On the front cover of Maritime South West No 15 is a photograph of a schooner, bathed in afternoon sun, alongside the Quay at Topsham. Another wonderfully evocative photograph of a past era, from the David Clement collection.
Topsham was one of three ports administered by the City and Corporation of Exeter. In the early 1970s all three still had foreign trade. Topsham was the river port. The middle one, both in location and size of vessel. Capable of berthing ships of up to 500 gross tonnage Exeter Basin saw the occasional 200 ton coaster. Exmouth Dock was the sea port. There were sometimes three or four vessels in the Dock. In those not so far off days, every now and then a mobile crane would rumble onto Topsham Quay. A ship would arrive, the throb of diesels engines carrying across the water on the rising tide. Foreign voices heard. Shouts. The smell of sawn pine, the intermittent roar of the crane, the echo of plank landing on plank, the grind of lorries carrying away the cargo through the narrow twisting streets, the muted clatter of the auxiliary engine. A bustle, a purpose, the essence of a port, the town alive. New faces in the local pubs. New stories told and barely understood. Then after a few days the ship would depart. The town would slip back again into itself. For some this was a continuance of history. What it was all about. A working port. A river used for the carriage of cargo, as it had been for hundreds of years. The arrival of a foreign ship a red letter day.
For three years from 1968 to 1971, I lived in Topsham, off the Strand, in Trucklebed Alley, dignified in Victorian times to North Street. I watched each ship in and I watched each ship out. There was a casual, but discernible pattern to the arrivals. A cargo of Baltic timber might arrive at any time, in any month. But potatoes always came to Topsham in April. Usually one cargo, carried in a Dutch or Irish coaster. As many as three. Cargoes of Sprats in brine, exported between January and March each year. A lively time, with the locally processed sprats trundling through the streets on Marinpro's lorries from the Plant, just upriver. Barrels, to pack them in, arrived in November in small Danish coasters. The one consistent thread through it all, the little Danish ship C.Herup, bringing huge cylinders of lager to Tuborg’s processing plant on the Quay - now the Antique Centre. Four or five times each year this pretty pale blue ship with ‘Tuborg Lager Line’ emblazoned along her sides, would tie up alongside the Quay and the plant’s crane would unload it. No other cargo was lifted by that crane. Other ships hired in a Rickards Wallington mobile.
Occasionally something unusual would arrive. Perhaps a couple of small coasters diverted from the Exeter Canal, through a closure. Or an old paddle steamer, towards the end of its working days, seeking out a mud berth before the ship breakers. Once for a period of three months, the Quay was the base for operation of the Sea Plough, which was dragged across the Exe estuary to form the trench for the North Sea gas pipeline. The elderly chartered Dutch coaster brought pontoons and heavy plant. The Red Branch a 1930 built Northern Ireland Government tug marshalled a crane barge and a hopper barge. Small crowds gathered on the Quay to watch what was going on, marvelling at the enormous size of the plough, a gigantic CQR anchor, as it was lowered onto its pontoon. But most of the time it was the indefinable sense of purpose when a ship was docked which was so attractive. What is a Quay without a ship alongside it, working its cargo? That, surely, is one of the attractions of David Clement’s beautiful photograph.
One morning in December 1968, I watched the floodlit mast of a timber ship move imperceptibly against the silhouette of an oak tree, and I knew she was sailing on that tide. By the time I got to the Quay, there she was, across the river. The Botnia, of Odense, a product of the Husum shipyard, built in 1967, of about 500 tons. She was one of a trio of beautiful ships, painted dark blue with red boot topping, her name in gold along the shapely curve of her bows. A gold fleur de lys figurehead. A finely proportioned ship and the biggest we saw in Topsham. I jotted down at the time what happened over the next forty minutes or so.
‘Across the river, held by a single rope from the stern, her bows swinging round swiftly with the falling tide, her diesel engine throbbing in short bursts, nudging her ahead, snubbing against the stern warp, sweeping round very fast on the tide, still held by the stern, the stern mooring rope brought up to where the bow warp had been. Turning right round in a complete half circle and coming alongside the quay again. The officer in the bows asking whether he should put a line ashore again. ‘Yes’. Shaking his head, not really knowing what is happening. The Botnia tall alongside the quay at high water, almost, but the tide is dropping fast away. High tide at 0850 and a 12’ tide but already fallen by a foot. ‘Turned early’. The Botnia brought back upstream, back along the quay, her stern well beyond the end of it. ‘Leave room for the other to get her nose in. There’s not a lot of water here even at high water.’ Nearly 9 o’clock but not yet daylight. The lights of a vessel going slowly across the estuary, down by Lympstone. The Botnia fast alongside now, two lines from the bows, one from the stern. Looking huge, towering above us, light, waiting for the pilot to come up on the other boat.
Then another vessel in the morning, quickly lightening, and very cold. Then a third, from Starcross gradually crossing towards Lympstone. ‘That’s the Esso’. Far too far for me to recognize it. Probably for him too. ‘What’s it doing still here? Loves Topsham so much just can’t leave it?’ Alan the publican of the Lighter, just across from the Quay, and Mandy the dog. The first ship comes into sight again, crossing the estuary towards Turf Lock. The SW2, light, on her way back to the sewage works. Exciting the number of ships on the river this morning. Then the other ships, close behind each other, still a long way away. One looks like the C.Herup the other is the Esso Jersey, short stubby hull with thick superstructure, with another load of petrol from Fawley for Exeter.
It is very cold and very grey. No sunlight. Cormorants and ducks squabble on the other side of the river, by the old hulks. A man on his boat, upriver of the ferry, rocks it from side to side. The old engines of a Dakota roar in the quiet morning, flying over towards Newton Abbot. Now the second boat turns just short of Turf Lock and heads directly towards the Quay, a mile or more away. The Esso Jersey goes behind the breakwater down at Turf. The SW2 is already in the lock. Everybody is down here. The stevedores waiting to start on the new ship. Coming up against the tide very fast, cutting right across the river, almost in line with the Quay, a few hundred yards away and then out into the middle again, following the channel through the anchored boats. The Mette Pan. Loaded with timber covered by tarpaulins, looking quite smart, the sound of her diesels carrying clearly over the water, coming up very quickly. Now about parallel with the Quay, about thirty feet off. Brian the Pilot up in the bows directing the skipper to put the bows in under the bows of the Botnia, stern well out. Aground amidships. And the tide falling fast. "If the *** hadn’t have turned I’d have had ‘em just right." Brian the Pilot standing in the bows looking at the distance to the shore, 6 feet out and 12 feet up. Too far. Signals with his hand to the skipper to put her in closer.
‘Can I jump?’ - ‘Go on Brian are you frit?’ Hangs over the bows by his hands and scrabbles with his feet against the ship’s sides….‘Splosh!’ Laughing, good-natured jeering. Hands go out to him and he lets go, lands safely on the Quay and runs to the Botnia.
Botnia’s lines already slackened, bows already 25 feet from the Quay, the stern held in. The Pilot jumps onto a rope and climbs on board, Botnia’s screw thrashing, gunning her away from the Quay. ‘How long to Exmouth, half an hour?’ ‘Hour’. Tide fallen foot and a half maybe two.‘I’ve known the *** on the mud at Exmouth you know. If you’re on at Topsham, what’s *** Exmouth like?’
The Botnia, much larger, glides past the Mette Pan, a few yards of water between the two of them, the Botnia picking up speed. The cook of the Botnia gives a single wave to someone on the Quay already 100 yards astern. The Mette Pan using the full power of her engines to drive her further up the Quay to where the Botnia had been, the water surging from beneath her stern, away from her propeller, still aground, men pulling in the slack on her ropes, engines slowly shoving her closer to the Quay, thick black water oozing and bubbling up. The SW2 passes silently up the canal, along the top of the far bank of the river.
The Mette Pan of Faaborg a new small coaster. Two fat greasy youths with long hair on the stern , pulling on the ropes. The cook in his galley just above them, cooking bacon and eggs and the smell of it drifting over the Quay. The master on the bridge looking anxiously towards the bows as he tries to get her close enough to the Quay to allow her to rest safely on the bottom when she dries out, asking the stevedore foreman ‘Alright?’ ‘O.K. now’. The main engine fades away and stops. The auxiliary motor putt- putting out of the silence. The Rickards Wallington crane lorry drives up and positions itself carefully parallel to the ship. The stevedores step across the gap between her side and the Quay and climb on board. Some throw up the wooden blocks on which the timber will be laid. The first lengths, holding down the tarpaulins, are stacked. The gangway is put across. The SW2 passes through the canal swing bridge and on up to Limekilns. The Esso Jersey is in Turf Lock. The Botnia has turned at Turf and heads across the estuary again, towards Lympstone and the sea. One man in a small dinghy tows a motor launch upriver against the tide, very slowly. It is 9.40 a.m.’
That is how I saw it that December morning, thirty years ago. Perhaps somewhere in these Islands one can still enjoy such an hour of time, but somehow I rather doubt it. Health and Safety, security and changed commercial practises militate against it. I doubt I will see such a sight in Topsham again.
By David Wheeler
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Thank you for an excellent detailed account. Topsham was my childhood home from 1946 to 1963: Living in Melbourne now. We came back in 2007.The town looks well, but the interesting facets of topsham life, and the local characters of a time past, are absent. You're right, it will never be as it was then. It has turned into a fashionable dormitory town, with fascinating history.
What a very memorable read.
I was born in Topsham from 1948 and moved to Plymouth in 1955 but came back for the school holidays and stayed with my gran who lived on Monmouth Hill.
We had a lovely view over the quay and the lorry's were all loaded with carlsburg lager and ready for delivery.
I went to the infants school just around the corner from the post office.
I have a lot of happy memories.
What a wonderfully descriptive article .How do I get to see or purchase old pictures of the Topsham quay?
I have long ties to Topsham through the Pennell family, the Carrington family, the Follett family, the Lee family the Burgess family and others
Any body need help with any of these surnames I have a huge tree of hem all!
A very interesting article. Thank you for an enjoyable read.
Frederick Lee Mallett's indenture was actually included in the book 'Holman's: A Family Business of Shipbuilders, Shipowners and Insurers from 1832' reviewed on this site and at the exhibition at the Topsham musuem.
You can also see it online at
A fascinating article, I wasn't aware that Topsham was still operating as a port as late as the 1970's.
My ancestor Samuel Mallett and his sons William, Samuel junior, Alfred and Frederick were shipwrights there in the 19th century. Frederick was an apprentice at Holman's yard.
Looking into history of port as my great-great-grandfather Abraham Frost Stabback was harbourmaster circa 1870.
any details/records from this time would make very interesting reading. details of family history available from firstname.lastname@example.org
I was born in topsham,and my mum and unlce were brought up there by my greatgrand parents.In 10 ferry rd,which is still lived in by my greataunt and unlce.But i can't remember any moblie crane's unloading the ships.I can remember the old direct crane doing it.Some time's you would get a moblie crane lift the odd big boat out.