A Little Bude History

Last year, I met a very interesting lady, Anne Longley, Co-ordinator of Volunteers at the Bude Heritage Centre Archives (Bude Castle). Anne has a great interest in, and knowledge of everything to do with Bude, despite its shortage of pre 1800s history. In 1800, she suggests, “there was virtually nothing here. Bude wouldn’t exist at all if not for the Canal, and the later Victorian passion for sea-bathing. Without that, after the closure of the Canal, Bude would have disintegrated”.

Not sure if she’d be classified as an incomer or not, but Anne has good Bude credentials. Her prominent great grandfather ran a successful shipping company in the town. She lived here for five years as a child before her family moved to Southampton; later, she worked in London. In 2001, she moved back to Bude because “I felt a sense of identity, who I was, where I belonged, where my roots were. It explained the dissatisfaction I had felt with everywhere else I’d lived – it was simply because nowhere else was Bude”. Sure lots of people can identify with that.

Sharing Anne’s love of Bude, we discussed the idea that Bude has never really developed a strong sense of its own identity like many places, though maybe that is changing. Bude, for example, doesn’t really have any one specific centre or focal point because of the way it grew. Maybe that is what makes it so open to incomers – and why, conversely, some people find it hard to settle here.

Bude’s whole economy was originally based around the Canal, though later the railway, which opened in 1898, brought sea bathers to Bude. Beeching, of course, swung his axe and closed the railway in 1966, the year we won the World Cup, and we were supposedly prosperous. Bude Railway station was situated on the outskirts of town, allegedly to please Stratton, but did not have man passengers services, although it was possible to get directly to London from the town That said, in the final months the only service was to Okehampton, some thirty miles away (which in itself closed in 1972, leaving Exeter as the nearest railhead). How wonderful to be actually able to reach Bude by train from the rest of the country! Or to get to the rest of the country without using buses or cars.

The closest civilization, which of course does have a rich history, was Stratton, an old, established market town, so there was actually no reason for anyone to live in Bude until the Canal arrived. The place was a pretty unattractive proposition. It had no transport and no leisure facilities until the Victorians popularised sea-bathing, which was thought to be very beneficial to their health. Geography, it seems, was at the root of Bude’s shortage of older history. It was not on the way to anywhere, there were no coaching inns, no tin or copper, no mining, no harbour and thus, no fishing. The beach had a river in the middle of it; there was no breakwater and, therefore, no shipping. This all changed with the important coming of the Canal.

In 1800, Bude would have been lucky to have 100 people living there but people flocked in when the Canal opened, as it meant easy shipping to Bristol and Wales, and therefore economic activity/work. When the Canal closed, Bude would have crumbled, bar for the developing tourist trade. Interestingly, this developed a new economic role for women who began to let out rooms and run boarding houses – still caught up in the domestic sphere but now making money from it – a trend which has continued.

Throughout the 18th century, the passage around Land’s End for coal had been a very dodgy and treacherous one, with many ships lost en route. The River Tamar, it was reckoned, if connected to the coast, could cut that journey short. Various ideas for a canal fell by the wayside but by 1814/15, after the Napoleonic Wars, labour was very cheap and available, so a group of entrepreneurs revived the idea. In 1811, the Acland inheritance was taken over by Sir Thomas Acland, and various noteworthy people, including Lord Stanhope, invested in the idea of a canal, not to connect with the Tamar but to serve inland farms with sand from the beach. In the 14th century, a charter had been granted for people to take sand from beaches for agricultural purposes. The soil inland from Bude is very clay/acid. The sand is very alkaline with high shell content, so good fertilizer. The entrepreneurs saw a business opportunity. They could take huge quantities of sand inland and also carry other goods in and out. Remember, this was at a time when communications were isolated and roads were mere tracks. Anne told me there is a Blake painting called “The Road From Bude to Bideford” showing a donkey with panniers, indicating the state of the tracks on main routes. I have not been able to find it but can imagine the state of the tracks.

The Canal changed the topography in Bude. Victorian engineers built the breakwater and changed the course of the river to scour out a channel to create a makeshift harbour. They also built a big sea lock and, of course, the Canal itself. One of the key features of the Canal was the series of inclined planes, an idea first used by the Egyptians on the Nile. Instead of locks (there was not enough water and the land was too steep) the planes were designed by James Green, a civil engineer born in Birmingham (at last I have a connection, it being my birth town). He worked on the Canal from 1819-1825 after presenting a report on the combination of locks and inclined planes in 1818. The planes had rail tracks which accommodated the wheels on the boats to tackle the steep inclines.

According to Anne, the quality of the materials available for these innovative engineers was not really up to the task they were asked to do so there were frequent breakdowns, breakages and problems. Most profits made were actually used to simply keep the Canal going until, eventually, the railway also added to the death of the Canal, which had become expensive in upkeep and maintenance. The Bude Harbour and Canal Company wound up in 1901 as the railway became more efficient and artificial fertilisers reduced the need for sand in agriculture. The local council, however, wanted a water supply for the town, as Bude was behind the times in only having a parish pump in 1901. So, it became responsible for the harbour/shipping trade and the Canal. As you may imagine, the local politics of the time were colourful, reflected in the documents available at the archives.

There is plenty to discover about Bude from the archives which are open on Mon/Weds mornings. It helps to make an appointment to visit the archives so that people are available to assist, and also to have a clear idea of what you are looking for. There is a form available to request information if you don’t live locally. As Anne says, the archives use the standard cataloguing system and the security of the records is stringent, so it is a resource worth maintaining.  Meanwhile, a group of keen local historians and enthusiasts maintain the Bude Canal and Harbour Society Website which is also well worth a look.

Bude breakwater - Victorian engineering

Bude breakwater – Victorian engineering


  • Avatar Jill Chape says:

    My great grandfather converted the river through Bude, Williams and Wallington, they also made the bricks. Isaac Williams lived at Canworthy.
    If you are interested, can tell you more.

  • Avatar Jill Chape says:

    Strangely my husband at the time from Scotland was sent to Bude during the war.
    I spent many holidays there learning to surf.
    I am very interested to learn more about my gr.gr grandfather, He lived in Dawlish as a child then went to Hammersmith and had what I think was large Railway and building contractors Williams son and Wallington, he also had a farm at Canworthy in 1881 census for Canworthy, he is down as owner as occupation. My mother said he did all the (is it called culverting) of the river through Bude and the pavements etc. he was meant to have a brickworks in or near Bude and I remember as a child mother saying she had found it, but as usual when about 9 was not interested. He was Isaac Williams. Would love to hear more.. I can let you know more about him if we find out about the connection. Jill Chape.

  • Avatar Glenda Mattes says:

    I am related to the Arundels and much later to farmers in Werrington parish who would have used the Bude sand to fertilize their fields.

  • Avatar Tom says:

    After reading about the canal and the sand I got a few tons of beach sand and tried that in my vegie patch. It turned the thick clay into a fine easily worked loam. The difference was astonishing and something you cant achieve using fertilizer alone!

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