Mevagissey is a working fishing village with an inner and outer harbour, complete with a fleet of small fishing boats. During the 17th century the fishermen used to make their living from pilchards and smuggling. Many of the buildings around the harbour were connected with the sea, ranging from boat builders, coopers, fish merchants and warehouses.
You can still watch the fishermen on the harbour unloading their catch and mending nets. You can purchase a variety of locally caught fresh fish on the harbour.
My father owned a small lugger most times (he had a larger one for a while) and did a good deal of spiltering, and as a child I used to wait eagerly on the quay for the first sign of the boats returning.
They often left harbour not long after midnight and returned about noon, and usually spectators quickly gathered on the quay to see the catch landed. Any elderly or retired fishermen looking on would often be asked if they wanted a couple and then a dozen or more fish would be thrown up for them.
I thought of this recently, when in Plymouth fish market I paid £1 for a medium-sized whiting. I never remember our fisherman getting more than three shillings a stone for whiting, except in the war years when there was a guaranteed price.
BOAT BUILDING & SAIL MAKING
In the 18th century, Captain Dunn was a key figure in the community. He ran a successful boatbuilding business at Portmellon and used this trade to hide the profits from his even more successful smuggling activities.
He then had the distinction of being an early convert to the teachings of John Wesley who visited the village eight times between 1778 and 1798.
However we have been told that it took another eleven years before the good captain stepped away from this additional source of income
Percy Mitchell was an exceptional and highly respected Cornish boat builder.
Percy had only a rudimentary education, but taught himself to design boats from a set of drawings in an old encyclopaedia. Starting with only a building space, open to all the wind and weather, no building sheds, no capital, no launching equipment, and with only his practical genius and patient courage, he overcame every obstacle and designed, built and launched a magnificent variety of fishing boats, yachts, tugs and passenger launches..... from a 7 foot praam dinghy to vessels of over 30 tons dead weight.
He built a wide array of wooden craft and, according to Dr Claud Worth (the eminent yacht designer), “an artist in wood”. He took over his employer’s yard in Mevagissey in his twenties and later moved the yard to Portmellon for easier launching.
Before the move, every boat had literally to be dragged by hand over 500 winding feet of road to the Portmellon beach for launching, until he built a 72-footer which was too wide for the roadway. Not being permitted to breach the sea wall outside the yard, he did not hesitate, but launched this huge vessel right over the top of the wall !
During World War II he built motor cutters and MVF boats for the Admiralty. After the war his boats were in great demand; one of his most famous builds being the 28 ton ‘Windstar’ on which the late King George V often sailed, as did Princess Elizabeth, now Queen.
From Jack Dunn - Memories of Mevagissey:-
Most of the fishermen were crews, or owners, of luggers and they fished mostly for herring in winter, mackerel in spring and pilchard in summer. Between seasons they did line fishing, sometimes combining netting and lining. The long-liners often caught their own bait (pilchards) in their nets and then went off into the channel to fish for conger, ling, skate, cod etc. on lines up to 10 miles in length with 5000 hooks about 10 feet apart.
Usually the largest of the luggers engaged in long-lining. The smaller luggers often went spiltering, working on the same principle as the long-lines but using finer and shorter gear, maybe 3000 smaller hooks with shorter spaces between. The main catches were usually whiting, ray, ling, and conger, with the occasional bream, flat-fish, crab, lobster. dog-fish, etc.
On the top floor of the Museum you will find a collection of items that have either been recovered from the local beaches or which managed to find their way in to a local fisherman’s net. Look out for the whalebones, the turtle shell and the aircraft propeller.
You will also spot this fisherman with his protective clothing, his eyes scanning the coastline for signs of shoals of fish.
The whole area was famous for boat building in the past, making vessels fast enough to outrun the excise boats, and also warships during the Napoleonic Wars.
The old port has retained its character in spite of the tourist influx. Boat building has been done here since 1745, and fishing boats still fish. John Moore's boat building yard is next to this museum. William Frazier was one of several boat builders to work in this building. William started his career as an apprentice to William Davis Lelean - have a look at his Form of Indenture especially his weekly rates of pay, which were set for 7 years. He eventually owned the boatyard and his family had a reputation for producing excellent boats.
Captain George Martin Chesterfield was a distinguished sail maker in Mevagissey and when Captain Dowman acquired the famous Cutty Sark he employed Captain Chesterfield to restore her to her original ship rig.
Andrew Pears was born on the outskirts of Mevagissey and eventually moved to London where he spent many years trying to perfect a clear soap.
Clarity was at that time associated with cleanliness. When he had almost achieved his goal, he stored the soap in some wooden brandy barrels. These gave the soap a distinctive colour and smell. Both of which proved so popular that he decided to end his quest there.
Pears began to experiment with soap purification and eventually managed to produce a gentle soap based on glycerin and other natural products. The clarity of the soap gave it a novel transparent appearance which provided a marketing advantage. To add to the appeal, Andrew gave the soap an aroma reminiscent of an English garden. These attributes continue to be a key element of Pears soap through to the present day.
Philip Ball & Son founded a bank in Mevagissey in 1807, issuing its own bank notes, a copy of which can be seen in the museum along with the old bank door, which was saved after renovations in 1976.
The bank went bankrupt in 1824 causing much hardship to the people of Mevagissey. The Ball family's debt to the village was more than repaid, however, by Philip's son, Timothy, who became the local doctor and nursed Mevagissey through the cholera epidemic of 1849, when 115 people died in five weeks.
Here in the museum you can see a Mevagissey £1 note.
FAST MILK MAN IN THE WEST
The fastest milkman in the west
During your visit, at the bottom of the staircase leading to the first floor, pause to see one Mevagissey’s favourite characters — Cyril Furse.
Cyril had a passion for Norton bikes and would regularly attend the TT races on the Isle of Man.
We have been told that on one occasion he came home with a Norton that had apparently won one of the races.
It is rumoured that it was eventually attached to the sidecar that Cyril used to deliver milk round the village.
Mevagissey has the distinction of being the first village in Cornwall to benefit from the introduction of electricity. The generating station was located on the far side of the harbour where the public toilets are now situated. The generator was powered by burning imported coal.
The arrival of electric power was the cause of much celebration and if you look closely at the mast beyond the cider press you will find a toast list for a banquet held to celebrate the event in 1896. Look for the fifth toast to ‘Our town, its industries and its possibilities.’
Even in 1900, electric lighting was still in its infancy. Gas lighting was common in the cities and towns, supplemented by candles and oil lamps, but in villages and in the countryside lighting remained almost exclusively by candles and oil lamps. It was not until after the First World War that electric lighting finally emerged as the predominant source of light in the home.
BENARD MOSS POTTERY
In the glass cabinet at the top of the stairs you will find a collection of Bernard’s work, which has kindly been donated to the museum by Dr Frances Marx in memory of her father, Dr Harold Marx. Bernard’s figures are very distinctive and most of them also move!
Bernard Moss is descended from Russian emigres who came to England in the late 19th century to escape the pogroms in their native land. Bernard was born in London in 1923.
His move towards a career in ceramics started soon after the end of World War Two. On leaving the army he settled in Soho and tried his hand at various ways to earn a living. While working as a fabric designer in the East End an acquaintance taught him how to make moulds. Bernard and his wife, Maureen moved to Mevagissey in 1949. They lived in a rented cottage with no gas, electricity or even running water.
Bernard produced models of figures, often with a Jewish theme, and Moreen, who is a highly skilled graphic artist, decorated them. He was fascinated by automata, and devised a method to add movement to his models by means of pivots and counter-balances.
His first mobile figure became known as 'the nodder', and having heard that Heal's department store was a good outlet for ceramics he took his nodder up to London with the aim of selling it through the store. The buyer was not impressed, and told Bernard they would not be wanting any.
As he trudged dejectedly through the store looking for the exit a smartly dressed gentleman noticed him, and that he looked as though he had lost half-a-crown and found sixpence. He approached Bernard and said, "What's the matter with you, young man. Why are you so unhappy?" Bernard told him of his experience with the ceramics buyer and showed the gentleman his nodder. "Well go back to the buyer," he said, "and tell him Mr Worthington says we want a dozen!"
Mr Worthington, it turned out, was a director of the store, and the encounter led to a long relationship not with Heal's department store but with Heal's Fabrics. They bought eighty to a hundred pieces each year as gifts for their best clients.