St Ives looks likely to find itself in the news over the next three months as a global media circus descends on west Cornwall to cover the G7 summit. It’s unlikely many of the visitors will enquire after the town’s recent history. Let’s take the opportunity to have a quick peek at it before St Ives drowns under a blanket security lockdown. For its older roots see here.
In the nineteenth century St Ives was a town where the bulk of the people were dependent on two occupations. Upalong were the mining families who worked in the nearby tin mines. Downalong were the fisherman and their families. Serving both these close-knit communities, most of them born in the town or its immediate vicinity, were the shopkeepers and craftsmen.
In the years from the 1870s to the 1920s the local mines closed down one by one. Simultaneously, the vitality of the fishing industry suffered as steam trawlers from up-country replaced sail. Fishermen found it harder to compete and Cornish fleets were decimated, reaching their low point in the 1930s. Miners and fishermen alike began to be re-housed in the council estate up the hill. But by this time St Ives was rapidly gaining another source of income. The arrival of the railway had triggered the growth of tourism.
At first this was confined to the relatively wealthy, some of whom began to colonise the coast eastwards as housing spread along the road to Lelant and on the coast at Carbis Bay. Then in the 1950s mass tourism made its appearance and every summer the sea front at St Ives became a heaving mass of visitors as the smell of fried fish and chips replaced the smell of fish. The locals watched their town change in front of their eyes, some with resignation, some with concern, some with an eye for a quick profit. The recent history of this diverse and lively community was brilliantly reconstructed in the novels of local writer N.R.Phillips.
Earlier, in the 1880s, when artists began to settle at Newlyn, on the opposite coast, they had also set up shop and began painting in St Ives. But in the mid-twentieth century St. Ives attracted a younger group with fresh ideas and ‘realism’ was replaced by ‘modernism’. The place became a mecca for artistic innovation. Not all of this was imported by any means; one of the most creative modernist painters was Peter Lanyon who, before his untimely death in a gliding accident, fused a deep respect for his native landscape with a modernist interpretation.
Nowadays St Ives is one of the centres of Cornwall’s ‘gourmet tourism’. It also hosts the Tate Gallery, the apex of a cultural tourism triangle whose intended points were the Maritime Museum at Falmouth and the Eden Project. But the glossy veneer hides another story. In the Island, the heart of the old community, over a third of the houses are now second homes and holiday lets, a figure exceeded only by Polzeath, resort of choice for public school boys and girls.