Milestone year for port of Falmouth as Harbour Commissioners marks 150 years

2020 marks an historical year for Falmouth Harbour Commissioners – its landmark 150th anniversary.

Here, to commemorate the occasion, we take a look back at some of its fascinating and colourful history and find out what made the organisation what it is today.

Step back in time to 1870. Queen Victoria was on the throne, the average annual salary was £23 and the port of Falmouth was beginning to boom.

Falmouth docks were in their infancy, railway had reached the town and the nearby lifeboat station had not long opened.

And on Monday September 5th 1870, the town marked another milestone when Falmouth Harbour Commissioners (FHC) was formed by an act of Parliament, as the statutory port authority.

Expanded in 1991 and now covering 16sqm, including large parts of Falmouth Bay, the organisation is a Trust port – an independent statutory body governed by its own, unique statues and controlled by a local, independent board.

From day one, FHC has had a key role in managing the safety, environment and economy of the harbour.

Originally consisting of 16 people, the board was represented by a mix of local and maritime personnel. It has always been a not-for-profit organisation, meaning there are no owners or shareholders, and any profit is ploughed back into the port.

The board met monthly. The main topics discussed and the finances were published in the local, and often national, press. The full minutes were recorded in the Harbour Commissioners’ ledgers, which can still be found in the Bartlett Library at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Since 1870, there have been eight harbour masters and one temporary harbour master, during the First World War. Coincidentally, five out of the eight served for 22 years.

Captain Richard Sherris beat 69 other applicants to become the town’s very first harbour master, on an annual salary of £150. He remained in the job until 1892.

In chronological order, the others were: Captain Samuel Collins (1892 to 1914), Captain G Green (1914 to 1924), Mr E J Ball (1914 to 1915, temporary harbour master during WWI), Captain W Gardner (1924 to 1946), Captain J Hammill (1946 to 1955), Captain Frank Edwards (1956 to 1978), Captain David Banks (1978 to 1999), Captain Mark Sansom (2000-2020) and serving harbour master Duncan Paul.

At the start of World War I, harbour master Cpt Green was summoned by the military as the port “alien officer” for the examination service in Falmouth. This meant anyone attempting to enter Falmouth from the western end of the English Channel had to report to the port examination service. Anyone under suspicion would be questioned by the “alien officer”, who had the power to arrest citizens of hostile nations.

The harbour commissioners continued to run the port during the war, but a temporary harbour master, E J Ball, was appointed for eight months.

Falmouth harbour has seen its fair share of incidents over the years, including several shipwrecks and plenty of near-misses, dramatic rescues,  tragedies, fires, thefts, a murder in the harbour office and even involvement in a case of cannibalism.

From 1870 to 1985, FHC were the harbour police. One night in September 1884, one of the harbour police overheard three sailors informing customs officers that they had killed and eaten a young cabin boy called Richard Parker in order to survive, after their yacht sank in a storm after crossing the equator.

The sailors were rescued and passed to a pilot boat off Falmouth, and they were arrested for their crimes. One of the men was let off on the grounds that he only drank the blood and ate the boy’s flesh. The other two were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. However, because of the terrible circumstances of the case, the sentence was reduced to six months in prison.

Through byelaws and harbour directions, FHC are still responsible for regulating activities and behaviour within the harbour limits. Staff no longer have powers of arrest but they may prosecute or issue cautions to offenders.

On Christmas Eve 1942, tobacconist Albert Bateman’s wife went out to look for him when he didn’t come home after work. He was found dead in the harbour office front shop in Arwenack Street, having been bludgeoned with a revolver butt.

The murder became one of the fastest crimes ever solved. Gordon Trenoweth was arrested the next day and hanged for the crime four months later – the last man to be hanged at Exeter Gaol.

One of the most dangerous rescues of modern times was that of the crew of the Scottish trawler Ben Asdale, which was wrecked on the evening of December 30th 1978  on rocks off Maenporth beach.

In heavy snow and a force eight gale, 11 crew members were saved – most being winched to safety by a rescue helicopter – but three men drowned, their bodies washed up the next day.

In September 1993, Falmouth harbour was badly hit by the tail end of Hurricane Floyd. Many moorings were dragged and more than 20 yachts were driven ashore. Pontoons were distorted by the exceptional forces and the entire pontoon system at the yacht haven needed to be rebuilt. Due to so many moorings dragging out of position the swinging circles could no longer be relied upon and, over the next two years, the two main swinging mooring areas were completely re-laid using revolutionary hydrographic surveying software.

Then deputy harbour master, Cpt Mark Sansom used his experience in mooring design with the Ministry of Defence to design the new mooring arrangements. In order to ensure that the moorings were correctly located, a new exact positioning and plotting method, using global satellite positioning and an echo sounder was used. The novel application of the GPS system was subsequently lauded in the USA after Cpt Sansom presented a conference paper.

The adoption of precise positioning meant extra moorings could be added to the harbour, helping with ever-increasing demand by leisure users. Previously, moorings had been positioned relative to each other using measuring ropes and shore marks to establish a mooring pattern. The lack of exact and repeatable positioning meant that moorings had had to be maintained by divers in situ on the seabed instead of being hauled to the surface.

In October 2010, a last-minute evacuation of the fishing vessel Athena saved 20 lives. After a fire on board, Athena’s master declared the blaze was out and asked to enter Falmouth for assistance.

The fire brigade boarded the ship first, by helicopter, to assess the situation, followed by an assistant harbour master, harbour pilot and coastguard surveyor, who found the vessel still on fire.
Conditions quickly deteriorated on board; many personnel were suffering ill effects from the noxious fumes from the fire and a call to abandon ship was made. Fortunately, in the nick of time, the vessel was taken in tow by the coastguard tug allowing the crew, firefighters and others to be lifted clear by helicopter or embark in the waiting pilot boat. It was a close-shave for all involved, but thankfully nobody was seriously injured.

Falmouth harbour has witnessed many prominent events, including royal and ministerial visits, five Tall Ships races, Sir Robin Knox-Johnson’s non-stop circumnavigation of the world, Dame Ellen MacArthur’s return as the fastest solo round-the-world yachtswoman and numerous sailing regattas and races.

In more recent times, the controversy surrounding dredging a deep-water channel into Falmouth Docks has taken centre stage. Dredging was seen as vital to securing the future prosperity of of the port but environmentalists were concerned about its impact on a designated special area of conservation.

It culminated in an innovative trial dredge, which generated a great deal of public interest, to measure the potential environmental impacts on the seabed, particularly on a type of calcified seaweed called maerl.

The trial involved excavating a layer of about 30cms of maerl, storing it in a barge for 24 hours and then relaying it in its original location. Samples were subsequently taken from the sites to assess how quickly they recovered. The data was supplied to the Marine Management Organisation to inform their determination of the consent application. Seven years after the trial took place, the dredging proposal is no further forward.

Captain David Banks – hailed as the Westcountry’s longest serving harbour master – looks back on his dream job fondly.

“Being Falmouth Harbour Master was a great privilege and honour,” said Cpt Banks, now aged 85. “It was a job which I had aspired to since the age of 12, so I’ve always felt very fortunate.

“I dealt with ships running aground and oil spills, but my most favourite times were whenever the Royal Yacht Britannia came into port, which was frequently.

“I’ve had receptions with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, both on official and personal visits. The Queen Mother was a regular visitor – she was great fun. She would go off on the royal barge to St Mawes to visit friends.”

At the stroke of the Millennium, Captain Mark Sansom took over as Falmouth’s eighth harbour master. His many highlights include three magnificent Tall Ships regattas, seven years of Red Arrows performances and acting as escort to the Queen during her Golden Jubilee visit in 2002.

Cpt Sansom said: “When I joined FHC in 1992 Falmouth was suffering from a big depression and I couldn’t see where salvation would come from. Then in quick succession we had the Tall Ships Race in 1998 and the eclipse in 1999 and the town’s fortunes changed.

“My time as harbour master has been a huge adventure, with some deep lows and enormous highs. Being in charge of the Tall Ships parade of sail, with so many thousands of small craft, was a unique thrill.

“And standing on board the bow of the lifeboat with just the Queen for company for 15 minutes was surreal. I was responsible for whether Her Majesty stood at the front or back of the boat and which was most suitable due to the wind conditions so she didn’t lose her hat. I was most worried about her hat.

“We chatted a lot about shipping and discussed the pronunciation of “hooray” and “hoorah” during the three cheers from HMS Cornwall.”

Despite being at the helm for two decades, one of Cpt Sansom’s most unforgettable days was in December 2018, when the 180 metre Russian cargo ship Kuzma Minin ran aground off Gyllyngvase Beach in a storm and was the subject of a huge rescue operation.

“Of all the incidents I’ve been involved in over the years, this seemed to have the worst prognosis,” he recalls. “The worst case scenario was it could have been a long-term ship wreck on Gyllyngvase Beach, but thankfully the combined resources of the port worked magnificently together to ensure that didn’t happen.”

Cpt Sansom pioneered the design of a mooring system for oil pollution booms, including a straight line deflector boom of more than 700m in length, which was successfully deployed across the Percuil River in an oil pollution exercise in 2002.

The system relies on the precise placement of six deep-water mooring blocks each with seven chain tails measured to precise lengths. Uing a Differential Global Positioning System the moorings were connected to an inflatable boom at 20 metre intervals allowing the boom to be deployed in a straight line, proving that during an oil spill, the river could be protected.

In 2011, Cpt Sansom also helped create the award-winning FaBTest facility, a pre-consented marine energy test site in Falmouth Bay – the only one of its kind in the UK administered by a harbour authority.

FaBTest enables prototype wave energy devices to be tested in a relatively sheltered climate, providing a fast, flexible, low-risk and low-cost solution to developers.

There have been four successful deployments so far, lasting from three months to two years. One of the devices tested, Bolt Lifesaver, owned by Fred Olsen, has since been put to commercial use generating electricity in Hawaii.

“FaBTest was forward-thinking but realistic at the same time,” explained Cpt Sansom. “What’s unique about it is that we have covered our start-up costs from the revenues from testing so it hasn’t been a financial burden to FHC, it continues to generate value as a test site going forward as renewable energy develops.”

FHC today is responsible for the safe management of the harbour area, maintaining channels for navigation and moorings, reporting and recording shipping movements, emergency environmental responses, enforcing harbour byelaws and providing a wide range of services for shipping, including pilotage services.

To celebrate the occasion, Assistant Harbour Master Lloyd Pond has written a book called 150 Years of Falmouth Harbour Commissioners, which will be launched later next year.