The River Exe rises in the mosses of Exmoor and winds down through the length of the county of Devon, gathering its waters along the way from one of the great sheep-rearing areas of Britain. At Exeter, the river meets the sea and its waters mingle with the oceans. Here, at this interface, people have gathered for centuries to trade their wares, hear stories of distant lands and build a city of enterprise.
It was the humble sheep that laid the foundation of Exeter’s wealth. In the 17th century Exeter grew to be Britain’s third-richest city (after Bristol and London) on the back of the wool trade. The city became a hub for the import of wool and its conversion to cloth. Exeter serge was so sought-after that merchants had to import wool from Ireland to meet demand. The river was the golden thread, linking Exeter and Topsham to markets for Devon serge in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Holland and London. The returning ships brought back iron, wool, nuts, wine and fruit, as well as rich cultural exchanges.
To accommodate this growing trade and the larger ships now wanting to travel up the river, the city invested in a canal linking the Quay to the deeper river channel below Countess Wear. The canal was opened in 1566 and subsequently extended, widened and deepened in phases as trade, and the size of ships, grew ever larger.
The glory days of Devon serge came to an abrupt end with the Napoleonic Wars in the late 1700’s, which cut ties with continental ports. Attention turned to domestic trade and Exeter grew as a hub for the south coast, exporting such goods as paper, leather, flour, butter and cider. However, the tidal river with its shoals and shallow channels remained a constraint and so over the period 1825-30 the Exeter Chamber invested over £113,000 (many millions in today’s terms) in extending the canal by two miles and building the Turf Lock, as well as building the Canal Basin at the head of the canal. It was here that the Maclaines Warehouses were built between 1835 and 1839, to take advantage of the explosion of trade that was to follow. Prosperity did indeed come – the gross income of the canal trebled and at its peak in the 1870s the canal was carrying over 400 shipments a year with key imports being timber, petroleum, coal, wine, dried fish and French onions! We have yet to discover precisely how Maclaine’s Warehouses were used during their heyday, but we know that at various points they were owned by a fruit importer and a builders’ merchant.
Close on the heels of the canal’s expansion came the arrival of the Bristol and Exeter Railway in 1844. Suddenly goods could be transported overland far more cheaply than before and other ports, with better deep water access than Exeter, were able to use their new rail connections to great effect. Gradually the volume of shipping coming in to Exeter and its sister port at Topsham declined and the range of products shrank, until by the 1960’s the canal was mainly used to import petroleum and timber. The last shipment was made in 1973.
As trade declined the Maclaine’s Warehouses fell into disuse. In the late 1960’s Exeter City Council was approached by Major David Goddard, a historic boat collector, to propose the creation of a maritime museum. So, the Exeter Maritime Museum was born, opening in in 1969 with just 22 boats. Major Goddard operated the museum for nearly 30 years during which time the collection grew to over 300 boats. Although much-loved by Exeter residents the museum ultimately struggled to survive and closed in 1996.
Since then Maclaine’s Warehouses have lain dormant, partially used by a variety of businesses but never realising their potential as a significant part of the culture and heritage of Exeter’s Canal and Quay.
“The Ports of the Exe Estuary, 1701-1972”, E A G Clark, in The New Maritime History of Devon – 1994, www.exetermemories.co.uk