Shipwreck Treasure Museum Reveals History of Cornwall’s Coast

Updated on December 4, 2023 by Meg

The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is located in Charlestown, a village and port on the south coast of Cornwall in England. The museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a leisurely half-day visit. The Shipwreck Treasure Museum offers a delightful excursion and window into the history of coastal Cornwall.

Daniel Scholes, Museum Assistant Manager, gives us a virtual tour of the Shipwreck Treasure Museum, which features the largest private collection of shipwreck artifacts in Europe. In this conversation, Daniel walks us through two hundred years ago of Cornwall history, and how the tiny village of West Polmear with only nine residents and no harbor, evolved into a prosperous centre of commerce meriting UNESCO World Heritage status.

Daniel studied Medieval and Early Modern History at Bangor University. Originally from the northwest of England, Daniel moved to Cornwall in 2016 and has worked at the Shipwreck Treasure Museum since early 2017. He has a keen interest in walking the coastal paths in Cornwall with his partner and reading about history.

Enjoy this conversation with Daniel and his glimpse into the the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and the history of the village and port of Charlestown.

Shipwreck Treasure Museum Created by Divers With a Passion

Meg: The Shipwreck Treasure Museum has been in existence for more than 40 years. What is the story behind its beginning?

Daniel: The museum was started in 1976 by Richard and Bridget Larn, two divers who ran a diving training school called ProDive in Charlestown around that time. Richard and Bridget along with their teams found and salvaged the majority of the collection at the museum, and are still very much active in the diving community.

The building that houses the museum was formally part of the china clay industry, once used a storage building for blocks of china clay, before they were dropped into the tunnels below for transportation to the ships in the harbour. This operation ceased in 1968 when it became more economical to transport clay in trucks directly to the harbour, and less than a decade later the museum was established in the building.

The museum is now the largest private collection of shipwreck artifacts in Europe, with over 8,000 objects from over 165 shipwrecks, which resulted in the loss of over 15,000 lives. Now under the ownership of Sir Tim Smit, there are many exciting plans in development to ensure that the museum continues to inspire, challenge and captivate in equal measure.

Meg: The Shipwreck Treasure Museum collection houses over 8,000 finds gathered from over 150 shipwrecks found in seas, rivers and oceans throughout the world. Can you single out three of your favorite exhibits and share a little of the story behind them?

Daniel: Three of my favourite objects in the museum are:

Diplomatic Pouch Name-Plate from the SS General Abbatucci, 1869

Shipwreck treasure museum
Image Credit: Daniel Scholes

This name-plate was part of a diplomatic pouch conveying messages between the French Minister for Foreign Affairs in Marseille and the French Ambassador to Naples. It was travelling on a ship containing treasure for Pope Pius IX which would have been used to pay the French troops who protected him in Rome from the forces of Italian reunification. The French withdrew their troops the following year, leading to the collapse of the Papal States, which makes the secret contents of the diplomatic pouch ever more intriguing.

Barrel of Coins from the Admiral Gardner, 1809

The only intact barrel of coins ever found on a shipwreck, and the only intact barrel of any kind ever found on an East India Company Vessel. This barrel contained 28,000 copper tokens minted by the East India Company, using Cornish copper, to pay their workers in Madras, India. The wreck contained over 2 million coins, but this is the only barrel to have survived intact. The barrel was preserved by the Mary Rose Trust.

shipwreck treasure museum
Barrel of Coins from the Admiral Gardner - Image Credit: Daniel Scholes

Roman Amphora at The Shipwreck Treasure Museum

Although Roman activity in Britain and especially the Cornish coast as a result of the tin trade is well documented, Roman shipwrecks are extremely rare in British waters. This pointed base from an amphora, which would have carried wine, olive oil, or a fermented fish sauce known as garum, was trawled up by a fisherman in Mevagissey Bay and may indicate the site of a Roman shipwreck on our doorstep. A rare and fascinating find from the waters surrounding Charlestown.

shipwreck treasure museum
Roman Amphora Base. Photo: Daniel Scholes

Meg: I understand there are about 3k wrecks along the Cornish coast. For potential visitors, can you describe the geography and how it contributes to the dangers?

Daniel: The Cornish coastline occupies a position at the entrance to the English Channel, which has been one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world for hundreds of years. As a result, many ships arriving from the Atlantic Ocean when faced with the predominantly South-Westerly winds that pass through the channel have found themselves in danger when stormy conditions drive their ships towards the Cornish coastline. The Lizard Peninsular, in particular, has been the site of many shipwrecks as any ship caught between the wind and this most southerly point of mainland
Britain is often driven into the rocks.

One shipwreck in particular that epitomizes the treacherous conditions of this part of the coastline is the SS Mohegan which was wrecked off the Manacles Reef in 1898 with the loss of 106 lives.

Another shipwreck is that of the Scilly Isles disaster of 1707 when four Royal Navy warships were wrecked off the Isles of Scilly after believing that they were 20 miles further west, off the coast of Brittany due to their inaccurate maps. At least 1500 people lost their lives, including Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who was as famous as Nelson became nearly a century later. It is rumored that the admiral’s emerald ring was taken from his body by a local woman, and it was never seen again.

Cornish Coast Launching Pad for Trade and Fishing

The Cornish coastline has long been a busy area for trading with the wider world. The Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization were known to have been trading for Cornishtin over 2500 years ago, until the Romans became the dominant power in Western Europe and also traded with Cornwall for tin.

Copper has also been a major export from Cornwall, and in the area around Charlestown, china clay became the dominant export in the 19th century after the development of multiple harbours, including Charlestown.

The fishing industry has long been an integral part of Cornish life, and the annual pilchard (Cornish sardines) harvest could make or break a community, some of which were entirely dependent on their catch. Today there is still a thriving fishing industry with most of the catch being landed at Newlyn from where the fish are then transported across the country. The night catch at Newlyn often appears in the fish markets of London before sunrise that same morning.

Charlestown a Hot Spot for China Clay Industry

Meg: Can you explain the relationship between the Charlestown and the china clay industry?

Daniel: China clay is a resource that is abundant in the St Austell area of Cornwall. Used in industries as varied as printing, pharmaceuticals, and pottery manufacture, china clay became a major export from Cornwall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Before the creation of the harbour, the village of Charlestown, or West Polmear as it was then known, was a small fishing village of 9 cottages, with the fishing boats landing on the beach and leaving with the tide.

The road leading into Charlestown is the widest road of any road leading into a harbour in Cornwall. This is directly related to the prosperity that the export of china clay brought to the village, as the road was designed to carry 4 china clay carts pulled by horses side by side in and out of the village. Without the china clay industry, Charlestown as we know it would not exist.

shipwreck treasure museum
Image credit: China Clay History Society

The export of china clay from Charlestown continued until the late 1980s/early 1990s until the export of clay using the size of vessels that could fit into the harbour ceased to be commercially viable. China clay is still exported from Par, the next harbour along the coast, where much larger vessels can dock and load up with china clay to take all around the world.

Charles Rashleigh Built Charlestown

Meg: I understand the Charlestown harbor was built by Charles Rashleigh. What can you tell me about him?

Charlestown Harbour
Charlestown Harbour - Image Credit Wiki Commons

Daniel: Charles Rashleigh was a local businessman who opened St Austell’s first bank. Rashleigh saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing china clay industry developing around St. Austell and decided to build a harbour in what was then called West Polmear. Consulting with the engineer and architect John Smeaton, Rashleigh oversaw the building of the harbour in 1799, and as a result of the prosperity he had brought to the village, the residents decided to rename the village Charles’ Town, which later became Charlestown.

Cornwall Harbour
Charlestown Harbour - Photo Credit Meg Pier

The Power of the Atlantic Ocean on Cornwall

Meg: Having visited a number of Cornwall's harbor villages such as Mousehole, Mullion Cove, Polperro, Mevagissey, Boscastle, to my admittedly untrained eye, many of them seem constructed in the same fashion. Is this observation correct or not?

Daniel: Each harbour reflects its location and purpose. Mousehole, for example, was built as a fishing harbour, whereas Charlestown was purposely built as an exporting harbour for copper and china clay and was excavated by hand from a much smaller inlet. Most harbours tend to be natural harbours that lend themselves to the construction of harbour walls, but Charlestown had to be built in stages to create the correct shape for its function – the inner basin, for example, is filled up by manmade freshwater streams, whereas most harbours are filled by the incoming tide.

Shipwreck treasure museum
Charlestown Harbour - Photo Credit Meg Pier

One thing that all harbours on the Cornish coast face is the power of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly during the stormy winter months. Most Cornish harbours are built to withstand these pressures and are usually built out of granite blocks. Some harbours such as Mousehole have large wooden blocks that go across the entrance of the harbour in the winter to prevent the large waves from entering the harbour and flooding the village.

Charlestown Harbour
Charlestown Harbour - Photo Credit Meg Pier

The effect of the tide depends entirely on the location of the harbour. Some harbours such as Falmouth are deep enough that the outgoing tide does not leave ships and boast dry on the ground, but others such as Mevagissey are emptied by the outgoing tide before filling back up again as the tide comes in.

Generally, the geography and the purpose of the harbour would govern its construction. Local materials are normally used in construction, and since building a harbour is such a laborious and an expensive process, there is no need to overengineer a harbour and make it stronger than it needs to be, so if the waters in that area are calmer, and the harbours more sheltered, then this would be reflected in its construction.

Charlestown Harbor Key to Mining Industries

Meg: What was the relationship between Charlestown and the area's mining industry?

Daniel: As well as Charlestown’s links with china clay, as detailed above, copper from the nearby Holmbush area of St Austell was exported from the harbour for a large period of the 19th century. Although the export of copper was not as sustainable as the export of china clay, it was hugely profitable and the revenue generated was in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Small amounts of tin were also exported from Charlestown, but tin is not as prevalent in the St Austell area as much as it is elsewhere in Cornwall, so the numbers are not as great as that of china clay or copper.

The large volumes of local materials being exported from Charlestown helped the clay mining industry to grow and support numerous jobs around the local area, but the coal being imported from each incoming ship also helped to support other industries such as the local foundry and other nearby blacksmiths. The man-made streams diverted from Luxulyan Valley to fill the harbour with water were also utilized by local businesses along its length, with many water wheels being installed to help to power buildings milling flour and turning tools for the cooperage along with many other businesses.

Tall Ships From the 20th Century

Meg: What is Charlestown's relationship with tall ships?

Daniel: When the harbour in Charlestown was built, all of the ships put to sea were sail powered, and it was not until the turn of the 20th century that steam powered ships became to be commonly used for china clay export. As a result, many of the first photographs of Charlestown depict a harbour full from wall to wall with tall sailing ships, so much so that you could walk from one side to the other using the ships. These depictions, along with Charlestown’s ideal setting as a backdrop to period dramas adds the romantic element of the tall ships being docked in the harbour.

Having tall ships in the harbour today helps to add context to how the harbour would have looked during its early days of operation, and because Charlestown is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, anything that can be done to provide context for visitors visiting this historic port helps to add to the experience that those visitors take away from our beautiful part of the world.

shipwreck treasure museum
Charlestown Harbour. Photo: Flickr

Shipwreck Treasure Museum a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Meg: The village's architecture is very distinctive. Is there any history you can share?

Daniel: As I mentioned, Charlestown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such, there are very strict rules on any developments in the area. This has allowed Charlestown to retain its distinctive architecture which is largely focused on building that were built to support the clay exporting industry in the 19th century. Before the harbour was built in 1799, the only buildings in the village were the fisherman’s cottages on the eastern side of the harbour which are distinctively painted in various pastel colours.

Read More: Learn more about the Cornish People!

The buildings in Charlestown, as with most parts on Cornwall in the 19th century, were built using locally available materials, which in this part of the county meant granite. As a result, the majority of the buildings in Charlestown are built from large blocks of granite, and so is the harbour. This gives Charlestown a great feeling of continuity in its architectural style and helps to make the village feel like a time capsule of Georgian Britain.

Locals Love Charlestown

Meg: On the day that I was there, the was a lot of activity of people swimming/diving/fishing around the piers. I don’t know whether these people were locals or visitors. Is the harbor a focal point for the community?

Daniel: The majority of people who are swimming in and around the harbour outside of the summer months are local to Charlestown, but there are many visitors who like to swim around Charlestown because it is relatively sheltered and very accessible, as well as offering fantastic views from a different vista – that of looking at the land and harbour from the sea, as opposed to the opposite way around.

Swimming in Charlestown Harbour
People Swimming in Charlestown Harbour. Photo: Meg Pier

The harbour is the focal point of Charlestown. The pubs, bars and restaurants are all based around the harbour area, and a large number of the residential buildings are located in the immediate vicinity. There is nothing that the locals love more in an evening than walking around the sleepy harbour after many visitors have gone home and enjoying the peaceful sounds and views of St Austell Bay.

shipwreck treasure museum
Photo: Meg Pier

In the summer there are various activities centred on the harbour, most notably the Charlestown Regatta, a week-long festival and celebration of the harbour and the sea with various activities taking place, all of which are organized by the local community and designed to raise funds to help the local area. The light up Charlestown events throughout the Christmas period serves the same purpose and add a wonderful layer of light to the harbour in the dark winter months.

You will find more information on the Shipwreck Treasure Museum at

More on Cornwall and Cornish People

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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