Devon and Cornwall lie far from the industrial heartlands of England, so in the period before the railways supplies of coal and iron were costly and difficult to transport to the mines, quarries and manufactories of the South West. Yet the products of the region – tin, copper, silver, lead, manganese, arsenic, fluorspar, china clay, pottery, slate and granite – were periodically in high demand in the rest of Great Britain and overseas.
Morwellham Quay was the northern limit of navigation of the River Tamar, 23 miles inland from the sea, and linked with the stannary town of Tavistock by the 4½-mile Tavistock Canal and an inclined plane that drops 237 feet down to the river, powered by a 28-foot-diameter overshot waterwheel.
The canal was practically superseded in 1859 by the opening of the South Devon & Tavistock Railway, connecting Plymouth with Tavistock, and was eventually sold to the 9th Duke of Bedford for £3,200 in 1873. It continued in use as a water-supply channel for local industry until 1930. Three years later the West Devon Electric Supply Co Ltd took the canal over to generate hydro-electricity in a power station adjacent to Morwellham Quay which continues in operation in the ownership of South West Water.
Mining in and around the Tamar valley was subject to great fluctuations both in the availability of ore and the strength of the markets. The area was boosted by the discovery in 1844 of a huge lode of copper ore, four miles away at a site that was named Wheal Maria. The lode “was said to span the entire floor of the 10 foot by 10 foot shaft forming a carpet that glittered like gold”.
The Devon Great Consols company was founded in 1846 to develop the mines on the Devon bank of the Tamar Valley. Such was the excitement that £1 shares traded at up to £800 each. The landowners, Francis, 7th Duke of Bedford and his son William, 8th Duke, received a total of £182,036 9s 2d in dues, most but not all as an 8% royalty on the extracted ore.
In 1856 the mines yielded 28,836 tons of ore, and were only limited by the capability of the quay to send the materials away.
Latterly, as the stocks of copper declined in the 1870s, demand for arsenic increased, so that Devon Great Consols became the world’s largest supplier, using the arsenopyrite deposits up to six feet thick which had previously been left as valueless. Arsenic was in demand for use as a pigment and an insecticide.
By the end of the century, however, trade declined and the mines closed in 1901 and were abandoned in 1903.
During the First World War some of the mines reopened for mining arsenic, tin and tungsten and arsenic production continued for a few years after 1918. The Arsenic Chimney of 1922 at Wheal Fanny dates from this final phase of activity.
Morwellham Quay and the New Quay downstream were abandoned until the 1970s when Morwellham was developed as an educational and tourist attraction and New Quay’s derelict buildings were consolidated.
A battery-operated mine railway made possible public access to the George and Charlotte Mine, and allows the public to view the New Quay site without having to walk down the valley.
In 2010, when Devon County Council withdrew its funding support for Morwellham Quay, the site was taken over by Simon and Valerie Lister, the owners of Bicton Park Botanical Gardens near Budleigh Salterton: https://www.morwellham-quay.co.uk.
The 36-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 Railways of Devon tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.