Life at St Ives has traditionally revolved around its harbour. Here, up to about the time of the First World War, were to be seen the town’s large fleets of mackerel and pilchard luggers, coasting vessels loading or discharging cargoes, seine boats arriving from Porthminster deeply laden with silvery fish; and all the bustle and activity associated with a prosperous seaport and fishing town.
Today, the scene has vastly changed, yet the harbour remains the focal point of St Ives. Nearly all the fishing boats have gone, their places taken by gaily painted pleasure craft, whilst the sand, once grimy with coal, is now a clean golden bathing beach. Many regret the change, but it was inevitable with the decline in the fishing industry; and St Ives is at least fortunate in having a type of harbour that has adapted so well to meet new circumstances.
As early as the sixteenth century St Ives was the chief port of departure in the west for passage to Ireland, and there are several entries in the old Borough Accounts relating to this traffic. Thus in 1592: ‘paide William Ots to pay for 2 passengers bounde to Irelande whiche weare hosted at water treweks 3s.4d.’ ‘Paide to a man of Irelande that had his barke stollen by pirats 1s.’ 1604: ‘paide to a poore souldier that came from Irelande 3d.’ The importance of this sea-link with Ireland is shown also in a by-law passed in 1619, which decreed that ‘All yrishmen landing hencforth ther loades or Burden of tymber [are to pay] ijs.ijd. & ballaste of Sand to be taken at this charge if they liste to take it.’
No contemporary description of the harbour has survived, but it is known that prior to 1766 the pier ran out from Carn Glaze (the site of the present Fishermen’s Co-operative Stores). It appears to have been of simple construction, probably consisting of timber piles driven in the sand, with a rubble filling. The maintenance of this pier and the clearance of sand from the harbour imposed at times a severe strain on the very limited borough finances.
The harbour began to take on something of its present appearance in 1770, when a new pier was constructed to the design of John Smeaton, the great civil engineer. This was built out from the Castle Rocks, the old pier being at the same time demolished and the Wharf constructed. Though only about half its present length, Smeaton’s Pier sheltered a much greater extent of water than its predecessor did, and so accommodated the growing trade and fishing industry of the town. This growth in the years following the building of the pier is best illustrated by the annual amounts of harbour dues collected by the Trustees, which rose from £593 in 1770 to £1280 in 1814 and to £1824 by 1836.
In 1837 St Ives, very unwisely, was declared a free port, and dues ceased to be collected – a measure that resulted in unavoidable delay in carrying out further improvements.
In 1844, 165 coasting merchant vessels having a gross tonnage of 9723 arrived in the port of St Ives. By comparison, during the same year, 856 vessels arrived at Hayle, these having a tonnage of 65,979. But what was more important at St Ives was the fishing industry; in 1847 the capital invested in the pilchard fisheries was in excess of £150,000, with 400 boats and 735 men employed, whilst a further 100 men were engaged in other types of fishing.
Imports from within Britain were coal, iron and general merchandise and from abroad timber; exports within Britain were fish and copper ore, and abroad, fish and tin. Sailing vessels belonging to the port totalled 8994 tons, with a few steamers totalling 498 tons.
In 1864 work was begun on an outer harbour by erecting the New or Wood Pier at the seaward side of Smeaton’s structure, and running roughly at right angles to it. Its timber frame failed to stand up to the buffeting of the Atlantic rollers, however, and in less than twenty years it had become an almost complete wreck. Today little more than its short masonry stump remains. The failure of this project brought on an acute crisis, the harbour being desperately overcrowded with the ever-increasing fleet of fishing vessels. This situation reached its climax in 1886, with the so-called Tresidder’s riot among the fishermen.
Eventually, in 1888-90 the position was relieved by adding a lengthy extension to Smeaton’s Pier. The shorter West Pier was built in 1894 as a loading jetty for roadstone from the Carthew and Orange Lane quarries. Finally, around 1922 the Wharf Road was constructed from the lifeboat house to Chy-an-Chy, affording much needed relief to Fore Street, which previously had to carry all the traffic.
Since then, St Ives has ceased to be a seaport, whilst its fishing fleet has dwindled to extinction. These events have brought about great changes in the town itself. The smoke houses for curing, the great pilchard cellars, the barking houses for tanning nets, and the net factory have all gone, either swept away to make room for modern developments, or converted to new uses. The last St Ives pilchard cellar, in Norway Lane, was cleared out in 1968-69, much of its equipment being transferred to the St Ives Museum at Wheal Dream. Yet with all these changes, ‘Downlong’, the old fishing quarter, still retains a great deal of its atmosphere, the narrow alleyways and picturesque cottages proving a never-failing delight to artists, photographers and holiday-makers.