August 2012 – The ancient port of Tregony

As you travel through the village of Tregony today, it’s hard to believe that it was once a flourishing and important tidal port. 15 miles from the open sea Tregony was a relatively safe port and escaped the attentions of French and Spanish pirates unlike St. Mawes, Penryn and Newlyn, to name but a few. It is believed that in earlier times Phoenician and Roman traders sailed to the port and beyond in search of tin.

Here half way down the hill once stood a large Castle built by the Norman family Pomeray. The castle stood on a rocky mound just below where the present almshouses now stand. The almshouses were built in 1696 and re-built in 1875.

The church of St. James, which stood below the castle, was claimed by the river which over the centuries had eroded its foundations. The castle built at the time of King Richard I was still standing in the reign of Edward VI. The walls of St. James were still standing in 1736. This building belonged to the Abbey de Valle in Normandy. The Rector of Ruan Lanihorne the Rev Whitaker said that the site of the church was opposite the old mount of the castle and reveres to a doorway of a stable being the gateway of the Priory.

In 1761 some tin miners working in the old churchyard said they unearthed a coffin almost 4 metres long. On opening the coffin they found a huge skeleton which disintegrated when exposed to the air leaving only one large tooth. The Church seems to have been abandoned by 1549. By this time Leland had visited the area and found that the tide came within a quarter of a mile of the bridge. A map drawn in 1597 shows the tide coming up to Ruan Lanihorne.

Mining and china clay works up stream have through the centuries been blamed for the silting up of the river here and further downstream at Ruan Lanihorne. Looking at the level areas around the river you can imagine its former glory when large boats came up the Fal on the tide to discharge their cargo and pick up merchandise. Because of the china clay works above St. Austell the river at Tregony was still referred to as ‘the white river,’ in the 1960s.

The small group of cottages and one time blacksmiths shop at the bottom of Tregony Hill known as Daddyport give another clue to what went on here in times gone by. On the river side road from Tregony to Ruan Lanihorne is a lone cottage called, Porters, named after John Porter who lived there in the 1700s. This dwelling it is said marks the site of a mediaeval market and Lazar House (leper colony) a chapel and the ancient settlement of Sheepstall.

When leprosy was rife the riverside site was ideal because the poor unfortunates could be transported there by boat and so having little contact with the rest of the population. Two bequests to the inhabitants of Sheepstall were, ‘1309, from Bishop Bytton, twelve shillings and six pence, and in 1419, from John Meyer, sixpence to each leper.’

It was Queen Elizabeth I who granted Tregony with the privilege of sending two Burgesses to Parliament, this was finally abolished in 1832.

Above Tregony at Golden Mill in 1580 the historian, Norden, refers to a Halbot or Haul-boat Rock. It was here he says that boats were secured by metal rings. At a trial at Tregony in 1686 a witness aged 80 years old told that, ‘in his father’s first remembrances the salt water did usually flow as high as a place called Holbert being about a myle (mile) and a quarter above Tregony Bridge where was a rock with several iron rings in it to which people that came up with boats did usually tie them.’

At the end of the 17th century Charles Trevanion of Cregoe near Tregony attempted to make the river navigable again as far as Trenowth (7 miles above full sea mark) by means of a number of locks and sluices. There were in fact two Charles Trevanion’s they were cousins and it appears that they did not get on very well. The other Charles of Caerhays Castle bitterly opposed his cousins plan to interfere with the river. By 1681 Charles of Cregoe had made 8 sluices below Tregony Bridge and three above it, violent floods however washed them away the following winter. He had them repaired but they only lasted another year.

Charles of Caerhays owned Nansaker Mill and finding his water supply cut off he took his cousin to court in 1686. Witnesses were called and 70 year old Roger Colliver said his grandfather and an old man who died in 1665 aged 95 remembered when as young boys they, ‘had a mind to get young swallows they did use to go in a boat with a muster pike, and row under the bridge and did thrust down the nests with the pike.

This proved that the height of the bridge was much higher in times gone by and that quite large boats could pass beneath it. Another witness, Melchizedeck Libbye, aged 80, stated that he could remember the salt water flowing within a quarter of a mile of the bridge but said that his father remembered it flowing to Holbert. He also said in his father’s time people came to St. James Church in boats. As for the bridge he said that his father had told him that, ‘when the sea was out a man on horseback with a long muster pike held upright might ride under Tregony Bridge and not touch the arch thereof which was then so high.’

Also in court that day was Roger Syndercombe who recalled a conversation with an old man who had told him that the sea had once flowed as far as Grampound. He said that he himself when making the foundations for one of the sluices found gravel to a depth of 11ft and below that an old wall. Elias Heard said that in 1676, before the sluices were made, he had brought up a boat of 12 tons within half a mile from Tregony. His cargo consisted of ‘wines, hops, dry-fish, a chest of glasses, two gross of bottles, and other wares.’

The court case dragged on and more and more people were called to give their evidence, for and against. William Cooke aged 75, said that by means of the sluices a small number of boats had come up the moor towards Tregony, a mile higher than had been possible before, but that floods had washed away much of the work and were choking the river.

The Magistrate of Tregony, Thomas Tonken said that the ‘frequent and violent floods were bound to render vain an enterprise of this kind.’

Now through lack of money to continue his case Charles of Cragoe, abandoned his scheme.

The Exeter court records of Tudor times tell that ‘Anne Collins of Tregony was married by her father to Edward Pascoe when she was twelve years of age. The same day a friendly woman of twice her age found her walking by a certain tin-work, wherein was a great deep pit of water.

She said, “I will drown myself in this pit.” That night she would not lie with him to die for, until two women went to bed with her; and desired this deponent and other company present, saying, “For the Passion of God, tarry here and dance in the chamber for I will not go to bed with him.”

The following night she still refused to go to bed with her new husband, ‘with weeping eyes her father took her by the hair of the head, and threw her into the bed. Yet she crying out got out of the bed again and never lay with him….. for she was not full twelve years of age. Sometime later Anne left home and went into service with Sir Hugh Trevanion and later with Mr.Arundell of Tolvern. We can only hope she was well looked after and was happy in her new position.

Sometime between 1569 – 1603, Edward Rowe of Tregony was sailing back from San Lucar with Andrew Fownes of Plymouth. They were attacked by three ‘Flushingers’ (Dutch pirates) and both Rowe and Fownes were wounded. The pirates ‘searched with candlelight every corner of the ship and left not the same night nor day until they came to Flushing.

As they left the ship silver plate dropped from their coats.’ As in the manner of these things the Englishmen would have had to make their own way home as best they could.

In 1630 it was reported at the Assizes that there were 36 alehouses in Tregony and the burgesses were asked to “take it into them to consideration how many shall be licensed there”. Possibly this gave rise in some quarters to the belief that Tregony was a den of iniquity. In his book ‘The Roseland between River and sea’, Laurence O’Toole related the story of a Bible Christian minister in Gerrans who was renowned for the lengthy sermons. On this particular Sunday he told the story of the Prodigal Son, and took his inspiration from an old squire of Trewince who had two sons. ‘The prodigal left home, and went riding on a fine horse through Gerrans, where all the womenfolk gossiped to see him go. The congregation were taken with him step by step along the road with no place or person spared. They spent a long time among the reputed drunkards of Tregony, and finished among the supposed harlots of St.Austell’. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I as well as ale-houses a small number of ‘Wyne Taverns,’ were recorded.

Wine could have been obtained from French ships visiting the port.

An amusing tale appeared in the West Briton in 1835. Although the Church of St. James had long since fallen down the people of Tregony were still celebrating the Feast of St. James. One of the high-lights of this public holiday when much drinking and merry making took place was the election of a ‘mock mayor. His worship who is very fond of “heavy wet,” indulged himself on this occasion with a greater quantum than usual; in consequence of which, we regret to state, he slipped his foot in descending from the vehicle in which he had been drawn about the town, and the wheel passing over him, broke his leg.’

And so the next time you pass through Tregony or stop off at the shop or the pub, just take a moment in your busy lives to remember some of the history which is ingrained in this ancient town.

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