The following description is lifted directly from [Matthews 1884]. It must be read in the context of that date.


THE TOWN of St. Ives is situated on the northern coast of Cornwall, 277 miles west from London and 16 from Land’s End, in the hundred of West Penwith. It stands on the isthmus which separates a small peninsular from the mainland. What is now the peninsular, some hundreds of years ago, was entirely surrounded by water, and is still known as “the Island”.

West of the town is a fine broad beach of sand, called Porthmeor, which is Cornish for “the Great Beach”. On the other side, to the east, is Porth Cocking, also called the Fore-Sand; still further to the east, and separated from the last named beach by a rocky headland called Pednolva, are the magnificent sands of Porthminster. This is the spot which most delights those who come to St. Ives, and with reason, for few sea-side places can offer so charming a spot to the rest-seeking visitor. An unusually broad expanse of the finest white shell-sand here borders the lovely blue Bay of St. Ives, furnishing children with a playground in which they never weary of paddling, digging and romping, while their elders sit in the shade of Penmester rocks, the eastern limit of these sands, or under the big seine-boats which lie here in great numbers. If we dissent from the opinion of those who compare St. Ives Bay to that of Naples, it is not because we consider the former inferior in loveliness to its Italian rival. The scene which bursts upon the traveller as he looks from the carriage window during the journey from St. Erth, is never effaced from his memory. Purple heather and waving ferns, parted from the blue transparent water by golden sands, and in the distance the green hillocks of the Eastern Shore and the rocky islet of Godrevy with its white lighthouse; and then the quaint grey little town on the isthmus–these are visions which haunt one through a lifetime.

The country in the neighbourhood of St. Ives is wild and hilly, but full of attractions for the lover of natural scenery. The hills nearest are those of Barnoon, Porthminster, Tregenna, and Carn Stabba, but not far off are the much loftier eminences of Trecobben and Rosewall Hill. Picturesque as is the aspect of the town of St. Ives viewed from a distance, the artist need not fear that closer inspection will be a delusion, particularly if he loves to depict what is quaint in architecture or in character and costume. The buildings have that grey and solid appearance peculiar to the extreme western parts of Europe, but with many points especially characteristic of St. Ives. Irregularly built, and variously affected by shifting sands and obstinate masses of the local slate-rock, the houses are often either entered by means of flights of steps unusually high; or dived into through apertures apparently excavated from the bowels of the earth. The narrow streets, roughly paved, remind one of the old Breton and Flemish towns; nor, it may be said, do the prevalent odours materially differ from those which so agitate the visitors to such continental resorts. But no matter, we are on a summer tour in search of what yet remains of the old world, of the primitive surroundings of bygone times; or if our inclinations are not much towards antiquity, we can limit our rambles to the smarter and more modern thoroughfares, in which also St. Ives is not deficient.

One of the finest and completest views of the town and its outskirts is that obtained from the grounds of Tregenna Castle. The visitor should also view the town from the Coastguard Station on Porthminster Hill, from the high ground known as Barnoon, from the top of the Island, and if he does not mind climbing, from the church steeple. The Island and Godrevy are the favourite subjects with the landscape painter, and indeed bid fair to cover, in the course of time, as much canvas as St. Michael’s Mount itself, but the parish of St. Ives is not lacking in other kinds of scenery, besides that in which the sea is a prominent feature. The valley between the heights of Tregenna and Barnoon is known as the Stennack, which in Cornish means “the tin bearing place”, so called from the mining.

The lower part of the valley is very fertile, as may be seen by the remains of former orchards, which building as of late encroached upon. For a bit of wild moorland scenery, of the real Cornish sort, the visitor should ascend Carn Stabba by way of Bellears, a lovely lane at the back of Tregenna. Passing the pretty little farm at the foot of the hill, he soon finds himself in a beautiful wilderness of heather, furze, and tall ferns, springing up from between vast boulders of stone piled one above the other, on the summit is a logan-rock, or rocking stone; from this point one may see, on a clear day, Carn Brea hill, near Redruth, the church towers of Phillack, Gwithian, and Gwinear, and in the far distance Trevose Head stretching miles out to sea.

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HAVING GIVEN a general glance around the parish, we will turn our attention to the town of St. Ives in particular. We have already hinted that its chief and indeed its only attraction is its quaintness, which has given weeks of work to a considerable number of eminent artists, but as the follower of this Bohemian craft is sure to discover for himself nooks and corners in which to plant his easel, we need not do more than point out to those localities which are most worthy of the tourist’s notice or the antiquaries examination. The quay was constructed in the latter part of the last century by Smeaton the engineer. The old quay was situated nearer to the town, thus sheltering a much smaller expanse of water. Where the quay joins the shore, the visitor will observe a little dilapidated building with a narrow doorway and an elevated stone floor. This is called “the Chapel”, and is popularly supposed to be older than the parish church. It was dedicated to St. Leonard, and here in ancient times a chaplain said Mass for the fishermen before they put to sea, and received, as payment, a tribute of fish proportioned to the catch. At that time the chapel stood isolated on a rock by the sea, without any houses near it. The stone wharf which skirts the shore here is the rendezvous of the fishermen, with whose stalwart looks and manly, intelligent talk the traveller from London is sure to be pleased. When the fishing fleet is at home the boats lie here, and often a schooner or a brig; though large craft have been rare visitors since St. Ives has lost so much of its ancient prosperity. Many queer tales are told of smugglers and privateers of this place in former days, and many a fine French prize has been brought into the little harbour. Once a St. Ives man, who commanded a privateer during the war with France, brought in by mistake a peaceful Dutch ship, which he was of course obliged to release, with compensation. Even such a renowned vessel as the Flying Dutchman once did St. Ives the honour of appearing in the offing and signalling for a pilot, as we learn from the narrative of worthy old Jack H. Hastily leaving the comfortable bar parlour of the Sloop Inn, Jack was soon in his boat, and presently scrambled up the ladder of the huge merchantman. Instead, however, of jumping on the deck, he suddenly found himself splashing in the water, and the phantom ship had vanished. Jack always vowed he had boarded the Flying Dutchman, but those who knew him whispered of rum and water (the latter in small proportions).

On the wharf is the comfortable old “White Hart” inn, in the rear of which is a pile of greenish slate-rock called Carn Glaze, here built on the solid, which forms the actual floor of the basement, stands a very interesting, though humble building known as Carn Glaze House. Formerly an inn and the residence of a smuggling, free-booting family in Queen Anne’s time, this is said to be the oldest house in St. Ives. Certainly its appearance does not contradict the popular notion; for its crumbling walls, undulating roof, and rotten timbers bespeak a high antiquity. Here, some years ago was found a bronze medal commemorating the capture of Portobello by Admiral Vernon, doubtless dropped by some ancient pig-tailed mariner during a jolly carouse in honour of the victory. The writer has it on good authority that at this spot the great earthquake at Lisbon, in 1702, was distinctly felt, and caused a visible commotion of the sea on the shore beneath.

Bunker’s Hill is the name of a street leading from the Fore-sand to the Island. It is remarkable for the picturesque appearance of its houses, and a painting of it by a well known artist, is much admired. The visitor will probably be struck by the outlandish names of many of the streets, such as the Digey, Chy-an-Chy, Street-an-Garrow, Pudding Bag Lane etc. The latter is believed to be a corruption of Putting-back lane in allusion to its situation. Here is an old house with a date and initials, once the residence of the Sises, a wealthy merchant family during the Stuart reigns. Most of the names of the old streets are in the Cornish language, and must have been very expressive to the original inhabitants, though their descendants comprehend their literal signification as little as does the casual tourist.

On rising ground, behind the market square will be noticed an old Georgian house with a porch. On the roof is an equestrian tile, or piece of pottery representing a man on horseback. This kind of architectural ornament is now very rarely seen. The boys of St. Ives hold it as an article of faith that, when the rider hears the clock strike twelve, he gallops along the roof, a relaxation which may well be excused in one who has long stood sentry on that comfortless post.

Besides the church, there is an Anglican Chapel-of-Ease for sailors, and places of worship for the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists, the Methodist New Connection, the Bible Christians, the Plymouth Brethren, and the members of Lady Huntingdon’s Connection. For the Catholics, mass is occasionally said by the Penzance priest. The vicar’s admirable school is at the back of the Vicarage. The Board School, a handsome building erected in 1880, is situated half way up the Stennack, over the door, carved in granite are the arms of the Borough of St. Ives, which are, “Argent, a branch of ivy outspreading the whole field, vert”. In this building political and social gatherings are often held, especially the parochial concerts given by that praiseworthy institution, the St. Ives Choral Association.

On the shore, near the church, is the boat house of the St. Ives lifeboat, which goes to sea for practice once a month. Its exercise is well worth seeing. The town can also boast of a Swimming Association which organises an annual regatta. There is further on an Athletic Club, and a comfortable reading-room near the Terrace. Adjoining this room are the offices of the managing owners of several first rate merchant steamers hailing from St. Ives.

Of late years the places of business of the tradesmen have become numerous and excellent, and if visitors stay any length of time at St. Ives, they will hardly fail to appreciate the convenience of many of the shops.

Of hotels, the principle are the Tregenna Castle, once the seat of the Stephen’s family, the “Queen’s” and the “Western”, where should be made all applications for horses and vehicles; the “White Hart”, already noticed; and the “Temperance” hotel near the Post Office.

We have mentioned the Stephen’s family. This wealthy and once influential house has been for centuries intimately connected with the history of St. Ives, Tregenna Castle was built at the end of last century by John Stevens, Esq. Another of their residences was the Manor House, in Green Court, an unpretentious edifice of the seventeenth century, which is worth a visit, the rooms are wainscotted and adorned with dim old Italian landscapes. This house formerly commanded an unimpeded view of the sea.

Samuel Stephens, Esq., married Betty, daughter of Captain Wallis the celebrated circum-navigator and discoverer of Otaheite. The family also possessed a country house at Ayr, a village a little to the west of the town, above the Stennack. It is still standing, though very old, and is a good example of the ancient Cornish gentlemen’s houses. Another of these old family seats is Trenwith, at the other side of the Stennack. It gave its name to an ancient local family now extinct. The same may be said of Tregenna. There was a John Tregenna, Esq., Portrieve of St. Ives, in the reign of Henry VIII, and we will duly record his tragic fate.

The industries of St. Ives are sadly decayed. Ship-building was once extensively carried on here, the principal yard being that of Thomas Matthews, at a part of the old town called Norway. Here was also the largest rope manufactory in Cornwall, conducted for generations by a family named Williams. The memory of this branch of industry still survives in the name of the Ropewalk, given to a street near the shore. Chief of the industries of St. Ives is, of course, the fishing, especially the pilchard fishery, of which this town is the headquarters. The pilchard is about the same size as a small herring and differs but little from the sardine of the Mediterranean. It makes its appearance in these waters about the month of October, and is caught with a peculiar kind of net, called a seine or seane. The seine is made to hang perpendicularly in the sea, like a wall, so that the fish swimming to it, catch their gills in its meshes.

The pilchards which swim in shoals, are enclosed within several seines, and are then drawn up by the nets of an ordinary kind, here called tuck-nets, or driven “en masse” on to the shore which is termed a “dead tuck”. The large boats employed in these fisheries are called seine boats. During the greater part of the year these lie high and dry upon Porthminster beach. The fishing is conducted by commercial companies who employ the fishermen engaged in the various departments of the work the whole transaction being minutely regulated by ancient laws, which have received the sanction of a special Act of Parliament. The men who stand on the shore, hold one end of the ropes which are attached to the seine boats, are called “blowsers”. The blowsers have their own clearly defined laws as to the division of their labour and pay. As soon as the pilchard season approaches, the various companies put their men on pay, and from that time each boat’s crew takes its “stem”, that is to say, its regular turn for watching, often for many weary weeks, until the shoal comes. The approach of the shoal is also watched for with never ceasing vigilance by the men called “huers”, who establish themselves in a watch house on Porthminster Hill, from which they can observe the movements of the shoal, which movement the huer signals to the boats by means of a species of telegraph, which consists of flourishing this way or that way, two pieces of wooden framework covered with branches. But the first intimation which the huer gives of the approach of the pilchards is an unearthly shout through a speaking trumpet.

Instantly the wildest commotion spreads amongst the inhabitants of the town. With shouts of heva! heva! Men, women and children rush to the shore to assist in gathering the harvest of the sea. This cry of “heva” is only heard in this neighbourhood, and solely on these occasions. The word is of great antiquity, and derived from the Cornish havas, “found”.

The pilchards landed, St. Ives (unlike the pilchards) is in its element. All is bustle and activity, for those who are not assisting at the nets help to pack and cure the fish, though in this work the women are supreme.

Curing is quite a science by itself, but an ignorant “foreigner” from beyond the Tamar is chiefly impressed by the smell, and the oil which flows down the gutters. The pilchards are nearly all destined for exportation to the south of Europe, to serve for Lent and fast-days. The Cornishman cares little for the fish as an article of diet.

“Cousin Jackey’s” three F’s are Fish, Tin, and Copper; but to give an adequate account of the great and ancient industry of mining would be beyond the scope of this work. Suffice to say that tin and copper mines, working or disused, are to be found in the parish of St. Ives. At the top of the Stennack is the celebrated Consols mine, and at several points along the stream that runs down the hill are stamps and places for streaming, which is the most ancient and rudimentary form of mining. East of the town, on the Lelant road, is Wheal Providence, a mine which has made much money in its day. Between this place and the sea is Chy-an-Wheal, “the house by the mine”. A disused engine-house stands on the rocky shore of Pednolva, under the Terrace. This mine was to have been worked below the sea, but little was ever done to it. The ruins are rather picturesque than otherwise.

Copper-smelting has been carried on here at different times, but nothing of the sort is done now at St. Ives. Saint Ives is well off for comfortable dwelling-houses, both old and new.

Of late years large and commodious residences have been built on the Terrace, on the road between the town and Porthminster, and on Tregenna Terrace and Barnoon. In many of these houses, visitors who intend making a long stay, or who specially desire retirement, may be comfortably lodged with respectable St. Ives families. A lodging on the Terrace has the advantage of a splendid view of the sea, and proximity to the pleasant walks afforded by the Lelant road, of which the Terrace forms the lower part. Close by is the Malakoff, a sort of bastion constructed a few years ago, which is a pleasant lounge and commands a good view of the town, the shore and the sea.

The Railway from St. Erth on the main line was opened on 24th May, 1877, before which date St. Ives was hardly ever visited by tourists, and had but little communication with the outer world. Travellers drove from the junction, then called St. Ives Road Station, on a bus which took a considerable time to perform the journey. Such goods as fish and early vegetables are sent to the metropolis greatly to the advantage of the townspeople; nor could the neighbourhood dispense with the large number of visitors who come every year to circulate money in this remote watering place. The journey from Saint Erth junction to Saint Ives is a real pleasure trip, so lovely is the scenery through which the train passes; and as the great journey from Paddington usually leaves the weary traveller little inclined for anything but a wash and a cup of tea by the time he reaches the far west, he should not fail to take the train to St. Erth on a subsequent occasion for the purpose of enjoying this view to the full. A bus runs to meet every train for the convenience of those who stay at the Tregenna Castle Hotel. The visitor may have his “Times” or his “Standard” at about seven in the evening but the Plymouth papers which reach St. Ives by a morning train contain the latest telegraphic dispatches.

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