A Brief History of Portreath

by Rose Lewis.
January, 2006

Before 1760 industry in Portreath was very small scale – farming at Rose Villa farm, tin streaming along the red river, small scale mining along North Cliffs and fishing. A small quay had been built at Amy’s side to serve these interests and the line of the old mule track, which dropped down from the cliff tops can still be seen. The remains of what could have been fish cellars at Smugglers cottage probably date to this period. Heavy seas shattered the quay before 1749.

Port outlets were vital for the copper mines as copper ore was sent to South Wales (Swansea area mostly) for smelting where coal was abundant (and a lot was needed to smelt copper ore, far more than for tin). Steam coal would be brought back to raise steam for pumping, stamping, crushing, grinding and so on. All the early copper ports were small scale, some on the Fal, like Penryn, which offered safe harbours but suffered the problem of ships having to navigate around Lands End and the Lizard; some on the North coast, like Portreath, which being a lee shore could be difficult to get in and out of.

In 1760 Portreath became a viable port when the current pier was constructed which gave sheltered space for the small sailing vessels to load copper ore. As the demand for coal to steam the big mine pumping engines grew it became necessary to enlarge the harbour and extend the pier. The outer basin was excavated in 1801 providing space for 25 vessels. These courageous little sailing vessels became known as the Welsh fleet. Fishing boats also used the harbour and a seine fishing company was established in 1800, fishing mostly for pilchards.

By 1809 the mostly harbour related dwellings of Harbour Terrace, Tregea Terrace and Railway Terrace (now ruinous) had been built, some in their entirety like Harbour Terrace. At the east end of the valley there was a small hamlet and the Rose Villa farm. A cottage at Amy’s side existed.

At this time the ore and the coal was carried to and from the harbour by mule trains as the existing trackways and roads were totally unsuitable for wheeled transport of any kind, especially in the wet winter months. In 1800 it was estimated that 1500 mules were engaged in the copper & coal trade in West Cornwall requiring a large regular supply of fodder. When the cost of fodder shot up during the Napoleonic wars crisis hit the mining industry. A solution had to be found.

It was the coming together of the Bassets of Tehidy, the Foxes of Falmouth and the Williams of Scorrier who first solved this problem in Cornwall. Between them they owned or had interests in Portreath Harbour (Bassetts), the Welsh fleet (Foxes and Williams), copper smelters in Swansea such as Middlebank and Neath Abbey (Williams) and important copper and tin mines in the Scorrier, Poldice, St Day area of Gwennap (owned by all three). Their solution was to build a private plateway between Poldice and Portreath harbour along which mules would pull wheeled carts along L shaped plates to guide the wheels. The Portreath to Poldice tramroad was begun in 1809 accessing the rich copper mine of Treskerby by 1812 and Poldice and the St Day mines by 1819. This was the first tramroad in Cornwall copied from prototypes in South Wales. It ended at Portreath harbour.

With the opening of the Portreath-Poldice tramroad Portreath Harbour really took off. There was no competition. In 1827 Portreath was described as perhaps Cornwall’s most important port. The outer basin of the harbour was built.

The lack of competition did not last with the opening of the Redruth and Chasewater Railway in 1830, which linked Poldice with Devoran, an all year round port. Portreath experienced a fall in trade but this picked up with the opening of the Portreath branch line of the Hayle railway which connected the important Camborne and Pool mines with Portreath via one of its four great inclines. The harbour was revitalised and there was limited expansion and diversification. Ore hutches were built, the sea wall extended, tramroads, sidings and the turntables added on the south side and the custom storehouse and coastguard station. Boat building became important in the slip area by the Waterfront, lime kilns were built on the quay, the stamping mill at Glenfeadon was rebuilt and a tin smelting house. The early workers terraces were extended and Primrose Terrace added.

After 1855 with the conversion to steam of the Redruth and Chasewater Railway, Devoran and Hayle, already served by a steam railway, became the preferred outlet for the major mines and the Portreath to Poldice tramroad fell into disrepair. However a resurgence of mining around Camborne and Pool kept the Portreath branch open although copper exports were now of secondary importance. Coal imports and the coastal coal trade now became the primary activity. An extensive system of tramroads and railways fed the ore hutches and coal yards. Portreath thrived becoming more urban in character. Larger houses, hotels, chapels and churches, the Portreath Institute, a Police station and the school were built as the professional and middle classes moved in. But most work centred on the harbour.

The rise of the Bain family
Up until 1886 Portreath harbour had been a private harbour owned by the Bassetts of Tehidy and leased to the Fox-William partnership in 1769, which eventually became just Williams & Co. In 1809 Donald Bain took the principal position at the Scorrier estate office of John Williams eventually being transferred to Portreath Harbour as chief cashier. By his death in 1850 he had gained a controlling interest in the harbour, which he passed on to his son David Wise Bain who became General Agent and Harbourmaster. He resided at Glenfeadon and became one of the most successful merchants and ship owners in the West Country having built up the well known Bain fleet of coastal colliers, all sailing vessels which were gradually replaced by steam ships between 1887 and 1900. His son Frederick Bain took over from him, retiring in 1925.
Although the coal trade thrived the change to steam began a decline in shipbuilding and associated trades. The local seine fishing also ceased when the pilchard shoals left the North Cornish coast. However tin streaming increased especially at the seaward end of the Red River.

The creation of Portreath as a Freeport was necessitated by the collapse of the local copper trade and brought to an end the monopoly of the Williams Family. It was initially leased to the County of Cornwall Shipping Co. and then the Bassetts finally sold it to A.C.Reynolds & Sons who sold it to the Benyon Shipping Co, the last commercial owners of the harbour who disposed of it in the 1960’s when Portreath harbour ceased to trade commercially. It was at this time that the complex was broken up, the local authority acquiring the harbour and quays and residential developers the coal yards and ore hutches.

Portreath saw the beginning of tourism as early as the late 19th century, mostly people from the local mining towns. The beach and sea were tainted by the harbour and tin streaming so Porthtowan and Gwithian were more favoured by visitors. Some chalets were built on Portreath’s seaward slopes but it was not until industrial activity really declined that tourism took off.

With the coming of the twentieth century Portreath began to decline as an industrial port although both the Portreath branch of the now West Cornwall Railway and the harbour continued working until World War II. The railway closed during the war, tin streaming ceased around 1933 when the Red river was diverted. By 1946 the upper slopes of the valley sides and seaward slopes had considerable chalet development and bungalows adorned the valley floor. There were coastguards, shopkeepers, hoteliers, cafes, retired navy men and genteel ladies. Portreath was fast becoming a holiday and residential village. With the close of commercial operations in the 1960’s the harbour became full of pleasure craft, inshore fishing boats and crabbers as it is today.


For much of its history and throughout its heyday Portreath was an industrial village based on the mining harbour at its heart. Today a modern housing estate sits on the extensive old coal yards and modern flats obscure the sites of ore hutches and the twin turntables at the base of the incline. Never the less much remains. The harbour, its pier and sea walls, the monkey house and dead man’s hut, quays, bollards and a capstan, the yard walls and walled access lanes, old stores, rail remnants, a stationary crane base, the slip side wall at the Waterfront Inn and the Incline on the valley wall. All these comprise an historic group, which is far more important than the sum of its parts in its evocation of Portreath’s rich heritage. Loose one of the components and the whole suffers. Loose the harbour and its historic context and the whole is lost. Gone forever to live on only in dusty archives and libraries and the memories of those who still remember.

The current bid for World Heritage Site status for ‘Cornish and West Devon mining landscape’ is now before the final committee with every chance of success. Portreath is one of the principle sites within the Camborne and Redruth Mining District and delineated on the submitted maps. This includes the harbour, pier, adjacent Harbour Terrrace, Portreath Tramroad and the incline of the Portreath branch as well as the various terraces and period houses and other buildings.

The Harbour is also the focal point of leisure and tourism initiatives based on the industrial heritage of the central mining district to which Portreath belongs. These are regionally important walking and cycling routes following the old mineral tramways. The coast to coast trail following the Portreath tramroad and then the Redruth and Chasewater Railway which begins at Portreath Harbour and terminates at Devoran is now well developed and very popular. This will soon link in to the well-established flatload trail around Carnkie via a link through St Day and over Carn Marth. The County is planning to open up the Portreath Branch of the Hayle Railway, which will link Portreath Harbour to Pool with an offshoot to the seat of the Basset family at what is now Tehidy Park. In addition the nationally important South West coast path passes around the harbour.

Cornwall Industrial Settlements initiative: Portreath. Cornwall Archaeological Unit 2002
Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscapes World Heritage Site bid document: CAU 2004
Portreath some chapters in its history Michael Tangye
Own notes for Cornwall College adult Ed classes.

Published on  September 27th, 2017