Constantine Cornwall

The Ancient Village of Mousehole

Members learned much about the history of Mousehole from Professor Jan Pentreath who was born and bred in this Cornish fishing community. Rather than follow his family into the fish trade he became a noted marine biologist.

The development of this relatively sheltered harbour, which began much earlier than the more exposed and more recent developments of Penzance and Newlyn, is illustrated by the construction characteristics of the piers which help to identify the different stages. The rougher construction of Moor Stone is later replaced by dressed granite blocks. The first documentary evidence is a licence of 1389 which permitted construction of the west pier which was rebuilt in 1435 and further improved during the 18th century. By 1837 there was a pier from the Ship Inn which is no more, the stone  probably being used to construct the east pier after the passing of the Harbour Acts of the 1870s.

Shoals of pilchards from warmer southern waters followed the plankton north and caught by seigning provided an impetus for developing the harbour from the 15th century onwards.  By the 1500s  Mousehole was exporting pilchards to Spain. In the 1600s drift nets were introduced and the technique began to frustrate the work of the seigners which resulted in disputes, some of which went to court. Payment of tithes was also a bone of contention and in 1830 a Tithe Collector was disarmed. The action of the Mousehole fisherman eventually contributed to the collapse of the tithe system. 

Registration of fishing vessels was introduced in the 19th century but Mousehole owners often registered Class 1 vessels as Class 2.

Mackerel needed to be caught and sold quickly so fast lug sailed mackerel drivers became a common  sight in the harbour once the railway came to Penzance, however the vessels now unloaded in Newlyn.  Expansion of Newlyn and Penzance and larger east coast boats fishing in the same grounds began to have a negative impact on the community’s fishing economy. However, in 1887 there were 320 large boats and 87 small boats registered for fishing, which employed 572 men and boys. Some of the larger craft would sail to Ireland, the east coasts of Scotland and England to fish, Scarborough being a popular base.  Engines appeared, but few were installed in Mousehole boats as they could not be afforded. The days of greater affluence were long gone and a staple source of food for many was limpets, as mackerel and pilchards were too expensive. The 1950s saw the end of Mousehole as an active fishing port although the Bretons used the harbour for a while.

Research into the Pentreath family indicates that piracy may have contributed to the economy as a privateer owned by a Pentreath is recorded as being from Mousehole, later the Customs records show that the Pentreaths were heavily involved in smuggling. Brandy and lace and other items must also have contributed to the Mousehole economy. Jan hypothesised that a distant relation, Dolly Pentreath, may not have been the last person to speak Cornish as the smugglers may well have continued to use it to communicate with the Bretons. The tourist trade, now key, goes back to the Medieval period when pilgrims to Saint Michaels Mount would embark on vessels sailing from Mousehole to Compostella.  Jan suggested that this trade may well provide the origin of the name. Directions for the pilgrims would not have been to Porth Ennes, a name it held alongside Mousehole for many centuries, but to the “Mausholl” or gull cove – the birds could probably have been heard and smelt!

Don Garman, Secretary, thanked Jan for providing an insight into the history of Mousehole and his own family.

The Constantine History Group will meet on Friday October 21st in the WI Hall at 19.15 when Ken Johns will give a talk on the “Battle Beneath the Trenches” – the story of Cornish miners at the front in World War 1. Visitors are welcome. Contact 01326 250604