to the requirement for running water from the Tavy to power a water engine at the north end of the tunnel.
By 1805-6, construction of the canal had reached Shillamill, complicated by the need to avoid damaging an existing mine leat to Wheal Crowndale, which followed a similar route (MDV123099). Construction of the tunnel remained costly and problematic, with solutions discussed including use of a steam engine to pump from one or two of the shafts, in order to work as many ends as possible, as well as sinking another shaft near the crest of the Down; Remfry’s Shaft, near an ancient tin work known as ‘Weedy Pits’.
By August 1807 the canal had been completed from Tavistock to the tunnel, with the exception of the aqueduct over the River Lumburn, completed by 1808. Progress on the tunnel continued to be slow over the next few years, but by 1816 it was nearing completion. The remaining part of the canal’s course to the incline head was not constructed until this point and it was completed soon after the tunnel was finished in February 1817. It must have required considerable effort as the waterwheel driving the inclined haulage machinery was largely below ground in a partly rock-cut chamber, while the lower, gravity operated part of the incline passed through a short tunnel approached by deep cuttings.
The Collateral Cut was discussed around this time, and thought to be likely to only be of moderate expense (presumably as it was planned to be narrower than the main line). Construction was started shortly after and was completed in 1818 and in January 1819 it was announced that a wharf and limekilns had been erected at Mill Hill and trade was already commencing on this line. By late 1819, concerns were already being expressed about the inadequacy of the water supply in the Collateral Cut; the summer had been particularly dry and very little income from tolls had been received as this section had been unfit for use. This was a clear indication of the problems to come.
The Canal at Work (Chapter 5)
There is a good body of documentary evidence regarding how the canal operated (e.g. the Committee Minutes and the 1811-14 Valuation document), which is supported and enhanced by the archaeological record which also gives extra insights that are not recorded, such as the use of hand-hauling ropes or chains slung from the tunnel roof to move boats. Further useful operational information of the canal at work during its heyday is available from the report made by the Prussian engineers Carl Von Oeynhausen and Heinrich Von Dechen in 1826.
Waterhouse details the rules and regulations of the canal, including tolls, exclusions and penalties. The tolls were revised over the life of the canal; and lowered towards the end of its working life, reflecting its impending demise. The running costs of the canal are detailed in the Annual Reports, the Account Books and Cost Books, which cover most of the canal’s working life. The owners and masters of any boat were expected to give accurate accounts of them to the company and correctly label their boats with ownership information, as well as indexes of ore weights, so that the boats could be correctly weighed. Any infringement of the regulations incurred penalties. The canal had several passing places, wide enough to allow two boats to pass one another and a timed rota was used to prevent unfortunate meetings in the tunnel that would require a boat to reverse to one of the three passing places.
There is little historical evidence of the wooden boats used on the canal (and no illustrations have survived). They were probably square timber ‘tub-boats’ fitted with wheels that allowed them to be drawn out of the water on an elevated rail-road. Unusually at Tavistock they appear to have been used during the canal’s construction, but not for subsequent trade; reports indicate the timber boats were frequently damaged through grounding and required constant repair. Wrought iron boats made from plates were constructed for use on the canal and Waterhouse includes reconstruction drawings which show the design that allowed for five containers to be accommodated in each boat, if correctly loaded. The canal is important for its early use of iron boats and containerisation. These boats caused substantial damage in places to the canal and tunnel walls through grinding and friction. Used until the end of traffic on the canal, the boats did not find buyers during the sale of 1869 and were probably sent for scrap. Discovery of boat plates have been made, including by the author blocking the foot of Williams Shaft in the tunnel and a complete wrought iron boat rudder was discovered in the tunnel during a drought in 1976.
Cranes appear to have been used at all the principal wharfs, although they are not usually shown on the Estate Map (1867). Old photographs of Tavistock Wharf and Gill and Company’s Wharf show cranes at these sites (see related records for details).
Details surrounding workers are explored, although the documentary evidence for this is limited; lists of workers are noted to be working on the mines, rather than canal construction. Some evidence from census records noted. No evidence that French prisoners of war, interned at Princetown Prison were employed as forced labour to construct the canal.
The different types of materials traded on the canal (granite, limestone, coal, slate, fertilisers and metalliferous ores) noted in this chapter.
The Canal Mines (Chapter 6)
Two organisations are known to have worked the Canal Company’s mines between 1803 and the late 1830s;
The Canal Company Mining Department (1803-1828). The prime function of the canal was to enable the exploitation of the mineral potential of the country it passed through; the projected course of the Morwelldown Tunnel was chosen specifically in order to cut through a number of potential tin and copper lodes. The Canal Company is known to have commenced working Wheal Crebor from 1803 and when in full production (c.1812) it made considerable profits for the company; the only mine in the Company’s sett to be worked at a profit and for some years the largest mine in the Tavistock area. Between 1816-1821 a major period of trialling by the company took place aiming to find other lodes to exploit. After 1821 only promising mines were continued with (Wheals Crebor, Luscombe and Pixon) and after 1827 after several years of losses, the Canal Company’s mining department was wound up. Any remaining proprietors who retained a mining interest reformed as the Tavistock Consolidated Mine Adventurers (1828-c.1837-41). This organisation continued to work the promising mines mentioned above, although profits weren’t impressive and (perhaps partly due to aging proprietors), the organisation was wound up fairly soon afterwards, although precise details are sparse (see realted mine records for detail).
Author has identified up to 50 waterwheel powered by canal water (listed with brief details; 244-250).
Chapter 9 deals with the abandonment of the canal and subsequent leisure uses, as well as recorded repairs and alterations for the period 1933-1990. See report for full details on all the aspects of the canal and related industries.

Ordnance Survey, 2018, MasterMap 2018 (Cartographic). SDV360652.

Canal depicted on the modern mapping.

Sources / Further Reading

SDV325644Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 1904 - 1906. Second Edition Ordnance Survey 25 inch Map. Second Edition Ordnance Survey 25 inch Map. Map (Digital).
SDV338879Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 1855-1895. First Edition 1:500 Town Map. First Edition 1:500 Town Map. Map (Digital).
SDV341346Report - Survey: Timms, S. C.. 1976. The Devon Urban Survey, 1976. First Draft. Devon Committee for Rescue Archaeology Report. A4 Unbound + Digital. 172.
SDV351507Plan - measured: Waterhouse, R.. Plans of Tavistock Wharf. Digital.
SDV351508Article in Serial: Waterhouse, R.. 2012. Tavistock Canal: Surveying a Forgotten Marvel of the Industrial Age. Current Archaeology. 273. Digital. 35-38.
SDV351513Plan - measured: Waterhouse, R.. Tavistock Feeder Canal Bridge Drawings. Digital.
SDV360348Cartographic: 1867. 1867 Map, Tavistock Canal Incline, Morwellham. Digital.
SDV360652Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 2018. MasterMap 2018. Ordnance Survey Digital Mapping. Digital. [Mapped feature: #113818 ]
SDV361772Monograph: Hedges, C.. 1975. The Tavistock Canal. A Short History. The Tavistock Canal. A5 Paperback.
SDV361789Monograph: Waterhouse, R.. 2017. The Tavistock Canal. Its History and Archaeology. The Tavistock Canal. Its History and Archaeology. Paperback Volume. 1-18, 19-74, 115-150, 289-314, 316-329, figs; numerous.
SDV7016Monograph: Minchinton, W. E.. 1976. Industrial Archaeology in Devon. Industrial Archaeology in Devon. Paperback Volume. 30.

Associated Monuments

MDV124532Parent of: Artiscombe Road Bridge (Monument)
MDV123096Parent of: Bridges over the Canal in the grounds of Tavistock Abbey (Monument)
MDV123097Parent of: Canal Bridge at the rear of the Vicarage, Tavistock (Monument)
MDV124531Parent of: Canal Bridge, Tavistock Town (Monument)
MDV4068Parent of: Lumburn Aqueduct, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV18721Parent of: Mill Hill Cut Canal Branch to Millhill Quarry (Monument)
MDV4067Parent of: Tavistock Canal, Northern Section (Monument)
MDV3879Parent of: Tavistock Canal, Western Section (Monument)
MDV124667Related to: Abbey Wharf, Tavistock (Monument)
MDV123285Related to: Adits associated with Wheal Crease Mine (Monument)
MDV22881Related to: Bedford Consols or Wheal Gawton Mine (Monument)
MDV3861Related to: Bedford United Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV37343Related to: Bridge South of Wheal Crebor House (Monument)
MDV123191Related to: Canal plateway on the Collateral Cut, Tavistock Canal (Monument)
MDV51327Related to: Crowndale Cottages, Crowndale (Monument)
MDV37333Related to: Crowndale Farm Buildings and Dung Pit (Building)
MDV124669Related to: Crowndale Wharf (Monument)
MDV123331Related to: Delves Kitchen mine shaft, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV70278Related to: Delves Kitchen mine shaft, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV70350Related to: Delves Kitchen mine shaft, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV3888Related to: Ding Dong Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV4083Related to: East Wheal Russell Mine (Monument)
MDV123337Related to: Estate Cottages, Morwell Down (Building)
MDV37381Related to: Farmstead at Morwellham (Building)
MDV114291Related to: Former Mine at Crease (Monument)
MDV5467Related to: George and Charlotte Mine (Monument)
MDV37337Related to: Higher Lumburn Bridge (Monument)
MDV114364Related to: Holming Beam middle lode, Morwell Down (Monument)
MDV123335Related to: Holming Beam north lode, Morwell Down (Monument)
MDV123336Related to: Holming Beam south lode, Morwell Down (Monument)
MDV21606Related to: Horse Tramway south of Millhill Quarry (Monument)
MDV123151Related to: Line of the pre-Turnpike Callington Road at Lumburn (Monument)
MDV5464Related to: Little Duke Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV123150Related to: Lower Lumburn Bridge (Monument)
MDV106271Related to: Lumburn lock and lock gate, Tavistock Canal (Monument)
MDV124671Related to: Lumburn Wharf, Tavistock Canal (Monument)
MDV76288Related to: Manganese mill at Morwellham Quay (Monument)
MDV123149Related to: Middle Lumburn Bridge (Monument)
MDV124672Related to: Mill Hill Wharf, Tavistock Canal (Monument)
MDV124526Related to: Morwellham Pump House (Building)
MDV124814Related to: Morwellham Terminus Wharf (Monument)
MDV124677Related to: Morwellham Tunnel end wharf (Monument)
MDV4093Related to: Mount Foundry, Tavistock (Monument)
MDV124529Related to: Newton Mills, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV123286Related to: North Crebor Mine Adit (Monument)
MDV114356Related to: Shaft Pit West of Lumburn (Monument)
MDV124308Related to: Shillamill Manganese Mill (Building)
MDV22883Related to: South Bedford Copper Mine (Monument)
MDV65833Related to: South Wheal Crebor, Tavistock (Monument)
MDV16802Related to: South Wheal Luscombe Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV124675Related to: Tavistock Canal Wharf at Wheal Crebor (Monument)
MDV104286Related to: Tavistock Gas Works (Monument)
MDV5459Related to: Tavy Consols Mine (Monument)
MDV124815Related to: The Copper Ore Road, Morwellham (Monument)
MDV79980Related to: Tinworking in Morwelldown Plantation, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV23074Related to: Warehouse, Canal Wharf, Tavistock (Building)
MDV4719Related to: West Wheal Friendship Mine, Mary Tavy (Monument)
MDV124673Related to: Wharf Keepers house, Mill Hill Wharf (Building)
MDV3954Related to: Wheal Crebor Mine (Monument)
MDV123099Related to: Wheal Crowndale Leat (Monument)
MDV123502Related to: Wheal Impham Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)
MDV58396Related to: Wheal Pixon Copper Mine (Monument)
MDV22886Related to: Wheal Russell Mine, Gulworthy (Monument)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events

  • EDV4858 - Archaeological Watching Brief at Tavistock Canal (Northern Section)
  • EDV6414 - Archaeological Monitoring of Tavistock Canal Lock Gate and Timber Lifting Bridge
  • EDV7058 - Archaeological Management Plan, Buctor Farm, Tavistock (Ref: 2015R055)
  • EDV8013 - Survey of the Tavistock Canal Tunnel on Morwelldown

Date Last Edited:Jun 11 2020 5:08PM