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River Tamar

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The Tamar has been the official boundary between Cornwall and Devon since Saxon times. The history and development of the area has been dependent on the river, historically as a transport route and in recent times as a tourism and leisure facility. In fact, the use of the river for pleasure dates back to Victorian times, when steamers brought visitors including the Queen and her family in 1856.

"To Cotehele and Calstock

The Sir Francis Drake, in her excursion up the Tamar, to Cotehele and Calstock, on Tuesday se'ennight, had on board nearly three hundred passengers. There was a band of music on board, which played during the progress of the steamer up and down the river; and the weather being remarkably fine, nothing, we think, could exceed the enjoyment everyone experienced."

The West Briton, 24 July 1840

The Tamar was originally used to carry agricultural produce from the fertile valley slopes downstream to the markets of Plymouth and beyond and in return lime, manure, coal and 'dock dung' (sweepings from the streets of Plymouth) were imported to the many small quays along this stretch of the river.

In the mid-19th century a fleet of sailing barges and schooners, locally manned and built in Calstock's 2 shipyards, carried ores downstream and returned with limestone from Plymouth and coke for burning it.  With the development of local granite quarries larger craft including steamers from France, Germany, Italy and Russia were no uncommon sight at Kelly Quay.

From Gunnislake to Cotehele Quay

New Bridge

Begun by Sir Piers Edgcumbe in Henry VIII's reign, on the site of previously existing weirs.

Gunnislake New Bridge

Morwellham Quay and Rocks

Morwellham Rocks
Postcard (source unknown), used 1938

For information and more photographs, see the website of the Morwellham and Tamar Valley Trust.


The children's playing fields were just known to locals as Copy, even as late as the 1960s. The name derives from the fact that copper ores were once loaded on to ships at that location. Some evidence still remains.

The area contained swings, a paddling pool and a large field for games of football etc. It was located to the right of the Memorial Hall in the photograph below.

Calstock Memorial Hall
Frith's Series Postcard

In the second half of the 19th century,  "all along the river bank from Ashburton Hotel at the west end of Calstock to the New Bridge at Gunnislake" could be heard the "rattle of windlass, weighing of anchor and the vibrating chatter of old winches".

Towards the end of the 19th market boats such as the "Ariel" & the "Empress" carried passengers every day to Plymouth and brought back tourists as far as Weir Head.  Housewives in stiff white aprons waited to take parties to their cottages for tea.


Shipbuilding was carried out by the Calstock & Devonport Steam Packet Company, Lang & Co. and Goss & Sons, along the lower Kelly waterfront and on the Devon bank, as described in other sections of this website.

An excellent source of information is James Goss - A century of ship-building and life in the Tamar Valley, by R. T. Paige. Unfortunately this is currently out of print, but copies can sometimes be obtained on Ebay, or from booksellers such as ABE Books

Kelly Quays

An illustrated description of the Calstock waterfront in the 19th century can be found on the website of the Tamar Valley AONB - click here to link.

Tourist Information boards located on the Quayside give similar information.  The photograph below shows part of one such board.


In the 19th century, the Tamar Coal, Manure and General Merchandise Company used a rope-haul system to transport coal by railway from the Quay at Calstock up the steep slope to the area known variously as Kelly, Kelly Incline or just Incline Station.

In 1862, the Tamar Coal, Manure, and General Mercantile Company (Limited) offered for sale by auction, the recently-erected quays, limekilns, coal and other stores, dwelling houses, offices, steam railway, extensive river frontage and business goodwill. See this page for further details.

The Tamar, Kit Hill and Callington Railway Company (TKH&CR) was formed to construct a railway to connect Callington and the mines to the quays at Calstock, where the minerals could be loaded into barges on the River Tamar.

Along the quays a variety of ships were built & operated by local people. In the late 1800s, the ECMR  terminus at Williams Quay was leased by Vivian & Sons, smelters and coal dealers of Swansea.  Manure for the farms and coal for the mines was brought in and ore exported.

Sailing barges, carrying loads of between 40 & 70 tons, were used for local cargoes.  Manned by crews of two, difficult meanders were negotiated with the use of 20 foot oars and the easier stretches by 2 huge punting poles.  Steam paddle tugs often towed trains of 3 or 4 barges or schooners.

In the 1890s there were about 20 cargo ships operating on the river.  Captain Samuells owned the "Naiad", the "Jacinte", the "Devonport" & the "Ticino".  Others were jointly owned by the captain of the vessel and members of the local community.  A Calstock-built ship might average between 150 and 300 tons carrying capacity.

More photographs

The completion of the branch railway line in 1908 brought the heavy river traffic virtually to an end, but arsenic still shipped from Calstock as late as 1930.

The Ferries

More photographs


TourismPeople have used the Tamar for pleasure trips for quite some time. As well as the details of a visit by Queen Victoria, mentioned at the top of this page, advertisements have been found in the following publications for the vessels named:

The Bristol Mercury, dated 31 May 1898, the Eleanor of the Saltash, Three Towns, & District Steamboat Co., Ltd.

External Sites

Cornwall Online Parish Clerks

Online Census Project

Cornwall Family History Society

Tamar Valley A.O.N.B.

Cornwall / Calstock

Calstock Archive Trust.



Kelly's Directories for 1893

Callington Railways: Roger Crombleholme, Douglas Stuckey, C.F.D. Whetmath
(currently out of print)



Information is being added to this website on a frequent basis.  Come back again soon for more information about the river

If you have details, photographs etc. which you would like to contribute, please use the 'Contact' link on the left.