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The Viaduct (1939)

Novel (320 pages, 114,500 words)

First edition  

The Book

The year is 1870. John Seabright takes charge of a construction team building a viaduct to carry the railway line between London and Penzance over the river Tamar at the village of Caradon. There is tension between the traditionally-minded villagers and the rough gang of navvies. Francesca Preston, the daughter of a local aristocrat Lord Maddacleave, has progressive ideas and would like to train for a profession, but is expected by her family to conform to convention. A romance develops between her and Oliver Bearsted, Seabright's deputy, stronger on his side than on hers since she is motivated mainly by the thought of getting away from her family.

Meanwhile a local farmer, Ernest Notter, takes his bride to Plymouth for their honeymoon. On the return journey on board a coastal steamer, they meet a drunken group of navvies, one of whom tries to kiss Mrs Notter, is hit over the head by Ernest, falls overboard and drowns. Notter runs away, is caught and is charged with murder. The outcome of the trial and its consequences are unexpected and gripping.


This is the fifth of the six books that Canning wrote as "Alan Gould", and the only one that does not have a contemporary setting. The first edition was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1939.

The village of Caradon is based on the real-life village of Calstock, roughly nine miles north of Plymouth, where Canning went to live in the last years of WW I, and which he visited often in the 1920s while his uncle, Cecil Goold, was station master. The real Calstock Viaduct was built in the early years of the twentieth century. Canning may have set his story back in time to avoid anyone claiming to recognise themselves in the book. Lord Maddacleave and the Preston family are presumably based on the Edgecumbes of Cotehele House, one mile south of Calstock and now a National Trust property, where the young Canning used to go for strawberry picking during summer weekends in the early 1920s.

I have written a brief article about the book for the Calstock Historical Association Newsletter, April 2007.


Calstock Viaduct
Calstock Viaduct
looking East
Cotehele House
Cotehele House
Station on the Tamar Valley Line
Station on the
Tamar Valley Line