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Falmouth Port
Falmouth, Cornwall
Falmouth Port
associated engineer
Not known
date  circa 1550
era  Tudor  |  category  Harbour  |  reference  SW817327
ICE reference number  HEW 1895
photo  Eleanor Knowles
Falmouth Port, on the estuary of Cornwall's River Fal and the Carrick Roads, is often cited as the third-deepest natural harbour in the world after Sydney and Milford Haven. It's a busy commercial port offering facilities to all kinds of merchant shipping, such as dry docks, bunker barges, cargo handling, lay-up berths, casualty moorings, underwater services and 24-hour pilotage.
Until Elizabethan times, Truro, 14km inland from Falmouth, was the main port but the increasing size of ships led to the development of deeper-water ports that were nearer to the sea. From 1688 to 1852 Falmouth was the packet port for the Royal Mail. After that, mail was sent from Southampton because it had a direct rail connection to London. At the peak of the service, 39 packet ships of between 183 and 213 tonnes plied their trade around the world.
In 1858, James Abernethy was appointed as engineer for the port, producing a scheme for five graving docks. The Falmouth Docks & Engineering Company was founded in 1859, after an Act of Parliament in both houses granted the building of the docks, and it became the statutory authority for the port. An 1870 Act of Parliament created the Falmouth Harbour Commissioners as statutory port undertaking. Some 50-60 hectares of foreshore and seabed were leased from the Duchy of Cornwall for the necessary works, and the foundation stone for the new docks was laid on 28th February 1860.
Construction of the Eastern Breakwater and the Western Wharf began in 1860 and completed in 1867. Dredging a deep-water channel, work on the Gridiron Wharf and the creation of two dry docks followed. No.1 Dock was completed in 1861 and the other works were completed by 1863, when the branch line railway from Truro was opened, which had a station near the wharves.
Falmouth began to develop as a ship repair centre and dockyard, in addition to the chandlery and victualling services already available. It was the first substantial Channel port that homeward bound ships reached and, with an entrance that is protected from south-westerly gales, became convenient for vessels damaged at sea. As trade increased, there was also a need for passengers to be put ashore for onward travel.
A number of associated businesses established themselves in and around the port, leasing land or renting space from the Docks Company. These included mills, foundries, smithies, engineering trades, ship builders/breakers and salvage merchants. Shipbuilding commenced in 1878.
In 1903 work was inaugurated on the Prince of Wales Pier, situated at right angles to the wharf (see separate entry). During the First World War (1914-18), the Admiralty began work on No.3 Dock, which was completed in 1921.
Around 1924 the demand for oil bunkers for shipping led to the construction of an oil tank storage facility south of the Eastern Breakwater with a capacity of 8,600 tonnes, nowadays this is nearer to 30,500 tonnes capacity.
Shipbuilding ceased in 1930 and the docks fell into disuse. However, work continued on the new Empire Wharf and the King's Wharf was constructed. No.1 Dock, originally 107m long, was reconstructed to accommodate ships up to 12,200 tonnes.
Between the wars No.2 Dock was enlarged and No.4 Dock was excavated, the latter being completed in 1928. In 1938 the Northern Arm was extended to provide deep-water berthage.
During the Second World War (1939-45) the harbour was crammed with vessels seeking refuge from the submarines in the Western Approaches. In 1942, the northern arm was rebuilt and the Queen's Wharf was completed. The docks were used for embarkation for the Normandy landings in 1944, and by the United States Army for their departure to "Omaha Beach".
By 1954, tankers of 32,500 tonnes dead weight were just about able to use the port but the docks were at full capacity. Between 1955 and 1958 No.2 Dock was enlarged and reconstructed, and renamed the Queen Elizabeth Dock by HRH Prince Philip on 16th May 1958. It is 259m long and 41.5m wide between the side walls, only 39.6m wide at the entrance, and has 11m depth of water over its sill at high water spring tides. A total of 229,400 cu m of stone and soil were excavated, so that the dock could accommodate tankers up to 91,400 tonnes, although it is too small to hold the super tankers that were developed a few years later.
The new County and Duchy Wharves were completed in 1958.
In 1985, the port passed from state ownership, under British Shipbuilders, to a private consortium. The repair business continues to thrive with naval craft, Channel ferries and merchant ships using the dock, wharfage and bunkering facilities. Luxury yachts are built and cruise ships visit regularly.
Black Rock, situated in the middle of the estuary, provides the main hazard to shipping approaching the port. Vessels are required to give as much notice of their estimated arrival time as possible, and normally not less than 24 hours. Pilotage is compulsory for vessels more than 75m long using the inner bay, Carrick Roads or the docks, and vessels more than 180m long using the outer bay, as well as all vessels carrying hazardous cargoes or not possessing local charts.
Supervising engineer: James Abernethy (1858)
Research: ECPK
"Falmouth Haven The Maritime History of a Great West Country Port"
by D.G. Wilson, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2007
"The Book of Falmouth & Penryn The story of two towns"
by Bob Dunstan assisted by Ruth Dunstan
Barracuda Books Ltd, Chesham, 1975
reference sources   CEH South

Falmouth Port