Charlestown’s rich and interesting past has resulted in numerous histories being available so rather than repeating those often told tales, the focus here is on a number of themes in Charlestown’s history.
Originally Charlestown was Portmoer or Porthmeur, albeit this appears on old documents and maps in many spellings as, Porthmear, Polmear and Polmere….from the Cornish words porth and meur, meaning ‘great cove’. In the 14th century it was only a small fishing village with a few humble dwellings and even as late as 1790, there were allegedly only 9 inhabitants (albeit surprising, if it was such a small settlement that it features on most old maps). It changed its name to Charles’ Town after Charles Rashleigh, who built the harbour and bigger settlement in around 1800. This eventually morphed to Charlestown.
Charlestown’s past has always been inextricably linked to boats and ships. In the early days, boats were landed and loaded on the west beach and were vulnerable to the ravages of the high seas. Charles Rashleigh commissioned the building of the first harbour and dock to ship copper from the local mines. In total 22 different cargoes have been recorded, imported goods to supply the village and exports of the riches of the hinterland. Later, this was replaced by the export of china clay, the “white gold” brought by horses wagons through St Austell from the upland pits and the import of coal …china clay going out from the east quay and coal coming in on the west side; hence known as the white and black sides, the dock workers… “Magpies”. However, the harbour had been designed for small sailing ships and it was limited in the size of vessels that could enter. The last shipment of china clay left the port in 1999 and the port closed to commercial traffic soon after.
The harbour was bought by Square Sail in 1994 as a base for its tall ships which helped fuel the harbour’s new role in film and television production. It was offered for sale again in 2012 and bought by Charlestown Harbour Company in 2018. It is home to a number of traditional sailing ships including Kajsamoor, a 1939 two masted ketch, and Anny, a 1930 topsail schooner.
From the outset, fishing has been an important part of the village. Originally, pilchards brought riches from the sea, their plenty probably establishing the settlement originally and for a brief while in the 18th and 19th century making many rich. In more recent times, more modest livings have been made by fishermen mostly after lobster and crab. Commercial fishing, however, ceased in 2012.
One man, one vision
It was Charles Rashleigh, a member of the Rashleigh family of Menabilly, near Fowey, who had the vision to create Charlestown. Already an astute landowner and businessman with premises in St Austell, he created Duporth Manor as his new residence in 1781, and then commissioned the famous engineer John Smeaton in 1791 to design and build a harbour and dock to export copper from the local mines. A planned village was developed around the harbour with all the associated industries …. blacksmiths, coopers, tanners, masons, ropemakers…and eventually a Methodist chapel, school, inn, hotel and church. The village even had its own gun battery during the Napoleonic Wars to protect the harbour from marauding French which still exists today, on the western cliff top. It also had a well drilled artillery company to fight Charlestown’s corner.
Scandal – Dingle and Daniels
One of the most extraordinary stories about Charles Rashleigh is how he was “betrayed” by, not just one, but two men. Joseph Dingle plays an increasingly important role in the planning and building of the village and harbour, becoming superintendent of works. Over time, he systematically embezzled thousands from the project. Finally, Dingle was found guilty and owed Rashleigh and others in the region of £32,000, over £2.5 million in today’s money. Dingle was declared bankrupt and died a pauper. But it also largely destroyed Rashleigh. To make matters worse, he was then duped by another manservant, Joseph Daniels. He had hopes of Daniels becoming a magistrate which required that he was a property owner, so Rashleigh bequeathed him his house and estate at Duporth on the assumption that it would be returned to him later. But it wasn’t! The result of all of this was that Charles Rashleigh died in 1823, a broken man, and bankrupt. His daughter, Martha, who would have lived in luxury in Duporth Manor was forced out to live in a small cottage in Holmbush. And two years later, in 1825, Messrs Crowder and Sartoris, bankers, and trading as Charlestown Estates, accepted the leasehold properties of the village and the harbour in lieu of debts owed. And so it remained in the hands of Charlestown Estates as owners of the port until sold in 1986.
Unspoilt and Unique
The planned nature of Charlestown in Georgian times, and its ownership in the hands of, firstly, Charles Rashleigh and then Charlestown Estates for close to 200 years, has resulted in a port that is unique. Its inscription as part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2006 honours this uniqueness.
The best preserved china clay and copper Georgian port in the world, with fine examples of vernacular architecture, nearly all buildings listed Grade II and a picturesque harbour. It remains relatively unspoilt to this day.WHS inscription
And in film…
Not surprisingly, Charlestown’s unspoilt and photogenic qualities have not gone unnoticed. It features in over 50 film and TV productions including: The Three Musketeers, The Oenidin Line, Alice in Wonderland, the BAFTA winning Bait …. And, most recently, every harbour scene in Poldark. And today, it has become increasingly popular with tourists: thousands flocking to the village and visiting not just the harbour but its many eating, drinking and shopping outlets.
First mention of Portmoer then little more than a meagre fishing settlement.
Charles Rashleigh buys land at Duporth – half a mile inland and begins to set up his estate. His new home at Duporth Manor is completed in 1781.
Open beaches at Polmear being used to load and unload ships. Building of the port commences.
Battery established to defend the harbour against Napoleonic attack. The port leat is cut and storage ponds added.
Work on harbour largely complete with loading of copper ore and china clay now taking place safely on outer quays. Polmear is renamed Charles’ Town.
The port’s founder Charles Rashleigh dies and ownership in 1825 wholly passes into the Charlestown Estate Company. It remains managed this way for the next 160 years.
Local copper mines at Polmear and Appletree are at their height of production. The village is expanding rapidly with the Church consecrated in 1851.
With the port booming the inner dock is expanded.
17 men of the parish give the ultimate sacrifice and fail to return home to Charlestown from the Great War.
First bombs dropped in Cornwall fall on Charlestown around The Grove.
Sadly 11 men from the village die in WW2.
The Charlestown Estate is broken up and sold off making way for a string of various short-term owners of the harbour. None of their ambitious development plans materialise.
The harbour enters a more stable period of ownership and tall ships and film crews become common sights.
The last shipments of china clay leave the harbour which finally closes to commercial shipping in 2000. Fishing from the port ceases in 2012.
Charlestown’s unique history is recognised as it becomes a World Heritage Site.
New owners of the harbour signal the opening of another chapter in Charlestown’s history.
The Charlestown history group is formed to help protect and promote the village’s history.
Charlestown celebrates the bicentennial of Charles Rashleigh’s death with a programme of events to celebrate the life of, and to give thanks to the village’s founder.