A Brief History
St Ives – a place renowned for beautiful beaches, scenic views, cobbled streets and alleyways, surfing, art and good food. Yet the town was not always such a salubrious place to visit.
St Ives takes its name from the Irish princess and missionary St Ia who, according to legend, sailed from Ireland to Cornwall in the 5th century on a leaf, subsequently building an oratory on what is now the site of our parish church. Construction of the church began in the early 1400s during the reign of King Henry V as the population of thetown grew with the expansion of the fishing trade, taking 16 years to complete.
From the Middle Ages onwards, St Ives was a small but thriving and growing town based on the traditional trades of mining and fishing, reaching a peak in the 19th century with world-wide demand for locally caught pilchards as well as tin and copper, both of which were extensively mined nearby. Coal needed to drive the mine engines arrived in the harbour and was transported by horse drawn carts to the Stennack (meaning “place of tin”) before being taken on to Wheal Trenwith, the local mine where the leisure centre and main car park are now located. Wheal is the Cornish word for mine and Trenwith is believed to be the name of
the family that owned the mine.
Success of the local fishing industry was based on catching pilchards (better known as sardines) with around 300 boats operating locally at its peak, netting millions of fish every year. These were salted and pressed in barrels before being exported to the southern Mediterranean where they were a popular dish to eat on Fridays and during Lent when consumption of meat was forbidden. The traditional method of catching the fish was by use of “seine” nets, a method of dragnet trawling which remained common locally into the 20th century but has now all but died out. The Cornish Pasty, although apparently existing since the 14th century, became commonplace in the 1700s as an affordable but wholesome food for poor working families. Traditional ingredients of potato, swede and onion were cheap. Meat,
being more expensive, was only added on rare occasions. The reason for the pasty’s traditional
shape and crust remains hotly disputed.
St Ives has always had something of a reputation as a drinking town. A popular local drink was called Mahogany, a mix of gin and black treacle which was used as a type of herbal mix to mask the taste of smuggled rum which had been tainted by saltwater during its transfer from ship to shore. Mahogany can still be purchased under the name of Shrub.
Situated just outside of the town at the top of Worvas Hill stands the curious three-sided
pyramid-like granite structure known as the Knill Monument. John Knill, after whom the building is named, served as Mayor of St Ives in 1767 before moving to London. He erected the monument as his intended burial place but he was in fact interred in the capital. He did however provide the town with funds to establish a 5-yearly tradition whereby ten local girls dance for a quarter of an hour around the mausoleum to the tune of the hymn “All People That On Earth Do Dwell”. This ceremony continues even today. The wooden chest said to have contained the legacy monies provided by Knill to the town can still be seen in the St Ives Town Museum, located at Wheal Dream.
19th Century To Date
Although St Ives had been a destination for luminaries such as the artist J M W Turner since
the early 1800s, it was the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1877 which led to arguably the biggest change the town had ever seen, enabling the development of tourism.
The GWR invested heavily in the fledgling tourist trade, marketing the Cornish Riviera and buying the Tregenna Castle hotel in St Ives as a convenient place to stay : an early example of the package holiday !
During the later 1800s, artists began to flock to St Ives, hiring a train once a year to transport their works back to London in time for the annual Royal Academy exhibition.
With its remote location, one might imagine that St Ives would have been able to pass the Second World War relatively untouched. In fact it suffered two air raids, was the site for the Commando Mountain Warfare Training Centre and was home to a contingent of American GIs prior to D-Day.
The mid-1900s saw St Ives’ reputation as an artistic centre flourish with the arrival of world
renowned modern artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach and Ben Nicolson.
That reputation was maintained later by the likes of Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Barbara Hepworth’s former home and studio, where she died in a fire in 1975, is now renovated and can be visited as a museum with a beautiful garden containing many of her sculptures.
The Arts Club on Westcott’s Quay opened in 1890and still has a vibrant membership staging art exhibitions and shows throughout the year. The premises have barely changed in over 100 years and it is quite magical to watch a performance whilst hearing the breaking of waves in the background.
Nowadays, the St Ives Society of Artists, the Penwith Society and the School of Painting all
co-exist with individual and fascinating histories of their own, whilst the Tate Gallery provides
a breathtaking focus point for modern art throughout the South West.