A history of cornwall online - through its objects


  • Mail Bag

    Mail Bag

    For more than a hundred and fifty years, until around 1850, Falmouth was the world's post office and packet ships ran regular mail services to the Empire. This canvas mailbag reads 'HMS Crane Letters for England'. It may be one of the last ever carried on a Falmouth packet ship.

    Visit National Maritime Museum Cornwall

  • HMS Anson Beam Support

    HMS Anson Beam Support

    In 1807 the Sailing Ship HMS Anson ran aground near Helston with the loss of over 100 lives. The wreck inspired a witness, Henry Trengrouse, to invent a global life-saving device. This beam support from the wreck of the Anson was recently restored.

    Visit Shipwreck Treasure Museum

  • Shamrock


    Shamrock is the last surviving River Tamar barge. She was built in 1899 and had a colourful 70 year working life including transporting fertiliser, prospecting for tin in St Ives bay and operating as a salvage vessel in Plymouth.

    Visit Cotehele

  • Turpin's Caulking Tools

    Turpin's Caulking Tools

    Mr Turpin was a boatbuilder in Fowey in the 19th century at a time when ships were in great demand to export Cornwall's copper, tin and china clay. Caulking was a part of the boatbuilding process, ensuring that the gaps between the timber planks were fully waterproofed.

    Visit Fowey Museum

  • Ellen MacArthur's food

    Ellen MacArthur's food

    Falmouth has a place in history for being the first or last port for ships and adventuring sailors. In 2005 over 8000 people welcomed home Ellen MacArthur after a record breaking 71-day around-the world solo voyage. Dame Ellen had dried food to last well beyond the 71 days; this one is for day 74.

    Visit National Maritime Museum Cornwall

  • Curlew


    In 1881 Falmouth was a cosmopolitan town with consulates and languages from all around the world. Ships would call in to Falmouth 'for orders' to find out where to take their cargoes for the best price. Quay punts, such as Curlew, serviced these bigger ships.

    Visit National Maritime Museum Cornwall

  • Trengrouse's Rocket

    Trengrouse's Rocket

    Inspired by witnessing the wreck of HMS Anson in 1807, Helston man Henry Trengrouse's design saved the lives of many thousands of people. A rocket carrying a strong rope was fired between the cliffs and the wrecked ship and brought ashore the crew and passengers on a chair.

    Visit Museum of Cornish Life, Helston

Nowhere in Cornwall is more than seventeen miles from the coast and the sea has been essential to the lives of the people of Cornwall for generations: initially for food, and later for trade.

Medieval records are full of stories of piracy and attacks from the sea, preying on fishermen, trade and the country itself. The break with Catholic Europe brought new opportunities for trade in pilchards and illicit trade of wines and spirits.

By the 17th century, Britain was starting to turn herself into the great maritime nation of the world and Cornwall, stuck out into the Atlantic, played an essential role as the first and last landfall. Falmouth began its rise to the become the great port of the county when the Packet ships were based here, carrying the mails to and from the growing empire.

Rudimentary navigation made Cornwall’s coast a hazard for any arriving ships and the coats has more than its fair share of disasters. Legends grew up of wreckers luring ships onto rocky cliffs to claim the bounty of the sea. But others were concerned for the loss of life and people like Henry Trengrouse were moved by great disasters to design rescue apparatus to save lives.

The 19th century saw a change in emphasis as more and more goods arrived from around the world and ships would arrive desperate for news, fresh water, food and supplies. In Falmouth they would be serviced by the ‘white vans’ of the harbour: the quay punts.

A brisk maritime trade grew up. Coal was imported to drive the mine engines while china clay, copper and tin ore, and other minerals were exported. Traders carried goods between the many harbours and rivers at a time when roads were still in a very poor state. Ashore, skilled craftsmen helped keep the ships and boats afloat.

The arrival of steam power and other modes of transport meant that the maritime trade of Cornwall was to decline being replaced by small-scale fishing and leisure. Nothing could change Cornwall’s position or its importance as the first and last mainland for vessels arriving form the oceans and people like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Ellen MacArthur made good use of it on their circumnavigations.