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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Falmouth, 1860-3

FOR a period of 180 years, from 1688 to 1850, with the exception of an interval of a few months, Falmouth was the Mail Packet Station of the Kingdom, and thence mails were despatched periodically to Lisbon, Cadiz, Oporto, Gibraltar, and the Mediterranean, Halifax, New York, Bermuda, Barbadoes, Jamaica, and the other West Indian Islands, Mexico and the Havannah, Brazil and Buenos Ayres. In this service some thirty-nine sailing packets were employed, and for some years after the majority of them had been superseded by steamers, Falmouth continued to be the Mail Packet Station of the Post Office for the despatch of mails to America and the West Indies.

As far back as the year 1838, the Government had contracted with a Company, of which Mr. Cunard was Chairman, for the conveyance of the North American Mails from Liverpool, and a further contract was made in 1842 with the Peninsula and West India Companies for the transport of the West Indian and Mexican Mails from Southampton, but these mails were still, by the terms of the contract, embarked and landed at Falmouth. It was alleged, howevei, that Falmouth did not possess railway communication, and that the great increase of commerce rendered it necessary that the Mail Packet Station should be at some port possessing that advantage.

The Peninsula and West India Companies also exhibited a strong desire to be absolved from the arrangement which compelled them to call at Falmouth, instead of steaming direct to the more eastern port of Southampton, and endeavoured to influence the Government to concede that point in their favour. In the year 1840 a Commission was appointed by the Admiralty to examine the ports of the English Channel, and to recommend the one in their judgment the most suitable for a Packet Station. Dartmouth was the port selected, but the House of Commons refused to accept the choice, and appointed a Committee to undertake the duty afresh. This Committee, after a long enquiry, reported, That having proceeded with the utmost diligence in the examination of witnesses to establish the capabilities and relative merits of different ports for the service embraced by the order of the House, and the subject of the contract before mentioned, they present the following resolutions as their opinion upon the evidence :—

“Resolved: That, notwithstanding the port of Dartmouth has been recommended by the Committee, appointed by the Admiralty, as the port of departure and arrival of the West India mail packet, this Committee are not prepared to recommend that Dartmouth should be selected for that service.

“That they consider a western port most desirable for landing and embarking the mails to and from the West Indies, and that provided a railway existed to the southwest of Land’s End, and a harbour was constructed in that neighbourhood where the mails might with facility be put on board and landed, they would unhesitatingly recommend that harbour to then lordship’s adoption.”

They thought it “proper to premise, that in a selection of a western port for a station for the delivery and reception of the West Indian mails, in preference to one situated more to the eastward, they took into account the greater degree of uncertainty winch is attached to the transport of mails by steam vessels compared with that in which a coach or railroad becomes the median: of conveyance; and as it respects the eastern port, it should be borne in mind that the correspondence to and from the western part of our shores would be subject to a carriage in both cases, by sea and land, very wide of their destination.”

The witnesses examined, and upon whose evidence the report of the Committee was largely based, were officers of high standing in Her Majesty’s Navy and representatives of the Post Office, and both the Admiralty and the Post Office were in favour of retaining Falmouth as the Packet Station for the West India Mail Service. The Treasury, however, eventually yielded to the influence brought to bear upon it in favour of Southampton, and in September, 1843, the carrying Companies were permitted to embark and land mails at the latter port. In 1850 the mail service to Madeira and Brazil was also withdrawn, and Falmouth ceased altogether to be a Packet Station, and so lost a branch of Government patronage which it had enjoyed for nearly two centuries. The mails were transferred to Southampton and Liverpool, from which two ports they continue to be sent

It was not, however, it will be observed, until great pressure had been brought to bear on the Government of the day that the transference was accomplished. It was admitted that as regards geographical position and the extent and excellence of her harbour, Falmouth stood unrivalled as a mail station. It could be entered at all states of the tide by the largest vessels in almost any wind, and when once they got inside they were as safe as in a dock. In addition to this, vessels stopping there would avoid the delay and dangers of the further channel navigation to the Solent of some 200 miles, and thence up the narrow and crowded Southampton Water for a distance of another ten miles, before the Port of Southampton is reached. In point of time, some ten hours, at least, would, it was maintained be easily saved in the delivery and transmission of mails to London, if a direct railway communication extended to Falmouth, and it was further thought that the majority of passengers arriving from abroad would gladly avail themselves of the earliest opportunity of terminating their voyage.

There was good reason to expect, therefore, that with improved harbour accommodation and a through line of railway to London, the absence of which had been the only real disadvantage urged against the port by the Peninsula and West India Companies, and the importance of constructing which had been recognised by the Committee of the House of Commons, a portion, at any rate, of the lost patronage would return; and upon the many grounds of its large area and safety as a harbour, increased expedition, public convenience, and facility of communication by the extension of the Cornwall Railway from Truro to Falmouth, which was duly opened on August 22nd, 1863, the Directors of the Falmouth Docks, of whom Mr. Baring, M.P. for Falmouth and Penryn, (Lord Northbrook) was Chairman, confidently anticipated that Falmuuth would again one day become what her position and great natural capabilities pre-eminently qualified her to be, the great mail packet station, or perhaps even as Earl St. Vincent, when First Lord of the Admiralty at the beginning of the century, predicted, the general, free and warehousing port of all England/’ and obtained the sanction of Parliament to construct there large and efficient docks.

The surface area of Falmouth harbour is upwards of nine square miles. Of this the principal part is the great anchorage of Carrick Road, four nautical miles in length, and, on an average, one in breadth. On the western side and just within the entrance, which is a mile in width, is the inner harbour, an oval land-locked basin, formerly the anchorage of the packets, with the town of Falmouth on the southern shore, and Flushing opposite. A creek extends from the upper part foi about a mile-and a-half beyond these towns, at the head of which is the ancient borough of Penryn, noted for its large granite works. Various other creeks run inland from the harbour making up a total shore mileage of sorne seventy miles.

The inner harbour is a nearly land-locked basin to the west of Garrick Road, and immediately at the back of Pendennis Hill. It opens from Carrick Road with a breadth of 1,000 yards measured from Bar Point, the northern extremity of Perdennia to Trefusis Point opposite. Its greatest breadth from a deep bight inside the Bar Point to Kiln Quay, Trefusis, is three-quarters of a mile, and from this it gradually narrows to about 1,000 yards at the Ferry between Falmouth and Flushing, where it becomes Penryn River.

It was in connection with this inner harbour that the Falmouth Docks Company, in 1860, invited Mr. Abernethy to design and execute dock works by which its natural advantages were further improved, and rendered in every way available for the requirements of commerce and shipping. Graving docks were built where large sailing vessels and steamers might be docked and repaired; and provision made for landing passengers at the railway terminus, where the depth of water was such that the largest class of steamers in those days might lie alongside and cargoes be shipped, discharged, or warehoused, with the greatest facility.

These works are situated on the southern side immediately under Penrlennis Castle, and within five minutes steaming of the open sea. A site more admirably adapted both by reason of its well sheltered position and its easy access at all times and states of tide and weather, could scarcely be conceived. The area embraced by the works is about 120 acres, comprising a tidal harbour, floating dock, graving docks, warehouses, etc., and the entrance channel to them is 600 feet in width, with a depth of 18 to 20 feet of water at low water spring tides.

The tidal harbour area exceeds 42 acres, and its depth varies from 23 to 18 feet. It is enclosed on the east side by the Prince of Wales’ Breakwater, 1,400 feet in length; on the west, by wharves of about 1,200 feet in length, in the centre of which is the opening to the floating dock; and on the north by a breakwater and wharf 1,500 feet n length, which completes the enclosure with the exception of a space of 450 feet between it and the head of the Prince of Wales’ Breakwater. The floating dock is 14 acres in extent, and there are two graving docks, one 400 feet by 35 feet, and the other 350 feet by 50 feet. All these works were executed at a cost of 120,000 within the short space of two years, a result largely due to the supervision of the resident engineer, Mr. J. R. Kellock, and the constant attention and energy which the Chairman, the Directors, and the late Mr. T. H. Tilly, solicitor, displayed from the commencement of operations.

His Royal Highness the late Prince Consort took considerable interest in the Falmouth Dock Bill of 1860, and by special request Mr. Abernethy attended at Buckingham Palace on Sunday, March 4th, 1860, and had the honour of explaining the plans to him. H.R.H. the Prince of Wales was also present at the interview.



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