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Mineral Ports and Quays

Charlestown Harbour, photo courtesy of Barry GambleSea transport was crucial to the Cornish mining industry. Cornwall is a peninsula and nowhere in the Site is much more than 20 kilometres from the sea. Proximity to the coast counterbalanced the industry’s geographically peripheral position in the far south-west of Britain, opening it up to the world.

Cornwall has an extensive coastline and a long maritime tradition, but until the late-18th century it had few large specialised ports. The mining trade prompted the development of specialist industrial harbours throughout the region. Pre-eminent amongst these were: Portreath, Hayle and Devoran. These jointly handled almost all the requirements and output of the mines and industries of west Cornwall. Smaller harbours were also built at St. Agnes, Par and Charlestown. Harbours and quays at Newquay, St Michael’s Mount, Porthleven, Looe, Calstock, Morwellham and New Quay were enlarged to cope with several phases of the expansion of mineral output.


Cornwall and west Devon had no suitable coal of its own, the inferior coals found in north and south Devon being mainly used domestically and for lime-burning. All the region’s needs were brought from the coalfields of the Bristol area and subsequently from South Wales; an unlimited supply made accessible by sea and navigable river systems. Timber was also required in immense quantities for pump rods and underground props. Pine was found to be suitable, brought from Scandinavia and Canada, again by sea.


By far the greatest volume of transport from the mines was that of copper ore to the nearest port for shipment to South Wales for smelting. It was transported in its raw state, whereas other exports like tin or arsenic tended to be processed in Cornwall before being shipped. Mines in the region were concentrated on or near outcrops of granite and their associated ore bodies and a substantial transport network that formed a reliable, economic and high capacity link from mine to port, developed.

Cornish beam engines built in Hayle were exported for use across four continents.


Constructing the harbour at Portreath may have begun as early as 1760. It was described in 1827 as perhaps Cornwall's most important port; it has strong links with South Wales where coal was procured and Cornish copper smelted. Hundreds of local men left here on the coal ships for South Wales on their way via copper ore barques to work as miners in Cuba in the 1830s and 40s.

The Portreath Tramroad (1809) and the Portreath branch of the Hayle Railway (1838) linked the mines in the Camborne & Redruth and Gwennap mining districts with the port. The harbour was too exposed to be safely used in bad weather. For this reason an inner basin was added in 1846, but it still remained dangerous to enter. An outer basin was added in 1880. The decline in the amount of copper ore being raised inland meant that the port began to diversify from the 1850s to the 1920s. Shipbuilding flourished in the 1860s and 70s, as did seine fishing until the disappearance of the pilchard shoals in the 20th century.


Hayle’s setting within a natural estuary and its proximity to the major copper and tin mines of Camborne and Redruth gave this area an important role. As a key sea port, Hayle not only had vital links with South Wales and the Swansea copper smelters (being on the north Cornish coast) but also reached out to the far corners of the world. Cornish beam engines built here were exported for use across four continents. Much of Hayle’s large harbour infrastructure survives and gives an idea of the scale of industrial activity which took place here during the 19th century.


Different in character from other mineral ports in Cornwall, Devoran was planned from the outset to be a complete new town. Symmetrically designed and built, it remains the best example in Cornwall at this scale of a planned 19th century settlement, intended to be more than just a mineral port – a place of general trade, professional and commercial significance.  Before the 1820s tin streaming, mining, foundries and metal smelting were located at Devoran. From 1824 the Redruth & Chasewater Railwaylinked Devoran to principal Cornish mining areas, making it a major industrial port in Cornwall for the 40-year heyday of Cornish copper mining.


Designed by the foremost civil engineer of the day (John Smeaton FRS, 1724-92),Charlestown is one of the finest examples of late 18th- and early 19th-century industrial harbour works in Britain. It is also the best preserved china clay and copper ore port of its period anywhere in the world.

Charlestown was built for Charles Rashleigh (1747-1825), a local industrialist who had acquired the small settlement of Polmear in 1784 as part of a larger land deal. Work began in 1792 and involved the construction of a breakwater and outer harbour, an inner wet dock, and a seven-mile leat to bring water from the Luxulyan Valley. This fed two reservoirs on the west of the village, which were used to scour the outer harbour and keep the wet dock full. Polmear became known as Charles Town very soon after the works commenced.

As well as the export of copper, china-clay, and china-stone, Charlestown imported coal and supported pilchard fishing and processing, limekilns, a ropewalk and shipbuilding.

Morwellham Quay

Morwellham is strategically sited at the centre of the Tamar Valley mining district. It is 3km below the tidal limit near Gunnislake and 32km upstream from Plymouth. The port occupies the floodplain of a wide bend in the river and is backed by sharply rising and thickly wooded valley sides which rise to over 180m. It was connected to Tavistock (6.5km away) via the Tavistock Canal completed in 1817. Morwellham was also connected to Devon Great Consols by a standard gauge mineral railway (and incline-plane) in 1859.