We met our guide on the Quay at 11.00am for a short talk and then a walk along the Quay passing what appeared to be a metal bollard where boats could tie up. In fact, we were told this was originally the barrel of a cannon which had been turned on end, half buried and used for ships to be moored for unloading at the Transit Shed with its weighbridge and nearby Custom House.
Before crossing the river on Cricklepit Bridge (where Peter pointed out the end of the two leats which brought water from higher up the river) Peter talked to us about the Romans and their wonderful wall which somewhat disintegrated after their departure. Great efforts were subsequently made to strengthen it to keep the Vikings out. This wasn’t very successful as they burnt the city down (with good reason in that our famously-named Ethelred the Unready had rather foolishly murdered some legally settled Vikings, including the Viking king’s sister).
In the late 13th century Countess Isabella built a weir which meant ships could no longer reach Exeter and Topsham became the main port. However, in the late 1560s a canal was built to enable ships up to 10 tons to reach Exeter again.
In 1821, James Green, the County Surveyor, took on the task of widening the canal and then lengthened it in 1824. In 1830 the basin was opened. This widening and lengthening meant 400-ton vessels could now proceed from Turf Locks to the new basin. There is a plaque commemorating James Green on what is now the Imperial – where he once lived.
We looked at all the little businesses along the quay being built into the hillside and originally designed to store imported goods and looked up at the Custom Walk, a path above the businesses used by Customs authorities to check on the activities with a view as to whether taxes had been paid on the goods.
The wool trade made Exeter one of the largest and richest cities in England. Many traces of the industry can still be found. Weaving the fabric was a cottage industry but then the lanolin had to be removed. In Exeter, urine was used and this was called tucking. The serge was then teased and sheered. It was dried carefully and, to prevent shrinkage, it was hooked on racks called tenters so that the cloth would retain its shape and size as it dried (hence the word tenterhooks meaning being in a state of suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenters - comes from the Latin , to stretch). There were very many rack fields in Shilhay and also 9 foundries – including one making paper.
Peter told us about Samuel Jones - now the name of a pub. He was born in 1832 and by 1878 had developed bonded warehouses still on the Quay today. He was very successful and used his earnings for many philanthropic activities. He started the Digby Asylum and, to care for girls & young women “in moral danger”, he built what is now the Kingdom Hall in Holloway Street. He became a very popular and successful Mayor.
The Kennaways were adventurers and in the late 1700s they switched from serge to wine and spirits. Two family members got rich abroad working for the East India Company, came back and bought Escot House but in 1808 it burnt down. Kennaway House in Sidmouth, however, is a fine Regency building open to the public and well worth a visit.
The wool trade diminished around 1700 because of competition from the north of England where they had the advantage of a ready supply of coal. We had to import all ours. Also our overseas markets were greatly diminished due to the American War of Independence and then the Napoleonic wars. By 1956 the port saw only one vessel per day and 1973 saw the last commercial vessel.
There has been a ferry here since the 1300s. It fell into disrepair but in 1989 money was raised for a new ferry which we can see today.
The Brunel railway arrived in Exeter St David’s in 1844. Freight lines went to the docks of course and beside the still-existing turntable can be seen three rails – so that both wide gauge and standard gauge could come in to the Quay.
From this side of the river we saw where the Shute Brook entered the river (right by Larkbeare House!). When it was realised that cholera contamination resulted, this was closed and the brook redirected to empty more safely elsewhere.
Further down the Canal we came to Willey's Bridge (built to enable workers at the Willey factory quick passage from housing built in Heavitree). From there we headed back passing some factories now turned into elegant housing.
We could see the land belonging to Larkbeare House which was bought in 1737 by John Baring. He was a wealthy cloth manufacturer from Germany who had settled in England in 1717. He built a serge manufactory beside the house. On his death his son, Charles, remained in the house while his elder son, John, moved into Mount Radford House and purchased a fulling mill in Exwick to supply the Larkbeare manufactory with cloth. The third son, Francis, moved to London as a merchant, finding new markets for their cloth. Francis also founded the merchant bank, Baring Brothers.
As the wool trade deteriorated so did the house. The Barings left it in1819 and in 1889 the house was partly demolished when Holloway Street was widened.
We saw the mill at Trews Weir which from 1780 until 1812 produced cotton employing 300 people. Then it lay idle. A Mr Heathcote came down followed by his 200-strong workforce perhaps to take it over but decided to settle in Tiverton. In the 1980s the mill was manufacturing high quality paper and in fact was chosen to produce wedding stationery for Prince Charles & Diana.
We continued our walk past the Port Royal pub and ended our visit at the Custom House where we could examine at our leasureJohn Abbot's superb plasterwork ceiling.