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Morwellham, Devon

Featured Location Guide

"A part of the World Heritage Site - Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape"

Morwellam or Morwellam Quay, is a 200 acre historic park, on the Devon side of the Devon and Cornwall border. It contains a port, mine, village set in the Victorian period with costumed staff. It is the terminus for the Tavistock Canal and a narrow gauge railway. There are also walks and a farm.

The most memorable features are the mine, you are transported by tramway through a light and commentary display, the 32ft overshot water wheel, the quay complete with sailing ship you can climb on, and overhead railway, the Victorian school, the assayers' offices, Victorian cottages and farm.

The Industrial Heritage Museum is an Anchor Point of ERIH, The European Route of Industrial Heritage.

So what can you expect to experience here:-

  • Architecture and heritage Historic port, water wheel, houses, and country setting for an old age industrial site.

  • Costume - Living history guides wearing replica Victorian clothing help you get the most out of your visit. You can try on costumes yourself - no age restrictions, adult and children's seizes available.

  • Tram into the copper mine - a riverside tramway ride deep into the George & Charlotte copper mine with its underground waterwheel. (Probably can't take flash photos inside).

  • Life aboard - The 'Garlandstone', a Tamar ketch that has been restored to her original 1909 condition. Go on board and hear about life at sea.

  • Life in Victorian Britain - well this part of it anyway. Visit port-workers' cottages or a miners hovel,  workshops and Chandlers Shop, Assayers' office Learn how to make a cask, help to make rope and watch the assayer at work. Discover what school was like in the 1840's and enjoy the forgotten games of childhood.

  • The tavern - The Ship Inn, originally a 16th century inn, the 'Ship' offers simple, tasty meals and refreshments in the ambience of a Victorian country tavern.

  • Country life - A  farm yard with goats, sheep and other animals according to season. Shire horses draw carriages into the village centre.

  • Wildlife Reserve - Follow nature trails through the woodland - discover the bird watching hides.


Morwellham Quay is on the River Tamar, about 23 miles (37 km) from the sea, and was the furthest point inland to which the river was navigable.

It was originally set up by the Cistercian monks of Tavistock Abbey, which was founded in 961, to carry goods to and from Plymouth on the River Tamar, since the River Tavy was un-navigable.

By the 12th century, tin ore was being transported through the quay, followed by lead and silver ores in the 13th century. Later, copper deposits were also discovered at the Quay itself and the George and Charlotte Mine opened in the 18th century. In addition, by 1800, manganese deposits were being extracted from the northern and western edges of Dartmoor and 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 1.5 mile tunnel which ended 237 feet above the quay at Morwellham. From here an incline plane was constructed to bring the iron barges down to the quay, powered by a water wheel, (more below).

The heyday for Morwellham Quay came when the largest and richest copper deposits ever were discovered at the Devon Great Consols just 4 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 Queen Victoria's Empire", and the Queen herself visited in 1856. Another incline 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. Arsenic was also extracted and it became the world's largest supplier of the mineral in the later part of the century. However by 1903 the Consols' wealth was exhausted and the mines closed.

By this stage, the railways had taken over and Morwellham's usefulness was also ended. The canal tunnel was used as a water supply for a hydroelectric plant and the incline planes were abandoned.

Canal and first incline plane

It had served Tavistock as a port since before 1200, but the final overland route to Tavistock was difficult, particularly in winter. John Taylor, a local civil engineer with interests in the mining of metal ores, conceived the plan for a canal. A tunnel, 2,540 yards, nearly 1.5 miles long was needed under Morwell Down, its construction and the completion of the canal took fifteen years.

The  tunnel was cut through rock, was of small bore, and required Taylor to construct two types of pump, one to keep the workings drained, and the other to clean the air.  Both were powered by water wheels, driven by the canal water. The tunnel, which was driven through elvan rock and killas clay-slate, is 360ft (110 m) below Morwell Down at its deepest point, and it was finished in 1816. At the tunnel's southern end, the canal was on the 250ft contour, and Taylor constructed an incline plane to drop the level by 237ft (72.3 m) to the quay at Morwellham. This was powered by a large pitchback waterwheel, alongside the winding house at the head of the incline, which was fed with water from the canal. Four-wheeled tipping wagons ran initially on cast iron plate rails and later on wrought iron edge rails, and the system was controlled by a de-clutchable winch driven by the water wheel. Chains, later replaced by cables, were used for haulage on two separate lines, one down to the river quays, the other to ore-chutes above the Lower Copper Quay. Much of the construction work had been done by French prisoners of war.

The canal is unusual in that it was built with a gentle slope of about 1ft per mile (20cm per km). This was designed to attract industry to its banks, as it resulted in a flow of water along the canal, which aided the passage of boats towards the quay, and also enabled the powering of waterwheels along the route. Between 1817 and 1819, a 2 mile (3.2 km) extension was constructed to the slate quarries and a general wharf at Mill Hill. This lasted until 1846, when it was converted into a tramway.

It carried slate, silver-lead ore and copper ore from the Tavistock area to the quay, and general goods including limestone, coal, iron and timber for Tavistock in the reverse direction. For nearly 40 years it was a profitable concern, carrying over one million tons of cargo during this period. None of the boats survive but one report says they were 30 feet in length, 5 feet in width, and made of riveted iron, while an earlier description from 1826 gives the width as 4 feet 6 inches wide by 2 feet 6 inches deep. Its probably that there was a variety.

Decline of canal, new tramway and second incline plane

In 1844, the largest load of copper ore in Europe was discovered just 4 miles (6.4 km) from Morwellham Quay, but the canal was unable to profit from the discovery, as the ore, which was mined by the Devon Great Consols company lay in a different direction to the canal. However, in 1857-58 the mining company built a tramway from the mine to the quay, it may have been a standard gauge railway, accounts differ on this. It arrived above the quay on the 400ft (122m) contour, and a second incline plane was constructed, which ran through a tunnel beneath the village green.  The passage of boats through the tunnel was speeded up in 1855 by using a system of ropes powered by waterwheels to pull the boats through, but traffic and profits continued to fall. Gradually the mines that supplied much of the canal's traffic closed, and by 1873 the canal had ceased to be navigable. It continued to be used to supply water to various industrial activities at Morwellham Quay. The last of these was to operate a tin and wolfram mill at the Bedford United Mine, a supply which ceased in 1930. In 1933 the canal was purchased by the West Devon Electric Supply Co. Ltd, who constructed a hydro-electric power plant at Morwellham Quay utilising the canal and tunnel as a water supply. The power plant and canal now belong to South West Water, and still feed power to the UK National Grid. Excavations in 2006–2007 uncovered the tunnel on the second incline plane, part of which is now being restored.

In recent years

Parts of the railway track bed that connected the Quay to mines further up the Tamar Valley are to undergo major restoration works and there will be a new viewing area where visitors can look out over the Great Dock and the rest of the village. There will also be new, state-of-the-art interpretation facilities.

The Quays will be resurfaced, the Garlandstone – the boat at Morwellham Quay - is to be refurbished, the overhead railway repaired and much of the industrial archaeology reinterpreted.

Robert Waterhouse, the archaeologist commissioned by the Morwellham Trust, has discovered some very early railway lines and a granite turntable which pre-dates Stephenson’s Rocket and is thought to date back to around 1816. Also unearthed is a large area of cobbled quay in remarkable condition. The railway was part of the incline plane which ran from the Tavistock Canal and was the first incline railway in the UK associated with a lime kiln. He said: “Until today it wasn’t known what sort of railway ran up the incline but it is now clear from the rail impressions in the granite slabs that it was the same as the one that ran down the incline from Tavistock. That enables us to date it to around 1816-1817. This is unique in the UK as a plateway serving a lime kiln. The one at Morwellham was probably the prototype for only four others in the area and is extremely rare.

The canal between Tavistock and the Quay opened in 1817. The canal ended 237 feet above the Quay so an incline railway powered by a waterwheel with two lines was built to lower and raise wagons onto the Quay. The rails were an early form of plateway where the flangeless wagon wheels were guided by flanged rails pinned onto granite sleeper blocks.

The incline railway may be reconstructed as part of the Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project.

Its not clear how much of this can be seen now.


Its a few years since I last visited, going there to take photographs for a magazine feature. Its an interesting site with a variety of experiences, and topics. The costumed guides were informative and enjoyed explaining things to people. Children in particular loved to join in, playing games, dressing up and exploring.

Since that time a lot of investment has gone in, and renovations done, and perhaps more is now there.

Their website is flashy with lots of pictures but lacks substance, for example it does not mention access details for those less able or other restrictions, its only a few pages in size. But don't let this put you off.

I would like to make another visit, but perhaps will wait until I am going to be in the area.

Further information Grid



Morwellam or Morwellam Quay, Devon

Ceremonial County: Devon

Grid Reference:


Map Link:

multimap        google maps  

Aerial photo: google    Multimap 



Best Times to Visit:






Other useful websites:


Wiki - Cornwall and West Devon Mining landscape

Wiki - Tavistock Canal

Nearby Locations: Geevor Tin Mine, Pendeen, Cornwall
Other Relevant pages:

Living History Section

List of Living History Museums

Living history museums introduction

World Heritage Sites     

World Heritage Sites - Further Information

World Heritage Sites in the UK



Planning Grid


Morwellam or Morwellam quay

Grid Reference:


Getting there:

From Tavistock in Devon, follow the brown signs - take the A390 towards Liskeard and bear left after two miles.

From Cornwall, follow the signs on the A390 towards Tavistock and turn right after 1 mile after Gunnislake Bridge.







Things To Do, See and Photograph:

Historic items, people in costume, quay and ship, farm animals, wildlife, and more.

What to take:


Nature highlights:



Morwellham Quay

Near Tavistock



PL19 8JL


Enquiries: 01822 832766
Information: 01822 833808

Opening times:


Events list


Entry to the general site is free, Parking £2 per vehicle.

A Passport Ticket allows entry to Riverside Railway & Underground Guided Tour of the Copper Mine, Morwellham Victorian School Room Experience, Copper dressing on the Ore Floor, Ropemaking on the Quay, and Rope Walk.

The day passports costs Adults £8.50; Children £6;

Students and Seniors £7.50, Family £22.

Photo Restrictions:

None stated

Other Restrictions: None known
Special Needs Access: Most of the site is accessible, but with older buildings doors may be narrow, and paths less easily travelled. Its some time since I visited but I don't remember any steep or difficult areas but it may be worth giving them a call to check its suitable for you.
Special Needs Facilities: Not stated on website
Children Facilities: Not stated on website, but caters for school groups so generally suitable for children.
Dogs Allowed: Not stated on website, assume guide dogs are OK, another tourism site says dogs on leads are allowed except in the nature reserve.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.


By: Keith Park Section: Living History Section Key:
Page Ref: morwellham Topic:  Living History Last Updated: 07/2009

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