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Exeter's Canal Basin

Page updated 10 June 2009

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1905 Map In 1280, Countess Isabella of Devon restricted the flow of shipping to the port at Exeter when she built a weir to power her mills. By 1310, Hugh de Courtenay had completely blocked the river, cutting Exeter off from the sea. Despite Exeter's requests to the King for permission to re-open navigation, it was only in 1540 that permission was finally granted - it was too late, as the river had silted up.

Twenty three years later, in 1663, John Trew of Glamorgan was engaged to build a canal and thus bypass Countess Weir. It cost £5,000 and was 2,850m long, 1m deep and 5m wide. The canal was again improved after the civil war, but it was not until 1821, that steps were taken to turn the canal into a reliable waterway, that could cope with ships of 400 tons in weight. The canal was widened, and then lengthened by James Green, the County Surveyor to be opened on 19th April 1825 by the Mayor, Humphrey Pinhey.  Although engaged in canal work all over the country, Green lived in Exeter and built Elmfield House, now the Imperial Hotel, in 1810.

The opening of the basin

The final improvement was the provision of a canal basin, added in 1830 at a total cost, including the canal improvement works, of £90,000, plunging the council into debt for many years. The canal basin is a bent rectangle, 917 ft (280 metres) long, 110 ft (33.5 meters) wide and 18 feet deep. It was opened by the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce on Michaelmas Day, 29th September 1830 with 13,000 people in attendance. Alderman Sanders welcomed the completion with the words to 'the commerce of the world'. The first vessel to enter the basin was the 'Ranger', bedecked with flying colours and flags and commanded by Captain Mitchell. The flag flying at the bow of the first boat to enter the basin formerly belonged to William of Orange, when he landed at Brixham, in 1688. The colour was loaned, for the opening, by a descendent of the Watson family who had held it since he landed. (FP)

Tozer's map of 1792 shows a long thin, enclosed natural water-filled depression called the New Cut, where the canal basin can now be found. It would appear that Green utilised this feature for his canal basin. Green's basin has a water depth of 18 feet, more than the 14 feet maximum draught of the canal, allowing vessels of up to 400 tons to dock. The basin is rectangular in shape, although a semi-circular section in one side of the dock, and an opposite notch cut in the opposite side, was added later, to allow vessels longer than the width of the basin to be turned around.

In 1835, the basin was the scene of the unloading of 200 tons of cast iron from Newport for the construction of the Iron Bridge across Lower North Street to St David's Down.

The coming of the railway

The coming of the railway in 1844, led to the operators of the canal refusing a line to the canal basin, fearing the competition. The continuing financial problems of the City Council, saw the control of the canal pass to the city's creditors in 1845. A broad gauge railway line from the South Devon Railway to the head of the basin was opened on 17th June 1867, but it was too late to save the creditors, as trade was lost to the steam wonder of the age and the canal limped on. Two small turntables for trucks, so they could be run along the three sides of the basin, were installed at the same time, one of which can still be seen today. A third rail for standard gauge traffic was laid in November 1870, although it wasn't connected to the standard gauge track at St Davids until March 1871. In 1903, the Exeter Gas & Light Company, further down the canal from the basin, built a tramway to transport coal, offloaded from colliers in the basin to the works.

The Exeter Flying Post for 4th June 1886 records the following ships in port:

‘Island Lass from Sunderland with cargo of coal, discharged at the Basin; Wild Wave Newcastle, gas coal, ditto; Joseph and Thomas Port Gavern, slate, Gabriel’s Wharf; Catherine Falmouth, firewood, Quay; Alma Topsham, light to load tar paving. Sailings: Robie Burns ballast, discharged gas coal; Alma tar paving, Exmouth.'

During the early 20th century the basin boasted two hand operated cranes, one lifting ten tons, the other, a fixed crane that lifted eight tons. Colliers were unloaded with baskets called ‘Whippers’. A worker, standing on a platform held onto a rope and jumped, hauling up the basket, while others hoisted and heaved their own winches, to pull the coal out of the collier.

The Canal Basin is no longer commercial

Although in decline, the area to the west of the canal basin housed Willey's Foundry. A new power station to feed electricity to the tram system was built at the head of the basin in 1904. In the 1920's only three ships regularly berthed in the canal basin - the Ben Johnson called every month with petroleum from Southampton and would continue to do so until 1962, when the Regent depot closed. Timber was imported from Sweden and salt-cod known as toe-rag, from Newfoundland. The Esso oil depot remained, served by the Esso Jersey the largest tanker ever to traverse the canal, when it too was ceased operations in July 1971, when it delivered 244 tons of petrol to the basin. Commercial traffic was down to 696 tons by this time and the end finally arrived for the canal as a commercial waterway in December 1973 when a cargo of timber was unloaded from a coaster for the last time.

In the last years of the 20th century, between 1969 and 1997, the basin housed the Maritime Museum. Now it is the centre of boat repair and chandlery. Several of the old warehouse have been given over to antique and craft businesses and art galleries. The City Council have plans to further develop the area with shops and tourist attractions, including the revitalisation of the electricity generating station at the head of the basin.

Sources: Jim Shead waterways website, The South West Maritime History Society website, Discovering Exeter - West of the River by Hazel Harvey, 2000 years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, Remeniscences of Exeter by James Cossins and Exeter Past by Hazel Harvey, and the Flying Post.

The canal basin looking towards Piazza Terracina The canal basin looking towards Piazza Terracina Esso Jersey The Esso Jersey at the canal basin. Photo Alan H Mazonowicz Broadguage turntableThe broad gauge turntable is now seating. Dhow in canal basin A dhow from the Maritime Museum moored in the canal basin. Photo Alan H Mazonowicz

If you have a photo relating to the Canal Basin, and would like to share it, please contact me on the email address at the foot of the page.

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