Ship Inn – Porthleven
The Ship Inn – Porthleven
Since there has been a Ship Inn overlooking Porthleven cove and harbour the tides have ebbed and flowed roughly (sometimes very roughly) a quarter-of-a-million times.
Tradition dates the inn to the seventeenth century; documentary evidence takes its history back to the turn of the eighteenth. The land on which the house stands – along with much of that to the west and north of Porthleven harbour – was for centuries part of Methleigh Manor; an ancient estate dating from Saxon times. The Manor was originally granted to the Church of Exeter by King Canute. In 1085 the Lord of the Manor was Robert, Earl of Mortain, half-brother to William the Conqueror.
Although not named, the inn seems to make its first documented appearance in 1714. A conveyance of Methleigh Manor dating from February of that year reads in part: “Articles, covenants and agreements have been made between Robert Corker of Falmouth, merchant, and Samuel Coode of Methleigh, gentleman, for the purchase of Methleigh Manor, for the sum of £1,200, plus five broad pieces of gold to Robert Corker’s wife. When the money has been paid, the Manor and Lordship of Methleigh, together with all rents, services, royalties and advantages shall be his. Included in the sale is Methleigh mill, the mill moor, a dwelling house in Porthleven and a new dwelling house with a cellar under, now a Public House and held by Willliam Trannick.“
The historic connection of the inn with Methleigh Manor, together with the description of the building itself, and the absence of any record of another inn within the Methleigh lands, make it all but certain that the Public House referred to is the present Ship Inn. Given that period’s elastic use of the the words ‘new’ and ‘newly built’ – basically meaning ‘modern’ – it seem safe to date the house to c.1700. The Listed Building Reports held by the now-defunct Kerrier District Council, and based on surveys made in 1972, date the inn to c.1800-1810. Local tradition, the 1714 document quoted above, a study of maps dating from the mid-eighteenth century, and a close examination of the building itself, leads the present writer to believe the Listed Buildings Report misdates the inn by about 100 years. Dating of the adjoining “Smithy” to c.1825-’30 is probably more accurate.
Prior to the acquisition of the freehold, Coodes had been tenants Methleigh Manor since 1670. Members of the Coode family retain property in and near Porthleven to the present day.
Documentary evidence of a Ship Inn at Porthleven during the remainder of the eighteenth century is scant to non-existent. Perhaps oddly, considering the inn’s antiquity, the Cornwall Record Office holds no indexed reference to it. The Sherborne Mercury of 6th September 1790 carried a notice referring to the shares in a seine (the term denoting a combination of boats, nets and fishing gear) “For which purpose a Survey will be held at the house of Alice Stodden at Porthleven.”
Such surveys were usually held in public houses, and Alice Stodden may well have been the landlady of the Ship Inn at the time. Equally, this ‘Survey’ might have been held at the old, thatch-roofed Fisherman’s (or Fishmonger’s) Arms which stood on the opposite side of the harbour until it was demolished in 1883 to make way for the Bickford-Smith Institute with its iconic clocktower.
More solid evidence appears in 1800 when a lease, dated 26th July, from Edward Coode to Joseph Glasson was agreed for “A dwelling house at Porthleven for 7, 10 or 14 years, rent 15 guineas per year. Formerly in the occupation of James Thomas as a brewhouse.” The following notice in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 2nd June 1810, indicates that the house referred to was the Ship Inn and that Joseph Glasson was its landlord. “To Debtors and Creditors of Joseph Glasson, late of Porthleven in the Parish of Breage, innkeeper, are requested to send their accounts to Mr. Richard Thomas, of Helston, spirit merchant, who is authorized to receive same, on or before the 21st Instant, in order to their being investigated previous to a division of the effects of the deceased, proportionately among his creditors; and all persons indebted to the estate of the deceased, are desired to pay their debts to the said Mr. Thomas immediately, to prevent prosecution. Helston, June 1st 1810.” Were James and Richard Thomas related? The combination of brewhouse-holder and spirit merchant is at least suggestive. Also, the New Inn, forerunner of the Commercial Hotel – the present Harbour Inn – was built in 1813 for a William Thomas, another possible relation.
Following Mr. Glasson’s death, the licence and tenancy passed to his widow, Mrs. Mary Glasson, who would remain landlady for over 35 years. The following two notices indicate that the Ship Inn during Mrs. Glasson’s tenure was important in the commercial life of Porthleven. The West Briton of 7th May 1813: “Breage – Cornwall To Be Let for Two Several Terms of 14 years from Michaelmas next, all that Tenement and Farm called Trewithick, situate in the Parish of Breage, consisting of a newly-built Dwelling-house, necessary outbuildings and about 30 acres of remarkably rich land, now in the occupation of Mr. JOHN GLASSON jun., as tenant thereof – the above Tenements are very conveniently situated for Markets and Manure, and within a mile of the new harbour at Porthleven. A SURVEY will be holden for LETTING the above at the House of Mary Glasson, innkeeper, at Porthleven in the said Parish of Breage on Monday the 31st day of May instant, at five o’clock in the afternoon precisely. For view of the Premises apply to Mr. Glasson, the tenant; Mr. John Treweek at Troon-Adam, in the Parish of Breage; or to Messrs. Rashleigh and Coode, Attornies, St. Austell.” The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 26th November 1825 announced: “To Be Leased – …Lot 2. A lime-kiln and plot of building ground adjoining at Porthleven aforesaid late in the occupation of Mr. Thomas Roberts, deceased, and now under-tenanted. For letting the same, a Survey will be held at the house of Mary Glasson, innkeeper, at Porthleven, on Tuesday 6th day of December next at four o’clock precisely. For further information apply to Mr. John Treweeke at Methleigh, near Helston.” [The Glasson and Treweek(e) families were related by marriage.] For many years the derelict lime-kiln – overgrown with ivy – stood only yards from the Ship Inn, The structure still stands but now features a plaque reading : “Lime-kiln built 1814 Restored 2008 by Local Historians Stuart Pascoe & Martin Matthews”
A plan of Porthleven harbour, also from 1825, includes mention of the “Ship tavern, garden, Mowhay, courtlage & stable.” [the stable may well be the present “Smithy” annex.]
A fragment of public poster/hand bill held by the Courtney Library at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, reads:
TO BE SOLD
On Tuesday the 16th day of December inst.
BY THREE O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON
House of Mrs. Glasson, Innkeeper
IN PORTHLEVEN NEAR HELSTON
TERM OF NINETY-NINE YEARS
To determine upon the Deaths of 3 Lives of the Purchaser’s Nomintion
ALL THAT COMMODIOUS AND NEWLY ERECTED
At this point the bill was torn in half and used for scrap-paper, leaving no clue as to the date of the notice or the location of the house to be auctioned.
Mrs. Glasson is named as landlady in the Licensing Lists for 1831. The Census of 1841 lists Mrs. Mary Glasson, widow, publican, aged 60, as head of a household including Prudence Berryman, H.S. [probably indicating house servant], aged 25, and Edward Williams, fisherman, aged 60. Five years later Mrs. Glasson appears to have been contemplating retirement from active innkeeping. The West Briton of 27th February 1846 announced: “PUBLIC HOUSE TO BE LET – To Be Let from Lady-day next, all that INN and PREMISES called or known by the name of THE SHIP INN At Porthleven, now and for many years past in the occupation of MRS. MARY GLASSON, the Proprietor – Tenders stating the highest Rent to be sent to MRS. MARY GLASSON on or before Saturday, the 14th day of March next, of whom all further particulars may be known on application. Dated February 24th 1846.“
This notice seems to indicate that either Mrs. Glasson had at some time acquired the freehold of the inn, or that she retained an extended leasehold and wished to sub-let. It also appears reasonable to suppose that the house was a comparatively prosperous one. Along with the 1813 advertisement for the sub-letting of John Glasson jun.’s two farms, this and other evidence suggests that the Glassons were of family of some substance in Porthleven. A Mr. Glasson was one of six partners in the Porthleven Trading Company formed in 1816 but dissolved in 1820 due to lack of regular trade. In 1854 a Joseph Glasson (quite possibly a son or nephew of the innkeeping Joseph and Mary) is named as Master Mariner owning one of nine shares in the schooner Helena. He also apparently owned another schooner, the Vesper, which was lost in astorm in 1867. This may well have been the Joseph Kemp Glasson, buried in St. Bartholomew’s churchyard, who died the 13th of October 1880, aged 72. A Mary Glasson of Porthleven, died 1853, is buried in Breage churchyard.
The next Ship Inn landlord of record is Richard Rowe, named in the Licensing Lists for 1850. Mr. Rowe is also listed in Slater’s Directory of 1852-’53, and in Kelly’s Directory of 1856. In the Census of 1851 Richard Rowe, innkeeper, aged 44, is head of a household including Elizabeth Rowe, wife, aged 47; William Rowe, brother, retired farmer, aged 60; Jane Brokenshire, aunt, aged 70; Elizabeth Williams, niece, aged 7. The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 8th May 1857 carried a death notice reading: “At Porthleven, on Monday, Mr. Richard Rowe of the Ship Inn, aged 51 years.” Harrison, Harrod & Co.’s Directory of 1862 lists Richard Row as landlord, although the 1861 Census records Elizabeth Rowe, head of household, as widow, tavern keeper, aged 58; William Williams, brother, seaman, aged 53; Jane Brokenshire, aunt, aged 80; Charlotte Perkins, niece, barmaid, aged 26; Emma Jane Richards, niece, aged 3; Mary Williams, servant, aged 16.
An advertisement in the West Briton of 26th October 1866 indicates that the Rowe family continued their involvement with the house: “To Let – Public House – To Be Let with immediate possession all that inn and premises situate in Porthleven, known by the sign of THE SHIP INN , now in the occupation of Mr. Thomas Rowe. Applications to be made to the tenant or to the Brewery, Helston. Dated October 23rd 1866.“
The name Rowe recurs often in Porthleven in various business contexts, including the licensed trade in connection with both the Fisherman’s Arms and the Commerical Hotel. The 1910 Coronation Memorial lamp at the head of Porthleven harbour was “…donated by Mr. Edwin Rowe of London” who would certainly have had local connections.
The Rowe family’s tenure was followed by that of Joseph Gilbert, concerning whom the following two newspaper reports appeared in quick succession. The West Briton of 11th April 1871 carried this death notice: “At Porthleven, on the 7th inst., Miss Alioce Pearce; sister-in-law of Mr. Joseph Gilbert, Ship Inn, Porthleven, aged 28 years.” Perhaps unnerved by the death of his young relative, less than a month later Mr. Gilbert found himself the subject of this report in the West Briton of 4th May: “West Kerrier Petty Session – Joseph Gilbert, landlord of the Ship Inn, Porthleven, was charged by Supt. Grant with keeping his house open for the sale of beer on Good Friday night and before four o’clock on the Saturday morning. P.C. Hall visited defendant’s house at half-past twelve on the night in question and found several men in the house with beer before them; he cautioned the defendant and advised him to clear them out at once, which he (defendant) did not. The constable visited the house again at half-past one, the men were still there with beer before them. Defendant pleaded guilty, but said he was not aware that he was doing wrong. Fined 10s, including costs.” (Supt. A.T. Grant was commander in Helston of the Cornwall County Constabulary – as distinct from the Helston Borough Police – from 1870 until his retirement in 1892. He died in 1900 and is buried in Helston town cemetary.)
The following item appeared at the bottom of the column including the above report: “Poverty at Porthleven – We are sorry to learn that the fishery at Porthleven this seasonj is a complete failure. The fish have been exceedingly scarce and the consequence is that poverty to a very great extent prevails in the little port and its neighbourhood.” Demonstrating the unpredictable insecurity of the trade, by autumn of the same year the fortunes of the fisheries had improved. West Briton, 17th October 1871: “At Porthleven a vast fleet of fishing boats lay like a floating city, women and children being paid 3d an hour piling the fish between layers of salt for export to the Mediterranean port.”
The 1871 Census (naming the Ship Inn) listed Joseph Gilbert, licensed victualler & farmer with 8 acres, aged 35; Eliza Gilbert, wife, aged 36; Joseph H. Gilbert, scholar, aged 13; Alice A. Gilbert, scholar, aged 6; Elizabeth J. Gilbert, aged 3; Edith Gilbert, aged 1. Kelly’s Directory for 1873 lists Joseph Gilbard (sic) as landlord of the Ship Inn. In his book The Early History of Porthleven, Stuart N. Pascoe records an event that took place during Joseph Gilbert’s time as landlord: “Porthleven’s reputation as a meeting place knew no bounds, the Philanthropic Society holding its festival in the village on July 7th 1873. The 62 members of the ‘Pride of the West Lodge, wearing their regalia and badges and headed by Mullion brass band, paraded to Breage and Ashton before returning to the Ship Inn at Porthleven for a fine tea.” [Tea!?]
The West Briton of 1st April 1875 advertised: “Public House To Let – To Be Let with immediate possession, that Inn or Public House with the appurtenances thereof known by the sign of the “SHIP INN” situate in Porthleven and now in the possession of Mr. Joseph Gilbert. Apply to the Brewery, Helston March 28th 1875.”
During a storm on 12th January 1884 the Austrian barque Civiet was driven onto Porthleven beach. The captain and two of the crew were swept away into the sea. According to S.N. Pascoe’s account, “…the remainder of the men on board owing their lives to the bravery of Joseph Gilbert who succeeded in hurling a line to the ship, by which they struggled ashore.” [Is this Joseph Gilbert the former publican/farmer, who would have been aged about 48 at the time, or, possibly, his son, Joseph H. Gilbert, aged 26, or another Joseph Gilbert altogether. I have found no newspaper reports of this event.]
Earlier the Rowe family reappeared in the following advertisement in the West Briton of 23rd November 1876: “Public House To Be Let – To Be Let with immediate possession. The “SHIP INN” situate in Porthleven and now in the occupation of Mr. William Rowe. Application to be made to Ellis & Co., the Brewery, Helston.” [The Ellis & Co. Helston Brewery, located off Church Street, was founded in 1803 and continued to trade – latterly as the Helston Brewery Co. Ltd. – until the mid-late 1880s. It would appear probable that the brewery were suppliers to the Ship Inn, as well as acting as letting agents.]
By 1879 landlordship of the Ship Inn had passed to William Mildren, who features in a harrowing report in the West Briton 20th October: “A Child Drowned – On Friday evening about six o’clock, Mr. Mildren of the Ship Inn, Porthleven, finding his little boy, William aged about five years old, was not in the house, sent out in search of him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Darkness came on, and the parents alarmed. Lanterns were lit, and the neighbours assisted in making search along the cliffs, among the boats in the harbour, and every place where it was at all likely the child might have wandered, but without success. The worst fears were entertained, and it was thought that he must have fallen over the wharf and been drowned. Some persons living on the opposite of the entrance of the harbour saw a child amusing himself with the water, and this was the last seen of him until at low water, when the body was found on the eastern side of the harbour.“
the 1881 Census listed William Mildren, innkeeper, aged 46; Sophia, wife, aged 38; Elizabeth, daughter, aged 3; Elizabeth Curnow, sister-in-law, aged 18. Mr. Mildren is named as landlord in Harrod’s Directory of 1879 and Kelly’s Directory 0f 1883. The West Briton (suppliment for Helston and the Meneage District) dated 27th November 1884, reported: “Mr. Mildren, landlord of the Ship Inn, died somewhat suddenly on Sunday evening. Up to about eight o’clock he appeared to be just as usual. At that time, however, he was seized with a qualm. Mrs. Mildren sent at once for Mr. E. Rundle M.D., who was soon on the spot, but inspite of the most careful treatment, the patient died an hour later. Mr. Mildren’s health had been failing for some time, and he was frequently under medical treatment, but death was altogether unexpected.“
Two graves in Porthleven’s St. Bartholomew’s churchyard add some poignancy to the above events. One gravestone records that William Mildren died 23rd November 1884, aged 49 years, and that his son, Willie, died 17th October 1879, aged 4 years. Only yards away is the grave of Kate Rundle who died in December 1884, aged 28. Another inscription on the gravestone records that her husband, Dr. Edmund Rundle, died at Umtali, South Africa on 14th January 1894, aged 38.
Edmund Rundle, L.R.C.S. (Ireland) was appointed Porthleven’s first resident doctor in January 1883. He left for Truro Infirmary in autumn 1887. The previous year John Eddy had been appointed Porthleven town scavenger and street cleaner at a wage of 15s a week, slightly more than the retainer advertised for Mr. Rundle’s successor.
There is no listing for the Ship Inn in Kelly’s Directory for 1889.
By 1891 the landlord of the Ship Inn was William Balls. The Census of that year lists him as licensed victualler, aged 41 (born in Lowestoft) and head of a household including Sophia Balls, wife, aged 43; and Elizabeth Mildren, daughter-in-law, aged 13. This domestic arrangement is intriguing: did, as it seems, Sophia, widow of William Meldren, remarry and continue with her new husband as proprietors of the Ship Inn? Also, how did she manage to age by only five years between 1881 and 1891? Forgetfulness? A coy modesty about her actual age? Or an error by the Census enumerator? In any case, William Balls continued to be named as landlord of the Ship Inn through at least 1919, with Mrs. William Balls listed as licensee in 1923, suggesting that her connection with the house lasted even longer than that of the redoubable Mary Glasson. By 1930 the landlord of the Ship Inn was Joseph Alfred Ruberry, who remained until after World War II. The Ruberrys were another old Porthleven family. A namesake and probable relation of the Ship Inn landlord, an earlier Joseph Ruberry rented the boatyard formerly leased by Thomas Sandry from Messrs Harvey & Co. – then owners of the Porthleven Dock & Harbour Company – for 10s 6d per year from 1883 until his death in 1892. Mr. Ruberry was followed as landlord by his son-in-law, Percy Liddicoat, who was also a noted local cricketer. Subsequent licensees included Lionel Newman, David Plumbridge, and his son-in-law Colin Rideout, These researches were initially commissioned by the late Colin Oakden who was succeeded by his widow, Chris Oakden. Others following the Oakdens include Christian Waite, Oliver Waite and the present licensee, Tom Harrison.
Tracing the descent of the Ship Inn freehold has proved problematic. Any existing deeds, conveyances and leases appertain to the Ship Inn have not been available to the present researcher. When, with the sanction of then-landlord, Colin Oakden, I enquired at the offices of the Porthleven Dock & Harbour Company as to whether it would be possible to examine any such documents, or an abstract of them, stressing that I had no interest in any of a recent or financially sensitive nature, whereupon I was told that there were no such documents. I, frankly, did not find that statement entirely credible. This lack of documentary evidence made the tracing of the inn’s ownership over the decades largely a matter of conjecture. At some point – probably in the mid-nineteenth century – ownership of the Ship Inn passed to the Porthleven Dock & Harbour Company, which was acquired in 1857 by Harvey & Co. of Hayle. It is unclear from whom the inn’s freehold was purchased; although either the Coodes of Methleigh Manor, the Glasson or Rowe families appear the likeliest candidates to have been former owners. Owners of the Porthleven Dock & Harbour Company and its successors remain freeholders of the Ship Inn up to the present day.
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In its approximately 300-plus year history the social and commercial character of the Ship Inn has reflected the fluctuations and changes in the village community it has served. Located in the portion of Porthleven known as Breageside – in times past sometimes called “The Litle Nation”, contrasting it with the larger Sithneyside on the opposite bank of the old cove and more modern harbour – the inn has overlooked the growth and evolution of Porthleven. An obscure inlet of Mount’s Bay, inhabited almost exclusively by local fisherfolk when the inn was built, the Ship closely witnessed both the early nineteenth century construction of the Inner and Outer Harbours, the intermittently successful attempts to turn the village into a thriving West Cornwall trading port, and the later development of Porthleven as a popular seaside resort. In the early 1800s, when the village consisted of no more than 60 or cottages, the Ship Inn was undoubtedly its principal hostelry. As previously cited, its use during Mrs. Glasson’s tenure as a venue for property sales and ‘surveys’ underline its importance in the commercial life of the community. It is also probable that the house would have seen a good share of public entertainments in the form of dinners and other events organized by local fraternal and commercial bodies, although little recorded evidence for such activities has come to light. However, by the mid-nineteenth century a good deal of the more ‘respectable’ functions and custom appear to have moved to the larger, more conveniently located establishment known variously as the New Inn, the Comercial Tavern or Commercial Hotel – the present Harbour Inn. In the main the later Victorian and earlier twentieth century clientle of the Ship Inn would have included fishermen, shipwrights, blacksmiths, net- and ropemakers, and the skilled tradesmen and casual labourers who built, maintained and manned the harbour which served, among others, the mines and china clay works in the Porthleven area.
Although, again, no documentary evidence has been found to confirm it, there is a tradition that during the eighteenth and nineteenth cenuries the Ship Inn was a resort of smugglers. To say so is no more remarkable than to say that it sold beer. It would have been a rare hostelry anywhere along the Mount’s Bay coast that didn’t number ‘free traders’ among its clientle. ‘Free traders’ would have been as common as ‘wreckers’: those who scavenged from vessals (and their crews, dead or alive) which frequently came to grief off the Mount’s Bay aand Lizard coats. For many years the Lordship of Methleigh Manor included salvage rights to all shipwreck goods washed ashore along the coast for several miles west of Loe Bar. Despite the tradition of there being tunnels running from the inn to caves in the escarpment west of the harbour, it is unlikely that it would have been used as a depot or clearing house for contraband as public houses were prime targets and haunts of the local Excise Officers. It is also doubtful if such activities would have been countenanced under the highly respectable Coode family’s ownership or the management of such prominent local people such as the Glassons.
In recent years the Ship Inn, with its characterful bar, fine catering, seaward views and landscaped terraces, has been – as a phrase from its earlier days would have had it – ‘well-accustomed’; being equally popular with both local people and with Porthleven’s many seasonal visitors and holidaymakers.
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Among other sources to which the present writer is indebted the above account draws on original research by the late Mr. H.L. Douch, former Secretary of the Royal Cornwall Institution and author of the book Old Cornish Inns; by Mr. Stuart N. Pascoe, author of The Early History of Porthleven; and by Mr. Martin Matthews, former Curator of the The Helston Museum.
Helston, May 2017