The thought is perhaps amazing that for maybe three hundred years the Estuary was much visited by sailing ships carrying coal. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more coal was shipped into the Exe than any other cargo. Most of the coal needed by the people of South Devon came sailing up the Estuary.
Coal was offloaded at Exmouth and Starcross and Topsham and at Exeter Quay. Coal was transhipped into lighters and barges and taken to the Estuary ports and up the canal to Exeter. Coal came from Sunderland and Newcastle and Milford and Swansea and Tenby and Newport and Neath.
A favourite place for the ‘colliers’ to ride was the Bight. In Victorian times most ships were too large to venture further up channel. Transhipping at high water must have been a day and night business that provided a regular livelihood for many men of the Estuary.
The Estuary limekilns needed coal and received direct shipments by lighter and barge. So did the saltworks at Riversmeet and elsewhere. In Lympstone the coal, like the limestone, was sometimes dumped overboard below the tide line. It must have been a grimy trade and all the quays and landings of the Estuary would have had something of coal dust about them. The men who worked the lighters would have had a decidedly sooty look when they came ashore.
Only in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the railways came to provide cheaper and easier transport, did the coastwise traffic fade away although the docks at Exmouth and Teignmouth with their railway terminals went on importing coal well into the twentieth century.
The time had come to clean up the Exe for the tourists