Ertach Kernow - Porthleven History

Bickford-Smith Institute, Porthleven

Porthleven’s most iconic images are perhaps of huge breakers crashing over the harbour and the Bickford-Smith Institute building. Fully open to the prevailing winds Porthleven and the coastal area around it have seen many shipwrecks over the past centuries.

The history of Porthleven seems to really begin in 1529 when mentioned with the name spelt as today. At that time, it was it seems a small fishing village similar to many around the Cornish coast. Apart from two barrows noted in the area there is little in the way of ancient or historic archaeological evidence although names offer some indication of early chapels at Methleigh and Torleven with no physical remains. Like many places around the Cornish coast some evidence of a submerged forest has been uncovered in the harbour area. Close to the west of Porthleven is the historic settlement of Methleigh first recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 when it is spelt ‘Matela’. This lay in the parish of Breage and the manor was held by the Bishop of Exeter.

As with most areas in Cornwall, even those not necessarily well-known for mining, there were mines in the Porthleven area. Mentioned in documents in 1625 Wheal Rose and Wheal Penrose are reputedly the oldest lead mines in Cornwall. Along with the lead there was silver in the galena ore at a level of 60oz per ton. The chief mine, Wheal Rose worked to 54 fathoms (324 feet) out under the sea and during its later years of operation extracted iron ore before closing in 1864.

By 1770 records show that there were lime kilns in Porthleven that were used not just for agriculture, but also construction of cottages. About this time the Fisherman’s Arms public house was built close by the medieval Cornmill named as Torleven Mill and in fact the tithe map of 1840 mentions the name Torleven as part of the settlement. It also shows a 19th century mineworking named as Wheal Unity, but unnamed by the time of the ordnance survey map of the 1870’s. This shaft was excavated and plugged in 1998.

Porthleven c1880 (with current map background)
Porthleven c1908 (with current map background)
Historic lime kiln 1814 bedecked for Food Festival
Mouth of Porthleven Harbour

Probably the most visual and important feature of Porthleven is the harbour, although the Bickford-Smith Institute with its clock tower features heavily in many images of the town. The harbour is Britain’s most southerly port and unusually faces right into the prevailing winds. Built to provide a harbour of refuge for shipping caught along the south coast in Mounts Bay, the first act of parliament was passed in 1811 allowing the Porthleven Harbour Company to compulsorily purchase the necessary land and begin construction. The breakwater is 465 feet long built inward from the sea end to prevent it being washed away like the first attempt. The project even had consultancy from the renowned engineer Thomas Telford and cost £200,000 against initial estimates of £60,000. It was finally completed on 16th August 1825. Used primarily for fishing it was not a financial success and was eventually bought by Harvey & Co of Hayle in 1855. Harvey’s constructed an additional breakwater, two jetties that could be closed by a timber baulk, which incorporated a sluice gate to improve the harbour. Due to Harvey’s wider industrial interests the harbour was used for import and export of other goods and produce carried by brigs and schooners. The three mines at Wheal Penrose, Wheal Unity and Wheal Rose had also used the harbour during its pre-Harvey years for the export of primarily lead ore. Between 1856 and 1930 the most important export was china clay which was shipped mainly to Runcorn and then onward to the Staffordshire potteries.

Fishing remained important and there were up to 130 boats based at Porthleven at one point with numbers from 1880 declining slowly from 100 in 1915. This was a major source of employment with about 600 crew, men and boys, as well as hundreds of shore workers. This large fishing fleet had largely been built locally within the four Porthleven boat building firms. These were supplemented by up to five sail and net producing businesses. Like many Cornish coastal settlements in the 19th century pilchards were the most important catch with the main markets being the southern Mediterranean catholic countries. Following the decline in the pilchard industry boat owners diversified catching herrings, mackerel and crabs and today many rely on boat chartering for anglers and tourist.

Originally Porthleven was part of the parish of Sithney and it was in 1842 that a chapel of ease was constructed, dedicated to St Bartholomew. In 1844 a portion of the parish of Sithney was attached to St Bartholomew and in 1846 its own parish was created. Besides the parish church there were also non-conformist chapels for use by Wesleyans and Bible Christians. The first chapel was the Bible Christian chapel constructed in 1830 and later enlarged in 1840 before a larger one was built in 1879 and the former became the Sunday School. It became Peverell Road Methodist Church in 1932 and closed in 1990. A second non-conformist chapel for the Wesleyans was designed by architect James Hicks of Redruth and built in 1883 in Fore Street, which still exists and is open today.

St Bartholomew's Church, Porthleven
Fore Street Methodist Chapel, Porthleven
Storm breakers crashing over Porthleven

The Bickford Smith Institute has as can be imagined from the images seen on British national television and online taken a battering from the sea. Standing on the site of the former Fisherman’s Arms public house, construction was paid for by William Bickford-Smith and opened on 17th December 1884. This was a period when people such as Bickford-Smith and the better-known John Passmore Edwards were financing buildings to be used for educating the poor and working folk. The Porthleven Institute had a reading room and library lit with gas reading lamps and a telegram service along with scientific lectures on subjects useful to local people including agriculture and principles of navigation at sea. The building was Grade II listed in 1991 and is now looking to have extensive work carried out so it can better serve the people of Porthleven.

Of course, Porthleven has a famous son who is remembered annually in September at a ceremony organised by Porthleven Old Cornwall Society. Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson was the highly decorated leader of the Royal Air Force Dam Buster 617 Squadron who set out to destroy three dams in the Ruhr Valley in May 1943. They had the secret weapon invented by Barnes Wallis, known as the bouncing bomb. Gibson received the Victoria Cross along with the Distinguished Service Order and Bar and the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. He was shot down and died over Steenbergen, Netherlands on 19th September 1944 aged just 26.

Guy Penrose Gibson VC taken in 1944 shortly before his death

That Porthleven is now a tourist driven town is much in evidence. Sadly, it seems that along with many coastal towns and villages around Cornwall Porthleven has seen a large influx of 2nd house owners and holiday lets. Back in 2011 there was anger at 13% of houses being unoccupied. Since then, there has been considerable building as elsewhere in Cornwall with resident population numbers remaining virtually static for the past fifty years. At the last census in 2021 there were 3,114, in 1971 it was 3,024 with little change in-between, but many more houses.

There is a nice selection of good quality galleries, and we were pleased to see paintings by Newquay based artist Doug Hinge, many Newquay folk will remember his gallery in Gover Lane. Doug’s paintings have evolved since then, and these are bright fun-loving depictions of life in towns, quirky and humorous. The Albatross Gallery also has numerous other art and ceramic works by many Cornish artists, and we were pleased to hear that this family run gallery specialises in locally sourced products from Cornwall. Later we would meet and chat to Ben who owns the Mounts Bay Distillery, a family run business overlooking Mount’s Bay, producing Cornish Rum & Gin paired with spices, seaweed and honey from the wilds of Cornwall. The Mounts Bay Distillery also has a local and ethical ethos with minimal or no plastics used in their products and with earnings-based donations made to plastic free seas charities and the planting of trees. Small businesses such as these ensure that tourism can really benefit the Cornish economy with incomes largely remaining in Cornwall. It’s important that local businesses especially those that produce and sell Cornish products are supported wherever possible. These add to the diversity of Cornwall’s heritage and future generations will no doubt collect vintage art and ceramics produced today to include in museums and galleries as can be seen at Newquay Museum’s Cornish Coffee Lounge.

Cornish art promoted and sold
Illustrating Cornwall's rich artisan food and drink industry

A lovely day was spent in Porthleven meeting local people and giving an illustrated talk to Porthleven Old Cornwall Society where I was pleased to accept the kind invitation from their President, Beatrice Kerno. This society helps keep the light of Cornish heritage alive in Porthleven along with many other ‘Old Cornwall’ and Cornish heritage groups throughout Cornwall. But these really do need support from younger folk to help run them and carry their valuable work on into the future.

Porthleven History and how it evolved
Porthleven History
Ertach Kernow Heritage Column - 3rd May 2023