A History of Port Gaverne

Port Gaverne today is a tranquil location, but in bygone times the whole place was buzzing with industry, with the landing and processing of fish, and it was the principal port for the export of Delabole Slate prior to the coming of the railway in 1895.

The earliest written record of Port Gaverne is in the 1338 Havener’s accounts, where it was recorded as Porcaveran. The Havener was the official who collected fishing tithes due to the Duchy of Cornwall. The Duchy was formed in 1337 and owned that part of Cornish beaches between high and low water. This meant it could tax commercial activities which crossed its lands. In 1338, the annual tithe for Port Gaverne, Port Isaac and Port Quin together was 40 shillings. There is little recorded about Port Isaac around these times, and it seems that in the next two centuries Port Gaverne was the more important fishing port. Its fortunes waned, as in 1584, John Norden, referring to Port Gaverne as Port-kerne, described it as “A litle cove for fisher-boates; and ther was somtymes a crane to lifte up and downe suche comodities as were ther taken in to be transported, or browght in and unloden: and ther have bene divers buyldinges, now all decayde since the growing of Portissick.” He described Port Isaac as “A hamlet and haven, wounderfully increased also in buyldinges of late yeares by fishinge.”

In 1762 we find an early reference to industry, with a lease on a plot of land for loading sand. Lime-rich sea sand was once a very important commodity, used as a fertiliser on acid Cornish soils. The early fortunes of the Bude Canal and the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway were both founded on the demand for this commodity. In Port Gaverne, it was a prime source of income for the local people. Sir John Maclean, writing in 1872, mentions that by digging the sand at low tides and placing it above high water for the farmers to collect, the local women and children could earn as much as their seafaring men-folk. By Maclean’s time, the use of sea sand was in decline, although it was still being dug here well into the 20th century.

Carting Sea Sand c1895. Note the heaps of sand on the beach
Carting Sea Sand c1895. Note the heaps of sand on the beach

The Port Gaverne layout we see today began in the first few years of the 19th century with the arrival of huge shoals of pilchards all along the north coast. These had to be caught and processed, so entrepreneurs raised the capital of many tens of thousands of pounds to provide for the erection in our parish of ten large industrial fish cellars, colloquially known as ‘Pilchard Palaces’. There were two in Port Quin, four in Port Isaac and four in Port Gaverne. Three of the four in Port Isaac have gone, but those in Port Quin and Port Gaverne still stand today. The original leases for three Port Gaverne’ cellars are held in the County Records office and show they were executed in late 1802 to early 1803. The seaward arm of the triangular building at the head of the beach existed prior to that date, but this was probably extended around that time to make the building we see today.

Part of Earl Fortescue’s Manor of Treore Estate Map c1800, prior to the building of the Pilchard Palaces
Part of Earl Fortescue’s Manor of Treore Estate Map c1800, prior to the building of the Pilchard Palaces
The Tithe Map of 1839 showing the four fish cellars with their names added
The Tithe Map of 1839 showing the four fish cellars with their names added
Port Gaverne today shows that same layout of the last 200 years
Port Gaverne today shows that same layout of the last 200 years

The four cellars were named after the seine company which owned them: Union, Rashleigh, Venus and Liberty. The Liberty cellar was later to become Gullrock. The quantity of pilchards processed was prodigious, although numbers were always subject to annual variance. Great numbers returned in 1815, when around a thousand tons were caught during a single week. By the 1830s, the pilchard had virtually all gone from this far up the north coast, but still came in smaller numbers around the far western coast.

When the pilchards arrived in summer, the whole labour force of the surrounding area would be diverted from their farming and other jobs to deal with this valuable and perishable product. Pilchards are surface feeders, so any shoal coming close inland appears as a dark shadow on the water, to be spotted by a ‘Huer’ (from the old French verb huer, meaning to call out) stationed on the clifftop. Once sighted, the huer’s shout would go out and the boats would launch. The huer would be closely watched so he could direct the boats onto the shoal using a branch of gorse in each hand, in the manner of a ground controller directing an aircraft to its landing bay. Once the shoal had been encircled, the seine net would be hauled into the cove, where the fish would be scooped out with wicker baskets and taken into the cellar for processing. Once in the cellar, a large stack would be created in the middle of the yard, 4 feet or more high, alternating a layer of salt with a layer of pilchards. After leaving in bulk for six weeks to cure, the stack would be broken down and the fish cleaned then packed in barrels. A barrel placed in front of each hole in the row of holes running all round the inside and outside of the cellar walls. A long wooden beam with a weight on the end was placed in the hole so the barrel lid would be pressed down on the fish to extract the fish oil. This oozed out of the leaky staves and ran into a gutter round the building and then into an oil storage tank. The sale of this oil paid all the costs of the whole operation, so the money received for the fish was all profit. Once all the oil was out, the barrels were then ready for export, typically to the Mediterranean.

Seine Fishing in Port Isaac Bay by John Watts Trevan 1835.
Seine Fishing in Port Isaac Bay by John Watts Trevan 1835.
Getting the pilchards out of the seine net – St Ives c1880
Getting the pilchards out of the seine net – St Ives c1880
Creating the pilchard stack in the cellar – St Ives c1860
Creating the pilchard stack in the cellar – St Ives c1860
Pressing the pilchard barrels using the row of holes and a long beam with a weight on the end. National Maritime Museum display, Falmouth
Pressing the pilchard barrels using the row of holes and a long beam with a weight on the end. National Maritime Museum display, Falmouth

Alongside the fishing activities, in 1807 the Delabole Slate Company quarried out a well graded road to allow the bulky slate to be shipped out from Port Gaverne. When a boat arrived here, often with coal or limestone, a boy was sent to Delabole to advise them to send down the wagonloads of slate. As they made the steep descent into the cove, the driver would steer the cart over to the sides of the cutting to increase the friction and slow the heavy wagons down. The grooves they made can still be seen as you walk down the old road. In order to avoid the steepest part, the quarry company cut a new path down and a quay on the north eastern side of the cove. It was intended this would facilitate loading direct into the boat rather than off the beach. What had been forgotten was that there is no sheltering breakwater here, and a wooden boat tied to a stone quay would rapidly be dashed to pieces if a swell got up. All that effort had to be abandoned, but the remains today make a fine graded path onto the clifftops. The work of loading the fragile slate was done mainly by the women, since the menfolk would typically be out fishing. While they were busy packing the slate, children would be left at the head of the beach, with the older ones in charge of the very young.

A wagon train of slate at Delabole Quarry c1870
A wagon train of slate at Delabole Quarry c1870
Women loading the slate on Port Gaverne beach c1870
Women loading the slate on Port Gaverne beach c1870
Three ships abreast in the cove c1870. The gentleman on the left is Warwick Richard Guy who owned much of Port Gaverne. Note the loaders’ children sitting on the floor by him, peeping round at the camera
Three ships abreast in the cove c1870. The gentleman on the left is Warwick Richard Guy who owned much of Port Gaverne. Note the loaders’ children sitting on the floor by him, peeping round at the camera

The pilchards had gone in the early part of the 19th century, and the coming of the railway to Delabole in the final decade of the century made the port redundant. However, the railway removed one source of employment, but opened up a new source – tourists. Within a few years of the railway opening in 1895, the Rashleigh cellar was being used by visiting church youth groups from London, with hammocks set up in the old sail lofts for them to sleep. In 1920 the Liberty cellar was converted into the Bide-a-While Hotel, and the Venus cellar into holiday properties. Today, most of the properties here are utilized for the tourist industry.

There has never been much of a resident population. The first national census of 1841 recorded just 45 people living in Port Gaverne, and by 1911 it was only 29. The necessary labourers were mostly living in Port Isaac and came over the hill to do their work. When industry waned, they did not bother to walk over the hill, and, with no pressure to reuse the land, the old industrial buildings were left for future generations to adapt to new purposes.

Even with additional housing the current population is of the same order, but with the summer visitors filling the holiday accommodation, the transient population may well exceed 200, plus many day visitors enjoying the beach and scenery. Over the centuries, Port Gaverne has been a story of adaptation, as the sources of income have waned from fishing to slate and now to tourism.