The History of Falmouth
Falmouth is the site of the third deepest natural harbour in the world, and the deepest natural port in Western Europe. The Cornish port is considered to be one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Falmouth’s port is the reason it exists and plays by far the largest part in the town’s history. Falmouth is a relatively new town, but has far outgrown the much older neighbouring settlement of Penryn . Falmouth owes its foundation to Sir John Killigrew who first created the port and town at lands he owned in 1613. The town was set up in the shadow of the twin forts of Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle , which guard the Carrick Roads and the entrance the harbour. In the early 1600s Killigrew’s home at Arwenack Manor House was probably the only property in the area. The famous sailor and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh visited Sir John Killigrew at Arwenack in 1598 and commented on how he thought the location would make the perfect place for a port.
Falmouth was originally known as Smithwick, or Pny-cwm-cuic (the head of a narrow vale) which itself became ‘Penny-come-quick’. When Falmouth established, Penryn was a thriving town, and had enjoyed the privileges of being the main market town in the region since the 13th century. The townsfolk from both Penryn and rival port Truro objected to the granting of a charter to growing Falmouth in 1661 by King Charles II , but to no avail. A church was consecrated in Falmouth in 1665 in recognition of the King’s charter. The new church was dedicated to his father, the executed Charles I , as the church of King Charles the Martyr .
Before the advent of the age of steam much of the UK’s freight was moved around by sea, land travel was difficult, slow and dangerous. By comparison, moving goods by sea, even from one nearby port to another, was far more efficient. This made coastal ports like Falmouth essential for internal as well as external communications. Falmouth was designated a Royal Mail Packet Station in 1688 and specifically
assigned the duty of carrying mail to and from Britain’s expanding empire. Until 1709, nearby rival Truro had the administrative control of the Falmouth port. When it was given back to Falmouth, and with the help of the packet status, Falmouth prospered. The town enjoyed a 150 year monopoly on the incoming and outgoing mail, no mail left England except via Falmouth. The town enjoyed a boom time in both its economy and status. News from outside the country often landed first in
Falmouth, making it a rival even to London for being up to date with the goings on of the outside world.
Falmouth received the body of the fallen Admiral Nelson after his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar . His body was conveyed from the port to London by carriage in great haste, the journey took just 38 hours instead of the usual seven days! The packet service ended in 1850. During the age of steam the old wind powered packet boats soon lost supremacy to the new, faster and more reliable steam propelled ships.
Falmouth wasn’t just a mail and cargo port, passengers were also leaving for foreign parts from the Cornish town. Lord Byron stayed in Falmouth at Wynn’s Hotel, later to be the Royal Hotel, before sailing to Lisbon in 1809. All manner of goods were entering England via Falmouth, these included great riches from the various newly discovered lands across the oceans. In 1839 Falmouth was the site of the ‘Great Gold Dust Robber’ when a clerk in a shipping office helped himself to £4,600 of gold dust that was on its way to London from Brazil. The value of the gold dust was very considerable at the time and the robbery caused a big stir. Lewin Casper enrolled the help of his father Ellis to steal the gold but the pair got caught and were transported to a penal colony on Tasmania.
The port grew rapidly in the 19th century and a new dock was under construction by 1858. The first ships to use the new facility entered the docks in 1861. Various wharfs were added and extended over the next one hundred years, with the most recent addition being the building of the County and Duchy wharves in 1956. The railway came late to Falmouth, the line opened in 1863. The railway not only made
the incoming and outgoing transportation of goods going via the port much easier, but it also helped start the Cornish tourist industry. Seaside resorts were very fashionable in the 19th century, aided by the opening up of the country by the railways. Falmouth responded quickly to the opportunity, building its first purpose built tourist hotel in 1865 and developing family bathing facilities at Swanpool, Gyllyngvase and Maenporth.
The famous London landmark ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ made its treacherous way to its final destination on the banks of the River Thames, via Falmouth, after being lost in a storm in the bay of Biscay. The giant stone obelisk was being towed to England from Egypt but had to be cut loose during a severe storm in which several crewmen were lost. After being abandoned during the storm off the coast of Portugal, it was
later found drifting off Spain and towed into Falmouth before continuing its journey by sea to London’s Victoria Embankment.
The docks were very busy supporting the war effort during both World Wars and the admiralty took control of operations. Falmouth was an important port in the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII and rarely had less than 100 ships anchored in Falmouth bay and Carrick Roads. The town was bombed 12 times by the Luftwaffe in World War Two killing 31 people. Falmouth’s docks now employ a fraction of the 3,000 or so they retained in the port’s peak years of the 1950s. The sea is still very important to the local economy although tourism, both from land and sea, are increasingly taking over from trade and commerce as the principle source of income for Falmouth.