A look at damage to Mullion Harbour in the 1930s

A brief history of Mullion Harbour.

In 1868 there were plans put forward for a Harbour in Mullion Cove supported by Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock. They were far reaching, ambitious and included an attempt to construct a Harbour of Refuge for sailing ships of the time.

Below diagram by author.

Those plans failed to materialise but just over 20 years later new plans for the development were implemented. A Provisional Order was obtained in 1890 and the work commenced with Construction Plans created by Sir William Matthews.

A new road was built from the villlage of Mullion and work on the North Causeway was commenced by Engineers T. Lang and son of Liskeard.

The construction of the 180 foot long west pier at Mullion Harbour which began in the year 1890 was successfully completed in December 1892. It would have been completed more quickly had it not been for the winter storms and blizzards which held back construction.

Lord Robartes had long been aware of the need for a Harbour which served several purposes.

Life on the Lizard Peninsula posed many difficulties for his tenants there.The roads were poor and farmers had to travel to Gweek and Porthleven for supplies, as did local traders, and the local Fishing Industry which included Pilchards, Crab and Lobsters was also in difficulty. The benefits of the Railway to Cornwall were many, but the Railway by passed the Peninsula at Helston and competition and trade was affected. Even simple commodities such as coal and manure were more expensive to transport. With many ships still seeking anchorage in the Mullion Roads it was hoped that their resupply could be better managed and provide income for local shopkeepers. In addition the tourist trade weas beginning to take off in Cornwall with many visitors taking annual holidays in the picturesque south of the County.

The opening event was marked by a visit from Lord Robartes, the financial benefactor, and his family Lady Robartes and the Hon. Eva Robartes on 7th December 1892.

At the opening there was a celebration led by Lord Robartes which involved a procession of local dignitaries, the crew of the Lifeboat, fishermen, the village band, schoolchildren and almost all the residents of Mullion who marched from the village all the way to the new Harbour. It was then followed by a return to the village where celebrations continued inside the new Mullion Reading Room. For the time it was a lavish event.

The construction of the second pier- the south pier was delayed by Lord Robartes for a further two years. In July 1895 he made an application to the Board of Trade for permission to build the south pier which was to be 150 foot in length and directed towards the end of the west pier forming a harbour entrance facing to the south. It enclosed an area of about one acre and allowing entry for fishing boats and small coastal craft, thus completing the harbour. The construction of the south pier took place over a period of two years and it was finally completed in 1897.

The piers, were made from locally sourced Serpentine, elvan stone, with edging quoins of Penryn granite and a core of Portland cement

From the very first stages of construction the power of the sea quickly became apparent and with storms and gales frequently battering the coastline and harbour walls the structure shuddered under the effects of what were often huge and powerful waves.

In its early stages the harbour stood up well to the adverse weather conditions and a local Stonemason, James Harry, was employed in the summer to ensure that any repairs were carried out.

The Victorian harbour continued in regular use until 1928 when the owner Lord Clifden sold it to the Meyer family who had also purchased land and property in the area. Ownership by the Meyer family continued into the 1940s until when in 1945 the harbour and Mullyon Island was gifted to the National Trust.

Very little information about life here was recorded during the time of the ownership by the Meyer family but it was one one of the most important periods in the history of the harbour.

There are records which show that when the harbour was taken over by the National Trust in 1945 there had already been a significant collapse to the end of the south pier. Not quite so obvious, the west pier was also in need of attention to stop it from collapsing.

But what had occurred since 1928 and why had the harbour not been repaired.?

Below is a photograph of Mullion Harbour which was taken during the summer of 1929, a year after ownership was transferred from Lord Clifden to Montague Meyer, and it can be seen that there is no damage visible to the neatly constructed south pier. The harbour is in full use with visitors and fishermen alike apparently enjoying the benefits of a good summer. (Photo from Private Collection).

Compare this with a photograph published in the Western Morning News from July 1947.

Evidence of storm activity in the 1800s was recorded in archived newspapers and the area around Cornwall bore the brunt of those violent meteorological events. Shipwrecks were unfortunately frequent along the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula and in the Mounts Bay. Sailing ships were wrecked having become embayed and some were involved in collisions with other vessels in rough weather. Many lives were lost.

Both Penzance and Falmouth were often the first Ports of call for the long distance cargo ships sailing to and from from all quarters of the world. They would often return damaged and put in for repair, or call at the local Consular Offices for Orders as to which Port to make for with their cargo. They left Ports in Great Britain, Europe, the Baltic Countries, the Americas and Russia to travel half way around the world before returning, often up to two years later with their cargo holds full. Some were also full of soldiers with their Military cargoes having been involved in battle while travellers and migrants packed ships bound for countries around the world.

In 1854 the Meteorological Office was established and run by Admiral Fitzroy. In 1861 he began to publish weather reports giving early warning of approaching storms.These reports were made available in newspapers but also to shipping at Ports around the UK.

In the 1800s there could often be over 200 sailing ships reported at anchor in the Mullion Roads and in some cases there were over 300 reported. At one time the number recorded was no less than 500. As well as ships from around the world there was a high percentage of coastal traffic with cargoes of coal, mineral ores such as copper, timber, stone, sand, clay and cement. There were even cargoes of Ice.!

In 1892 the constructor of the west pier, Mr. T Lang had commented that "...his firm had carried out many contracts but in no place had they had such difficulties to contend against as they had encountered at Mullion. Old Father Neptune seemed to have concentrated all his fury into that cove. However the work was now completed and he believed that it would stand the fury of the sea for many generations."

Little did he know what was still to come .

The early damage.

Violent storms have taken place around Cornwall for centuries proven by records of shipwrecks. The available meteorological records show how there were periods both in the 1800s and early 1900s of storm activity similar to that of 2013-2014. The storms of the 1860s for example produced widespread storms hitting the south west of England with many ships and lives lost. There were many calls for Harbours of Refuge to be constructed around the Cornish Coast.

During the early 1900s storm activity was strong and frequent in Cornwall. In 1905 for example storms in May and August hit the Cove and fishing boats were lost along with their gear. It had an adverse effect on the livelihood of the fishermen there. In October 1920 a thunderstorm, the like of which had not been seen for over 50 years, flooded the area including Mullion village and the river running into the harbour. The volume of water coming into the culvert caused much damage to the north causeway of the harbour approach forcing a rebuild of that part of the protective harbour wall. Houses in the harbour were flooded out and possessions were washed out to sea.

Did such storms contribute to the demise of Mullion Harbour in the 1930s, a mere 35 years after it was built.?

A look at the Meteorological Records for the Summer of 1929 showed it to have been one of those glorious summers which are dreamt of by tourists, visitors and hotel owners alike. Good weather lasted into late September which was described in weather reports as being "unusually warm and dry", but later in 1929 conditions changed dramatically.

From late November until mid-December the South West of England experienced a series of violent storms and gales from the South West, and in the first 25 days of November 1929, a total of 10 inches of rain fell over Cornwall. On the 5th November a storm produced gales over Cornwall and over an inch of rain fell in Falmouth.

There was a further storm from the 9th and 10th of November with gale force winds on the coast, and on the 11th November a storm which lasted for 14 hours at Falmouth and 16 hours on Scilly, accompanied by 80 mph winds.

There were similar gales on the 15th and 16th November 1929. A deep depression settled over the Atlantic on the 18th November producing intense gales and heavy rain.The month of November 1929 was the wettest month for 60 years at Falmouth and St. Austell.

The weather in December 1929 followed the same course, being described as "... mild and abnormally wet and stormy" and " with excessive rain and persistent violent gales... which were... the most severe in coastal districts in the south and west of England and Wales."

On the night of the 5th December 1929 winds reached 94mph at Pendennis and on the 6th /7th winds at Scilly touched 111mph and in Falmouth 103mph.

The bad weather did not end there. It continued into January 1930. On the 12th there were winds recorded of 102mph at Pendennis and 97mph at Scilly.

It is no wonder that on 6th December 1929 the newspaper headlines were of "Hurricane Havoc in the West", "Ninety Mile Hurricane", "Damage on land and sea" and "Prospects of storm returning".The newspapers also described widespread damage to Harbours, sea defences, coastal structures and buildings as well as high value shipping losses. During this storm for example, Newlyn sea wall was breached, houses were flooded at Mousehole and elsewhere. The waves were riding high up the sides of St. Michaels Mount, the King Harry Ferry was sunk and the Saltash Ferry was set adrift. Ships including steamers were cast ashore. The French built and owned Steamer Ornais II was in danger of being wrecked in the Mounts Bay and the Penzance Lifeboat was unable to reach her. Caught in the gale, she was unable to anchor and was blown ashore at Trebarvah Beach near to St. Michaels Mount. The Prussia Cove rocket apparatus brigade had to be summoned to assist.

On the 12th December 1929, at Porthleven, there was severe damage to houses and Public Buildings and part of the Institute roof was stripped. The wind went on to totally remove roofs from some houses and farm buildings there.

Was it any wonder that the harbour at Mullion Cove was damaged?.

Further storms and gales were recorded in the early 1930s, but not on the same scale.

In December 1932 a storm left 84 ships of all sizes sheltering in the Mullion Roads until winds ameliorated sufficiently for them to make headway. Food stocks on board became low for many of them and had to be replaced at shops in Mullion village- conditions not seen before in the 20th century but reminiscent of conditions in the 1800s which led in part to the building of the harbour.

Damage to the south pier at Mullion was to develop gradually during the course of the 1930s with an increase in damage around 1936 coming to a head in 1937. Without repair the south pier continued to suffer from repeated attacks from the waves.

It should be noted that this damage was almost identical to that which occurred after 2003.

Photographs of the Harbour during the 1930s do exist so it is possible to see the progression of the damage.

Frith Postcard Published 1931- Note damage to the seaward end of the south pier.

A.H. Hawke Postcard Published 1936- shows extending damage to the south pier.

Penpol Postcard- published circa 1937

The research leading to this article being published was helped considerably by information provided by one Mullion resident, William Mundy. During the 1930s his family lived in Mullion Cove. Bill was born in the Cove in January 1937 and recalls a story told to him by his mother of how he was born on the night of a storm. He was later given a photograph of the harbour taken by his family that year. The photograph shows the damage to the south pier and the fishing boats berthed under the west pier. He was told that at the time the the south pier was filled with stone, concrete and other loose material, but the largest fall of material from the south pier had occurred on that night in a storm when Bill, now 80, was born.

Below- Picture of the harbour at Mullion Cove in 1937.( Courtesy of William Mundy)

The number of fishing boats in the harbour is significantly higher than that of today but it can be seen that although the opening to the entrance is wide, the available space is affected by the fall of the south pier.

Beginning in 1939 conscription was to take many of the fishermen away from the harbour. It also took away many of the stonemasons and skilled engineers capable of rebuilding the harbour.

It should be noted that the owners of the Harbour at the time were heavily involved in the repair of the cities bombed during the early stages of the war. In the absence of skilled stonemasons and craftsmen, engineers were fully engaged in the construction of local defences with the laying of mines, the building of anti tank walls and barbed wire fencing on beaches and harbours it was virtually impossible to repair in the 1940s.

By 1944 the remaining fishermen were concerned that conditions were now becoming too dangerous for them to come in and out of the harbour entrance and they refused to pay their harbour dues. This was reported to the SW Fisheries Committee who agreed.

This was a major consideration when it came to the Harbour being gifted to the National Trust in 1945. The National Trust gladly accepted the land given to them but were reluctant to repair the harbour. Even so funds were raised and in 1950 repairs were underway.

During the following years many repairs were carried out on the south pier with different plans considered. A sloping end to the south pier was built but damage still took place and this was structural alteration was reversed in 1978/9.

The West Briton and Royal Cornwall Gazette commenting on a photograph of the harbour wrote on February 15 1979 that "The traditional but by now unfamiliar outlines of Mullion Harbour where the National Trust have completed £35,000 of construction work to the end of the small breakwater (south pier). In 1954 the toe of the breakwater started to fall away and because of a shortage of funds at that time the trust were unable to rebuild it. Subsequently it was cut off at an angle and capped with concrete. In recent years cracks appeared at the end of the breakwater and the trust have , in the last two months rebuilt it with a vertical end of serpentine and granite, so that it now looks as it did when originally constructed."

Initially in 1945 the National Trust were not keen to repair the harbour but this proud and symbolic remnant of Victorian engineering, now so loved by visitors to Cornwall, an iconic piece of Cornish history, was and still is a monument to the skilled workers and stonemasons who came from many Counties to build it.

Below photo February 2013 by author.

The Mullion Harbour piers were Grade II Listed in 1984 and with the help of important repairs have remained an important example of Victorian engineering. They are part of Cornwalls historic Mounts Bay fishing community and a reminder of the perils experienced by all those men and women who made their living from the sea.

Although there have been many changes to the south pier resulting from damage there has always been a belief among some local people that there were structural issues with its initial construction. This may have been related to a slightly unstable basal platform on which it was built. Small amounts of movement along Minor geological faults running through the bedrock may be influential.

Repairing Mullion Harbour has been challenging.

Below- Damage to the south pier in 2012.Photo by author.

Below is the result of a concrete repair to the south pier in 2013. Photo by author 2013

Repairs were conducted to the south pier in 2015 as a result of major storms in 2013/ 2014. The repair on this occasion was extensive with much of the seaward end of the south pier being dismantled and rebuilt. Photos below by author.

The resulting damaged structure, was allowed to be repaired using "Marine Concrete" instead of local stone which included Serpentine. It remains to be seen whether this will last the further test of time.

R Felce BSc (Hons) 2017

Please Note; References are available from the author of this article Robert Felce at r.felce@gmail.com

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