Town History, Customs and Traditions

In the earth, the air, the soul... 

Discover St Ives' past and how tradition continues to play an important part in the town today.


Isolated for much of its existence except by sea, St Ives was a great seafaring town from the middle ages, with the largest fleet of fishing boats on the north coast of Cornwall. It wasn't until the wall and pier were built to create a safe harbour for the fishing fleet that the town you see today began to form.


Around the turn of the 20th century the pilchard schools which formed the backbone of the St Ives fishing industry deserted the bay area and the fishing fleet started its decline. However the town really began to open up to the outside world in 1877 when the Great Western Railway began running its Broad Gauge trains on the new branch line from St Erth. Not only did this increase accessibility to the rest of Cornwall for the town's residents but the railway made the town accesible for artists, who attracted by the quality of light in the area lead to the establishment of the most important artistic outpost in the country at that time. Later the railway enabled St Ives to establish itself as a popular holiday destination - a popularity which continues to this day. 


In 2007 St Ives was awarded the accolade of "Seaside Town of the Year" as voted for by Guardian readers and in May 2013 Queen Elizabeth II made her first visit to the town. Her Majesty and Prince Philip met the crew of the St Ives lifeboat station and also called in at the Tate Gallery above Porthmeor beach.

Today St Ives is easy to reach and there's a wealth of ancient culture to be explored here - the stones, the wells and ceremonies such as Model Yacht Sailing on Good Friday on Consols Pond, the Midsummer Eve Bonfire, the Fair Mo in early December, Mayor Choosing, Hurling of the Silver Ball on Feast Monday and, every five years, the John Knill commemoration first held in 1801. This is still a land apart - look around you.






St Ives enters recorded history with the arrival of St. Ia or Hya, the Irish princess who introduced Christianity to the area in the 5th Century.

St Nicholas' Chapel on "The Island"

The legend tells how Saint Ia, a Virgin Saint of noble birth went to the seashore to depart for Cornwall from her native Ireland along with other saints. Finding that they had gone without her and fearing that she was too young to undertake such a hazardous journey alone, she was grief stricken and began to pray.


As she prayed she noticed a little leaf floating on the water and touched it with a rod to see if it would sink. Lo, as she looked it grew bigger and bigger. Taking this as a sign from God, she climbed aboard the leaf and was straightaway wafted across the Channel, reaching her destination well before the others.


The legend goes on to say that she founded an oratory in a clearing of a wood on the site of the existing Parish Church that is dedicated to her. This 15th Century church has the rare distinction of having three church wardens, - said to have originated as one for the vicar, one for the seafarers and one for the miners and land workers.


The town of St Ives was granted its charter by King Edward I in 1295 and has gone from strength to strength ever since.




In 1549 during the Prayer Book Revolution the Provost Marshall came to St Ives and invited the Mayor, Mr John Payne, to lunch at the old George and Dragon in Market Place. He asked the Mayor to have the gallows erected during lunch. After lunch the Mayor and the Provost Marshall walked down to the gallows, the Provost Marshall ordered the Mayor to get up on the gallows whereupon the Mayor was hanged for being a Roman Catholic.


The importance of the town grew with the development of the harbour. Arthur Guinness, the brewer, used to sell beer to a Captain Sampson who brought the beer back as deck cargo and sold draught Guinness to his regulars in his pub on Skidden Hill, now a hotel. In the early days of St Ives, boats were built on the harbour foreshore by local craftsmen.


St Ives had its own shipping company in the form of The Hain Line. The company was formed in 1878 and had its headquarters in St Ives. The Hain Line combined with the Norge Company and others to become part of the P&O family in 1917 but continued to operate under its own name and colours up until 1964.


The Tin Industry also created its fair share of shipping business which no doubt led to the harbour being listed in 1830 as 'A Most Important Harbour'.

 A plaque on the Catholic Church tells the story.

The Lighthouse built on Smeaton's Pier Extension

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