Originally Porthleven was a marshy cove fed by a stream which marked the boundary of the Breage and Sithney parishes, 2 miles SW of Helston. There was a shingle bar at the mouth of the cove which rather like a miniature version of Loe Bar. Porthleven was not a very important place as at the time the Cober valley was navigable as far as Helston. The continual silting up of the Cober valley estuary however led to the formation of the Loe Bar sandbank. This resulted in the Cober valley and Helston being cut off from the sea, probably during the 12th century. By the 14th century a small hamlet of fishermen settled around the cove which is now Porthleven.
During the 1700's the fishermen in Porthleven were joined by farmworkers and miners, many of whom worked in the silver & lead mines in the Penrose Estate near Loe Bar.
Constructing Porthleven Harbour
The construction of the harbour was a tremendous and dangerous engineering achievement. The shingle bar with its stone bridge at the mouth of the south west facing valley had to be removed so ships could enter. Napoleonic War prisoners were used but the construction took 14 years and was not completed until 1825.
The granite pier and quays were constucted by 1825 but it was still an open harbour. The harbour was purchased in 1855 by Harvey and Co of Hayle in Cornwall, who built the inner harbour which was completed in 1858. The huge timbers (baulk) that seal the inner harbour in storms are still in use today. The population of Porthleven increased to well over 1000 by 1858.
The harbour housed a large fishing fleet that harvested the huge shoals of pilchards & mackerel that swam in Mounts bay. The economy involved fishing, boatbuilding, net and rope making, fish smoking and packing in the village. Ships brought in coal, and lime for building work and timber for use in boatbuilding and the local mines. Exports included fish locally mined china clay, tin, and other minerals. Also Kitto & Sons of Porthleven built fishing boats, clippers, schooners and yachts used in ports all round the world.
Local legend tells that tunnels connect caves in the cliffs to Methleigh Manor a mile or so away, and describe a chamber under the kitchen floor 'big enough to accommodate twelve jolly smugglers'. The floor of the Manor House was recently re-laid, and when workmen raised the flagstone said to cover the chamber, they found to their disappointment only a solid floor beneath. However, tales of tunnels hold more water, perhaps literally: tunnels cut in the bedrock do indeed exist at the Manor: they channelled water from the hills down to the mill that still stands in the courtyard. When dry, these tunnels could perhaps have been used to store contraband.
There are also rumoured to be further smugglers' tunnels leading from caves in the harbour area and other places on the coast nearby. The cliffs where some of them terminated are the site of many graves of drowned sailors, including, no doubt, some unidentified smugglers. The philosophy was that, since there was no way of determining whether these victims of the sea were Christian or not, they weren't entitled to burial in a churchyard. Stories of the drowned mariners make grim reading, as this letter from a local vicar to the Lord of Methleigh Manor illustrates:
By the enclosed paper you will find that the number of dead bodies and of such parts of bodies as with respect to interment should we think be considered and paid for as such whole bodies, taken up within the precincts of your manor and buried there, after the last wreck amounts to 62. The extraordinary charge of two men attending constantly, one for 12 days, the other for 13 days at 1/6, was thought to be necessary, in order to secure the bodies as soon as they should be cast ashore, from being torn by dogs etc, and to prepare graves for their immediate reception being at that time very offensive.
The circumstance accounts for the great consumption of liquor without which the people would hardly have been prevailed with to touch the broken bodies, and also for the pack and rope by which they were drawn up over the cliff...
The Ship Inn at Porthleven was rumoured to have numerous escape routes; these must be very cunningly concealed, because a search by the present landlord revealed no trace. However, an old local man recalls how, while standing in the cellar, a draft of air drew the smoke from his pipe into a fissure in the rock wall!
In January 1796 a large transport, bound for Portsmouth with the 26th Draggons on board, parted from her convoy and ran ashore near the rocks of Porthleven. Despite huge seas, "nine men of Breage" joined themselves by rope and waded out towards her, but they were engulfed by a great wave and never seen again. Soon after, the transport broke apart and none of the 400 on board survived. Sixteen years later, the entire crew of a Swedish ship which was wrecked nearby, were entirely saved by a local man, Tobias Roberts, who had already distinguished himself in the loss of the Anson in 1807. The 44 gun frigate, HMS Anson was shipwrecked at Loe Bar in 1807 and reportedly 130 people were drowned. This tragedy gave rise to 3 events:
1. The Henry Trengrouse life saving apparatus. Rocket fired rope line and cork filled life jackets invented by the local cabinet maker Henry Trengrouse.
2. The Thomas Grylls Act of 1808. Thomas was a local solicitor who drafted the act which sets out the procedures regarding burial of bodies cast up by the sea.
3. The Act Of Parliament signed by King George III in 1811 "for constructing a harbour, in Mounts Bay in the county of Cornwall". Porthleven was chosen because if its central location in Mounts Bay. The Act established the Porthleven Harbour Company that was responsible for building, maintaining and operating the the harbour.
William Rowe of Porthleven was awarded a silver medal for swimming out to a wreck with a rope and saving the crew on 27 April 1824 the brig Olive was wrecked beneath the Halsferran Cliffs. John Freeman of Gunwalloe was awarded one also for assisting him.
Helston and Loe Bar
Frederic Rogers of Penrose led a bid to rescue the Captain and mate of the ketch Ida of Stockholm wrecked on Loe Bar in a gale on 5 February 1826. The rest of the crew had been swept overboard. A young woman from Cury was also killed when the breakers surged over Loe Bar and carried her into Loe Pool over the sands which dams the estuary of the Cober River and creates the fresh water lake separate from the sea. A young Helston man was also swept off an outlying rock. A local smuggler, Henry Cuttance organized the rescue. He sent over food on a light rope until a heavier one could be rigged with a chair. Both were brought ashore after ten hours.
Buildings at Helston were frequently pressed into service to house smuggled goods in transit from the coast, and an amusing story is told of the Angel Inn. George Michell drove a cart load of silk up to the pub, but was met by the landlady, who warned him of a party of searchers, awaiting his arrival. Michell sent his son round to the yard with the cart, walking brazenly into the bar, and bought the crowd of searchers a drink. Relieved that they had their quarry in sight, they accepted, and Michell managed to spin out the conversation for a good while, lacing the talk with flattery about the preventives skill and insight. Eventually, they heard a rumble of cart wheels, and, rushing to the window, the searchers saw an old horse-drawn hearse driving off — which they dismissed as a pauper's funeral. Needless to say, when the officers eventually got round to searching Michell's cart, they found only innocent provisions.
Canon overlooking entrance to Porthleven Harbour.