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Cornish: Porthpyra
Polperro 5.jpg
Polperro is located in Cornwall
 Polperro shown within Cornwall
Population 5,280 (Parish, 2001)
OS grid reference SX207509
Civil parish Lansallos
Unitary authority Cornwall
Ceremonial county Cornwall
Region South West
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town Looe
Postcode district PL13
Dialling code 01503
Police Devon and Cornwall
Fire Cornwall
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
UK Parliament South East Cornwall
List of places

Coordinates: 50°19′52″N 4°31′11″W / 50.3311°N 4.5197°W / 50.3311; -4.5197

Polperro (Cornish: Porthpyra, meaning Pyra's cove) is a village and fishing harbour on the south-east Cornwall coast in South West England, UK, within the civil parish of Lansallos. It is situated on the River Pol, 4 miles (6 km) west of the neighbouring town of Looe and 25 miles (40 km) west of the major city and naval port of Plymouth, it is well known for its idyllic location, surrounded by tightly packed old fishermen's houses which makes it attractive to tourists, and particularly in the summer months.



The name Polperro is perhaps derived from the Cornish Porthpyra, meaning harbour of a man named Pyra.[1] However Ekwall does not regard "pyra" as being a personal name and suggests it could be a name for the stream. Early forms are Portpira, 1303, and Porpira, 1379.[2] The chapel of St Peter de Porthpyre is mentioned in 1398 and the following forms are recorded from the reign of King Henry VIII: Polpyz explained as "fish-pool" (probably a literal error for Polpyr), Poulpirrhe, Poul Pier and Poulpyrre (in John Leland's account).[3]

Early history[edit]

Polperro was originally under the jurisdiction of two ancient manors, those of Raphael[4] which included the western part in the parish of Lansallos, and Killigarth which included the eastern part in the parish of Talland.[5][6] mentioned in the Domesday Book. As early as the 13th century it was known for fishing, and it is first recorded in a Royal document in 1303.

Later history[edit]

The date of the older quay is uncertain but it was conjectured by Jonathan Couch (writing in the mid-19th century) that it is either the one mentioned by John Leland or one built upon the same site. It was probably built under the patronage of the lord of the manor of Raphael who possessed the right to the harbour. Polperro's newer quay is also of unknown date; it is sited almost on an east-west alignment a little further out. It already existed in 1774 when it suffered much damage in a storm, following which Mr Long, the lord of the manors of Raphael and Lansallos, paid for its repair. Parts of the harbour were rebuilt after destruction by a violent storm on 19 and 20 January 1817, when thirty large boats, two seines and many smaller boats were destroyed and parts of the village including the Green and the Peak were inundated by the sea and a number of houses were swept away. The damage was estimated at £2,000 but no lives were lost.[7] This storm with hurricane-force winds caused damage to property from Plymouth to Land's End; the fishing boats at Polperro ″shared in the common calamity and exposed the unhappy sufferers to distress from which the industry of years can scarcely be expected to relieve them″.[8] In November 1824 the worst ever storm occurred: three houses were destroyed, the whole of one pier and half the other were swept away and nearly 50 boats in the harbour were dashed to pieces. Only six boats remained only one of which was a seiner. The new pier was designed to give better protection in the future.[9] The East Indiaman Albemarle was blown ashore with her valuable cargo of diamonds, coffee, pepper, silk and indigo on 9 December 1708 near Polperro (the precise location of the wreck has never been established).[10]

Jonathan Couch was the village doctor for many years, and wrote the history of the village as well as various works of natural history (particularly on ichthyology). The History of Polperro, 1871, was published after his death by his son, Thomas Quiller Couch, with many further abridgements since. Couch contributed two series of articles to the periodical Notes and Queries - The Folklore of a Cornish Village 1855 and 1857, and these were incorporated in the History of Polperro, to which he also contributed a sketch of his father's life. The welfare of the fishermen and the prosperity of the fisheries were in his care together with his medical and scientific work.

Because of its beauty Polperro has been a magnet for artists. The painter Oskar Kokoschka spent almost a year in the village in 1939 to 1940.[11]


Low tide
"The Harbour, Polperro" by Edward Frederick Ertz (full-page colour plate from: "Britain Beautiful". 4 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1924-26)

Smuggling is understood to have prospered since Polperro developed as a port in the 12th century.[12] It reached its zenith in the late 18th century when Britain's wars with America and France precipated the high taxation of many imported goods, making it worthwhile for the local fishermen to boost their income by the covert importation of spirits, tobacco and other goods from Guernsey. Much of the success of the smuggling trade through Polperro is ascribed to the influence of Zephaniah Job (1749–1822), a local merchant who became known as "The Smuggler's Banker". A more organised Coast Guard service was introduced in the 19th century along with stiff penalties, and led to much less smuggling. Part of the South West Coast Path was originally used by Revenue Officers as they patrolled the coast in search of smugglers. Whilst the Coast Path is maintained by the National Trust, the foreshore belongs to the Duchy of Cornwall.

Robert Jeffery[edit]

On HMS Recruit (1806) under Cmdr. Warwick Lake[13] Robert Jeffery was discovered to have stolen the Midshipman's beer and Lake furiously ordered him to be marooned on the island of Sombrero. (Jeffery was born at Fowey but moved to Polperro before becoming a merchant seaman and was then press-ganged into the Navy.)[14] Some months later, Lake's commanding officer Sir Alexander Cochrane discovered what had happened and immediately ordered Lake to retrieve Jeffery. When Recruit arrived at Sombrero, Jeffery could not be found. Eventually the story got out and a court martial dismissed Lake from the service for his actions. As it turned out, Jeffery had been picked up by an American ship and was eventually discovered in Massachusetts three years later, working as a blacksmith. He was returned to Britain and awarded compensation.[15][16]



A tourist boat trip leaves Polperro harbour

Tourism became Polperro's main industry during the 20th century. The village is accessible by train, using Looe railway station, by road and by boat. It was estimated that the village received about 25,000 visitors a day in summer in the 1970s.[17] Visitors are no longer permitted to take cars into the village, and have to leave them in the main car park at Crumplehorn to the north of the village and walk through the half mile length of the village to the harbour. The village's quaint but narrow streets make driving difficult. There are horse and cart rides and milk floats disguised as trams for those who prefer not to walk.

Attractions of Polperro include the South West Coast Path, the 630-mile (1,010 km) long and established walk from Dorset to Somerset which passes through the village, and offers day walks along the scenic local coastline, in particular to Talland Bay close by on the coast path heading East. Westwards, the path passes three large beaches on the way to Fowey: Lansallos Beach, Lantivit Bay and Lantic Bay. Within the village is the Polperro Heritage Museum of Fishing and Smuggling,[18] situated on the harbourside in an old fish processing warehouse, which amongst other things, houses interesting photographs of the village's history. Guided walks are available to show visitors the more interesting parts of the village, and there are boat trips from the harbour to view the coastline which can offer sightings of dolphins and seals.

Several restaurants and seven pubs are located in the village. A holiday and caravan park is situated to the northeast of the village at Carey Park.


Polperro harbour

Fishing was traditionally the principal occupation of Polperro families.[19] For centuries the village has been a pilchard fishing and processing port. Fish have been drawn to the south Cornwall coast to feed in late summer and these brought rich pickings for local fishermen. Once ashore, the fish were salted and pressed and the oil was collected as a by-product and used for heating and lighting. Polperro pilchards were exported to many parts of Europe. Shoals of these fish diminished in the 20th century and pilchard fishing from Polperro died out as its mainstay in the 1960s, but nonetheless approximately twelve commercial fishing vessels still operate from the harbour looking to catch flat fish, scallops, crabs, monkfish, ray, pollock, bass and cod.

Notable buildings[edit]

Couch's House, Lansallos Street, was the home of naturalist and physician, Jonathan Couch and before him of many generations of the Quiller family who became very wealthy from the proceeds of smuggling and buccaneering.[20][21] The War Memorial is some distance from the village on the coastal path towards Talland. Also, tucked away in the village's winding streets ("The Warren"), is a house clad entirely in shells, known as "The Shell House".[22]


The village, although small, lies between two CofE parishes divided by the River Pol: Lansallos to the west and Talland to the east. The 19th century Anglican Chapel of St John, a chapel of ease to Talland Parish Church, stands in the village but no longer conducts services. John Wesley visited the village in 1762 and 1768: by 1792 it was possible to build a large chapel accommodating 250 people and Methodism flourished in 19th century Polperro.[23]


The Polperro Festival has been held annually since 1996. It is a community festival run by volunteers to promote business for the village in summer and begins on the 3rd Saturday in June.[24] It started as an Arts and Crafts Festival, but has now also incorporated live music of many genres, dance, street entertainment, theatre and children's entertainment. Most of the entertainment is held in the village square ('Big Green')--for the last few years under a covered marquee. At around 9 pm the entertainment in Big Green ends and entertainment continues within various local establishments, mainly to limit noise.


Polperro has many legends including that of the ghost of Willy Wilcox who was said to be a Smuggler and disappeared whilst hiding in the labyrinth of caves on the beach. Another less well known legend relates to 'The Spirit of the Forest'. This apparition is said to come down from the woods above the village and leave 'sweetmeats' at the threshold of homes of the deserving. This is said to happen during times of great economic hardship and foretells immense good fortune for the recipient. It was last reported during the Second World War. The combined pagan myth of the 'Spirit of the Forest' or Green Man and the Jewish Tashlich came about in the mid 13th Century probably influenced by the Knights Templars on return from the crusades. Another reference possibly stems from the times of Zephania Job (the smuggler's banker). It relates to an ancient Jewish practice called Tashlich (תשליך). This is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh HaShanah. "Tashlich" means "casting off" in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate. It is considered exceptionally propitious to cast the offerings left by the spirit into the sea or nearest river. Particularly blessed are those who work with water or bear the name of a water creature.

Notable residents[edit]


  1. ^ Mills, A. D. (1996). The Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 261. ISBN 0-19-283131-3. 
  2. ^ Ekwall, E. (1940) The Concise Dictionary of English Place-names; 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press; p. 352
  3. ^ Couch, Jonathan (1965) The History of Polperro; [abridged from T. Q. Couch's edition by Frank Graham]. Newcastle upon Tyne: Frank Graham; p. 9
  4. ^ www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
  5. ^ Couch (1965); p. 10
  6. ^ http://www.polperro.org/walks.html
  7. ^ Couch (1965); p. 12-13
  8. ^ Hitchins, Fortescue (1824); Samuel Drew. ed. Cornwall From The Earliest Records and Traditions, to the Present Time. Helston: William Penaluna; Retrieved 5 October 2011
  9. ^ Noall, Cyril (1970) The Story of Cornwall's Ports and Harbours. Truro: Tor Mark Press; p. 16
  10. ^ Lettens, Jan. "Albemarle (+1708)". wrecksite. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  11. ^ Adamson, Donald, "Oskar Kokoschka at Polperro", The Cornish Banner, November 2009, pp. 19-33
  12. ^ www.polperroguide.com
  13. ^ Winfield (2008), p.297.
  14. ^ Mee, Arthur (1937) Cornwall. London: Hodder & Stoughton; pp. 75-77
  15. ^ Derriman, James (2006) Marooned: the story of a Cornish seaman; 2nd ed. Clifton-upon-Teme: Polperro Heritage Press. (1st ed. 1991)
  16. ^ Mee (1937); p. 76
  17. ^ De Burlet Portrait of Polperro; p. 36
  18. ^ Polperro Heritage Museum
  19. ^ Polperro Fingerprints
  20. ^ Chambers, George Mervyn Polperro, p. 7-9
  21. ^ "The Quillers of Polperro". Heritage Press. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  22. ^ http://www.polperro.org/pg11.html
  23. ^ De Burlet Portrait of Polperro; pp. 16-17
  24. ^ Anon. "Polperro festival and lights". Polperro festival and lights. Retrieved 30 June 2011. 
  25. ^ "Blyton Illustrators A - C". 
  26. ^ Anon. "History of Greenpark Productions". Greenpark Productions. Retrieved 30 June 2011. 
  27. ^ Anon. "The Rita Tushingham home page". Retrieved 30 June 2011. 


  • Chambers, George Mervyn. Polperro: impressions in word and line, Polperro: Greywest, [ca. 1925]
  • Couch, Jonathan (1871) History of Polperro, ed. Thomas Quiller Couch (many later editions, abridged)
  • de Burlet, Sheila (1977) Portrait of Polperro: souvenir history of a beautiful village. Falmouth: Rooster
  • Derriman, James (1994) Killigarth: three centuries of a Cornish manor.[--?--]: published by the author

External links[edit]