The Oldest Canal in Britain? The Exeter Ship Canal

July 2021

In this episode Dr Sam Willis explores the Exeter Ship Canal which, with the exception of the Roman ‘Fossdyke’ in Lincolnshire, is the oldest manmade waterway in Britain. Canal building is usually associated with the canal mania which gripped Britain between 1790 and the 1820s as the early years of the industrial revolution both posed problems and created solutions for those wishing to travel and transport goods across Britain. But the Exeter ship canal is 230 years OLDER than that. It was built in various stages but the first section was built in 1563 – in the Tudor period when Elizabeth I was queen. Sam meets Todd Gray a historian of Devon to find out more. The episode was filmed with incredible new done footage that shows the navigation from the city centre to the heart of the Exe estuary as never before and can be seen on the Mariner’s Mirror podcast YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This week, I was able to free myself from the shackles of lockdown and explore some nearby and fascinating maritime history. So, I travelled down to the Turf locks in Devon. It’s a hotel and pub on the western banks of the Exe estuary and the entrance to the fabulous Exeter canal. Now the turf locks extension of the Exeter canal is much more recent part of the canal. It was added in 1827, providing large ships with access to deep water, but the origins of the canal lie much earlier indeed. In fact, they lie in the Tudor period – in 1563, making the Exeter canal one of the oldest canals in the UK. In fact, the only one that is older is the Fossdyke Navigation in Lincolnshire that links the River Witham to the River Trent and that was built in 120 AD – those dame Romans always winning the prize. Nonetheless, the Exeter ship canal- think of it as the oldest non-Roman canal in the UK. Engineered not with the genius of the Romans but with the genius of, yep, you guessed it, the Welsh.

    I met the excellent Todd Gray, a local historian who has written a huge number of books on the history of Devon to find out more. Now please be aware that this episode was filmed, and we have some really fabulous drone footage showing just how the Exeter canal cuts its way straight out to sea alongside the meandering, shallow and dangerous river Exe. So do make sure that you check out that video. It will be on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast’s YouTube channel along with some fabulous and innovative material that presents our maritime past in new ways including my recent favourites, animations of hugely complex ship plans. And we will also publish the video on the Society for Nautical Researcher’s Facebook page.

    I’m in Exeter, in Devon, and I’ve come to explore the Exeter ship canal which probably deserves to be a bit more famous than it actually is because apart from Roman engineering, this is in fact the oldest manmade waterway in the UK and its origins, well you might think it’s Industrial Revolution, the 19th century, they are in fact, Tudor. And the first part of the Exeter ship canal was built in the 1560s, just a couple of years after the Tudor monarch Elizabeth I was crowned queen. I’ve come here to meet a local historian Todd Gray to find out more.

    Todd, we’re at the Turf but Exeter it’s like five miles away up a hill over there. But was it still a maritime city?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, this is Exeter’s rather clumsy way of connecting to the sea; 16th century in its origin, continues through today, but it never quite worked in the way in which they thought it was going to

    Sam Willis

    The original idea for the canal was so old in the 1560s – do we know what inspired it?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, Exeter finally took control of its future. An aristocratic family had dammed the river in the 1300s and 1400s, they fell out of favour with an issue about treason. And Exeter was able to get the land and the rights, and it thought how do we re-navigate the city? So, they put in the canal – which turned out to be really innovative. I don’t think they realised what they were doing at the time. They brought in an outsider who’s a Welshman, and over three, maybe four years, they constructed what’s said to be the first lock system canal in the country.

    Sam Willis

    What do we know about this Welshman? Who was he? What experience did he have?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, the city was very well connected at the time and Exeter is a leading part of the country. It’s not the backwater it becomes. They knew people in London, they got the best person, and they did very well. Subsequent ones weren’t so good for them, another choice, embezzled all the money they raised and ran off with the money leaving them stuck, but this man delivered. It took a while to control and to enact but when they finally got it together, it solved the problem temporarily.

    Sam Willis

    Why was it so important that Exeter was linked to the sea?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, Exeter, famous for its discoveries: you know sea dogs, exploration of the New World, all that, the sort of the gloss, the real money in Exeter was in cloth – woollen cloth. And from the late 1580s-1590s, we started to develop serge, a finely woven, thin cloth, lightweight. And this took off. We became the cloth centre for the country for a short while. So, from 1680 to 1730-1740, we were the bee’s knees for cloth. But we had very poor access to the sea. So, what we did was we constructed this canal in order to bring in the cloth and little lighters and little barges. And it worked – for a while.

    Sam Willis

    So, it kept Exeter connected to the rest of the world. Is it right to think of Exeter as an international city?

    Dr Todd Gray

    At that point our cloth was being sold to Germany, Belgian, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and then later on North America, a little bit to Africa, China, India, West Indies; we developed this incredible network of markets, and we were very good at it. And then we lost out to the north and to the East Anglia, but for a while, Exeter needed this canal to bring the goods funnelling from Exeter to places all over the world.

    Sam Willis

    And how did it work – actually getting the cloth down to the sea? Was it shipped on smaller vessels and then brought here to the sea?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Yes, only small barges and lighters; the canal was only three feet deep. So, you couldn’t have a ship and come in. You transported it from a vessel – come up Exe estuary, go off of Topsham, or one of the little places there, brought on board these tiny little barges, up the Exe and back again. But all the time, they will also pack horses. So, merchants were continually wondering what was cheaper, what was better to go by the canal or go by a little horse or pony. So, Exeter had to continually up its game with a canal. So, we see this series of innovations and renovations all desperately trying to keep Exeter on top of things.

    Sam Willis

    So, this was all in the 1560s; we’re now standing at the end of the canal but it’s much much longer. This was extended in the 19th century – what was happening in Exeter then?

    Dr Todd Gray

    By the early 1800s, the cloth trade of Exeter had slipped, and the money was leaving Exeter. 1560s Exeter is leading the country – 1800-1820 we’re catching up. So, the council had a choice: Exeter city council said to itself, how do we bring back trade? Some people said why don’t we do railways, but Exeter knew railways were going to die out they were nothing that was going to be of any lasting benefit. Put your money back into the ship canal. It worked for the Elizabethans; it will work for us. So, they reinvested, extended the canal even further, tried to give more depth so bigger vessels could come through because they hadn’t been, put in more water divert streams and brooks, and it just didn’t work; Exeter had lost it sort of competitive edge, it bankrupts the city. They put in a new canal basin, and they were all waiting for these ships to arrive which they just didn’t do. But what Exeter didn’t realise was the world had changed around it. So, the canal now is one of Exeter’s great amenities. But what it is it’s a series of continual change in the economic climate of the world, and the market Exeter was trying to foist its cloth on. And the canal is the only last visual vestige of that, we see in the canal 200 years plus of economics.

    Sam Willis

    Do we know anything about the poor people who dug this by hand?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Oddly enough, we’ve got some very nice documentary evidence. There’s a printed account, which historians have always been a bit suspicious of – a company of heroic women, of a hundred women dressed in white, with straw hat, walking down from Exeter in a procession with a band before them playing the music, all jolly, coming down and in their white dresses they were there digging up the canal and extending it. And, you know, I saw this like everybody else and I thought this sounds a bit suspicious. But then I discovered in Cardiff a few years ago, an account written by a man from East Anglia, who was here, and he watched these people marched down from the city, hundreds of them every day, organized by parishes (and we have over 16 parishes in Exeter), so working-class people would come into a group (Exeter bribed them with free drink and food), they would come down, spend a day digging out the canal and going home and coming back again for another day of drinking and frivolity. So, it’s not quite what we thought it was, but it’s the most extraordinary account of how this was organised for the city at a very cheap rate.

    Sam Willis

    We talked a little bit about the cloth trade, what about the slave trade? As a big maritime city was Exeter involved in that.

    Dr Todd Gray

    The difficulty with Devon’s role in the slave trade is we didn’t have as many voyages as you’d think we had. At the same time, the canal was started, we did the first voyages from Plymouth, with Sir John Hawkins to Africa, which brought Africans across to the Americas. But then there was a lull, and altogether we shipped something like 0.03% of all the slaves, you know, were in Devon ships, and they were less than 40 vessels out of 12,000. So, Exeter and Devon don’t really have the profile of other places. But what it does have is a tremendous account of one vessel, the Daniel & Henry, which goes over to Guinea in about 1700, and its harrowing detail. You know, we can see for a woman she was purchased with a mirror, our man a small barrel of gunpowder, a few knives, purchasing another person; awful, awful details. What’s interesting is this was published in the Mariner’s Mirror ninety-nine years ago, and this was done long before it was a fashionable topic amongst historians. It was just ordinary history. And if it wasn’t for the Mariner’s Mirror then we wouldn’t have this account now.

    Sam Willis

    Let’s go back to the Middle Ages, and we hear of the Countess Wear, a local aristocrat who messed up the river, she messed up the navigation of the river. What’s the story behind that?

    Dr Todd Gray

    In the 1300s and 1400s, we had two aristocratic families, the first started to put weirs down to impede the flow of the river. The second one completely blocked up the river channel. And because they were so powerful locally, you know, Courtney’s nearby, the city couldn’t do anything about it. They tried and they tried, and the Courtney’s were told they had to do something, and they refused because they benefited financially from this.

    Sam Willis

    That they were powering their own mills from the river, were they?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, it was more a case they had the control of the customs at Topsham. So, it was easier for them to have everything landed at Topsham, where they got the customs rather than coming all the way out, and the control of the horses which we’re bringing up all of the goods. But in the 1530s, the Courtney’s fell out of favour through an issue of treason. They were dismissed from court, there were problems with their power base, and the city wrested control of the river from them. And from that, the city then took nearly a generation to come up with the canal.

    Sam Willis

    We’re not far from Powderham Castle and that was very important during the Civil War, as well as Exeter – wasn’t there?

    Dr Todd Gray

    The difficulty of the canal and the Civil War was it was placed between Powderham, there’s Topsham, and then Exeter – all scenes of frenetic activity in the Civil War. Exeter declares for parliament: it’s besieged by the royalists; it’s taken over by the royalists for most of the war; then it’s besieged by Parliament, it’s taken over by them, and throughout this, the canal falls into disrepair and danger. There are skirmishes all around and the canal emerges in the 1650s in a very sorry state.

    Sam Willis

    We can also hear trains whizzing past us – how important was the railway system to the fate of Exeter?

    Dr Todd Gray

    What’s interesting about the train, which is virtually parallel to the canal, is we have the canal which is the 16th-century saviour of the city for its economy; 19th century the trains didn’t save the economy in the way expected but what it does is it brings in tourism and we have a complete shift. Economic decline in Exeter in the early 1800s, people come down later on and they see this beautiful old-world city, they say it’s unchanged; it’s old England. They’re looking at urban poverty for two generations. But the railway brings people down and revitalises the economy: first with coastal resorts, but then with Exeter itself. So, the railway in a funny way is its saviour despite the fact that the city council didn’t want it to be here in the first place.

    Sam Willis

    It’s fascinating, now we’re out here that Exeter is a maritime city but it’s a seriously difficult city to get to by sea – the navigations appalling. And it’s not like Plymouth or Dartmouth.

    Dr Todd Gray

    But it’s more like Bristol.

    Sam Willis

    Yes.

    Dr Todd Gray

    With this torturous river to go through. And yet Bristol thrives because of other things. Plymouth – tremendous harbour and yet the trade of Plymouth is never great. And Plymouth only really does well I think during times of war with the naval side. You know, money goes out of the Navy and Plymouth starts to do poorly again.

    Sam Willis

    And you got tens of thousands of people there needing to be fed and looked after with a Navy and the ships need to be looked after. So, there’s so much work there

    Dr Todd Gray

    So, there’s that kind of work rather than the sort of trade which Exeter has – so it’s like Devon’s poor – if that makes sense?

    Sam Willis

    Absolutely. What I think is interesting about this estuary as well is the Vikings coming up here. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the Vikings because if there is one, you know, one nation who could trade well with Exeter – you need a shallow drafted boat to actually get to Exeter, so I’m surprised they didn’t stick around.

    Dr Todd Gray

    Well, that’s the funny thing about – I think it’s the year 1003, isn’t it, where they take over the city – burned the city, supposedly to the ground, which is the last huge destruction in Exeter until 1942 with the Germans. But the idea of the Vikings being here, I mean, they would have passed right by at some point.

    Sam Willis

    And they probably got stuck on that sandbank, everyone gets stuck on that sandbank. It’s extraordinary to think. And then they didn’t come back. I think they probably had one look and said that’s not for us.

    Dr Todd Gray

    Yes, there was a big skirmish at Pinhoe. When I gather still in the last few years, they found Viking artefacts in the fields around Pinhoe.

    Sam Willis

    Did they?

    Dr Todd Gray

    Still. I was shown one two years ago – Pinhoe Hoard and just lots of things are found in the fields. There’s a very good group in East Devon of amateur archaeologists who have recorded the items

    Sam Willis

    Really? I’ll have to get in touch with them. And I suppose the point is for the Vikings is there’s no deep inland navigation from Exeter, you can’t really go anywhere inland, which is why they tried to build that canal between Exeter and Bristol in the 19th century.

    Dr Todd Gray

    I mean, it’s interesting, Exeter has a canal at Stover. There’s another one let’s see at the Rolle Canal in the north. And these were a part of that great sort of 19th-century expansion or 18th and early 19th-century expansion. Exeter’s canal is this aberration.

    Sam Willis

    That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed it. Now is the time for me to encourage you all to follow us on social media – to register your appreciation if you are listening via an app on a smartphone. This really, really helps. And thank you all for those of you who have been getting in touch via social media, either with specific questions and suggestions or simply to say hi, and that you are enjoying listening to the podcast, or watching the videos. But best of all, do please join the Society for Nautical Research. It really doesn’t cost very much – you can buy a ticket to attend our annual dinner on HMS Victory, you get four copies a year of the Mariner’s Mirror Journal, which has been published for over a century, and of course, you get access to all of those previous publications online, as well. And of course, you get to join a lovely, sociable and friendly society with regular opportunities to get involved with people, utterly dedicated to the preservation of our maritime past. There’s much more fun stuff coming your way soon, including an interview with the First Sea Lord, and another of those fabulous animations of ship plans – this time we’re making HMS Warrior come alive!

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