Morwellham Quay was originally set up by the Benedictine monks of Tavistock Abbey (founded in 961) to carry goods to and from Plymouth on the River Tamar, since the River Tavy was unnavigable. By the 12th century, tin ore was being transported through the quay, followed by lead and silver ores in the 13th century. In the early 1700s, copper deposits in the form of Chalcopyrite were also discovered at the quay itself and the George and Charlotte Mine opened. Access was by three adits – Shallow, Middle and Deep. By 1800, manganese deposits were being extracted from the northern and western edges of Dartmoor and also being brought to Morwellham.
By the end of the 18th century, the trail of pack horses across the rugged terrain was too much, and in 1817 the 4.5 mile long Tavistock Canal was opened. The canal included a one and a half mile tunnel which ended 237 feet above the quay at Morwellham. From here an inclined plane was constructed to bring the iron tub barges down to the quay, powered by a water wheel.
The heyday for Morwellham Quay came with the discovery of the largest and richest copper deposits ever at the Devon Great Consols mine, just four miles to the north in 1844. £1 shares were soon worth £800 as the rush to extract the ore started. This gave rise to Morwellham’s fame as the ‘richest Copper port in the Empire’, and Queen Victoria herself visited in 1856. A second inclined plane was built to transport the ore down the hill and a new quay was added to handle the 30,000 tons of ore that were exported each year. To complete the metallic mix, arsenic was also extracted and it became the world’s largest supplier of the mineral in the latter part of the 19th century. Between 1848 and 1858 Morwellham was England’s busiest inland port.
The George and Charlotte mine closed in 1869 and by 1903 the Consols’ wealth too was exhausted and the mines closed. By this stage, the railways had taken over and Morwellham’s usefulness as a port was also ended. The canal and tunnel were bought in 1933 by the West Devon Electric Supply Company and used as a water supply for hydroelectric plant. This is now owned by South West Water and still operational.
The inclined planes were abandoned, although recent archaeological work has led to limited restoration. An open-air museum was opened on the site in 1968 which was developed to include a train trip into the abandoned copper mine on the site. The site’s importance was emphasised in 2006 when UNESCO added the Cornwall and East Devon Mining Landscape Area to the register of World Heritage sites, with Morwellham forming one of the eastern-most components.
Sadly in 2009 Devon County Council withdrew funding for the museum, which for a short while was placed into administration. Happily in April 2010 the site was purchased and it reopened to the public later in the same year although the charitable trust which managed the site has since been wound up.
On arrival at Morwellham Quay, we headed towards the narrow-gauge railway which takes visitors to the George and Charlotte copper mine – its entrance is cut into the side of a hill overlooking the River Tamar. We climbed up a steep woody incline and reached the battery-driven tram train which was waiting for us on the half-mile stretch of 2-feet (61 cm) gauge track. Our guide and driver, Mine Manager Rick Stewart – known to many of us from NAMHO weekends – welcomed us.
Underground train ride
We squeezed ourselves into the three narrow carriages with their semi-partitioned solid metal and wire mesh fronts and clattered off on our journey, stopping when we came to a sign which read ‘Danger Old Mine Shaft – Keep Off’. There was also another sign which read ‘Footway shaft underneath’. At this point, Rick was heard to radio ‘Rick to Phil’ on his walkie-talkie before we turned left into the mine.
After about 40–50 yards, we came to the Devil’s Kitchen lode, which is about eight feet across. A bit later, we came across a waterwheel which was operated by an iron hand-wheel. This waterwheel was not the original structure, which is believed to have been located nearer to the entrance. We were told that this waterwheel had been included on the tour in order to provide visitors with an idea of how such waterwheels were used to relieve mines of flooding.
There are only five accessible underground water wheels in the UK. Derelict wheels can be found at Ystrad Einon and Nenthead and a poorer example at Allenheads. There are also two in tourist mines at George & Charlotte and Killhope. Although the Morwellham wheel is a 1980s reconstruction, it uses some genuine parts. The axle is believed to have come from Belford Mill near Ashburton and the rims are from one of the Bovey claypits.
Our aluminium hard hat-clad guide informed us of all kinds of interesting facts. We learnt that the mine had been worked on eight levels (the bottom four now flooded) and that it had been 850 feet from top to bottom. We heard how seven- to eight-year-olds had worked on the surface before starting to work underground when they were perhaps eleven or twelve, becoming skilled miners by the time they reached their late teens.
We also learnt that it had taken five to six hours to bore a slot hole into the rock using a borer and a sledgehammer, this being necessary so that gunpowder could be placed in the rock and fired. We also heard about the role of the bal maidens, who used to process copper ore at the surface, all such processing being undertaken by hand. Bal is the Cornish word for mine; reminding us that Cornwall was literally a stone’s throw across the River Tamar below.
The typical working week here had been eight hours a day for six days a week and it had been possible to earn £6 a month, which was a reasonable wage in the early part of the nineteenth century. The demise of the mine had come after the arrival of cheaper foreign imports of copper, which had caused the workers to move to more profitable mines in Cumbria, County Durham and abroad, with the mine finally being closed in 1869.
On leaving the mine we could see a bent stack on a hill in the distance. This had been part of another works which had been established in the course of diversification in the area. Rick mentioned the calcining of ores in the process of the production of pesticides.
After our trip into George and Charlotte Mine, we had an opportunity to explore the rest of the restored Morwellham Quay area. One member of the group, Mark Goffin, had visited the site when it first opened in around 1972. He could remember the docks being completely silted up at that time, so he was pleased to see that the ketch called the Garlandstone had now been released from its muddy repository.
Other particular points of interest were a manganese mill (manganese ore also being commonly mined in the region), a bread kiln, a lime kiln, a blacksmith’s smithy, a carpenter’s workshop, a cooper’s workshop and assayer and wharfinger Mr Medlen’s Copper Ore Cottage. The on-site pub sadly no longer hadits licence and has become a cafeteria.