It’s no coincidence that the Truro coat of arms features a large sailing ship. For it may not seem like it today, but Truro was once a bustling port welcoming ships, travellers and cargo from all over the world.
Truro, Town and Cathedral, 1890 © Francis Frith Collection
And the heart of the maritime community was right outside City Hall, because until quite recently the river came right into the middle of the city.
Under Lemon Quay runs the River Kenwyn, covered over first to make a car park in 1923 and then to become the piazza you see today. As its name suggests Back Quay, which runs behind City Hall, was also once an open waterway.
When markets took place at the Hall goods, including food and livestock, would have been loaded directly off boats like this and into the marketplace for sale. Before road and rail, the river, with its direct link to the Atlantic, was the only way to trade.
Salt. Tar. The sweet smell of newly cut timber. Ships bringing wood and coal to power Cornish mines and taking away tin, copper and pilchards to London, the Mediterranean and South America.
More protected than coastal ports against foreign attack and piracy, inland ports were once a common sight. Truro was registered as a port accepting foreign commerce in 1205 and the likelihood is that its history as a maritime community goes back well beyond that.
As time went on, industry replaced muddy banks. A pottery, ironworks, lime kilns and many warehouses sprung up along the riverbanks. Imported timber was brought to Mr Sambell’s timber yard on Fairmantle Street, where a young Phillip Sambell would have played amongst the wood shavings. Phillip was deaf and mute but he didn’t let that stop him becoming a fine architect whose buildings, including the Methodist Church, still grace Truro today.
In the late 1700s the fish market at Back Quay, exported Cornish pilchards stored in imported salt. Salt in, fish out. Perhaps the most famous single arrival into the port was the organ for the new cathedral from London in 1887.
Lines of packhorses moved goods to and from the port. The boom of the tin and later copper trades led to wealthy merchants and mine owners building their impressive townhouses in the city.
In this image (c.1900) City Hall is visible in the front left of the photo. Merchant schooners docked here to deliver goods to the market.
A very Cornish ship
The boat illustrated here is a Cornish schooner. These ships were a particular breed; flat sheered with wide shoulders across the fore-rigging and tapered aft with very small bottoms. They were described by seafarers as having ‘a gurnard’s head and a mackerel’s tail’. This beautiful and unusual shape, combined with light framing, made them fast and agile.
© Michael Hutchinson. Example of a restored merchant schooner, 2014, Swanpool, Cornwall
“They are the birds of the sea, whose swimming is like flying and resembles more a natural function than the handling of man-invented appliances.” — Joseph Conrad - The Mirror of the Sea
The ships weren’t built in Truro city itself, but along the West Bank of the Fal River out to sea shipyards were once a common sight, including Charles Dyer’s Sunny Corner and Hugh Stevens’ at Devoran Quay. The Mary of Truro, built by Stephens in 1875, was the only schooner made in Truro that was still afloat by the end of World War Two.
Slowly but surely the rivers silted up and were covered over to make way for rail and road. Truro remains a Cornish shopping hotspot, but today cargo ships dock about a mile up the River at Newham or at Falmouth.
Read more about the oral histories of merchant schooners in Cornwall, compiled by Storylines.