As the production of copper from the central mining district around Camborne and Redruth soared in the eighteenth century local mine investors and landlords were confronted by transport bottlenecks. It was becoming ever more difficult to import enough coal to feed the growing number of steam engines, or to export the copper ore quickly and cheaply. The north coast offered few harbours for shipping between Hayle, which was hampered by a treacherous sand bar, and Padstow, which was too remote from the mines.
The Bassets of Tehidy owned most of the coastline north of Camborne-Redruth. It was here that they encouraged the development of Basset’s Cove, or Portreath, as a port serving the mining district. Construction of a pier began in 1760 and basins followed around 1810 with work on the harbour continuing intermittently until 1846. The small harbour provided some shelter for ships. But view it on a stormy day when the wind blows from the north and one can appreciate the seamanship that was required for mariners to gain its safety. Indeed, the harbour could be closed for days on end due to adverse weather, one of the reasons why Portreath was eventually eclipsed by south coast ports in the nineteenth century.
In the 1800s the harbour was leased to the Bain family, originally from northern Scotland but who had been attracted to Cornwall in the late 1700s. David Wise Bain, harbour master from 1850, had built up a large fleet of sailing ships – schooners, brigs and brigantines – that made up part of the ‘Welsh fleet’, hauling copper ore to Wales and bringing coal back to Cornwall. But, after the 1870s, harbour dues at Portreath fell catastrophically as mines closed and the demand for coal dropped.
In 1887 the Bains bought their first steamer, a 160-ton collier. This was followed by others, enabling coal to be brought into Portreath in conditions that were far too dangerous for sail. The Bains’ coasting fleet gave Portreath a second lease of life. It was in this period that a branch of the main railway line was built to Portreath, connected by an impressive incline, up and down which trucks were hauled by a stationary engine. Portreath’s final industrial phase lasted until the economic depression of the early 1920s severely reduced trade. Most of the steamers were then sold or scrapped and the busy quays and the steam cranes fell idle. Housing developments since the 1950s have since largely obscured the former role of a port that had been central to Cornwall’s industrial revolution.