With nearly 300 miles of Cornish coastline, it’s perhaps not surprising that Kresen Kernow contains many thousands of documents connected to the sea. These cover everything from fishing to trade, pirates to shipwrecks and smuggling to surfing.

We look after detailed records of fishing enterprises and fish cellars, including accounts relating to individual businesses. Crew lists and documents for almost 1700 individual vessels, and 47 volumes of shipping registers, provide a wealth of information useful for understanding the scale of Cornwall’s connections to the sea. Valentine Enys’ letter book gives a fascinating account of trade from Cornwall in the 18th century and the exercise books of John Tregerthen Short give us an insight into the skill of navigation.

Sadly, shipwrecks and drownings are all part of life on the coast. We hold an extensive collection of photographs of shipwrecks, as well as the Edwin Mills Shipwreck Collection, which includes a card index of wrecks around the Cornish coast, copies of newspaper reports and photos. Within the Historic Environment Record records for a huge number of wrecks and hulks can be found. We also hold archive material connected to Henry Trengrouse, who was born in Helston and invented a rocket apparatus to save victims of shipwrecks. Although never recognised in his lifetime, his device is thought to have saved thousands of lives. The collection includes letters from Trengrouse, and drawings of his invention.

Smuggling features in our collections, and we also have records of the customs agents dedicated to stopping it. Pirates raiding Cornish villages and ships also crop up in our archives.  Lists of collections in the parish registers reveal a number of ransoms for captives taken by Barbary pirates. A document locating Avery the pirate’s buried treasure in Cornwall is particularly intriguing.

We hold the archives of the Fox family of Falmouth, who were shipping agents and acted as consuls and vice-consuls for many countries.  You can also find documents on themes such as ship-building,  harbours, overseas migration, sea voyages, Admiralty charts and much more.

The coast is, of course, also a place for relaxation and fun. We hold records related to bathing machines, beach huts, sailing (including local regattas) swimming, surfing and more. Try a key word search of our catalogues to see what we’ve got.

Key words: smuggling, ship, sailing, harbour, sea, fish, pirate, piracy, captive, sea, coast, navy, merchant, customs, coastguard, sailor, port and individual harbour or port or vessel names

Key collections: CE (HM Customs and Excise), X438 (Trengrouse), H (Harveys, shipbuilders), FOX (Fox family), MSR (Merchant Shipping Records), X1447 (Royal Fowey Yacht Club), X1045 (ship log books), X1018 (navigation), PHAF (Falmouth and Truro Port Health Authority)

Recommended reads:  The maritime history of Cornwall edited by Philip Payton, 2014; Hevva!:  an account of the Cornish fishing industry in the days of sail by Keith Harris, 1983; Shipwreck index of the British Isles, Volume 1, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset by Richard and Bridget Larn, 1995

Watch: you can watch films about many items in our collections, including shipping registers and the document about Avery the pirate’s treasure, on our YouTube channel.