Fish were once the order of the day. Pilchards by the thousand, which were caught as they shoaled close to shore in the late summer. Carleon Cove was the site of fish cellars in the 1600s, which were based around a square courtyard, as can still be seen at neighbouring Cadgwith. Pilchards offered the community ‘meat, money and light, all in one night’, and almost everyone was involved in the catch and its processing. Rowing boats, directed by a ‘huer’ on the cliff top above, would enclose vast shoals of fish in seine nets, and then the fish would be scooped out with baskets. A boat was only full when struggling to stay afloat! Much of the catch was salted and pressed in barrels called hogsheads for export, and the oil was valuable too, used for lighting lamps.
The later serpentine factory removed any trace of the fish cellars, but the circular dry stone tower, dating to the 1700s, which housed the capstan for hauling fishing boats up the beach, still stands in an imposing position behind the cove.
Pilchards to serpentine
Sometime in the 1800s, fishing ceased to be important at Poltesco, and the valley was utilised for an entirely new industry, exploiting the Lizard’s unusual geology. Serpentine is a rare rock type nationally, but common on the Lizard, and when cut and polished the stone rivals marble in its beauty. Its dark colour and red and green veins struck a chord with Victorian fashion, and indeed the Queen herself ordered items from a Penzance factory for her house on the Isle of Wight and serpentine pieces were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A serpentine factory was established at Carleon Cove in the 1850s, initially using a large waterwheel to harness the power of the river, and later a steam engine. Great chunks of the chimney form part of the ruins visible today behind the beach, alongside the walls of the forge, workshops and the wheel pit. The factory produced items ranging from small trinkets, to vases, mantelpieces, fonts and shopfronts, and the Lizard Serpentine Company even had a showroom on the Strand. The initials LSC can still be seen on the warehouse building, although the factory later traded as The Poltesco Marble Company.