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  A brief history of the canal  


Exeter Ship Canal was opened in 1566, built to bypass weirs that had been erected on the River Exe and thus enable goods to reach the port of Exeter—originally in barges, later in ocean-going ships. Following successive enlargements and extensions it reached its present form in the 1830s, when the canal basin was also built. As with canals elsewhere its commercial viability was undermined when the railways arrived. The Friends of this historic canal are determined that it should continue as an active, functioning waterway, as well as a recreational focal point for Exeter’s citizens and visitors.

Key dates in the canal’s history


1563    Canal commissioned. John Trew, of Glamorgan, appointed engineer.


1566    Opening of the original canal 1¾ miles long, approx 16 feet wide and 3 feet deep.


1676    Canal extended ½ mile south towards Topsham to encourage craft of up to 60 tons.


1701    Canal widened and deepened to 42 feet wide and 14 feet deep for craft of 150 tons.   Double Locks Hotel built as a lock keeper’s cottage.


1827     Canal extended two miles south to the present entrance at Turf Lock, giving access to craft of 400 tons.


1830    City Basin built to enable vessels to load and unload regardless of whether the  River Exe was in flood. It gave access to deeper vessels that could not reach the  City Quay via the shallower river.


1832    Topsham Lock built by Act of Parliament to allay Topsham traders’ fears of being by-passed by the extension to Turf.


1960s - 1972     Coasters ceased using the Canal to deliver fuel and timber.


1975     M5 motorway bridge built restricting air draft to 10 metres.


1978     RPA Management Consultants prepare a report for city council to attract  investment in the waterway.


1990s   New lock gates at Turf, Double Locks and Kings Arms Sluice.


1997     Exeter Maritime Museum based at the City Basin forced to close.


1998     The South West Water Authority’s sludge vessel, M.V. Countess Wear, ceases its  daily voyage out to sea of Exmouth because of EU legislation banning dumping at sea.


2003    Boat owners and residents win a battle against development of the Basin because of the strength of public hostility to the plans.


2012     Building begins of Haven Banks Outdoor Education Centre on one of Exeter Canal and Quay Trust’s boat storage areas. Opened in 2013.


2015     Exeter City Council, faced with spending cuts, announces a waterways review.


2016    Friends of Exeter Ship Canal established.



Historic pictures courtesy of Exeter Memories (

Kings Arm Sluice around 1900
Ships went to the Quay before the Canal Basin opened
The tanker Guidesman on the Canal in the 1960s
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