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COLYTON: Colyton could have been a very different place

Thursday, 05 December 2013


EAST DEVON could have looked a very different place if civil engineers of the 1800s pulled off ambitious plans for a canal from Stolford in Somerset to Beer.
Colyton parish councillor Ken Clifford recently visited the Devon Record Office in Exeter, originally to look up the old course of the River Coly following flooding, but instead he came across 19th century plans for the huge canal, which would have been used to transport blue lias from Somerset, chalk and lime from Chard and Beer and Beer stone by water.
Following original proposals for a canal in 1792, noted civil engineer Thomas Telford carried out a survey in 1824 for a canal 15 feet deep, including 30 locks and a floating wooden harbour in Beer, to carry vessels of up to 200 tonnes. The canal would have started in Stolford, near Weston-super-Mare, and passed through Ilminster, Chard, Tytherleigh, Axminster, Woodhaye Farm, Shute, Colyton, Seaton and finally to the new harbour at Beer, saving ships having to travel around Cornwall where several were wrecked. The canal would also pass through a tunnel to be created through White Cliffs at Seaton Hole, near Beer.
William Hanning was chairman of the company leading the project and Sir William Pole of Shute and Lord Rolle of Bicton were the main financial backers, owning most of the land along the proposed route, which would provide revenue for their investment.
Infamous smuggler Jack Rattenbury, from Beer, who was employed by Lord Rolle on his estate at the time, was sent to London to give evidence about the sea conditions of Lyme Bay before permission was granted for the project. He enjoyed a daily allowance for three weeks in the captial city before a decision was made.
An Act of Parliament in 1825 gave permission for the canal to be built, with the government also offering an £80,000 loan with four per cent interest for 19 years. Subscribers paid a further £43,000, reaching the total of £123,000 for the East Devon section of the canal. The entire project from Somerset to Beer was estimated to cost £1,712,844 and would bring in £15,245 a year in profit.
However, the proposals were eventually scrapped and the canal never built. It is thought that great stoms in 1826 damaged the initial structure of the wooden harbour at Beer, discouraging those leading the project from taking it any further.
Councillor Clifford said: “It would even today be a massive undertaking before considering the financial implications. Our forebarers of those days seemed to love a challenge and a positive can-do attitude prevailed in Britain during these times.” He added that it was a shame that the project could not be pulled off, as it would have boosted today’s tourism industry in the area.

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