In the middle of the 18th Century West Polmear, as it was then known, was a tiny fishing hamlet of just three cottages and some nine inhabitants making a living from pilchards. In those early years small vessels bringing in coal and limestone and carrying fish away, would run up on the beach.
Tin mining was a very important industry and during the latter part of the century the pits producing china clay to the north of St Austell began to thrive, and the need for a nearby port and a safe harbour became obvious to Charles Rashleigh – a local businessman and entrepreneur and the owner of West Polmear.
In 1791 he began the construction of a harbour and within 10 years an inner locked basin and much of the village had been completed, including an hotel (now The Pier House) and a chapel. By 1795 the population had grown to some 175 persons and the port and village became known as Charles’ Town.
Increasing numbers of ships were using the harbour. Cellars were built for the processing and packing of pilchards together with the cooperages to make casks for their export to the continent and for the carriage of finer clays. A works for smelting tin and lead was founded and a shipbuilding yard developed together with the associated trades supplying ropes, sails, nets and chandlery.
In order to keep his dock full at all tides and to flush the muck and debris out of it, Rashleigh brought a water supply some 7 miles from Luxulyan by building a man made leat (some of it underground and some of it now sadly neglected), together with two large holding ponds (in the woodland to the north-west of the dock). In addition he built a gun battery overlooking his port to protect it from the French.
In the early 1800s vast deposits of copper were discovered to the east of St Austell and several important mines were developed. The copper ore was shipped to South Wales for smelting and cargoes of coal, limestone, timber, and hemp for rope making came into the port.
Rashleigh died in 1823 and his family relinquished control of the village to the Crowder family in 1825. The period 1827 to 1914 saw the enlargement of the dock to its present form; the rebuilding of the Methodist Church; the building of St Paul’s Church; the construction of the Lovering clay dries; the development of the Foundry, and the building of the Rashleigh Arms.
By 1850 the local copper mines were in decline and by the early 1900s the fishing industry had collapsed. Charlestown though, continued to prosper with its handling of china clay. By 1907 clay slurry was being piped direct to the Lovering dries from Carclaze, and the port was very successful in competing for the trade with the nearby ports of Pentewan and Par.
The early silting up of Pentewan, the competition from the railways, and the steady decline of the clay industry during the last 20 years with the discovery of easily worked deposits in Brazil, together with the increasing size of the ships using our little harbours put an end to all three as clay ports.
Charlestown said goodbye to its last clay boat in December 1999 and the most recent casualty was Par in 2007. Fowey, with its deep water harbour and jetties, which can accommodate large ocean-going vessels, remains as Cornwall’s last clay port.
Since 1986, when the Crowder family sold their Charlestown Estate, the village has had several owners, most notably ‘Square Sail’ which bought the harbour in 1991 and from where it operates a fleet of 3 lovely square rigged ‘tall ships’ which over the years, using the harbour and village as a backdrop, have been used for numerous film productions – the latest being Alice in Wonderland.
Much has changed and a great deal has been lost over the last two centuries but much has remained largely unchanged, illustrated by the following 2 extracts from the ‘Charlestown Historical and Archaeological Assessment’ produced by Cornwall Archaeological Unit in 1998. ‘A combination of many factors makes Charlestown a unique settlement. It is one of the best examples of late 18th century and early 19th century harbour works in Britain’.
‘Nowhere else in Cornwall is it possible to step so immediately into the ambience of an early 19th century working port. The underlying reason for this circumstance is the continuity of ownership by two successive landlords from 1784 to 1986.’
This uniqueness was recognised in 2006 by UNESCO when Charlestown was inscribed as a World Heritage Site as part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape, and it is worth noting that World Heritage Sites are chosen by UNESCO for their ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.
In March 2013 Cornwall Council adopted the Charlestown Conservation Area Character Appraisal and Management Plan – the document may be viewed by clicking here