Everything you ever wanted to know about Newlyn Harbour

Many of the big colourful fishing boats moor against The Mary Williams Pier

Many of the big colourful fishing boats moor against The Mary Williams Pier - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com

More than 60 species of seafood are landed every day at Newlyn Harbour. Explore one of Cornwall’s busiest — and usually off-limits — harbours

It was in 1435 that Newlyn Harbour was first recorded as an ‘industrial’ port. At this time the centre of Newlyn was situated around the historic, Old Quay, and pilchards were the mainstay of the fishing fleet for the next five centuries.
A war raged between England and Spain from 1585 to 1604. During that time the Spanish armada was defeated in 1588.  Seven years later, in 1595, the Spanish raided and destroyed much of Mousehole, Paul, Newlyn and Penzance.  This was the only significant raid onto British soil during this war though a further, much smaller, landing was made at Cawsand in 1596.  

The Old Quay was the main quay until the 16th century

The Old Quay was the main quay until the 16th century - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com

The exact purpose of the Newlyn raid is unclear but it was likely to be in revenge for the defeat of the armada or possibly a signal of future intent. The raid led to much of Newlyn being rebuilt and at this time the main quay shifted to its current location, previously known as Gwavas Quay.
Reflecting its importance as the most south westerly harbour in the UK, in 1620 the Mayflower stopped off at Newlyn to collect supplies and water before travelling to The New World.


In 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon caused a tsunami in Cornwall. It is said the sea level rose by 10ft in 10 minutes at Newlyn. The tsunami took four hours to reach the UK and it affected much of southern Britain. The tsunami is said to have caused a lot of damage and loss of life though there appear to be no official statistics of either. This is one of only two confirmed tsunamis ever to have been recorded in Britain.
The railway line to Penzance opened in 1852, this boosted the fish trade and encouraged more travel and tourism.  Among the tourists who visited Newlyn were the artists from London who wanted to experience life in a ‘real’ Cornish harbour and so it was that the Newlyn School of artists was established in the early 1880s.  

Colourful boats pack the harbour at Newlyn

Colourful boats pack the harbour at Newlyn - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com


Leading the drive to create impressionistic depictions of real life, painted in situ were the now famous artists Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and Frank Bromley.  In Newlyn their work focussed particularly on fishermen and their families.
Major development of the harbour took place in 1887 and 1888 when the South and North Piers were opened.  These allowed better access to the harbour at any state of tide and encouraged a wider range of commodities to be shipped in and out.

Ship maintenance at South Pier

Ship maintenance at South Pier - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com


1896 was the year of the Newlyn Riots. Local fishermen were all Methodists, who saw it as wrong to work on Sundays. Fishermen from ‘up-country’ didn’t share their religious values and were taking advantage of higher fish prices due to lower catches on Sundays. They came from all around the country to land fish at Newlyn on Sundays so locals retaliated by boarding their vessels and throwing their fish overboard.  It is thought that about 1,000 people were involved in the riots and it took the intervention of a naval destroyer to quell the uprising.


Newlyn Harbour was established by an Act of Parliament as a Trust Port in 1906, run by an independent Board of Commissioners for the benefit of the fishing industry – not by a local authority or private business. The following year work was undertaken to convert the substantial granite building across The Strand from the fish quay into an ice works.

Shags can be seen in the harbour throughout the winter months

Shags can be seen in the harbour throughout the winter months - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com

This is now a Grade II listed building treasured for its building style and purpose relating to the pilchard fishing industry. Further important development of the harbour took place in 1980 when The Mary Williams Pier was opened by The Queen. Mary Williams was a member of the Bolitho family who have long had a strong connection to Newlyn Harbour. She was on the Board of the Harbour Commissioners in the 1970’s when the proposal to build the new quay was planned. Since then there has been the addition of a floating pontoon, in 2005, for smaller vessels and access to the Penlee Lifeboat which has been moored in the harbour since 1983. 

Penlee Lifeboat has been moored in the harbour since 1983

Penlee Lifeboat has been moored in the harbour since 1983 - Credit: © David Chapman/Ardea.com

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