Tamar Hulks Survey


by Martin Read, University of Plymouth

The Institute of Marine Studies, University of Plymouth, is one of the largest maritime institutes in Europe and runs a series of optional nautical archaeology modules. County archaeologists from both Devon and Cornwall asked the University to look at the hulks remaining in the Tamar and the surrounding rivers (Plym, Tavy, Lynher and Yealm). In 1998-9 students carried out group projects covering these areas. The survey will continue over the next few years.


Approximately 50 hulks have so far been identified. We have very little information about some of them, such as their name or even what they were made of. A few more hulks may remain to be recognised and some may recently have been cleared from Anthony Passage and the Plym during reclamation and development. Several hulks are now totally buried, such as the 3 vessels captured by RAF arial photos in the late 1940s/early 1950s at Cargreen which are no longer visible above the mud and have become true archaeology.

From the information available, 14 hulks are known to have been built in the 19th century, the earliest in 1840, and 11 were built in the 20th century before WWII. Hulks continue to be added and, for instance, two French trawlers have been abandoned in recent years in Hooe and St Johns Lakes.


Only one vessel is located on the main channel of the Tamar, Merganser at Hole's Hole. The rest are to be found on the side rivers and creeks (called Lakes locally).

Hooe Lake contains approx. 35% of the hulks on the Tamar system. The Lake also contains some of the earliest hulks recorded, including the Tamar sailing barge Pearl of 1840 and the Jersey trawler Amazon of 1866. Several vessels are known to have been abandoned in the 1920s/1930's and hulks continue to be added. The Lake has suffered from reclamation and 'tidying up' in recent years, resulting in damage or burial of some hulks.


13 hulks were built in the Tamar system (mostly Plymouth and Calstock) or elsewhere in Devon, 11 others are from elsewhere in Britain (including 3 from the Channel Islands). Other countries of origin are Belgium, Holland, Denmark, France and the USA.

Tamar Sailing Barges, were a type of wooden merchant sailing vessel of simple hull form and rigging (round bows with no overhang, shallow draught and a flat transom stern, usually smack-rigged, but some ketch-rigged). They operated both within the Tamar system and along the south coast of Devon and Cornwall between Salcombe and the Lizard. They were built at ports along this coast and in Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devonport and Calstock on the Tamar system.

This century, those which survived were fitted with an auxiliary engine, usually in the 1920's or 1930's, many transporting roadstone and gravel until replaced by lorries after WWII and broken up or abandoned. At least 4 Tamar Sailing barges have been identified as hulks (Pearl, Bertie, Saltash & George Murray). Two former hulks, the Shamrock and the Lynher, have been restored to sail again.

The ketch-rigged Shamrock was built in Devonport in 1899 and rescued from Hooe Lake in the early 1970's by the National Trust and National Maritime Museum for restoration at Cotehele Quay, near Calstock. The smack-rigged Lynher was built in Calstock in 1891 and eventually abandoned in Poldrissick Quarry on the Lynher before being rescued and restored in the 1980s. This is now at Morwellham Quay near Tavistock.


The commonest role was as trading vessels (40%), followed by trawlers (20%). Other roles include yachts, houseboats, tugs and a ferry. Often a vessel had several roles in its active life, perhaps starting as a trawler or trading vessel and ending up as a houseboat or yacht before being abandoned.

Some craft had interesting careers, such as the ketch Alfred Rooker. This was built in Plymouth in 1876 and was used on the Corunna cattle trade, and then the Newfoundland Cod trade, ending up as a coaster before being abandoned in Hooe Lake in 1934.

6 vessels were of military origin including landing craft, ammunition barges & the steam pinnace from French WWII battleship Paris at Anthony Passage on the Lynher.


Around 35 of the hulks were probably built of wood, 7 of iron/steel and 1 of concrete (Cretabode, a WWI barge in St Johns Lake). 19 were originally sail or probably sail powered, 3 can be shown to be steam, 3 had motors from the start, 4 were dumb barges and one was possibly rowed.


Some boats were tied up and left to rot (e.g. Amazon, Bulla & Alfred Rooker in Hooe Lake), whilst others had all their marketable fittings removed before being abandoned (such as the Brixham trawler Antelope on the Plym). Possibly at the same time their hull was also damaged so that they would not float off and obstruct the waterway.


These include wood and metal decay, attack by marine organisms and tidal and river action. Reclamation and development also pose a threat such as those at Neptune park (Plym), Carbeile Creek (St Johns Lake) and the Anthony passage redevelopment.


Clearance or 'Tidying up' has removed or damaged many hulks. The Yealm has been deliberately kept clear resulting in possibly only 1 or 2 hulks remaining. Salvers were employed to clear the Plough from Millbrook Lake. Many of the vessels in Hooe Lake had much of their upstanding structure removed in the early 1990s. Locals in Forder Creek, off the Lynher, regularly burn abandoned vessels. The houseboat Roger in Hooe Lake has been burnt in recent years, possibly by vandals.

Martin Read
Institute of Marine Studies
University of Plymouth
e-mail: mread@plym.ac.uk
April 2000


Benson, M. 1999 'Restored by Force' Sailing Today Feb 1999 p90-93. 

Farr, G. 1980 Shipbuilding in North Devon. National Maritime Museum.

Langley, M. & Small, E. 1988 Lost Ships of the West Country. Stanford Maritime. 

Merry, I. D. (ed) 1980 The shipping and trade of the River Tamar Parts 1 &2 . National Maritime Museum. 

Slade W.J. & Greenhill, B. 1974 Westcountry coasting ketches. Conway Maritime Press 

Viner, A. 1983 The restoration of the ketch-rigged Tamar sailing barge Shamrock 1974-79. National Maritime Museum. 

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