Author – Cllr Nigel Baker
A Coombe Before the First World War
Almost all of Coombe and the surrounding farms belongs to Lord Falmouth’s Tregothnan Estate, but this has not always been the case. Most of the land was part of the ‘manor of Landegay’ [Landegay was a name for Old Kea] and until 1638 had been owned by the Tregians of Golden Manor near Probus. Francis Tregian was a Catholic recusant and had sheltered the Catholic priest Cuthbert Mayne at Golden (Mayne was executed in November 1577 at Launceston). The Tregian estate was confiscated by the Crown, much was returned to his son during the reign of James I but the Tregian debts were so large that a lot of the land had to be sold. The manor was bought by the Coryton family who lived at Pentillie house on the river Tamar, though the Coryton family’s major landholdings were in east Cornwall and in Devon. In 1844 the Coryton family sold the land to Tregothnan who were already major landowners in the parish.
The varied ownership of the area is shown on the Coryton Estate map below.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no CY6673 Map of the Manor of Landy Gay c.1770
Some of the land between Coombe and the river Fal belonged to Lord Arundell and was originally part of the estate of the Arundells of Lanherne. Although the Arundell family of Lanherne had also suffered for their Catholic faith they had fared better at preserving some of their estates, though through marriage in 1739 the estates passed from the Cornish Arundells to Lord Arundell of Wardour castle in Wiltshire. In 1781 he commissioned a survey of his estates in Cornwall, including Trelease, possibly as a precursor to selling it. By the mid-19th century it had passed to the ownership of the Davies Gilbert family who lived at Trelissick and at some point it also passed into Tregothnan ownership.
Other landowners in the area, as shown on the Coryton Estate map, were Lord Falmouth, David Hoase (Haweis), Mr Trefuses (Trefusis) and Mr Allen.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no GHWG5 Map of Trelease Estate 1781
The first evidence for the existence of Coombe comes from these two Estate maps.
On the Coryton map two orchards are named but a building is only shown in pink in the orchard of Coombe Cott, and the building is end on to the creek whereas the present cottage is long ways on to the creek. To add to the confusion it is the property on the left which is now named Coombe Cottage, a property built subsequently is now Bounder Cottage. The property named Coomb Cott above is now named Riverside.
On the Trelease map the surveyor took the trouble to mark in more faintly properties which adjoined the Trelease Estate but were not part of it. This shows us that by 1781 two properties did exist on the Coryton side of the creek, and the one on the right is aligned in the same way as the one on the Coryton map, so very different to the alignment of the present Riverside. In a lease for the farm of Lower Lanner in April 1809 (Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no CY5705) reference is made to a ruined cottage at Coombe, thus it is possible that the original Coombe Cottage became ruinous, the name Coombe Cottage was then adopted by the previous Bounder Cottage and at some stage the ruined cottage was rebuilt facing the creek.
The thatched cottages which appear in early photos are probably the ones shown here at the top of the small orchard marked ‘a 11’. Added in pencil and only in outline, so almost certainly at a later date, are two cottages on Lord Falmouth’s land.
By 1800 it seems there were two cottages on the Coryton side and two on the Arundell side of Coombe creek.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no X43857 Martyn’s Map of 1784
Coombe did not appear on Martyn’s map of 1748 but is included on this map.
Coombe before 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI:2013.7.4
The above photograph, taken by Ernest Chegwidden, is one of the earliest of Coombe and was taken before the building of the Reading Room in 1908. It shows the side of the creek which had been owned by the Arundells. The thatched cottages appear to be the ones shown on the Arundell estate map of Trelease dated 1781. The cottages, known in the 20th century as Moor Close and Bunny Thatch, belonged to Higher Trelease farm which lies just out of the picture over the top of the hill. It is likely that the cottages were much older than any of the cottages built on the other side of the creek. They were in such a poor condition that they were demolished with Moor Close being demolished in the 1920s and the Bunny Thatch, the right hand thatched cottage, in the 1930s.
Behind the thatched cottages can be seen a rough track heading across a field. This was unpaved but the only way into the village except by boat. When villagers died their coffins were carried along this track
The fine house on the right, Coombe Villa, was built by Samuel Old between 1881 and 1901 and was lived in by the Old family until about 2010.
Coombe around 1904 Private Collection
The above photo shows the other side of the creek in about 1904. Almost all the trees would have been the famous Kea plums which make superb jam. The style of the left- hand cottage, built from cob and stone and originally with a thatched roof, seems to be much older than the right hand cottage which is likely to have been rebuilt in the 19th century. The boats shown are oyster punts which are discussed below, and many of the people shown seem to be in their ‘Sunday best’.
Coombe after 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv 12
This photograph was taken outside Coombe Villa and on the right can be seen the Reading Room which was built in 1908. The man shown is probably Samuel John Old who lived in Coombe Villa. The plum trees are in leaf so it is likely the photograph was taken during the summer which is the normal time for maintaining the wooden punts which would have been used for oyster fishing and other types of river work. Most were built either in Coombe itself or at the head of the creek at Cowlands. In the foreground the ‘bottom boards’ have been taken out so it may be that Samuel John Old is tarring the inside of his punt. The boat that has been inverted on a trestle may already have had its bottom tarred. The Old family favoured the wearing of bowler hats.
The Reading Room, 1908
One of the most significant events in the life of Coombe before the First World War was the setting up of the ‘Coombe Creek Mens’ Club’ and the building of the Reading Room in 1908. Many such buildings around the country were being set up, often with a major role being played by the Anglican Church and the local landowners. The reading rooms were seen as a much needed alternative to the public house for the working classes, though they tended to appeal more to the lower middle classes, and their membership was generally restricted to men. Lord Falmouth’s Tregothnan Estate provided the land, the Vicar of Kea was the ex-officio president and on 26th November 1908 it opened. From its opening Miss Daubuz of Killiow House provided two daily newspapers. It is not clear which papers were provided but in 1913 the committee decided to take the Daily Mirror during the winter months. Miss Daubuz continued to supply the papers and after her death in 1934 her nephew Captain Walter Coode continued the tradition until 1940. Reading Rooms fulfilled a welcome role in most villages as they provided a place where men could sit and chat and read newspapers that otherwise many would not be able to afford.
The period around the setting up of the Reading Room was a particularly active one in political history with general elections early in 1906 and again in January and December 1910. The Unionists and the Liberals brought their campaigns to Coombe and the Reading Room hosted Liberal meetings in October 1909 and January 1910 and Unionist meetings in both January and December 1910. Each November a tea and concert was staged to commemorate the opening of the building in 1908.The Reading Room was the focus of male life but increasingly it was used to stage social functions for the village and the wider community. Each year on 26th November to celebrate the opening of the Reading Room a tea would be staged at 4.30 pm to be followed by a concert at 6.30 pm. These functions continued during the First World War and in February 1915 The West Briton carried an account of a concert held to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Perhaps the concert was typical of such events?
Coombe Reading Room 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv 11
The photograph was taken by Arthur William Jordan and shows the Reading Room on a substantial stone foundation which was largely hidden when the road into the village was built in 1924.
The Daubuz Family of Killiow – keen photographers
Although the Boscawen family of Tregothnan Estate owned much of Coombe they do not seem to have involved themselves in any aspect of local life except to provide the land for the building of the Reading Room. In contrast, the Daubuz family of the Killiow Estate were great supporters of many aspects of parish life – raising funds to rebuild the church at Higher Kea, the mission church at Old Kea, providing land to build the school at Higher Kea, encouraging the local fruit industry and the like. They were also keen photographers and many of the surviving images of parish life can be found in their photographic albums deposited either in the County Records Office, now Kresen Kernow, or the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro Museum.
In about 1910 one of the Daubuz family took a wonderfully posed photograph entitled ‘Kea Men – Saturday Afternoon’.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref X23057316
The photo is taken looking towards the path which runs past Coombe Villa, on the left, towards The Brake, on the right. The area of foreshore depicted is identical to that shown in the photo Coombe after 1908. Again, boat maintenance is taking place. It looks as if the Kea plum trees are in blossom so this is likely to be May and the men are taking advantage of the warm weather to maintain their oyster punts. Hanging from the trees can be seen iron oyster dredges and on the path immediately behind the men are wooden oyster winches used for hauling up the dredges. The bearded portly fellow is James Tank Gunn (1838-1918) who lived at The Brake cottage to the right of the picture. The Brake was built by his father so that James Tank could move into it when he married in 1863, and there he and his wife Ellen Allen Gunn had thirteen children – though two died in infancy. By the time the photo was taken he was one of the elder statesmen of the village. As well as being a fruit grower and a fisherman he was also an oyster merchant, buying oysters from the dredgermen and selling them on to hotels and restaurants. He and at least one of his brothers formed what was known as ‘The Company’, working collectively and sharing the profits.
The younger man on the extreme right of the photo is James Tank’s youngest child, Frederick William Gunn. He was born at The Brake in 1887, in 1920 he moved to Sunnyside, directly across the creek from where the photo was taken, and died in 1954. In 1924, a few years after the death of his father, he set himself up as an oyster merchant founding William Gunn and Co and went on to be the largest oyster merchant on the river Fal. He was also a fruit grower.
There are four other members of the Gunn family in the photo. Immediately to the left of James Tank Gunn’s is his younger brother, John Tank Gunn (1843-1922). Next left, with his cap at a jaunty angle, is another of James Tank Gunn’s sons, John Gunn (1863-1940) and left again, and right at the rear with a moustache, is yet another son Edgar Hugh Gunn (1870-1924) who lived at Lyndale. The final member of the Gunn family, and a cousin of the others, is the cheerful fellow holding the paintbrush, Frederick Hugh Gunn (1867-1927), known in later years due to his size as ‘Big Fred’
The man in the foreground is John (often known as Jack) Old. His parents lived in Coombe Villa and after marriage he lived at Roseville, reached by the track behind the group.
On the extreme left, smoking a pipe, is Albert Tregunna (1862-1932). The man with the bowler hat, second from the right, has not been positively identified but may have been Joe Whitburn who lived at Turnapenny.
Coombe featured in many postcards
Coombe after 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv 16
This photograph, also taken by Arthur William Jordan, show the Reading Room which was built in 1908 but does not show the road so must have been taken between 1908 and 1924. The foreshore in front of the Reading Room was then crossed by a small stream and crossed by a couple of planks of wood. A woman can be seen just to the right of the Reading Room. She is carrying in her right hand a pitcher for water. The village did not receive mains water until the mid-1960s and the only supply of drinking water came from an iron pipe – ‘the shute’ – immediately to her left. The two cottages towards the centre were Holly and Primrose, but they were converted into one cottage circa 2010. In front of the cottages are piles of logs. During the spring many of the village men would have been involved in coppicing the oak woods when the trees were felled, stripped of bark and the bark taken to local tanyards. The timber would then have been sawn up for firewood for domestic use. Between Coombe Villa and The Brake (out of shot to the right of the photograph) was a gate known as ‘the duck gate’ where the Aylesbury ducks (the white ones) in the photo would have been housed overnight.
The white structure behind a wooden punt was a ‘stern sheet’, a seat which would have fitted in the stern of the boat.
The photograph below was also taken by Arthur William Jordan so was probably taken on the same occasion.
Coombe after 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv 14
If a visitor walks past Coombe Villa (shown in the previous photograph) and past The Brake the house on the corner is Penjerrick. It was built in the 1860s by the Burley family but at the time this photograph was taken was lived in by Joseph Old and his wife Hannah Old. Again, it is a posed photograph – and I am not sure why she would be at the water’s edge with such a small jug.
Immediately behind her is a shrimp net which would have been used during the summer months. The shrimps would have been boiled up in an iron pot on a trivet and eaten or sold locally. Fishing was an important occupation during the summer months and on the right nets would have been hanging to dry. The nets would have been made of cotton and then boiled in a mixture of water and oak bark, and the tannic acid within the bark would have helped to preserve them. Nevertheless, the nets would soon have rotted unless dried. The nets are suspended from oak poles from which the bark has been stripped, another product of oak coppicing. In front of the boat on the right can be seen a wooden wheelbarrow. In both boats, but more clearly in the boat on the left, can be seen the round mast step as although these were essentially rowing punts they all carried a small lug and mizzen sailing rig and the lug mainsail would have been stepped just inboard from the bow.
Hannah Old at Penjerrick before 1935 Private Collection
Hannah Old lived at Penjerrick until her death in July 1935, her husband Joseph died in August 1935
B John Stevens Scoble of Coombe 1852-1920
John Stevens Scoble lived at Beach Cottage, Coombe until his death in 1920. He was by trade a shipwright, and for a working man an unusual number of photos of him exist. Not only was he captured by Arthur William Jordan but clearly worked for the Daubuz family at Killiow and he features in numerous of their photographs. The one below shows him on the foreshore in front of Beach Cottage with a large axe in his hand splitting logs for firewood. Stretching along the foreshore are more nets drying, and the framework for these reached almost as far as the Reading Room.
Coombe after 1908 From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv 15
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref X230576
Here he is shown at Killiow helping to build a yacht. He is wielding an adze used for shaping timber. The man on the right is one of the Coode family, possibly Walter Damerall Coode who went on to inherit the Killiow Estate and designed the yacht being built.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref X230576
Transporting the boat to water was a challenge.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref X230576
Here the finished yacht is shown sailing on the Fal with the bulky figure of J S Scoble in the middle.
W D Coode is listed as the designer. Unusually the yacht seems to have taken 16 years to build. It is surprising that during the First World War any pleasure yachts were being built.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: 2013.7.5
In this undated photograph by Ernest Chegwidden, a fine yacht is drawn up outside Beach Cottage with J S Scoble seen behind the mast.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: MALrt4
This photograph is of Malpas Regatta in the early 1900s. The boat shown is very similar to the one shown in the previous photograph.
Regattas were very popular. Only the very affluent could afford to own racing yachts but the regattas attracted many classes of local working boats such as oyster punts and sailing barges. Large crowds attended and races often lasted several hours. In an account of the Truro Royal Regatta published on 9th August 1861 the Royal Cornwall Gazette records that ‘The first prize was won by three Kea boys, who might well be called amphibious, as many of the inhabitants of that parish pass much more of their time on the water than they do on shore’. In 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1887 Coombe staged its own regattas, and in 1885 even had a band in attendance.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: MALrt.18
This photograph of Truro Band was probably taken in 1909. Although it was taken at Malpas it gives an excellent idea of how a band might have looked when it played at the Coombe Regatta in 1885. Coombe staged regattas, the last one recorded was in September 1920.
As well as being involved in the boat building projects of the Daubuz and Coode families John Stevens Scoble appears to have been roped in for other adventures around Killiow.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: 2013.7.12
Here the distinctive figure of John Stevens Scoble can be seen in the right foreground. A very large tree is being felled with axes. Perhaps the tree was required for boat building?
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: 2013.7.1
J S Scoble also appears to have played a part in the installation of bells at All Hallows church. He stands second from the left.
The information provided for this photograph is taken from what is provided on the RIC website: The eight bells from St Kea All Hallows Church, presumably before their installation in the new church which was consecrated in 1896. Workers from the Killiow Estate are standing behind the bells together with Mr J.C. Daubuz (Squire of Killiow Estate) on the far right. The young boy’s surname is Chegwidden and he was in the photograph to represent his older brother, Ernest, who had emigrated to America. Each bell bears a Latin inscription and dedication. Bells, from left to right: dedicated in memory of M.W.Coode Sept 4 1894, F.A.Coode Jan 10 1902; original bell, Royal Arms of the 15th century, brought from Old Kea Church in 1803, dedicated to R.C. Cardew, Vicar, 1898, J.C. Daubuz, Warden, 1888 and W.L Hearle, Warden, 1885; dedicated in memory of Nicholas Michell, April 10 1889; original bell, Royal Arms of the 15th century, brought from Old Kea Church in 1803; dedicated to H. Kerby, Clerk, R. Michell, Sexton, J. Sandercock, their deputy, 1886; brought from Old Kea Church in 1803, recast in 1904; dedicated to E.F.A. Daubuz, Organist, 1886, John Thomas, Choirman, 1886 and E. Chegwidden, Choirman, 1886; brought from Old Kea Church in 1803, recast in 1904. Photographer: Unknown
C Coombe and the River
Coombe was largely dependent on the river. There was a very rough track into the village across the foreshore from Cowlands but it was muddy and uneven, and footpaths across the fields came from Lower Lanner farm and Higher Trelease farm. Everything else was dependent on the river, and early photographs of the village show a huge number of oyster punts, enough for at least two per household.
In 1880 Thomas Adolphus Cragoe, who lived at Woodbury, commissioned a small book Truro, the River Fal and Falmouth Harbour Illustrated. This view is called Coombe Creek and Plum Gardens and is the first clear depiction of the creek and of Roundwood.
The photograph below was taken by Edward Bragg who arrived in Cornwall in 1900 but only began to style himself E A Bragg, as this postcard is styled, in 1904 and was active until he enlisted in the army in 1915. Thus the card can be firmly dated to the decade before the First World War. Although listed on charts and maps as Cowlands Creek it is generally known, as here, as Coombe Creek.
The steamer is the Princess Victoria coming down from Truro.
On the left is Roundwood Quay. The trees hide a large Iron Age (800 BC – 42 AD) promontory fort with a very substantial inner earthwork with a round inside. Cornwall has many promontory forts but all the others are on sea cliffs, this is the only one on an estuary. In 2015 archaeologists tentatively identified a further Iron Age fort lying on the top of the hill beyond the wood. Clearly this was a site of considerable status in the Iron Age and may well have been associated with the export of metals from Cornwall. In the fields shown round barrows dating from the Bronze Age (2500 BC – 800 BC) have also been identified from aerial photographs.
Roundwood has been the focus of industrial activity from at least the late 18th century. The quays were probably built by Thomas Daniell around 1760, at the same time as those at Pill Creek and Point. It is known that a copper smelter existed here in 1786, and the remains of a limekiln can still be seen. The main purpose of the quays was to service the tin and copper mines of Kea and Gwennap, to export ore and to import coal. The ore and coal would have been transported on mule trains. Each mule could carry 3 hundredweight (cwt) so 7 mules could carry over a ton, and a train of 21 mules was called a ‘Pair’ and could carry 3 tons. So 700 mules, or 33 Pairs, could shift the average cargo of 100 tons (Information courtesy of Nick Johnson, former Cornwall County archaeologist). This trade declined with the commissioning in 1826 of the Redruth and Chasewater Railway with its connections to ports at Devoran and Point.
Roundwood was acquired in about 1805 by Ralph Allen Daniell as part of the Trelissick estate, and the quay was probably rebuilt around this time since it is likely to have continued in use for shipping copper ore and landing coal and timber after the smelter was no longer operational.
Later in the 19th and early 20th centuries the quay continued as both a shipyard and then as a coalyard.
In the 1870s the Falmouth ship builder Henry Stephens Trethowan took over the lease of Roundwood Quay. The Royal Cornwall in October 1876 reported the launch of a 200 ton schooner, the ‘Bushmen’, from Roundwood Quay, and in 1874 the inshore sailing barge ‘Ellen’ (46ft 3ins long, 13ft beam, 4ft 6ins draft) was launched there for Mr William Burley of Newham. One of Trethowan’s foremen, J H Wellington, went on to set up his own yard ‘near Cowlands farm’ – presumably Cowlands mill.
Two buildings are shown on the quay. Close to the wood was a blacksmith’s smithy, and the remains are still standing. In the centre is a large wooden shed which covered the sawpit, and the remains of the deep sawpit can still be seen. During the 1950s and 1960s the Scoble family offered cream teas in the garden of the bungalow, Ruan Dinas, by the quay and passenger steamers would lie alongside the quay.
The point on the right is known as Weir Point and on the Coryton Estate map of about 1770, see below, a curving fence is shown continuing some way out into the creek. Here fish would have been trapped as the tide ebbed. The weir was first mentioned in 1638 when the Coryton family purchased the area and is called ‘Halwyonn Weare’.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no CY6673
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv.31
Coombe was best known for its ‘Plum Gardens’ as the caption on this Arthur Philp postcard clearly shows. The source of the Kea plum, a dark blue damson-like plum, is not known but it had gained an enviable reputation for making wonderful jam. Helston had its Kea Plum Fair each September. Early tourists would come in May to view the blossom, and again in September to see the trees straining under the weight of the fruit. Teas would be served at Roundwood Quay, see above, and also at Rose Cottage (later called Roseville) on the right of this photograph. At the time of this photograph it was lived in by Thomas Scoble and his wife Ellen. He was an oyster merchant and, according to the 1911 Census, a market gardener. His greenhouse can clearly be seen in which he grew grapes and peaches, but he was reluctant to share them with his neighbours. He can be seen seated at the top of the steps. On high tides the pleasure steamers might come alongside but it was more usual for the steamers to stop at the mouth of the creek, the customers to be rowed in by punt and then the steamer would stop to collect them on her return trip. It is recorded that on more than one occasion a steamer forgot to stop necessitating a long walk back to Truro.
The quay on the left belonged to Myrtle Cottage. In 1911 Jonathan Gunn lived there, he was a shipwright and one of several builders of the local oyster punts. The double storey shed is where he built boats, the quay on which it stands is still there though in a ruinous state, but the single storey shed is still there.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: Sfish 81
On 25th July 1893 a Cornish Fisheries Exhibition was opened and ran for a month. It was housed in temporary buildings erected in a field at the top of Lemon Street. Some boats were exhibited on the River Kenwyn at Back Quay. This boat is typical of one of the oyster punts that was built by Jonathan Gunn at Myrtle Cottage and by many other shipwrights on the Fal and Truro rivers. They were usually about 15ft in length, though they were rowed they could also be sailed with a lugsail at the bow (the post holding the sign is where the mast would have been stepped) and a mizzen at the stern. When oyster dredging the boat could only have been rowed. In the bow can be seen a large anchor, this would have been dropped over the bow, the boat allowed to drift back, the dredge put over the stern and one windlass used to haul in on the anchor thus pulling the dredge over the river bottom. The second windlass would then have been used to haul up the dredge, and the triangular dredge can be seen lying in the stern. In the bow can be seen a forked piece of wood, the bow rope would have been run through this. This was often a usefully shaped piece of coppice oak. The oars when in use would have been kept in place by wooden thowl pins as seen.
As well as fishing or dredging for oysters from October to March the men of Coombe during the summer months would have fished for whatever catch the warmer weather might have brought up the river.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: 1202.613
Here fishermen are seen with a net, possibly a small seine net. This photograph formed part of the 1893 Cornish Fisheries Exhibition. The photographer is not known.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: Sfish.72
Here shrimping is taking place with Tregothnan, the seat of Lord Falmouth visible in the distance. This formed part of the 1893 Cornish Fisheries Exhibition. The photographer is not known.
Ebbing in the Ruan River Courtesy of Paul Gartside
Here in a photograph taken in the 1970s another type of fishing can be see. Though called ‘Ebbing’ it takes place on a ‘flood’ tide when the fish swim into the belly of the net which is placed in the river channel.
Another form of fishing was ‘haking’. Coombe Creek was well suited for haking, or hacking as it was usually called, being relatively narrow. There were two places where hacking nets were regularly set. One was from Penjerrick quay across to the Feock shore, and this area was known as ‘the hacking set’. The second was from Lyndale again across to the opposite shore. Hacking was done during the summer months and continued through into the 1980s and early 1990s. At low water the men would walk along the channel with the dockers [wire baskets] usually used for storing and washing oysters but now they would be used for collecting fish. The net would have trapped anything which had swum into the creek so a wide variety would have been caught, especially mullet, plaice, flounders and bass. The fish would have been sold locally or taken down to the fish market at Newlyn.
Many of the Coombe men combined growing plums with oyster dredging and fishing, but several owned sailing barges. Coombe was ideally placed for these barge owners as the deep draft of many sailing ships meant they could not sail up to Truro let alone to hamlets such as Tresillian or Ruan Lanihorne. So cargoes would be offloaded into smaller barges which would be sailed or ‘poled’ if there was no wind. In addition these barges might carry barley to local malthouses, or coal or limestone to local limekilns. In addition, they often carried stone out to sailing ships who had discharged their cargo to act as ballast. These barges were known as ‘inside’ barges, were between 40 to 50 feet in length, had a beam of 13 to 15 feet, and a draft of about 4 or 5 feet. They could carry cargoes of between 25 to 30 tons. The barges were gaff rigged and set a large mainsail, usually of a red ochre colour, but did not have a topmast or topsail. They also had a bowsprit and carried a foresail. Generally they were crewed by two men but perhaps three if a cargo had to be loaded or discharged. The barges were essentially sailing craft but when the wind failed they could also be ‘poled’. Each pole, or ‘quant’, was about 20 feet long and the crew would walk with the poles from the shrouds aft – and give a light touch to the tiller at the end of each walk. The planks they walked on were about 10 inches wide and were not fixed but rested on beams amidships. At the aft end of each plank were ‘timberheads’ to stop them from walking overboard. If there was no wind and the barge went up with the flood tide it would generally take about two hours to pole up to Truro from King Harry Reach.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: TLNgv.35
A barge is shown unloading coal at Tresillian in the 1890s, the photographer was Arthur William Jordan. A large pulley block hangs from the gaff and was used to raise baskets which had been filled with coal into the cart. Another cart waits to be loaded. An oyster punt used as a dinghy lies astern of the barge.
Barges also ferried to Tresillian stone used for surfacing roads ,
a pile of road stone can be seen lying in the left of the photograph.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: TRUqbf.20
Few sailing ships could reach Truro so much of their cargo would have been transferred into barges. This photograph, probably dating from the 1920s, shows Back Quay and Lemon Quay on the river Kenwyn – now all under the Piazza. One barge is moored in the middle of the river and behind lie barges moored alongside both quays. In the background on the hill is Truro School whose school song went ‘High on the hill with the City below, Up in the sunshine we live’.
The barges were open except for small fore and aft cabins. A large red ochred canvas tarpaulin, so heavy it would take two men to lift it, would cover the cargo area. There was a fore cabin in which the men lived; it often had at least a couple of seats and a brick fireplace, the cabin was used for storing sacks and the sacks could be rearranged for sleeping on. But the cabin had no bulkhead to separate it from the hold and no door, but there would have been an escape hatch on top. The stern cabin was usually bare. The men would be sent off in the morning with a food basket, often containing pasties, but if they were ‘windbound’ and were unable to return home they would often buy steak and fry it on their stove. Bargemen had a reputation for drinking a great deal.
Barge alongside Myrtle Cottage Quay : From Inshore Craft, Traditional Working Vessels of the British Isles by permission of Seaforth Publishing
At the end of the 19th century three barges worked out of Coombe – the Betsy, Sprightly and Tregothnan. The identity of the barge in the foreground is not certain but behind her can just be made out another barge on the foreshore. This is the Betsy whose last owner was James Tank Gunn (1838-1918) who lived at The Brake. The Betsy was last used in 1911 and laid up fully rigged where she is seen in the photo above, and her remains are still just visible there in the mud. To the left of the barge in the foreground is a motor boat, the first in Coombe, which belonged to Jonathan Gunn of Myrtle Cottage.
D The Ferries
Today King Harry ferry is well known as a crossing point of the river Fal, but until relatively recent times two other ferries existed. One was sited at Malpas, a word that means ‘bad passage’ and was a triangular crossing, operating from Malpas to St Michael Penkivel, Malpas to Kea and St Michael Penkivel to Kea. The ferryman’s house still stands on the St Michael Penkivel bank of the Truro river.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: MALfr.9
This photograph, taken in the early 1900s, shows what was known as ‘the horse boat’ on the Malpas shore with a horse and trap loaded on board.
The ferry would then have been rowed across either to the St Michael Penkivel or to the Kea shore. On arriving in Kea the passengers faced a very steep path up through Kea wood, towards Old Kea, up to Kea Cross, then to Higher Trelease and down to Halwyn and ultimately to the shore of the river Fal at Tolverne Passage. This ferry operated as a foot ferry until about 2000.
They would then have tried to hail the ferryman who lived across the river at Tolverne Cottage who, if he heard them, would have rowed across the river to take them across. On occasions he might have judged it too rough to use the horse boat and then the people on the Kea side would have had to retrace their steps and probably lodge in Truro until the weather improved, or else face the long road journey home around via Tresillian.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no AD11459
In this extract from Martyn’s map of 1748 the road from Malpas across to Kea and then across to ‘Tolvorn’ is clearly marked.
From the Collection of the RIC: TRURI: PGHgv.5
This is the ferry cottage at Tolverne in a photograph taken by Arthur Philp. The bell to summon the ferry can be seen to the left of the door. Presumably another bell was situated across the river on the Kea.
The ferry went out of use in about 1910.
There are no known photographs of the ferry at work but it is illustrated in Thomas Adolphus Cragoe’s guide to the Fal published in 1876.
The horse ferry boat is shown on the left, although empty the lowered side section shows where a cart or trap would have been loaded. A small dinghy is towed. In the foreground is the quay on the Tolverne cottage side. On the hill in the background is Tregothnan and at the junction of the Truro and Ruan rivers can be seen a boat house which belonged to Tregothnan.
Here the ferry can be seen with a cart or trap on board heading for the Kea shore. The ferryman’s cottage is on the right.
E Coombe During the 1920s and 1930s
Building the road
There had been longstanding complaints about the poor land access to Coombe and the issue had often been raised at meetings of Truro Rural District Council and the County Council. In 1924 a scheme was devised whereby a combination of local labour and Council finance saw the building of the road.
Here the course of the road has been ploughed using a plough team loaned by Mr William Hearle of Trethowell Farm who was a member of Truro Rural District Council.
The men gave up two weeks of their time and were then paid by the County Council for a further two weeks work. The horse and cart were loaned by Mr John Hearle of Old Kea Churchtown Farm, the brother of William Hearle.
Back Row L- R Fred James, Ken Gunn, Jack Gunn, Will Gunn, Joe Old, John Old, Gerald Gunn
Front Row L-R William Hearle, Fred Gunn, Bert Gunn, Charlie Old, Evelyn Gunn, Samuel John Old
The building did not go entirely smoothly. The ballast for the road was brought by barge, hired from Harveys of Truro, from the smelting works at Penpol, and the barge was towed by a motor boat owned by John Old. The barge held 40 tons but on the way to Coombe a wind got up, Carrick Roads became choppy and off Loe Beach the barge almost foundered and was only saved by the men throwing overboard a quantity of the ballast. The ballast was then carried up the hill out of Coombe and spread along the course of the road, but before it could be rolled a thunderstorm brought torrential rain and most of the ballast was washed down the hill into the creek. Another barge load had then to be brought up from Penpol.
The building of the road had a huge impact in the life of the village. A few villagers acquired cars, the village gained a twice weekly bus service, a detached house and a row of four council houses were built in the early 1930s (the last houses built in the village), a canning shed was built by the local cooperative of plum growers, and the largest oyster farm on the Fal was built and the road used daily by lorries taking oysters to Truro railway station.
The Canning Shed
Until the men of Coombe built a road into the village in 1924 plums would have to be taken to market by boat. Many went to the Sara and Goodfellow’s jam factory in Truro but plums would also be rowed the long distance to Falmouth.
Eventually the fruit growers of Coombe were persuaded to explore a different way of marketing their plums. Captain H Abbiss was the Cornwall County horticultural adviser and helped form a Fruit Growers’ Association in 1929 for canning plums. In 1929 Coombe was faced with a glut of plums and the villagers began canning what they could not sell. After doing it on a very ad hoc basis, in 1931 Lord Falmouth leased land to the Fruit Growers’ Association who provided the money to build a large shed. After that far more plums could be canned and sent to a wider national market.
The Canning Shed is on the right and on the left can be seen the row of four Council houses provided by Truro Rural District Council.
Some orchard owners also marketed their own plums. The William Gunn mentioned is on the right of the 1910 photograph ‘Kea Men – Saturday Afternoon’.
The Council Houses
The above postcard of Coombe is from the early 1930s. The tarmac road sweeps down into the village and the stream that flowed across the foreshore by the Reading Room has been covered over and now runs through pipes under the foreshore. The row of four houses built in about 1930 by Truro Rural District Council for farm workers is shown. The Bunny Thatch still stands but only the supports remain of the hut which stood on the right.
Coppicing Oak, or ‘Rinding’
As well as oyster dredging, fishing, harvesting plums and apples coppicing was another important occupation. Many coppice oak woods can be found in the area and about every 30 or 40 years they would be felled. Historically the oak wood was turned into charcoal to fuel tin smelters but the use of coal had replaced charcoal by the beginning of the 19th century. The most valuable product of the coppice woods became the oak bark which was used in the tanning industry. Several tanyards existed locally, the last one being Croggans at Grampound which closed down in 2002. A major bi-product was the oak timber which was cut up into firewood and sold locally.
The ‘rinding’ took place in the spring when the sap was rising and so made it easier to separate the oak bark. The bark would then have been taken to a local tanyard and the wood sawn up
In this photograph taken in 1932 three of the Gunn family are sawing wood using cross cut saws. On the left are Gerald Gunn, who lived at Bounder Close, his brother Randolph Gunn, who lived at Riverside, and Bert Gunn, who lived at Myrtle Cottage. The little girl has not been identified.
These photographs taken in the 1960s show Gerald Gunn and his son Tony Gunn, in the right hand photo, ‘rinding’ above King Harry reach in the 1960s. Coppicing continued on the Fal until the late 1970s. Gerald Gunn was the last man from Coombe who went rinding, he did a small patch near the Tolverne road in 1978 or 1979.
The Oyster Industry
Coombe had for many years been a centre of the Fal oyster industry and almost all the men in the village were involved in it as dredgermen or merchants. In the 1910 photo Kea Men both James Tank Gunn and his son Frederick William Gunn are shown. William Gunn succeeded his father as an oyster merchant, worked closely with P H Tonkin of Truro (Tonkin had a variety of business from a large shop in King Street to a knitting factory at Highertown) and in 1937 Tonkins transferred their oyster business to William Gunn & Co. and in 1937 William Gunn and Co. Ltd. was formed. One of the problems with selling oysters was to ensure their purity and also, on the Fal, to eliminate the slightly coppery taste and green colour which was a characteristic of oyster caught in Carrick Roads due to the mine discharge. To accomplish this a purification process was required and the new company built a large complex of grading sheds, packing sheds and purification tanks by Beach Cottage. As Coombe had no mains electricity until after the Second World war a generating plant was also included.
The oysters would have first been stored in large but shallow concrete tanks (but under the water in this photograph, and now demolished). They were then sorted into grades in the sheds on the right on the foreshore, which flooded on very high tides. They were then barrowed up the slope on the left, the boxes put in the large concrete tanks (out of shot) for 24 to 48 hours, packed in weed for transport in wooden boxes in the sheds on the left and the boxes secured in the shed on the right. This shed also served as the office and held the generator. Ken Gunn, who lived in Beach Cottage, on the right was the foreman of the plant.
Every afternoon during the season in which oysters were sold, September to April, a lorry would come to take the oysters to Truro station. William Gunn & Co supplied wholesale merchants at Billingsgate fish market in London as well as supplying directly hotels and restaurants, such as Quaglino’s in St James, London.
William Gunn & Co bought the majority of oysters dredged on the Fal and provided seasonal work for many of the women of Coombe. William Gunn died in 1954, John Tonkin took over the role of managing director but by the end of the 1960s the business was running down. The large tanks in the orchard remain.
Courtesy of Rev Ian Haile and the Methodist Recorder
Oyster dredgermen rowing into shore after a day’s work. Most of their oysters would have been sold to William Gunn & Co. Rev Haile is standing on the left. The boat on the right is rowed by Hugh Gunn. The man standing in the boat on the left is Richard Burnett of Kea.
Oysters caught were often small so they were laid on ‘beds’ on the inter-tidal foreshore, left to grow and ‘picked up’ during the following season. Here the men are using wicker baskets to collect the oysters, these were later replaced by iron baskets or ‘dockers’. The men are standing on planks of wood, ‘sliders’, which would help to prevent them sinking into the mud. Ken Gunn is on the right.
The Second World War
Coombe remained relatively untouched by the war. Almost all the men were in ‘reserved’ occupations though some did go to work in forestry out of Cornwall. Many of the young women in the village did serve in the women’s armed forces and saw much more of the country than might have otherwise been the case. A handful of men served in the armed forces and one was killed by enemy action. Although the bombing of Falmouth could clearly be seen no bombs fell on Coombe though on 17 May 1941 a German plane machine gunned the village but without causing casualties. On 6 July 1941 four bombs landed near Porth Kea and bombs fell on several local farms. A French corvette, La Suippe, moored in Tolverne Reach was sunk by bombing on Easter Monday 1941.
The growing demand for food meant that many of the orchards also became market gardens and helped supply Truro and surrounding areas. As the D-Day invasion grew nearer there were increasing restrictions on the use of boats which affected the local oyster and fishing industries. An increasing number of soldiers and sailors came into the area during the war years and some found wives and remained in the area. The Reading Room played a part in this as it became the social centre not just for villagers but also for members of the armed forces stationed in the area.
Shortly after VE Day, 8 May 1945, a social evening was held in the Reading Room, and members of the armed forces took an active part.
The identities of the men are not known nor that of the women in service dress. Local women are from the left:
Margaret Gunn, Barbara Baker (formerly Gunn), Unknown, Pauline Old, Ruth Gunn, Molly Gunn, Joan Gunn, Thelma Keen (formerly Old)
F A Walk to Cowlands
When the tide is low a popular walk is from Coombe to Cowlands, the parking being more plentiful at Coombe.
This photograph was probably taken in the 1950s or 1960s, so little changed it is difficult to date. The foreshore to the left is where the Kea Men were photographed in 1910. James Tank Gunn who is in that photograph lived at The Brake, the house on the right, which his own father had built for him to live in when he married in 1863.
The photo was probably taken in May as the Kea plum trees are in blossom. The two launches in the middle on the foreshore were owned by Bert Shute, who lived at Coombe Villa to the left of the photo, and the one on the right with the windscreen by Bill Lewarne who lived in Porth Kea. The identity of the gaff cutter is not known nor the name of her owner .
As walkers pass along the foreshore there are now two wooden seats. This would have been the view from there in 1935, and little has changed. The net drying posts are no longer there and on the left a slipway now gives access to the remains of the oyster tanks. A quay now exists on the right.
Next there is Bethel, now a holiday let. The cottage, conveniently situated on one of the main routes in or out of Coombe, was once a small shop and the path from Coombe to Bethel was called ‘shop lane’. Bethel derives its name from the Bible Christian chapel which was once there.
The photo is dated c 1910 and shows on the right the existing cottage and in the centre a fine chapel. Very little is known about the chapel and even in the 1970s there were few memories of its existence or who might have attended. It was later used as an apple store. It is not known when it was demolished.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv40
Unfortunately this photo is undated but clearly shows the chapel has been demolished.
This photo from the 1950s shows a small cottage which was demolished in the 1960s.
The next house, also now a holiday let, was a small holding with a few acres of land. The house probably dates from the late 18th or early 19th centuries. It has the intriguing name of ‘Turnapenny’. It is thought that the name given might have occurred on a change of tenancy, perhaps the new tenants were thought to be trying to get rich quickly.
Archives and Cornish Studies Service ref no CY6673
Yet before the name was changed to Turnapenny it was called Ball Pate or Ball Bate. The word ‘bal’ in Cornish usually means a mine and there were no mines in this part of Kea. But ‘bal’ can also mean quarry and there are the remains of a small quarry in Cowlands wood just to the left of the field marked Ball Bate.
Cowlands is an older settlement than Coombe. It was also known as Cowlings or Cownance, and the form Cownance was noted by Charles Henderson in documents dated 1633 and 1653, and Cownance Mill in a document dated 1631. In Bewnans Ke (The Life of Saint Ke), a Cornish play based on the life of Saint Kea or Ke, who was venerated in Cornwall, Brittany and elsewhere, there is mention of Kewnans. The play was probably written around 1500 but survives only in an incomplete manuscript from the second half of the 16th century and it is associated with Glasney College in Penryn. The canons of Glasney knew Kea very well as in 1270 Bishop Bronescombe had given them the tithes of the parish of Kea, so once a year one or more of the canons would have visited Kea to collect the tithes. The play shows a familiarity with the geography of Kea and, speaking of St Ke, says ‘me a wor gwyer hag a’n crys / bos ke thotha drehevys / theworth Kewnans an Velyn / bys in Tremustel Penpol / A’n mor the gela cowal / pur theffry ef a’n ystyn’ which is translated as ‘I know truly and believe it / that he has built a hedge / from Kewnans an Velyn / to Tremustel by Penpol / Wholly from one sea to the other in very truth it encloses’. While the unpleasant king Teudar was asleep St Ke was able to create a hedge which went from Cowlands Creek to Penpol, or Lambe Creek as it is now known, ‘from one sea to the other’ and it was this area which formed the Manor of Landegay. Tremustel has not been identified with certainty but is likely to be Trevaster on the Truro river.
The present public footpath which runs up the wooded valley behind Cowlands leads to a track which runs from Treloggas, first recorded in 1278, to Higher Lanner, first recorded in 1299. The track between these two farms is likely to be medieval and crosses a small bridge. Much of the bridge was washed away but when it was rebuilt in 2019 evidence suggested it had been a clapper bridge and possibly medieval in origin. It is likely that at Cowlands the stream was crossed by a ford, today it is easily fordable except at high tide, and the bridge built many centuries later.
The existing mill building, though much altered and showing no sign of its mill wheel, is believed to date from the 17th century or earlier though re-modelled in the 19th century to form three houses, and then in the 20th century back to one house. On the Coryton Estate map of the Manor of Landy Gay, of about 1770, the mill leat is shown running up the valley behind the house and parallel with the stream. From the footpath today the course of the leat can clearly be seen. In leases for farms forming part of the Manor of Landy Gay the Corytons always stated that corn grown on these farms had to be ground at Cownance Mill.
In the census of 1851 Joseph Whitburn lived at Turnapenny and is described as a ‘Miller and gardener’ as is his son William, and in the 1856 Post Office Directory Joseph is listed as a Miller at Cownance Mill. Yet in the 1861 census the Whitburns seem to have no connection with the mill as Joseph was described as a farmer and William as a waterman. In 1861 the Burley family lived in Cowlands but one brother was described as a lighterman and one a woodman, yet in the directories of 1873, 1883 and 1884 William Burley was listed as ‘Miller, Cownance’ though in the census of 1881 both William and Jacob Burley are described as timber merchants. In the census of 1911 Francis Gunn, shipwright, has taken on the lease of Cownance mill.
The evidence suggests that the Whitburn family, whilst farming the small holding of Turnapenny, also ran they mill at Cowlands, and they were then replaced by the Burley family who combined acting as millers with farming the land attached and also working as timber merchants. After 1884 no one is described as a miller so it is likely milling stopped in the mid-1880s.
From the Collection of the RIC TRURI: KEAgv8
The overshot mill wheel was located on the right of the long white house. The quays and slipways are believed to be medieval.
Courtesy Cornish Studies Library
This photograph dates from about 1905. In the background is timber left to season in the creek, possibly associated with the Burley’s work as timber merchants or Francis Gunn’s work as a shipwright.
The date is uncertain but is probably from the 1920s or 1930s. The opening in the gable end may relate to the building’s use as a cornmill. The shed and slipway were used by Francis Gunn for boatbuilding. He built many of the local oyster punts.
We would love to be able to add to this fine collection of photos. If you have any pictures that you feel may be of interest please contact the parish clerk at email@example.com to discuss how these can be incorporporated into our history pages.