Torpoint – An 18th Century New Town

by Tom Bowden

The River Tamar from Plymouth Sound to Gunnislake

Most Cornishmen will recognise Torpoint as that Cornish town on the banks of the River Tamar where you wait for the ferry before tasting the pleasures of Plymouth! When I was a boy the queue used to extend through the shopping centre and up over the hill. You could eat fish and chips, followed by a beer on the way – if your timing was good! Now, I see, you form up in numbered ranks under steel gantries eyeing the coloured lights and wondering whether you understand what it all means and why you have come?

I was born in 1929 and spent a happy childhood in Torpoint and am therefore interested in its history. The famous Carew family are “Lords of the manor” but if you look at Richard Carew’s masterpiece: “Survey of Cornwall” written in 1602 there is no mention of Torpoint. The reason is that it did not exist at that time. Let me tell you about the origins of this 18th Century New Town. The map shows the River Tamar from Gunnislake to Plymouth Sound and there is Torpoint relative to Plvmouth and other places in Devon and Cornwall.

The Hamoaze from Torpoint in 1905.

The arrival in Torbay of William and Mary from Holland in 1688, and their crowning as King and Queen of England in1689 surprisingly triggered the building of Torpoint. The Dutch fleet had wintered in Plymouth Cattewater and William of Orange saw the harbour and decided to build a Naval Dockyard there in 1691. Around the dockyard, on the Devon side of the River Tamar, grew up the town of Plymouth Dock – which in 1824 became Devonport.

Sir William Carew inherited Antony Estates in 1692 and these included the fields on the Cornish side of the River Tamar, and the foreshore which was known as “Tar Point” – perhaps because fishermen tarred their boats there? He built the present Antony House (1718 – 1729) and then Sir Coventry Carew succeeded his father in 1743 and saw some early house building on Torpoint field before he died in 1748.

Torpoint Ferry on the Devonport side, c. 1894.

His cousin Reginald Pole Carew followed him and saw the opportunity to develop his land by providing housing and amenities on the Cornish side of the river for dockyard workers. He therefore produced plans in 1774 for the building of Torpoint and his cousin, Charles Rashleigh of Menabilly, helped in this venture.

The town was built in the 1780s in a gridiron pattern with Samuel Harvey, a carpenter, in charge of the building work. In 1787 there were 44 houses, and by 1821 the population had risen to over 1600 people living in 240 homes. The layout centres round the main shopping area, Fore Street, with roads running in parallel and at right angles to it.

The Main Square is named after John Elliot of St Germans who opposed King Charles I and died in the Tower in 1629. Joshua Rowe, the owner of Crinnis Copper Mine, built a large house he named “Torpoint” (or “Tor”) House near the Parish Church. There are a number of other early houses like: Gravesend House, Carbeile House and Rock House.

Torpoint Fore Street in 1937.

Then there are the old local Pubs like the Wheelers Hotel (named after John Wheeler, Brewer and Maltser), the Mason’s Arms, and the Kings Arms. The early family names are also remembered in the street names like: Harvey Street, Rowe Street, Coryton Terrace, Buller Road and Carew Terrace.

John Wesley visited the town to preach on two occasions in 1787, when he was 83 years old, but the Wesleyan Church was not completed until 1794. (The Church closed on 4th April 1987). In 1810 the Congregationalists Meeting House was completed, and the St James Parish Church was built during the period: 1816 to 1819.

Torpoint Fore Street in 1912.

There was a ferry of some kind at Torpoint in about 1730. In 1790 there was an Act of Parliament which formally set up a Ferry Service. In 1832, Mr J.M.Rendle built a ferry at Dartmouth, and in 1832 he was commissioned to build a “Steam Bridge” at Torpoint. This ferry had a steam reciprocating engine which pulled the ferry across the river on chains to beat the tides. A second ferry was added in 1836. Since then the Ferries have been increasing in size but they still operate on the same chain principle, and there are now three large ferries powered by diesel engines.

The Torpoint Ballast Pond is an interesting Georgian feature which looks like a large wall stuck out on the mud! It was built for the Admiralty in 1783 for holding lighters (barges). In those days a Man-O-War came in for repair with its hold full of stone ballast. This ballast was removed and deposited into lighters before the ship was repaired. The lighter returned to the Pond and awaited the call for ballast to be put aboard a warship again.

The stretch of the river between Torpoint and Devonport is called the “Hamoaze” and this was a hive of activity through Torpoint’s early years with England at war with the American Colonies, France and Spain at various times:

In 1796 HMS Frigate Amphion blew up in the harbour! Some 315 men, women and children lost their lives and the ship was a total loss. Only 15 people survived.

In 1797 there was a Navy Mutiny.

In 1799 Prison Ships: Prudent and Bien Faisant were moored in the Hamoaze and prisoners frequently escaped!

In 1815 HMS Bellophon arrived in harbour with Napoleon onboard and in transit to St Helena.

The Graves family had lived at Thankes House in Torpoint since 1713 and during the building of Torpoint the most prominent member of the family was Vice Admiral Thomas Graves. He led the Van Division at the great sea battle of 1794 against the French off Ushant, known as the “Glorious 1st of June”, and he was created Baron Graves upon his return to England.

Portwrinkle Beach and Whitsand Bay Hotel, c. 1930.

In 1870 his grandson, Lord Graves, had Thankes House pulled down and a new mansion was then built on the site. Around the end of the 18th century Thankes House passed from the Graves family to Sir Reginald Pole Carew. Then, in 1909 the house was dismantled stone by stone and re-erected six miles away at Portwrinkle. The building, of Cornish Dressed Limestone in the Tudor Gothic style, was opened in July 1910 as the Whitsand Bay Hotel and there it stands today. The Torpoint Bowling Green is now on the original foundations of the house, alongside the old Walled Garden and overlooking the Hamoaze.

So that is my story of the emergence of Torpoint as a new town in the eighteenth century. Today, it is still an important crossing place for local traffic and holiday makers stream across the Tamar to all points west on the A374 road! For many people living in South East Cornwall the Torpoint ferry provides that important link to work in the dockyard or elsewhere in Plymouth. I hope you have enjoyed this short history of my home town.