Key moments in the history of Porthleven

In summer Loe Bar has yellow-horned poppy

In summer Loe Bar has yellow-horned poppy - Credit: Archant

In 1807 HMS Anson was wrecked off the coast at Loe Bar. This ship was launched from Plymouth in 1781 and it fought in the Battle of Saintes near Dominica in 1782. It was subsequently strengthened and took part in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 it met its end when it broke its anchorage in Mount’s Bay and ran aground not far from Loe Bar. More than 120 sailors lost their lives and a memorial, commemorating their loss was erected at the south end of Loe Bar in 1949. The cannons which currently stand in Porthleven Harbour were salvaged from this ship in 1961.

Porthleven battered by high tide

Porthleven battered by high tide - Credit: Archant

There were two or three consequences of this disaster. In 1808 the Burial of Drowned Persons Act was passed to outlaw the use of mass graves for people lost at sea and local man, Henry Trengrouse, who witnessed this horror, invented a rocket life-saving apparatus to assist people struggling in the water close to land, this was the precursor of the breeches buoy. The third consequence which might partly be attributed to the loss of this and other ships off this coast was the construction of Porthleven Harbour.

In 1810 plans were put forward to construct a harbour in Porthleven. Reasons given for its construction included the frequency of wrecked ships off the coast due to the lack of a safe place to moor as well as the trade in china clay from Tregonning Hill and the need to import coal and timber. One of the first tasks was to build the pier which would protect the entrance to the harbour and prevent the build-up of shingle in the harbour mouth. In 1826 the harbour opened to ships of up to 400 tons but at a cost of around £200,000 the harbour company struggled to make enough revenue to cover their outlay.

The harbour was purchased by Harvey and Co. in 1855. This company undertook significant improvements including the construction of a breakwater and gates to hold water in the inner harbour. They also constructed a sluice gate system through which they could scour the outer harbour using the force of water impounded. All in all the fortunes of the various trades, including fishing, from the port were enhanced.

In 1883 there were 80 pilchard fishing boats; 20 shellfish boats and 23 larger boats which travelled to Scotland in search of mackerel each year. Almost all these boats were built on the North Bank of the harbour. Pilchard fishing was a mainstay of the Cornish people in the late 19th Century. It is said that some boats could land up to 40,000 fish in one night. After the local demand was satisfied pilchards would be cured and stacked in casks or hogsheads and shipped to Mediterranean markets. Italy was one of the most important markets for Cornish pilchards. Despite a temporary resurgence of stocks and demand after the First World War, the early 20th Century was generally a time of decline in the fishing industry at Porthleven.

Porthleven battered by high waves

Porthleven battered by high waves - Credit: Archant

Only a year later, in 1884 the Bickford-Smith Institute was opened. This will be known to most of us for its clock tower, making it the most recognisable building in Porthleven. It is 70 feet high and is grade II listed. It was originally a scientific and literary institute built as a gift to Porthleven from Mr Bickford-Smith of Trevarno, an MP for Truro and Helston.

In a busy period for the harbour, in 1895 the lifeboat station on the north side of the harbour was opened. The boat could be launched from here at any state of the tide but it is a very exposed place and there were times when the lifeboat house was damaged by severe storms. In 1929 the final lifeboat at Porthleven was taken out of service, replaced by boats at Lizard and Penlee.

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In February 1925 a storm washed away the harbour wall and the gardens of some houses in Bay View Terrace. These houses had only been built about twenty years earlier on land previously occupied by a series of slightly less substantial houses known as Buenos Aires Row because they were built with materials salvaged from the wreck of a ship called the ‘Buenos Aires’. We can still see where the repairs to the walls on the south side of the outer harbour were made.


Goosanders can be seen at Loe Pool through the winter

Goosanders can be seen at Loe Pool through the winter - Credit: Archant

The Harbour and Dock Company has been owned by The Trevor Osborne Property Family since 1977. In that time Porthleven has been building a reputation as a foodie destination.  The Porthleven Food Festival draws people from, all over the UK and brings the South Wests finest chefs to the village.  Visitors can expect a great choice from fine dining restaurants to quirky pubs, alfresco dining and great coffee houses. become a popular and quite trendy tourist destination. The regular harbour market also helps to attract people to a harbour which is already full of interest with inns, restaurants, galleries and shops.

Developments are occurring all the time. Recently along Harbour Head Terrace a series of attractive shelters and seats have been constructed to allow people to sit and admire the harbour. On the site of what was a shipyard, at the head of the harbour, exciting plans are afoot to construct a multi-purpose venue based around a public courtyard. This will include a lobster hatchery, a performing arts venue, an innovation studio as well as the GP surgery and some parking.

The performing arts venue will provide a base for music, theatre, cinema, art exhibitions and various classes as well as providing a wonderful base for the Porthleven Town Band. The lobster hatchery will deliver a hatching programme to support the local lobster population but will also provide an educational base and visitor exhibition space.

The sea wall at Porthleven has the effect of creating massive waves from only a relatively large swe

The sea wall at Porthleven has the effect of creating massive waves from only a relatively large swell - Credit: Archant


Porthleven harbour is justly famous for photography. The clock tower providing a unique and readily identifiable landmark. I suppose the most famous image is of stormy weather hitting the pier, for this we need a long period of strong south westerly winds combined with a very high tide.

The sea defences to the south of the pier help to create impressive waves even during only a moderate storm, by deflecting one wave back into the next one advancing. For the best view of the clock tower head to the north side of the harbour mouth near The Old Lifeboathouse but for views of the waves breaking on the sea defences there is also potential from the south side.

A dusk shot of the Clock Tower

A dusk shot of the Clock Tower - Credit: Archant

Porthleven can offer good photographic potential at any time of day but I usually find high tide is better than low. There are some lovely shapes to the outer harbour on the north side, near The Ship Inn, and I recommend always trying to use some of the foreground harbour walls when photographing across the water. The clock tower will be a focal point of many photos but try not to place it in the centre of your photos, usually the top right or top left third is the best place for it. The wonderful houses of Bay View Terrace are lit beautifully by the late sunshine on a summer’s day.

I am yet to photograph a real classic storm at Porthleven but I have experienced snow in the harbour, back in February 2018 when The Beast from the East struck the Lizard. Whenever unusual weather conditions strike it’s great to be able to visit a familiar location and see it in a completely different way, especially when it is as beautiful as Porthleven Harbour.

The clock tower and Bay View Terrace in the snow of February 2018

The clock tower and Bay View Terrace in the snow of February 2018 - Credit: Archant


In winter seabirds such as great northern diver and shag are often attracted to shelter in the outer harbour. The coast path to the north of Porthleven is very colourful in May with thrift growing in great abundance. To the south try a walk as far as Loe Bar which, in summer, has flowering sea holly and yellow-horned poppy. The Loe is home to otter, great crested grebe and in winter regularly hosts goosanders as well as a variety of other wildfowl and woodland species.

To see more of David’s photography visit his website at or look out for his book ‘Photographing Cornwall’ available in all local bookshops.

A wave breaks against the end of the pier

A wave breaks against the end of the pier - Credit: Archant

The inner harbour photographed at dusk

The inner harbour photographed at dusk - Credit: Archant

Looking through the harbour entrance we see the iconic clock tower

Looking through the harbour entrance we see the iconic clock tower - Credit: Archant

This cannon is one of a pair which were salvaged from the ship HMS Anson which sank in 1807

This cannon is one of a pair which were salvaged from the ship HMS Anson which sank in 1807 - Credit: Archant

Porthleven seen from the pier at the mouth of the harbour

Porthleven seen from the pier at the mouth of the harbour - Credit: Archant