Bude to Launceston Canal

Bridgetown Incline on the Bude/Launceston canal.
Bridgetown Incline on the Bude/Launceston canal.

As far back as 1774 an Act had been passed ‘ for making a canal from Bude to the river Tamar in Calstock parish,’ which would have affected the district of Launceston, and a scheme was put forward in 1795 ‘for making a navigation from Morwhelham Quay in Tavistock parish to Tamerton bridge in Cornwall, and also a collateral cut from Poulston bridge in Lifton parish, Devon, to Richgrove (Ridgegrove) Mill in St. Stephen’s parish, Cornwall.’ Both projects failed, but as a result of an Act of 1819 plans were put in place for the construction of the Bude Canal, terminating at Druxton Wharf, some four miles from Launceston (being prevented from being brought nearer to the town by the influence of the Duke of Northumberland, then owner of Werrington). It is rumoured that the Duke was originally receptive to the scheme, but after a meeting to discuss the proposed route of the canal, a mock plan showing the route to pass within a couple of hundred yards to the Duke’s residence at Werrington, was left behind. This joke backfired as the Duke, quite incensed by this, refused to cooperate any further, and so the canal had to be terminated at Druxton.
The well-known engineer James Green and Thomas Shearm, a surveyor, were approached to devise a plan to that end. Green’s conclusions included the factor that because of rising land and a poor supply of water, most of the ascents would be by inclined planes, which were cheaper to construct, saved water and were quicker to use than a flight of locks. The canal for the first 2 miles would be a broad canal, capable of taking vessels of 40-50 tons. At the seaward entrance, a sea lock would be constructed to allow sailing vessels of 70-100 tons to be admitted to the basin for trading. In 1835 the Sea Lock was enlarged to its current dimensions to take larger seagoing vessels of up to 300 tons. Green also recommended a breakwater to protect and improve the harbour area. This would include changing the course of the River Neet from discharging along the northern edge of Summerleaze Beach, to its present course, which would create a channel to give depth for vessels manoeuvring on neep tides. Inland from the end of the broad canal, the canal was to be narrower and use tub boats, which had wheels to traverse up and down the inclined planes. Power was by a continuous chain towing the trains of tub boats up and down the plane. The chain was driven by power from the underground waterwheels set in wheelpits at the head of the plane. This was to be the means of power for 5 of the 6 planes namely, Marhamchurch, Venn, Merrifield, Tamerton and Werrington. The largest plane at Thurlibeer, now called Hobbacott Down, which was 935 feet long and raised the level of the canal 225 feet, used water power, but in the form of counter balancing ‘buckets of water (‘cysterns) in 2 wells of 225 feet depth. Each ‘bucket’ 9” diameter, 5’6” depth and holding 15 tons of water, would rise and fall in the wells. A valve on the bottom of the ‘bucket’ released the water, which returned to the canal via an adit tunnel emptying into the boat bays at the foot of the plane.
James Green estimated that the total cost of the construction of the canal and improvements to the harbour to £128,341. After consideration, the proposers applied for an Act of Parliament, which was obtained in 1819. The same year the Bude Harbour and Canal Company was formed, amongst the 330 shareholders was James Green who had been appointed engineer in charge of construction. Work commenced on 23rd July 1819 and was eventually completed in 1825, although the canal was in operation by 1823. The final cost was just below £120,000. The canal as built was 35 ½ miles in total and comprised of the main line from Bude to Blagdon Moor Wharf, near Holsworthy, with a branch from Red Post to Druxton Wharf, nr. Launceston and a feeder arm from the newly constructed Tamar Lake (now Lower Tamar Lake) to feed the canal with water. The canal was unique, in that it was constructed for agricultural purposes, the transporting of lime rich sand for the improving of soil.
The tub boats were 20 feet (6.1 m) long and 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) wide, and carried about 20 tons payload; the usage of tub boats was not confined to the Bude Canal. They were commonly operated by coupling between 4 and 6 together and hauling them – by horse power – together. A “train” of boats could therefore be 120 feet (37 m) long, and on the very sinuous alignment of the canal, the train must have been difficult to pass round sharp curves. Steering was possible by manually altering the connection between adjacent boats, using handspikes.
Each boat had four wheels 14 inches (360 mm) in diameter for running on the inclined planes; the boats were hauled up and down individually.
The operation of lining the tub boats up with the rails, at transfer from canal to plane, must have been difficult. Once engaged with the continuous chain, it would have been impracticable to stop the motion momentarily while the wheels were guided to the rail channels; but no record is available as to how this was achieved.

Bude Canal c.1920
Bude Canal c.1920

On completion of the canal, the owning company was constantly short of cash, and inevitably income did not reach the levels predicted at the stage of promoting the canal. In addition, serious problems with the state of the newly finished works were discovered, although in the circumstances of a locally promoted scheme with novel technological aspects, the canal as built was better engineered than it might have been. The chains on the inclined planes were constantly breaking, the rails broke, and other mechanical failures were frequent, and physical damage from careless boat handling was also common.
However the rich sand was successfully carried to farms near the various wharves in large quantities, and other merchandise was also carried, particularly coal from South Wales. Traffic picked up in the 1880’s, and when the London and South Western Railway reached Holsworthy, the canal carried significant volumes of the sand to Stanbury Wharf for onward conveyance by railway; the mile or so between the wharf and the railway station must have been negotiated by horse and cart. By 1865, the Launceston and South Devon Railway had reached Launceston. There were plans to extend the Railway line to Druxton Wharf from Launceston, but this never came to fruition, possibly due to the cost.
Nonetheless the arrival of the railway soon spelt the ultimate doom of the canal: manufactured fertilisers had become commonplace and cheap, and they could be brought in by railway, so that the demand for the local sand was diminished considerably.
When it became obvious that the canal could not survive, some directors proposed obtaining parliamentary authority for abandonment, or selling the canal outright to the railway company, or anyone else. However legal conditions agreed at the time of construction gave certain landowners rights to take water from the canal, and they would not give up these rights without compensation, so for the time being the proposals for disposal were frustrated. Finally abandonment of the tub boat operation took place on 14 November 1891 with the Launceston main line and the Holsworthy branch being abandoned, but the Feeder arm continuing to be kept open because of the water rights. After protracted negotiations the remainder of the canal was bought by Stratton and Bude Urban District Council, on 1 January 1902, and this enabled them to supply domestic water in due course to the villages in the district from the canal’s Tamar reservoir. The works became the responsibility of North Cornwall District Council when English local government was reorganised in 1974.

bude-sea-lock   druxton-wharf

                  Above Bude sea lock.                                                                      Above all that remains of the canal at Druxton Wharf.