Road, Canal & Railway…
The development of Cornwall’s roads was hugely affected by the duchy’s unique topography and landscape. Cornwall’s rivers run north-south, so all traffic along the peninsula has to cross several valleys; even to enter Cornwall by road the Tamar has to be crossed.
Bodmin Moor represented a large obstacle to travel down the spine of Cornwall. Due to these difficulties and the relative poverty of the area, packhorses for carrying goods were more common than wheeled vehicles well into the C18th. Roads remained narrow and twisting, often sunk between steep banks and keeping to high ground rather than the wet, wooded and difficult river valleys.
Old Routes through Cornwall
Before the coming of turnpike roads in the C18th Cornwall had two main roads coming into and crossing the duchy. One, the post road from London via Exeter, crossed the Tamar at Cremyll Passage and ran along the south coast, through Looe and Fowey to Penzance. The other post road entered Cornwall at Launceston and went around the northern edge of Bodmin Moor, heading to Truro.
A network of well-maintained roads was created across England during the C18th. These helped to improve the movement of goods and passengers throughout the kingdom and greatly stimulated trade. This road system was not set up centrally but organised at a local level and regulated through Acts of Parliament.
Groups of trustees were established to improve and maintain stretches of local road. They were given the right to charge a toll on the people who used it.
The money raised through tolls was used to keep the road in a good condition. Turnpike Trusts carried on being responsible for most main roads in England until the 1870s. The word “turnpike” actually refers to a gate placed across the road at a tollhouse, to stop traffic until a toll was paid.
As in many other counties that were a long way from London, “turnpiking” came quite late to Cornwall. The first turnpike Act for Cornish roads was in 1754, dealing with roads in Truro. Sections of the main Post Road were turnpiked in 1760. The Launceston Trust brought the road over from Devon, and the Haleworthy road continued the route along the northern edge of the duchy through Camelford and Wadebridge.
Soon after this the main town-based trusts were created: Helston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and St Austell turnpike trusts started in 1761. Creed / St Just and Saltash came about in 1762, Penryn in 1763 and Callington in 1764. Finally the Bodmin Turnpike Trust was set-up in 1769, providing for the first time a route over the moor, through the centre of Cornwall.
So by 1770 there were three turnpiked routes into Cornwall, one from Okehampton through Launceston, one over Dartmoor through Tavistock to Callington and one from Plymouth across the three ferries on the lower Tamar. These linked to three principal roads across the duchy to Truro; one from Launceston through either Wadebridge or Bodmin; one through Liskeard from either Callington and one from the Tamar ferries.
In the early 19th century, new Trusts were created to improve roads and especially to meet the needs of local industries, especially mining and quarrying. For example, Trebarwith Sands Road was built in 1825 to move sand in and slate out; Hayle Causeway was constructed between 1825 and 1839; and the Penzance to St Just road was built in 1863, to meet the needs of tin and copper mines on the north Penwith coast.
The Cornish turnpike trusts were significantly affected by the arrival of the railways in the 1850s. After a period of steady decline they were gradually disbanded in the 1870s, when responsibility for Cornish roads was transferred first to local Highways Boards and later, in 1888, to the County Council.
Tollhouses and milestones
Almost 50 of the original 180 tollhouses still survive in Cornwall, and many hundreds of milestones.
Cornwall played an important role in the development of steam locomotion. The first practical vehicle to run under its own steam power was demonstrated in Redruth in 1784 by the Scottish steam engineer William Murdoch. This small model was followed seventeen years later by Richard Trevithick’s steam road carriage, which ran successfully in Camborne on Christmas Eve, 1801. In 1803 at Penydarren Iron Works in South Wales, Trevithick demonstrated the world’s first steam locomotive on rails.
Back in Cornwall, it was the mining and quarrying industries that stimulated the growth of a railway network in the duchy. All of the early lines ran to and from the coast for the import and export of goods, most notably coal (in) and tin and copper ore, quarried stone and china clay (out). These railways continued to use horses to pull the trains of wagons for almost 50 years after Trevithick’s ground-breaking invention.
Shipping and Canals
Canals were generally not a practical option for moving minerals and supplies in Cornwall, partly because many mines were in easy reach of navigable rivers, and many more were on high granite moorland inaccessible by canal. However, some canals were constructed in Cornwall:
- At Carglaze Mine, a tin operation St Austell an underground canal was in operation from around 1720-31, ore being removed from the mine on oak barges floated into it.
- The Liskeard & Looe Union Canal (opened in 1827) connected Moorswater at Liskeard with Looe, to transport copper ore and later granite from Caradon Hill and Cheesewring Quarry to the sea. From 1844 the canal was linked to Caradon Hill by a railway, which was in 1860 extended to Looe and the canal closed. The railway was in places built on top of the canal bed.
- The Bude Canal was built in the early 1820’s to carry calcium-rich sea sand used by farmers as fertiliser for the poor soil to be found further inland. Water was fed into the canal system from the Tamar Lakes. The project was a magnificent engineering feat of its day stretching some 35 miles from Bude to Holsworthy and on to Launceston. The canal fell into disuse after the arrival of the railway in 1902. One of the most spectacular engineering features along the Bude Canal were the inclined planes, which lifted tub-boats 430 feet above sea level only six miles from the coast where the canal meets the sea at Bude sea-lock. It is sobering to remember that all of the construction work, for embankments, aqueducts and the wheel pits for the inclined planes was done using picks and shovels.
- The Par Canal (opened in 1829) was constructed by Treffry from Par to the foot of Penpillick Hill and later extended to Ponts Mill. This connected with a railway to Lanescot Mine and via an inclined plane to Fowey Consols, a large and very rich mine owned by Treffry.