Tales from the (chequered) history of our lovely pub…

The pub is celebrating its 300th birthday this year, and we have embraced the opportunity to learn more about the history of our humble boozer. If these walls could talk, they would certainly have some interesting tales to tell…

A lintel above the door of The Tolcarne Inn marks the date of its construction: 1717. The building is rumoured to have started life as a farmhouse, later becoming a maritime inn and an enclave of eating, drinking and making merry for fishermen, miners, artists and visitors to West Penwith.

Newlyn remains one of the UKs most important fishing ports. The town has been shaped by its connection to the sea: a Spanish raiding party (made up of rival fishermen) in 1595 wrought much destruction, the construction of a new harbour in the 1880s led to a major boom, and fishermen’s riots in 1896 bought chaos – and the army – to the streets.

Throughout its history, The Tolcarne Inn has attracted seafarers; perhaps as a drinking den where record hauls were celebrated, or a place of anxious waiting and solace after tragedy struck. A poignant reminder of the heroism and peril faced by fishermen of every generation stands just a hundred metres away, where Tom Leaper’s Newlyn Fisherman’s
Memorial stands sentinel over Mounts Bay.

As well as causing misery at sea, storms regularly batter the seafront at Newlyn, resulting in varying degrees of damage. 100 years ago, in 1917, ‘furious gales’ struck the south coast of Cornwall and part of the sea wall at Tolcarne was damaged. The pub was “rendered untenable, and the landlady and her daughter had to seek shelter elsewhere.”

It wasn’t long before the pub was once again a casualty of the storms. In 1949 The Cornishman reported:

“The Tolcarne Inn, Newlyn, built in 1717, one off the oldest buildings in the district, situated near the sea, from which it has taken many severe batterings, is at last showing signs of its age. One part collapsed last week and will have to be completely rebuilt.”

During the repair work an original brick oven was found. The importance of the historic building was established for posterity; the pub was given Grade II Listed Status in 1950.

The sea bought destruction and tragedy, but it also provided employment for almost the whole community, and gave the town a distinctive atmosphere and raw beauty.

A mid-19th century guidebook described Newlyn as a “colony of fishermen, with narrow paved lanes, glistening with pilchard scales in the season – with external staircases, and picturesque interiors.”

This picturesque quality attracted artists and, in the 1880s, The Newlyn School emerged. This commune of artists including Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and Thomas Cooper
Gotch established a ‘rural naturalist style’ in which they depicted the lives of the fishing community.

Their paintings showed realistic details of everyday life; the mending of the nets or children playing in the narrow streets for example. They also captured evocative scenes of drama and tragedy; families waiting for an eagerly-anticipated catch, or receiving news of men lost at sea. Transplanted from their Cornish context and sent to the Royal Academy in London, these impressionistic canvases had a nostalgic appeal for an urban, cosmopolitan audience.

One artist who came to study at the Painting School established by Stanhope Forbes in Newlyn was Dod Proctor. In 1935, Proctor painted ‘Tolcarne Inn, Newlyn’, which shows the then landlady, Jessie Bray. This seems to indicate that the pub was a regular haunt of artists in the 1930s, as it remains today.

In 1895 The Newlyn Art Gallery opened, funded by local philanthropist, John Passmore Edwards. The Gallery, which is 200 metres from The Tolcarne Inn, was originally built to house the work of the Newlyn School. The historic collection is now held by Penlee House in Penzance, and Newlyn’s art gallery is once again showing contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.

The gallery is one major draw for the visitors which now flock to Newlyn every year. Other small independent galleries have arrived more recently, and an arthouse cinema opened in 2016. All this adds to the attraction of the town, where much of the action still centres on the working harbour and fish market.

It was this unparalleled access to the freshest fish which first drew chef Ben to The Tolcarne Inn. He had been looking for a pub for some time and, hearing that The Tolcarne was on the market, something struck a chord. It was the perfect opportunity to serve fish fresh off the boats, right next to the sea wall, in the relaxed setting of a cosy pub.

And the rest, as they say, is history!

The 300th anniversary will be celebrated throughout the year, culminating in a birthday party in November and a special ‘Feed The 300’ menu, featuring many of Ben’s signature dishes. If you would like to join us,