Stover Canal – A Watery Grave
Malcolm Billinge 2018
The Stover Canal was built in the 1790s by James (2) Templer of Stover House to facilitate the export of ball clay from the Bovey Basin. In 1820 George Templer’s granite tramway linked the family’s quarries at Haytor with the canal basin at Ventiford where recent archaeological excavations have revealed granite-railed tramway sidings at the head of the canal. The canal operated well into the twentieth century with a variety of goods being transported both up and down its length to and from the docks at Teignmouth. Clay, granite, iron ore, timber and pottery were exported whereas coal, flint cobbles for use in the Bovey Pottery and manure were back-freighted.
The history and operation of the Stover Canal is well documented (Ewans, M. C.1964. The Haytor Granite Tramway and Stover Canal. Newton Abbot, David and Charles) but some human-interest stories are less well known. Some are heroic but many are tragic and all took place between 1850 and 1950.
Accidental drownings, heroic rescues and the call for a public swimming pool
At least five people, all males, have accidently drowned in the Stover canal. William Underhay, the superintendent of the canal with thirty years’ experience slipped, banged his head and was drowned in just a few feet of water (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 19 September 1906, p. 2) and the twelve-year old son of Henry Hatchwell drowned while trying to retrieve his fishing rod (The Western Times 1 August 1857, p. 6).
The three other accidents involved boys aged eight and twelve and a youth of twenty who were paddling or swimming in the canal, and when eight-year old William Hamlyn could not be revived, ‘The father, who was on the scene before its tragic conclusion, afterwards carried the body home.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 3 August 1898, p 5).
At least six successful rescues were recorded between 1925 and 1940 with the heroes and one fourteen-year old heroine receiving praise, and sometimes a certificate from the Royal Humane Society. The two London boys who were rescued in 1940 after their canoe had overturned could well have been evacuees from the London Blitz (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 29 November 1940, p. 8).
Swimming in the Stover canal was a regular pastime for local men and boys and, ‘As a rule boys who could not swim bathed in the pools called Bracewell.’ However, from the inquests that followed these accidents it is clear that many boys and men could not swim. The jury at the inquest of John Baker, ‘respectfully suggests to the Councils of Wolborough and Highweek the necessity of providing a proper bathing place for boys and men, to encourage swimming and cleanliness, and to prevent accidents.’ (East and South Devon Advertiser4 July 1896, p. 5). No mention of girls or women.
The call for a swimming pool was repeated for the next four decades. In 1909 Newton District Council, ’decided not to make any application for the use of a portion of the Stover canal [for public swimming], as it would be dangerous for people to bathe there.’ An open-air swimming pool was considered preferable (The Western Times 18 May 1909, p. 8). The Council resolved to ask the Great Western Railway Company, owners of the canal, if they would allow the Council to take the overflow of water from the canal for the purposes of a public swimming bath (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 22 June 1909, p. 5). No agreement was reached and twenty-one years later, in 1930 the Council was seeking to divert water from the Sherbourne Mills into a proposed swimming pool bath at Baker’s Park. The chairman of the General Purposes Committee said, ‘drowning tragedies were unhappily frequent through youngsters being unable to get a safe place to learn to swim, and went to the deep Stover canal or the river Teign with its swift currents.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 16 April 1930, p. 7).
While these ineffectual machinations took place the annual Newton Abbot Swimming Club Aquatic Sports took place in the lower basin of the Stover canal. These popular events were written up in the local press between 1908 and 1932 and as a measure of decorum was in order the organisers stipulated that, ‘Costumes to be worn by all competitors.’ (East and South Devon Advertiser 1 August 1908, p. 8; Fig 1).
Figure 1. Lower Basin of the Stover Canal
In 1933 the Newton Abbot Otter Swimming Club now had suitable dressing accommodation at the Stover canal and this lead to a large increase in membership (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 13 April 1933, p. 8). That year was a very hot one and so the club organised moonlight bathing at the Stover Canal Locks, ‘the occasion attracting a large number’ (Western Morning News 7 August 1933, p. 3).
The open-air swimming pool at Penn Inn, Newton Abbot was finally opened in 1935 (The Western Times 24 May 1945, p. 3; Fig.2).
Figure 2. Penn Inn swimming pool
Twelve suicides and attempted suicides
Miss Partridge, twenty-eight attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Stover canal but was rescued by a passer-by. She had been in a bad mental state for some time and, ‘since her rescue from a watery grave she has been removed to a lunatic asylum.’ (Totnes Weekly Times 12 May 188, p. 3). Miss Edith Oliver, forty-four, ‘who had been suffering from nervous trouble’ drowned herself in the canal (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 8 June 1931, p. 8).
Of the ten men who committed suicide five had a clear history of depression or other mental illness:
Frederick Taylor, fifty had been suffering from influenza, ‘which apparently had affected his mind’.
‘Deceased had been depressed for some days, and on Sunday wrote a note to a friend stating that he would destroy himself … Dr Taylor, his medical attendant, advised on Sunday evening that special watch should be kept over Mr Taylor for the night, but his wife considered that she was quite capable of herself doing so, and did not think any harm would come to him.’ He suddenly left the house just after 3am wearing only a dressing-gown, hat and slippers (Totnes Weekly Times 12 March 1892, p. 2; Western Morning News 8 March 1892, p. 8).
Lemuel Martin, fifty left his home at 7.30pm to buy some tobacco but then went straight to the canal and threw himself in. Of late, ‘he had suffered severely from debility and general weakness, giving rise to depression of spirits, to raise him out of which all the efforts of his friends proved to no avail.’ Lemuel had suffered from hallucinations and he had complained to his wife of pains in his head (East and South Devon Advertiser 6 April 1895, p. 5).
George Tremlett, fifty suffered from headaches which made him very depressed and his wife said, ‘Deceased was in the asylum thirty-three years ago, when he sustained a sunstroke, but at the end of six months he was home again.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 30 October 1913, p. 6; The Western Times 31 October 1913, p. 10).
Lewis Harris, fifty-six left a message in a bottle that read, ‘I am tired of life, so here it ends. Good-bye everybody.’ He was said to have been recently depressed (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 5 May 1923, p. 6).
John Elms, sixty-four had been in poor health with bronchitis and a heart problem but he was convinced that he was also suffering from cancer and he left notes describing his anxieties (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 7 June 1940, p. 4).
Background details on three other men were rather scant:
Robert Pidgeon went to a pub but never returned home. A bargeman found his body in the canal with wrists tied together with a bootlace. Robert had been subject to pains in the back and the head (Western Morning News 20 January 1909, p. 8).
William Wetherdon, thirty-nine was found in a tributary of the canal (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 14 March 1928, p. 8).
Henry Taylor, sixty-three was found drowned (The Western Times 24 May 1929, p. 2).
Two final deaths were less typical:
Ivor Johnson, twenty had a ‘tiff’ with his sweetheart the previous evening. He was a non-swimmer and at his inquest that possibility that he slipped into the canal was mooted (Western Morning News 20 May 1929, p. 5).
A Widecombe farmer named Hamlyn was arrested and charged with stealing six sheep. When his brother-in-law, Mr Petherbridge of Manaton heard about this, ‘he became quite distracted, and loudly lamenting the disgrace that had been brought on the family, he rushed from his house; as he did not again return, his sisters, with whom he lived, became greatly alarmed and advertised him, but without success. Friday last his body was discovered in the Stover canal.’ Petherbridge was Hamyln’s landlord and he was owed two year’s rent. Ironically, following his brother-in-law’s death, Hamlyn would now become owner of the farm, ‘in right of his wife’, Petherbridge’s sister (London Evening Standard 6 February 1851, p. 4; Royal Cornwall Gazette 7 February 1851, p. 5).
The social stigma of suicide?
The verdicts of nine inquests reveal a change over time in officialdom’s handling of such cases. Three verdicts between 1892 and 1909 were ‘Suicide whilst temporarily insane’ and/or ‘Suicide whilst of unsound mind’. But, in 1913 George Tremlett, a former lunatic asylum inmate was granted an ‘Open verdict’ while the next four verdicts from 1923 to 1931 were ‘Found Drowned’ even though Lewis Harris had left a note saying, ‘I am tired of life, so here it ends.’
Perhaps most surprising of all was the verdict of ‘Death from natural causes’ for John Elms who had also left notes.
Before the First World War there would appear to have been less stigma attached to what we now refer to as mental illness than there was in the inter-war years. The Victorians were proud of their lunatic asylums as these were philanthropic services for the unfortunate. The gentry helped to fund these new institutions and, for example, in 1870 John and Henrietta Divett of Bovey Tracey both subscribed £1 to the Western Counties’ Idiot Asylum, and this was followed by a £50 donation one year later (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 6 September 1870, p. 2).
The alleged murder of one of John Divett’s Bovey Pottery workers
In 1863 James Stevens a prize-fighting ‘mulatto’ [mixed-race] was charged with the murder of John Meers who had for the past two years been working as a day labourer, cutting clay at the Bovey Pottery. The body of Meers was found floating in the Stover canal and he had been beaten about the head. Stevens, the accused was married to a woman from Ashburton and Meers was said to have been friendly with her. The two men had been seen fighting at the Newton races but the witnesses called were so inconsistent in their evidence that Stevens was found not guilty at the Devon Winter Assizes (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 2 October 1863, 9; ibid. 11 December 1863, p. 7).
Two less dark incidents
In 1935 Albert Edwards, sixty-three and from Devonport was found at 4am up to his neck in the mud of the Stover canal. Albert had been on a char-a-banc trip but missed the return departure. He took a short cut hoping to reach the railway line which, possibly unbeknown to him, runs alongside the Stover canal (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 2 August 1935, p. 14).
Late one night in 1838 the occupants of Murrins farm at Teigngrace were roused from their sleep by dogs barking at intruders. A man and his wife were attempting to steal ducks but were chased away by Mr Murrin. The couple jumped into the canal and the husband swam across and ran off. His wife, however could not swim and was pulled out by Mr Murrin. He, ‘carried her back to his house, and put her to bed very comfortable, while her husband had to go a distance of fourteen miles in soaking wet clothes, for she had told Mr M. that they belonged to Chagford.’ (The Western Times 17 February 1838, p. 3; Sherborne Mercury 26 February 1838, p. 3).
At much the same time as an open-air swimming pool was being considered for Newton Abbot a joint meeting of the Bovey Swimming Club committee and representatives of the Bovey branch of the Unemployed Association was held to discuss the provision of a swimming bath at Pottery Pond, which supplied water to the Bovey Pottery. The Pottery executive was happy to consider this further but in the event this proposal was shelved (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 2 June 1933, p.5).
Bovey Tracey’s fine, heated, open-air swimming pool opened in 1968 (David Isley, 2004. Swimming in The Bovey Book ,Veronica Kennedy, Bovey Tracey Cottage Publishing).