Discovering Cornwall

A series of short videos sharing information about aspects of Cornish heritage and places of interest throughout Cornwall. This is an extension of an ongoing project on behalf of Newquay Museum entitled Discovering Newquay, with those videos included within this larger project.

Treffry's Harbour of Refuge - Little Fistral, Newquay

Today large waves like the Cribbar off Newquay’s Towan Head are a mecca for surfers wanting to take on big surf. During the 19th century in the days of sail a storm with huge waves lashing the shore were a terrifying prospect to mariners. Cornwall’s north coast has always been a danger to shipping in the days of sail, with little availability for a harbour of refuge during storms. The only alternative was to either try to outrun the storm or beach the vessel on a sandy beach. As numerous historic documents and images testify both alternatives were often unsuccessful leading to loss of the vessel and the lives of the crew.

This video provides a brief overview of J T Treffry's attempts to build a Harbour of Refuge at Towan Head in 1850, where Little Fistral Beach now is.

J T Treffry's Harbour of Refuge at Towan Head, Newquay

Today large waves like the Cribbar off Newquay’s Towan Head are a mecca for surfers wanting to take on big surf. During the 19th century in the days of sail a storm with huge waves lashing the shore were a terrifying prospect to mariners. Cornwall’s north coast has always been a danger to shipping in the days of sail, with little availability for a harbour of refuge during storms. The only alternative was to either try to outrun the storm or beach the vessel on a sandy beach. As numerous historic documents and images testify both alternatives were often unsuccessful leading to loss of the vessel and the lives of the crew.

People on holiday or those that frequent 2nd homes in Cornwall during the summer months may not appreciate the storms that batter coastal communities around the coast. The waves crashing into Porthleven are iconic, the harbour at Mullion has needed ongoing extensive repairs and the harbour at St Agnes was washed away many years ago. The image of the north quay at Newquay Harbour with a gaping hole from 1889 is well known.

J T Treffry after purchasing the Manor of Towan Blystra in 1838 then endeavoured to make Newquay a place of refuge for shipping. The existing harbour was tidal and not ideally placed, therefore an alternative was planned further out on Towan Head.  Vessels would often shelter in the lee of Towan Head in the Gazzle during a north-westerly storm. Treffry’s plan was to construct a harbour on the east side of Towan Head with a cut through to the Gazelle so ships could shelter in the new harbour of refuge or make their way down to the existing harbour.

Building commenced in 1848 and huge granite blocks were brought into position. These were transported from Treffry’s quarry at Luxulyan on the mineral tramway to Newquay Harbour and then by flat bottom boats across the Gazzle, then hoisted by derricks onto wagons. Once the piers were  completed the narrow isthmus would be cut making Towan Head an island and allowing ships to pass through to the Gazzle, thereby making a large, sheltered tide free harbour. Apparently the main pier was completed, and blasting had commenced in the centre of the harbour area. However, in January 1850 Treffry caught pneumonia and died, with him so did the harbour of refuge. Over the coming decades storms battered what had been completed and the structure was gradually destroyed.              

Little now remains, many blocks have been removed to use elsewhere and the tall wall that youngsters played and climbed on for over a century into the 1960’s was eventually blown up for safety reasons.

Plans were drawn up in 1906 to create a pier on the north Cornish coast as a refuge for shipping, at a number of possible sites, including Newquay. But as sail had given way to larger steam vessels and steam engines had become more efficient it was ultimately deemed harbours of refuge were no longer required.