Cornwall

Fowey History

The anchor is up, and the harbour-chain down, And the bells they ring merrily out from the town; We shall soon find a Spaniard or a Frenchman, they say, And bring something back to this snug little bay” Gallants of Fowey, Henry Sewell Stokes, 1871

“Gallants of Fowey! Gallants of Fowey! Good hands to get freights or take prizes – Ahoy! Though I hang for it shortly, I’ll hazard the trip, and be one of the crew of that sea-going ship.

Fowey History

Historically, the distinction between privateers and pirates is somewhat vague – the actual work of both being the plundering and raiding of ships.

  • Galleons have given way to pleasure boats
  • Place House – home of the Treffry family since C13 is immortalised in poetry 
  • May our wives as fearless be!

This snug little town hugs the steep west bank of the river Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall, its crooked cobbled streets tumbling down to meet the shimmering waterway. Its location on a natural harbour near the river mouth has contributed to a history that is peppered with stories of battles, sea raids and piracy. At one time, the harbour was one of the most important on the south coast, where ships laden with cargoes of tin and china clay departed for Europe and fleets of battleships set forth, sails billowing, to fight in foreign lands. In 1347, it must have been quite a sight as 47 ships set sail from the harbour to cross The Channel and take part in Edward III’s siege of Calais. During the height of its activity as a trading post and military hub, the harbour of this small Cornish town was defended by 160 archers.

Pirates too abounded on Fowey’s waterways. Stokes’ poem, ‘Gallants of Fowey’, talks of the escapades of an infamous band of ‘privateers’ operating out of Fowey. Historically, the distinction between privateers and pirates is somewhat vague – the actual work of both being the plundering and raiding of ships. The difference being that privateers were given authorization for their activities by the government in the form of a ‘letter of marque’. The Gallants of Fowey were given licence to seize French ships during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), but it’s easy to imagine how the line between privateering and pirating was often rather blurred and the poem tells of all sorts of skirmishes the Gallants ran into with the Spaniards and Dutch as well as the French.

Fowey harbour timeline

In 1457, French marauders attacked Fowey, sailing up the river, when: “A sound as from a cloud of sails/ Came with the flowing tide”. A legendary six-week stand ensued in which the Gallants of Fowey were aided by the redoubtable Lady Elizabeth Treffry of Place House in defending the town. Place House – home of the Treffry family since the 13th century – is still a Fowey landmark today. Elizabeth Treffry’s courage was immortalised by Henry Sewell Stokes in the poem ‘The Lady of Place’.

“Still calm look’d forth the Lady; From her embattled wall; Her presence was a power, her voice Thrill’d like a trumpet’s call…

Three cheers, then, for the Fowey gallants! For the Lady three times three! And, if the French should come again, May our wives as fearless be!” The Lady of Place, Henry Sewell Stokes, 1871

In more recent times, galleons have given way to pleasure boats and people are drawn to the town today to explore the galleries, museums, bijou shops, restaurants and cafes that line its narrow streets. The car ferry to Bodinnick and the passenger ferry to Polruan are popular for day trips and there are plenty of stunning views of the Cornish countryside to reward walkers. It is possible to spend may hours exploring the town and its surrounds, but any visitor here is bound in the end to be drawn to watching life on the river. The ever-changing scene of yachts, dinghies, ferries and pleasure boats and the lively sparkle of the water has proved irresistible for many writers too and the town has earnt a literary reputation as a source of inspiration for well-known authors.

Three cheers, then, for the Fowey gallants! For the Lady three times three! And, if the French should come again, May our wives as fearless be!”

Cornish writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who published under the pen name ‘Q’ , lived here and wrote about his beloved Fowey in many of his novels, giving it the name Troy Town (incidently, it’s worth noting that Fowey is pronounced Foy to rhyme with toy, or indeed, Troy). Q acted as a mentor to the writer who has become Fowey’s most famous literary daughter, Daphne du Maurier. The author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds made her home here and her legacy lives on in the Daphne du Maurier Festival of Words and Music held every May. Kenneth Grahame was another author who fell under the spell of Fowey. Grahame, who was married in Fowey, inscribed a first edition of The Wind in the Willows to Q’s daughter, and there are rumours that Q was the inspiration for the much-loved character of Ratty.

Another well-known Cornish writer and poet, John Betjeman, paints a picture of Fowey that could be a scene from The Wind in the Willows. He may have been writing 50 years ago, but the atmosphere he captures still holds true today.

“On a still evening out of season, with the sound of boats crossing the harbour, the creak of rowlocks, the occasional shouts over the water, the street lights shining on old slate walls and wet fuchsia hedges and shriveled hydrangeas, the Victorian stained glass shining out from an Evangelical evensong in the much restored church, it is still like an Academy picture of the nineteen hundreds. No motor cars should be allowed on its nearly perpendicular hills and down into its narrow streets. It is a haunted town made for sailors and pedestrians.” John Betjeman, Cornwall, A Shell Guide (1964).

Come, sailors and pedestrians, pirates and poets – Fowey awaits…

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