Plymouth and it's Town and Dock


...a look at a forgotten industry of the Tamar valley; its' present day remains at Forder St. Stephens, plus colour aerial photos of these areas, and a fun treasure hunt for all the family.

Steve Johnson Cyber Heritage is a winner of the 1997 Devon Heritage Education Award

Much has been written about the past industries of the Tamar Valley area, it`s slate and lime trade, horticulture, boat-building, fishing and the great civil engineering feats that brought thr railway over the Tamar at Saltash and Calstock.
However there is one "forgotten industry" that goes under the very unglamorous name of "Town Dung", sometimes also referred to as "Dock Dung" or even "Night Soil."
Anyone walking at low tide along the banks of the tidal Tamar, or it`s sister river Lynher, will have stumbled across the remains of old quays, decaying and overgrown......a silent testament to man`s previous efforts in this area.

If the walker had stopped looking ahead at the lovely view and looked at his or her feet, it is strongly possible that many fragments of smashed pottery and glass would have been spotted lying half buried in the mud near these quays. Apart from any modern picnic debris that may have been thrown off the end of the quay from untidy sailors or walkers, these broken pieces are in the main now approaching to be one hundred years old, dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. This is when the Dung trade was at it`s peak.
So the question must be "What is Town Dung?"

The answer gives an insight into a past age. The tidal River Tamar is a super waterway for the transportation of merchandise. Many types of vessel would have plied these waters including Tamar Barges. These barges were sail driven and were the common day to day work horse of river traffic.These barges are the key to the Town Dung story.
At Pottery Quay(now gone) in Devonport, hence the term "Dock" dung ,and at the Dung Quay (also gone) near Plymouth Barbican`s Vauxhall Quay, these barges would be loaded with......RUBBISH...or as it was called in the parlance of the time...DUNG!!! Often it was auctioned.
Their cargo?

Tons of rubbish would be taken on board. Offal from slaughter houses, ash from domestic fires and coal boilers, slops from toilet potties and latrines and most importantly of all street sweepings with a high content of horse droppings! All these ingedients when mixed together made a very good agricultural fertiliser that came to be known as Town Dung. It was found to be ideal for garden produce, and especially ....STRAWBERRIES........yummy.....

Once fully loaded they would sail up the Tamar on the high tide. Any farm that was close to the river could have a barge load of Dung shipped to it`s door. All that was needed was a small quay to be constructed, and have plenty of labour to help off load the dung. River transport was the fastest form in the Tamar area, with poor roads...indeed in some areas it may still be the case.

The barge having docked would need to have it`s evil smelling cargo wicker baskets. With a cargo of sometimes 100 tons this must have been a far from pleasant task.

However there was a problem: mixed in with the soft bits of fertiliser type substances were a large amount of unwanted material, such as bottles, pots, broken bits and pieces, shoes, clothes, rags etc.....these had to be hand sorted. These items had no benefit to crops and the sharp items could have injured horse`s hooves during ploughing, so were removed and tossed into the river alongside the barge and remain there to today. The items such as clothes will have rotted away long ago, but the glass and pottery, even the odd leather shoe wait hidden in the mud for us to find today. What a job it must have been to hand sort through this lot?.....ugh.....
If one dons wellington boots and old clothes and feels confident to carefully wade out into the mud...and do not do this on your own in case you get stuck!! it is possible to go on a rather unusual treaure hunt. Before you set out it is essential to check the tide times so that you will not be cut off by the tide coming in; it is also a very good idea to check the depth of the mud before walking out into it and getting stuck!! Taking a fork with you will let you recover items just hiding under the mud`s surface.Just have a quick dig!

Very often there will be literally thousands and thousands of bits and pieces of old broken pottery and glass. Sometimes, and this is what makes it such good messy fun, it is possible to find whole, complete and intact items such as .....Codd bottles...hence the term Codd`s wallop...meaning rubbish: Codd bottles held soft fruit drinks and were derided by alcohol drinkers; they were invented by Hiram Codd and held a glass marble as a stopper, oval or egg shaped Hamilton bottles, so shaped so as they would not stand upright; by being forced to lay horizontally the cork was always kept damp and would not fall out as it dried out, earthenware Ginger Beer bottles, ink wells, pot toothpaste and liniment, clay pipe a huge variety of shapes...even a skull or a Celtic harp as well as a varied selection of beer bottles, pots, bottles and sundry containers, egg cups, plates, cups, a lot of medecine or "poison" bottles as they are known, really anything and all things. Very often 100 years immersion in the mud will cause a rather beatiful irredescence to form on the glass surface, this only appears once the bottle is dry. Sometimes the embossed name on the bottle will be that of a now long gone manufacturer or brewery, such as this one at Stonehouse Creek, being Plymouth Breweries. A glass bottom bucket will help reveal small hidden items that have been washed out of the main pile and spread throughout the central stream that forms at low tide. This is especially effective in finding pipebowls and small perfume bottles.

This industry in the Plymouth area covered not just the Tamar, but the Tavy, Lynher, Ernesettle Creek, Tamerton Foliot Creek, and the river Tiddy, St. John`s Lake, Sconner Lake, Kingsmill Lake. Selling at 6. 10s. 0d in 1912 there was a lot of it about.The keen treasure hunter should not have to try too hard. Once the barges had unloaded they would return downriver not empty but with a cargo of stone from the many stone quarries along the river. All of these movements were dependent on the times of the highwater as well as how "high" the high tide actually was.

During the sorting operation it would not have been possible to remove every bit of glass or pot so a great many pieces of pot escaped to be spread on the farmers field. The bits are all still there so a walk over a freshly ploughed field WITH THE FARMER`S EXPRESS PERMISSION can be very productive. The sunlight will cause these fragments to will not miss them, just look carefully. If you do a search with young children ensure they are properly supervised and they do not cut themselves on the sharp shards.
By 1920 the industry was virtually dead. The rapidly growing number of motor vehicles was replacing horses as prime motive power in everyday use...less manure as a percentage in the Town Dung making it less effective. Another factor was the widespread effects of World War I had taken men away from the land and reduced the available pool of labour, as well as causing a fall in the demand for luxury foods such as strawberries. Finally there was the rather understandable concern for an industry that at first glance does look pretty disgusting from a public health point of view. So the waterways are now quite and in some lost backwater a Tamar Barge rots away. Wind and tide takung their sure toll, the quays overgrown and silted up.

Surely this industry must not be allowed to be forgotten. I have for one remembered it and sat downupon some overgrown quay and seen in my mind`s eye the sails of some distant Tamar Barge approaching with it`s strange cargo aboard.

Strawberries and cream no longer somehow taste quite the same.

Some aerial photos of the area, all high quality, click on the thumbnails.

or for a closeup click here.