Polperro is one of Cornwall’s most popular villages attracting thousands of tourists to it every year. It regularly features in the lists of top villages to visit. Set in a steep sided valley with the River Pol tumbling down to the tiny harbour and houses climbing up the hillside, it seems a step back in time.
Many of the streets are narrow, often too narrow for cars, so all visitors have to park at the top of the village and walk.
It is very much a tourist hot spot with craft shops, galleries and gift shops along with pubs and cafes. It has long been popular with artists and the Polperro Arts Foundation with its base in the Village Hall, promotes the work of local artists and has displays of their work.
The Polperro Heritage Art Trail has signs around the village marking places different artists have painted.
Although tourism is the main source of income and employment, Polperro still remains very much a working harbour with an active fishing fleet, with 13 registered fishing boats (trawlers, netters and hand line mackerel boats) which can be seen unloading their boats at high tide. Visitors can also book fishing or pleasure trips from the harbour.
By the C14th Polperro was a very busy fishing port and the fishermen were rich enough to build their own chapel, dedicated to St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen on the rocky promontory overlooking the harbour. Now no longer used, this now a sail loft.
No one knows when the first quay and harbour were built but there are records of one suffering badly from storms in 1774 and it has had to be rebuilt several times.
By the C19th, forty drifters fished out of Polperro with the main catch being pilchards. Each family had their own design of fishing jersey (referred to as a ‘knitfrock’) which helped identify family members lost at sea. Women and children were employed in cleaning and salting the fish. Oil was extracted using large screw presses. Afterwards the fish were packed in barrels ready for dispatch. These were taken to Fowey by boat, then transferred to a larger vessels bound for the Mediterranean. There were two pilchard seasons, summer and winter. When the pilchards had left, the fishing would be 'long lining' for conger, ling, whiting, ray and turbot.
Polperro Harbour is unique, because it is a private harbour, and owned by the council tax payers of the village. In 1894 an Act of Parliament was passed with fifteen trustees. These were prominent and respected men of Polperro and were responsible for paying all the costs.
The Harbour can be exposed to severe Gales off the Atlantic and the storm gates at the mouth of the harbour were built in 1978. Before this, the harbour entrance was protected from storms by large baulks of timber which had to be lowered by crane into slots at the end of the quay and needed eight men.
Rising costs and quota systems regulating fish landings have resulted in a decrease in income to the harbour during the latter part of the C20th. The Trustees opened the Heritage Museum in one of the pilchard factories, with all profits being used for the upkeep of the fabric of the Harbour.
Polperrowas also had the reputation of being a centre for smuggling in the C18th and C19th. High taxes were imposed by the government to finance the wars with America and France. As well as a wide range of luxury goods, basic commodities such as salt were also taxed. Salt was needed to cure pilchards, caught in their thousands by the villagers, so the fishermen imported it from France illegally.
Much of the brandy, gin, tea and tobacco shipped across the Channel came from Guernsey. Polperro's isolated position made it particularly difficult for the authorities to catch smugglers, with smuggled goods being landed in secluded coves along the coast. Once on the beach, the illicit goods would quickly disappear, hidden in caves or taken inland to secret hiding-places.
The end of the wars with France at the beginning of the 19th century was followed by Government measures to stop the traffic in smuggled goods into Britain. Heavy penalties were imposed for a wide variety of offences, and the presence of riding officer or coastguards made it increasingly difficult for goods to be landed ashore.
Polperro’s smuggling heritage is well documented as the comings and goings of all boats were recorded by Zephaniah Job, who acted as the smugglers' banker for many years. When he died the villagers tried to destroy the evidence but much of it survived and forms the basis of the information displayed in the museum.