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Proud port has a long history of bustle

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 19, 2013

The long history of Hayle's port is described in a new book by John Higgans

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As we are reminded by John Pollard's foreword to The History of the Cornish Port of Hayle, since the UBM Group bought out long-term owners Harvey & Co in 1969 and then sold it again in the early 1980s, the proposals for its future have been so many that it would take a magician to take on and tell the complex story of its rise and fall.

Fortunately such a man is author and nonagenarian John Higgans. Born and bred in Hayle, he worked at first in the office of Hayle Gas Company, which was owned by Harvey & Co. His joining the firm in 1937 re-established a family link because his mother Daisy was a member of the West family, whose connections with the company went back to 1784 and the marriage of William West to Joanna Harvey, a daughter of John Harvey, who established the foundry in Hayle in 1779.

In common with most men of his age, his career with the firm was interrupted by the Second World War when he served in the Royal Artillery. It was not until 1946 that he was able to rejoin Harveys and in the following year he qualified as a chartered secretary and in 1948 was appointed as company secretary. He became a director in 1960, a position he was to hold until his retirement in 1975.

One with a keen interest in local and family history, several of his articles have appeared on such topics in the journals of the Old Cornwall Society and Cornwall Family History Society. In 1986 he published his history of Angarrack and now, with the help of John Daniel and others, he gives us a detailed account of what was once one of the busiest and most important small ports in this country.

It is hard to imagine now, for example, what a busy port it was in the mid-19th century. In 1845, no fewer than 7,500 passengers were carried to and from West Cornwall on the steam packets then working out of Hayle.

"Many of those leaving the port were emigrants outward bound on ships sailing direct to their new country or on their way to join ships at other ports of embarkation," he writes. "Very few of those who bid them farewell on the quayside ever saw them again. To add to all this activity were the arrivals and departures of vessels laden with cargoes or in ballast."

In that same year more than seven hundred such vessels, carrying some 135,000 tons of goods of one kind or another, but mainly coal, shipped in and out of the port, and 28,000 tons of copper ore were shipped to the smelters in south Wales.

While much of the history of Hayle has already been recorded in various ways, particularly that of its two engineering works, this is surely the first time, as John Higgans claims, it has been "chronicled in any detail".

Who better to write of the "bitter conflict between the two parties, both in the courts of law and the mud and sand of Hayle harbour" than a man who was to be so closely involved with the company that became the sole operator of the port when the Cornish Copper Company ceased business.

For just over a century, from 1867, when Harvey & Company bought its rival's waterside premises, to the early 1970s when its domestic coal business was sold to the Penzance firm of J H Bennetts Ltd, it is no exaggeration to say that Harvey's was Hayle, and Hayle was Harvey's. From its stories of the various quays and harbour works to the methods of cargo handling, from Hayle lifeboats to the regatta, not forgetting its 30 or so fascinating archival photographs or its attractive cover photograph, this is is an invaluable addition to the many books on Cornish history.

The History of the Cornish Port of Hayle by John Higgans is published and produced by St Ives Printing & Publishing Company, priced £9.60. It is available at Harvey's Foundry Trust Heritage Centre, the Archive Centre in Hayle and at a number of shops in the town.

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