Devon's Copper Phoenix

Tony Aldous describes the restoration of Morwellham which was once one of the greatest copper ports in the Victorian empire.

If, in 1969, you had looked for Morwellham, just on the Devon side of the River Tamar, you would have found an overgrown riverbank with few signs that here had once been a place of importance. But in that year a local historian, Frank Booker, published a book which reminded people that Morwell-HAM (that, he insisted, is the correct pronunciation) had once been the greatest copper port in Victoria's empire.

At the Tamar's highest navigable point, it had long been a port of sorts. The monks of the medieval Tavistock Abbey, four miles away across the hills, used it to bring in items not obtainable locally; tin miners shipped their hard-won metal out by it. Packhorses apart, they had little alternative. The winding river with its stone quays was the valley's only highway.

Then copper from mines in the hills, with picturesque names like Wheal Friendship and Wheal Eliza ('wheal' is the Cornish word for mine) boosted traffic. The four-and- a-half-mile Tavistock Canal was built across the heights above Morwellham, one-and-a-half-miles of it in tunnel and linked to the quays below by a water-powered inclined plane railway.

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