Harbour History

A brief history of Portreath Harbour

Portreath was one of Cornwall’s earliest industrial ports and well used by the “Welsh Fleet”, a great flotilla of schooners, brigs and brigantines, mostly Cornish owned and manned, which took copper ore to South Wales and returned home with engine coal for the mines of Redruth and Camborne.

In 1713 Samuel Nott a contractor from Devon was engaged to build a mole or quay on the Western side of the beach close to Amy’s Point. How long it lasted is unknown, but the remains of the foundations are sometimes still visible when the sand is drawn off the beach by ground seas. The harbour that we have today was begun in 1760 to meet the demands of the developing ore industry in the Camborne and Redruth area. In 1846 the harbour was extended with the inner basin being constructed and in the 1860s New Dock (Now commonly known as the Little Beach) was constructed. Thomas Massey started a shipbuilding enterprise here on the site of the Waterfront Inn. The lounge bar of the Waterfront is the only surviving building dating from Massey’s tenure.

By the 1840s Portreath was handling a staggering 700 shiploads per year and handling an amazing 100,000 tones of ore. By the end of the 19th Century, this trade had seriously diminished although imports of domestic coal, cement, slate even potatoes continued until well after World War Two. As the copper trade collapsed by 1886 Portreath was nearly bankrupt. The future of the harbour was in the hands of David Wise Bain who was ‘general agent and harbour master’ for the Williams family of Scorrier House who themselves leased the port from the Bassets of Tehidy.

On the death of his father and on receipt of his inheritance Bain invested heavily in the the tin trade acquiring a tin smelter and a rolling house in Redruth. In1887 he set about building up his own fleet of steamers starting with the 160 ton “Veronica”. She was followed by the “Bride”, the 159 ton “Coniston Fell” and the smaller three masted “Lynx”.

In 1888 they acquired the 110 ton “Olivia” and the 115 ton “Plover”. In 1890 the fleet was joined by the “Feadon”, the “Guardian” and the “Holmwood”. Lastly they purchased the famous “Treleigh” known somewhat un-affectionatley by her crew as “Rolling Reggie”.

Finally in the words of 100 year old Captain Gordon Greenslade the last of the Portreath born skippers to sail from the harbour: “At the start of the 2nd World War, I was Master of a coaster, the SS Islesman, trading out of Portreath to Newport, Cardiff and Barry in the Bristol Channel, for steam coal for the mines, and cement, to Preston and Garston, and to Whitehaven and Maryport for house coal. To Charlestown and Par for China clay. In the first winter of the war, in December, one of our ships, the SS Ruban, hit the rocks off the Lizard in fog and sank – all crew saved. Later in the war, the SS Florence Reynolds, on voyage to Newport, was in collision with a Royal Navy destroyer and sank, but luckily all the crew were saved. We used to fly a Barrage Balloon at 1,000 feet from the masthead against low flying aircraft and had three Naval Gunners and a 40mm gun mounted on the stern.We used to go in convoy part of the way, sometimes we were attacked by enemy aircraft. There were moored mines, acoustic and magnetic mines and submarines about. Later on another of our ships left Maryport for Portreath, she was lost with all hands, we don’t know what happened to her, she was the SS Kyle Rona. We aboard the SS Islesman were bombed off Bardsey Island, it was a near miss. We came safely through the war, the only Portreath ship left.”

In June 1980 the Beynon Shipping Company donated the harbour to Kerrier District Council, which has now been absorbed by Cornwall Council from whom the Portreath Harbour Association lease the basins, slipway, quays and hard-standing along with the boat shed and the bait shed.