The Tavistock canal – It’s history and archaeology (by Robert Waterhouse)

What was once proposed as two slimmer volumes on the history and archaeology has become one volume covering both facets, weighing in at 5 lbs, heavy enough when reading in short bursts in an easy chair but hardly suitable in the field. It was intended that a CD should be included in the book with additional information; this has been withdrawn because of copyright infringements. However, I am assured by the publisher that there was little on the disc that was not covered in the text.

I worked under Roberts’s directional at Morwellham for several seasons, excavating the lime kiln incline wheelpit, the incline turntable at Incline Cottage Mill Hill canal basin, the small lime kiln beside the Ship Inn, railways on the lime kiln quay and the sample dig on the canal incline. All these excavations are discussed with archaeological surveys, reconstruction drawings, photographs and documentary evidence, putting me and my colleagues’ exertions into context.

Making full use of the Bedford Estate papers, held at Exeter, and other documentary sources, Robert covers the history of the canal from its inception to its sale back to the Duke in 1873. The canal, though closed as a working waterway, was not abandoned; it is still supplies the hydro-electric generating station at Morwellham.

The use of the canal water as a power source is well covered, with discussion of the mines associated with the canal, leats from the southern terminus running as far north as Bedford United, and then doubling back to south Bedford and the wheel at the bottom of the Impham Valley, by Weir Head, and as far south as Gawton. Other users were lime kiln inclines at Tavistock, Morwellham and New Way, agricultural wheels at the Luke’s model farms at Crowndale and Morwellham and two waterwheels pumping water for the Morwelldown Waterworks Company. There is evidence for 50 waterwheels powered by the canal.

The archaeological recording is extensive and impressive, amply illustrated with photographs, plans, sections and reconstructions drawings. There is a full discussion of what is to be seen in the Morwellham tunnel and an account of the surface remains on the line of the tunnel. A field survey, supported by Estate maps, of the estate incline on the collateral cut to Mill Hill reveals it to be at Lamburn and not, as it was long thought, at Mill Hill. A chapter on the archaeological evidence for the plateway and railway systems reveals how much remains in situ, especially at Morwellham, supported by a large number of artifacts recovered or visible as recyclings.

The text is easy to read, but the book is not easy to use. For example, the accessible mine workings within the tunnel, with Robert’s plans and sections, are covered in the historical chapter on the canal mines and not in the archaeology of the tunnel. Again the archaeological recording of the small kiln at Morwellham, which as a structure predates the canal, appears in the historical chapter on the canal–side and associated industries and not in the archaeological section. Again , references to illustration in the text may require a search several pages before or after. It should be borne in mind that editing by the publisher to reduce Robert’s manuscript to commercial proposition may have given rise to these problems. But attentive reading and use of the book should enable one to navigate the layout without too much difficulty.

Proof reading could have been better. For example the Delafontaine engraving is dated 1741, not 1727 as in the caption. Again, references to illustrations in the text are not necessarily, though they are generally, correct. Don’t let these comments put you off. This is an important study, the result of many years’ research in the field and at the desk, and is a major contribution to our knowledge of Tavistock and the Devon bank of the Tamar, Robert and the publisher are to be congratulated on finally bringing it home.

Incidentally, the development plans of Morwellham begin with No. 4, and a brief aside in the text suggests that another volume on Morwellham is being contemplated, watch this space?

The Trevithick Society
520 Pages
Soft back : £30 Limited edition hardback : £50

Review by Stephen Docksey

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