Constantine Cornwall

A History of St Ives

The last lecture of the 2015/16 season to Constantine History Group was “A History of St Ives” presented by Janet Axten of the St Ives Archives. Janet used engravings and photographs from the Archive’s collections to illustrate the growth and development of the settlement from a small and remote fishing village to a tourist destination renown for both its art and its beaches.

The arrangement of St Ives has been determined by the physical configuration of the coast, the island with beaches on either side and the harbour located in the lee provided largely by the island.

In the 17th century St Ives was an insignificant fishing community and Porthmeor was an area of moving sand dunes untenable for habitation until the containing wall was built in the 1800s. Despite its insignificance, the people of St Ives funded their own church in 1420 in opposition to the Bishop who wished them to use the mother church in Lelant, an arduous journey from the village. King Charles 1st gave a Royal Charter in the 1639 which enabled markets to be held and a Mayor to be appointed. This may have been in recognition of the developing fishing economy. However, the occupants showed their gratitude by supporting Cromwell during the Civil War! Smeaton designed the pier which provided a safer haven for the fishing boats and an engraving of 1830 shows the town to be surrounding the harbour, however, it had grown noticeably and by this time pilchard seining was a significant activity.

Wesley visited in the 18th century and a chapel was subsequently built, later other chapels were constructed and teetotalism became a strong force in the 1840s.

The Island has a longer history than the town with its early chapel on this high point with good views along the coast and to seaward. Not surprisingly it became a military base from the Napoleonic Wars until 1904.

Farming, boatbuilding and associated industries contributed to the early 19th century economy together with a concentration of mining in the Carbis Bay area. The Trenwith Mine produced pitch blende and was rich in uranium. The German owners had an idea for a radium spa but the mine closed at the outbreak of World War 1.

An unsightly gas works now replaced by the Tate Gallery was built on the Portmeor side in the 1840s in close proximity to the cemetery. Housing in the older part of town e.g. Downalong were often accessed by steps above street level with a basement providing storage and the wash house. The Victorian terraced streets each had their own shop. The well known Terrace housed middle class professionals and being higher up was considered to be a more healthy place to live. There were also the large properties of the upper classes such as Tregenna House..

Significant growth and changes to the economy began after the railway came to town in 1877. The Great Western Railway bought Tregenna House from the Stephens family and turned it into a hotel (Tregenna Castle). Second homes began to develop and St Ives was on the grand tour itinerary and the first local paper published a visitors list from 1889.

The Carbis Bay Hotel was built on the mine site and photographs show bathing machines and tents on Portminster Beach whilst the fisherman’s wives began offering bed and breakfast. During the 20th century new groups of holiday makers began to come to the town many camping and in the 1960s a further change saw unaccompanied young people visiting , initially a development of great concern for the locals population

Artists began to be attracted to the town in the 1880s and some trades people responded by supplying artists materials. Later in the 20th century Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach were to ensure St Ives remained a town known for its art and the Tate has retained that reputation.

Meeting Chairman, Melanie Uren, thanked Janet for an interesting talk which demonstrated the resourcefulness of the St Ives community who have adapted over time to many changes. The next event is a visit to St Allen Church on Friday May 20th members and visitors are asked to meet at Constantine Church car park at 18.00.

Don Garman 21.04.16