Exeter was established as a town by the Roman Army by the side of the River Exe in about AD 80. As it was the lowest point at which the river could be crossed, it became the gateway to the south-west tip of England.
A great deal of trade passed through the port on the river until 1290 when the Countess of Devon arranged for the building a weir across the Exe, three miles south of the city. It took nearly 300 years for the city to gain permission to remove the weir. In 1564 the city commissioned England's first ship canal to help to rectify its declining trade.
When Parliament gave permission for the Great Western Railway in 1835, Bristol merchants began to argue for an extension of the proposed line to Exeter. Permission was granted in 1836 and Isambard Brunel was appointed engineer. The Bristol & Exeter line was completed in 1844.
(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)
Exeter is full of gentry, and good company, and yet full of trade and manufactures. The serge market held every week is very well worth a stranger's seeing, and next to the market in Leeds, is the greatest in England. The people assure me that at this market is generally sold from 60 to 80, and sometimes a hundred thousand pounds value in serge a week. They have the River Esk here, a very considerable river. The channel of the river has been widened, deepened and cleansed and the ships now come up to the city, and there with ease both deliver and take in their goods.