The Tavistock Canal- John Taylor’s enduring memorial

My rambling around the life of this mining genius now takes this post to the subject of canals. A canal that contains one of the most amazing civil engineering achievements of its time- The Tavistock Canal. The post also gives me an excuse to give an airing to some photos taken whilst assisting in an official survey of the canal.  An amazing chance to see Taylor’s work close up.Note their is no public access to the canal tunnel; this survey was conducted whilst the waterway was drained for maintenance.

“Few things today are more evocative of the ambitions and energies of the early nineteenth-century leaders of industrial enterprise than this 4 1/2-mile waterway which connects the Tamar to the Tavy.” F Booker, I.A. The Tamar Valley.

This paragraph from Frank Booker captures the boldness displayed by Taylor in his most impressive civil engineering project.  For two miles this canal lies deep underground, in a tunnel driven through the watershed between the Tavy and Tamar.  Once through this barrier Taylor joined the canal with the Tamar with an impressive 237 ft incline plane.

The Western portal

The success of Taylor’s  Wheal Friendship and Wheal Crebor overloaded the antiquated transport system around transport. Laden pack horses and mules tracking the muddy pot holed lanes were an expensive and slow method of moving ore. This spurred Taylor in 1800 to start investigating building a  canal. His concept was wider then just a canal; he also intended the waterway to power waterwheels and open up new mineral resources within its tunnel.


All the land required for the Canal was provided for free by the Duke of Bedford. In return the Duke expected to receive increased dues from Morwhellham quay and mine dues. The canal act was passed in 1803, with the first work starting in August of that year.  1803 turned out to be the start of a long and frustrating construction purpose.  The tunnel was plagued by hard elvan courses, bad air and water ingress into the shafts.

The East Wheal Russel lode within the canal

Taylor solved the bad air problem by inventing an air engine. This was an engine that used water to remove the bad air from the mine, and it was an invention that won Taylor a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts. To solve the problem of water ingress he built a 40 foot water wheel at the northern end of the tunnel that was powered by the flow running  of the canal. Flat rods from the wheel ran over Morwell Down to power pumps on the Tunnel’s shafts.


The tunnel was eventually holed through in August 1816, and the canals opening followed in June 1817. Fourteen years had past since the first work had started on the canal, fourteen years in which about  £70,000 had been spent on its construction.

Dividends started to be paid in 1819, but the canal was destined to be only a modest financial success. This lack of large profits was caused by the short lifespans of Crowndale and Crebor mines combined with a nationwide depression that impacted on the amounts of other cargo.

Traffic improved for a while from the mid 1830s to 1840s but the Canal never became a massively profitable. The failure of the Tavistock Mines and arrival of the railway led to its closure in 1873.


This closure was not the end of the useful life of the Tavistock Canal though. In 1933 is was brought back to life to provide the water supply for a hydroelectric power station, a use it still has today.

The Eastern portal (no public access)

Some figures
Maximum Tonnage carried: 21,571 in 1819
Other Peaks 20,006 in 1837
20,132 in 1847

These indicate a maximum carriage of a about 60 tons per day.

Maximum dues paid of £1,167 in 1837.
Maximum dividends £5 in 1827.


Click here for information about ‘The Last Great Cornish Engineer’


One thought on “The Tavistock Canal- John Taylor’s enduring memorial

  1. Pingback: John Taylor, Mining genius- An index of posts | navsbooks

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