Newlyn’s Story

Aerial view of Newlyn (photo supplied by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios)

‘Pool for a fleet of boats’

Situated on the south coast of Cornwall, in the northwest corner of Mount’s Bay, protected from the prevailing westerly winds, Newlyn originated as a seasonal fishing settlement, clinging to the cliff above the sheltered offshore anchorage (known as Gwavas Lake) from which it took its name – Lulyn, meaning ‘pool for a fleet of boats’.

Extract from 1954 Admiralty chart showing Newlyn within Mount's Bay (image created by Jeanette Ratcliffe)

Fishing, farming & milling

By the 13th century, when Mount’s Bay had established itself as an important location for fishing and maritime trade, Newlyn consisted of two permanent settlements: Newlyn Town, the original fishing settlement, with a quay (surviving today as Newlyn Old Quay) first recorded in 1437; and, half a mile across fields to the north, straddling the mouth of the Newlyn River, the twin hamlet of Jackford and Tolcarne.

Connected by a ford (and later a bridge – Newlyn Old Bridge) carrying an important animal drove road from farmland in the west to Penzance market to the east, this part of Newlyn was also the location of several water-powered corn mills.

Rising fortunes

With the greater destruction to the neighbouring fishing harbour of Mousehole caused by the Spanish raid of 1595, coupled with the growth of the Cornish pilchard fishery, Newlyn saw a dramatic rise in its fortunes, with a new settlement (Street-an-Nowan) growing up along the shore between the original two, doubling the size of the town.

Fish, fish and more fish

From the later 17th century, with nearby Penzance specialising in exporting tin and trading in luxury goods, many fish merchants moved their businesses to Newlyn, further increasing its economic focus on the fishing industry.

Over the next 200 years the number of net lofts and fish cellars multiplied with the rise of the pilchard seine fishery, and, as well as curing and packing the catch from its own fleet, Newlyn also began processing fish caught by boats from surrounding harbours and coves.

Premier port

From the 19th century, in response to the growth and changing focus of its fishing industry (boosted by the arrival of the railway), Newlyn has seen successive additions to its original small harbour, which have acted as a catalyst for its development into a settlement of semi-urban proportions.

Newlyn’s economy is still heavily based on fish. The largest fishing port in Cornwall, competing with Brixham for most important in England, its multi-faceted fishing fleet catches a wide range of species (13,862 tonnes valued at £31.71m in 2019).

Renowned artist colony

In addition to its renown as a fishing port, Newlyn is also famous for its late 19th – early 20th century Newlyn School of Artists – painters working in the ‘plein air’ style attracted to the town’s spectacular natural setting and the ‘picturesque’ quality of its people and streetscapes.

A craft school established by artists to help provide winter employment for fishermen included the production of fine Newlyn copperware, examples of which can be found on the Ship Institute and Newlyn Art Gallery, demonstrating an inter-relationship between fishing and art, which continues within today’s community.

A uniquely special place

Its continuation as a premier fishing port, alongside being a base for local artists and art-loving visitors, is what makes Newlyn such a uniquely special place. To find out more, click on the buttons below for a Timeline of Key Events and Key Themes for Telling Newlyn’s Story. You can also view the list of Bibliographical Sources used to compile this brief history.

Newlyn fisherman memorial statue (Photo by Laurence Hartwell)