Charlestown has a rich and fascinating history that visitors can explore during a scenic walk around the harbour.
The Harbour was designed and built in the late 1700s and remains unspoilt to this day.
Over 200 years ago West Porthmeur, as Charlestown was then known, was a small fishing village with no harbour and just three cottages where the local people made a living from fishing for pilchards. The China Clay pits in nearby St. Austell began to flourish in the latter half of the 18th Century, so there became a need for a local port to facilitate the transport of the clay. A local man, Charles Rashleigh, saw the opportunity and with the plans of Civil Engineer John Smeaton, Rashleigh began constructing the Harbour in 1790. The outer arm was completed first to shelter shipping and the inner piers were finished in stages after the rocks had been blasted away and manually cut and removed.
Smeaton died in 1792, so sadly did not live to see the Harbour completed in 1804.
Rashleigh built the gun battery to protect the village and this was used by the ‘Huer’ or look-out man. The Huer would see shoals of fish and alert the fishermen, guiding them to the fish. The name of the village was changed in order to honour Charles Rashleigh and became Charlestown.
Charlestown began to flourish, and the population grew, bringing the need for more cottages, an Inn, a hotel, a chapel and eventually a church.
The Charlestown Estate Bell was situated at the weighbridge and was used to call the estate workers to work. It rang from Monday to Saturday at 8am, 12pm, 1pm and 5pm, indicating work times. The bell also rang when ships were coming in and going out of the harbour to alert the workers to open the manual lock gates. This was called ‘Gate Ho’. The last bell rang in about 1938 just before the beginning of the Second World War.
Recently, Charlestown was a feature episode in the BBC’s ‘Villages by the Sea’ with Ben Robinson, which is well worth viewing to learn more about the detail of Charlestown’s fascinating past.
In modern times, Charlestown is a privately-owned working harbour which remains vibrant, and completely unspoilt. It has been under its current ownership since August 2018.
Charlestown still boasts the presence of historic tall ships, two of which belong to the Harbour.
Anny of Charlestown is a 1930 Topsail Schooner and the Kajsamoor is a two-masted ketch built in 1939. Many other classic ships come to Charlestown when they need safe harbour, refurbishment or have cargo to unload. In 2019, the Harbour ran the first ever Charlestown Classic Sail Festival, breaking records for the largest number of vessels ever to enter the Harbour on a single tide and the Harbour was filled with classic ships for the first time in decades. From April – October the Harbour has additional food and drink offerings as well as activities and events in the Inner Harbour.
Charlestown is known not only as a stunning tourist destination, but also for the many film and TV productions that a are filmed on location in the Harbour and surrounding areas. Some of the most well-known recent productions filmed in Charlestown include; Poldark, Taboo, The Personal History of David Copperfield and BAFTA award-winning BAIT.