Constantine Cornwall

Gweek and the River Helford

At the Constantine History Group October meeting a large audience assembled to learn about “Work and Wealth of Gweek and the River Helford 1700 to 1850,” from David Freeman, who was born within a stone’s throw of the river.

Following the formation of Loe Bar across the Cober during the 14th century, Gweek became the port for the Stannary town of Helston. During the 18th and 19th centuries the busy port was operated by the Gweek Company. Tin, copper, granite, fish, shellfish and agricultural products could be exported by ships using the river and its several harbours and quays, whilst charcoal for smelting, coal for the mine beam engines, baulks of timber from Norway, limestone for improving the land and salt were imported. In later years grain was imported by the Collins family for milling in Gweek. The river trade was such that the Gweek Customs House was moved from Helston to Teeth, near Helford Village, in 1822, and the Merthen estate extracted river dues from vessels entering the upper reaches of the river. To improve transport connections with Gweek a canal was proposed in 1796 from Hayle via Helston, and later the Junction Railway was planned but neither were built.

Not surprisingly, several trading craft were registered at Gweek. The “Rob Roy” berthed at Merthen and carried oysters to market and at time coal, whilst the Caroline (238 tons) carried passengers, many emigrating to America. Cargoes carried by Helford ships were not always legal. “The San Euphemia” owned by John Nicholls, described as a merchant of Merthen, was captured by the revenue cutter “Fox” and found to be carrying brandy. In 1840 the Customs House at Teeth was besieged by smugglers who recovered 126 kegs of brandy.

The need to reduce the acidity of the soil meant that imported limestone was burned in nine kilns located along the riverside. The existence of four fish cellars reflects the significance of the catch whilst the eight water mills indicate the importance of arable crops and possibly an excess for export although in later years grain was imported to Gweek. The land alongside the river was under the ownership of several large estates e.g. Trelowarren, Merthen and Bosahan. The owners often had interests in economic activity associated with the river including ownership of vessels. The harbours of Helford, Teeth and Port Navas and the quays of Merthen and Scotts were the result of entrepreneurial activity by land owners.

Chairman Geoff Roberts thanked David for sharing his research with members. The next meeting will be the AGM on Friday 21st November in the W.I. Hall (not the Tolmen Centre) at 19.00. The AGM will be followed by a talk entitled “In Shackleton’s Footsteps” to be given by Don Garman.