Port Quin – the Mystery of ‘the Hopeless Dawn’

port quin

Port Quin is a beautiful place, a picturesque little Cornish inlet. It is considered a safe habour, though somewhat shallow, with the rocks at its narrow entrance between Doyden Point and Kellan Head appearing to almost touch. Yet despite its sheltered position, and having Newquay and Padstow on one side and Port Isaac on the other, there is no longer a fishing fleet at Port Quin. In fact, it seems that there hasn’t been one here for as much as two hundred years. So, where did all the fishermen go?

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Port Quin, sometimes Porthqueen or Porthqwyn, is thought to mean ‘the white haven’, though no one is quite sure why. John Page, writing in 1897, calls the village “a wretched little handful of cottages” and surmises that the name might refer to the pale grey slate of the roofs.

The settlement is a place of some antiquity, first appearing in records in 1297. In 1327 the name Laurence De Porquin was noted in the Subsidy Rolls, an early form of taxation, and its supposed that he took his name from the little harbour. Then in 1415 Thomas Portqwyn, possibly a descendent of Laurence, was recorded paying a rent of “one red rose” for lands he held in the hamlet.

port quin

Fun Fact: Red Rose Rents – As far as I can understand a red rose rent was a kind of symbolic payment, usually of a small amount, made by a landowner to his local Lord. It is a form of ‘Quit Rent’ which is defined as “payments made by tenants to their Lord to excuse them from the customary manor services.” This red rose rent in Port Quin is by no means unique. Since 1381 a single red rose has been paid by the churchwardens of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower Church in the City of London to the Lord Mayor of Mansion House, and in Suffolk the town council continue the tradition of paying Sir William de Clopton his red rose by laying it on his tomb in Long Melford Church. This particular rent began in 1451 and the last payment at the time of writing was in 2020.

From Fish to Coal, Seaweed & Sand

All the sources seem to agree that just like its near neighbours, Port Quin was at one time a flourishing fishing village, but strangely the only mention I can find of a fishing fleet in this harbour comes from the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 1816. The small article discusses the large shoals of pilchards that have been seen on the north coast and notes that the fishermen of Port Quin, Newquay and Harlyn are keeping watch.

From the mid-19th century onwards however Port Quin is described as a port where coal is imported and as an excellent place for collecting seaweed and sand to use as fertiliser on the land. No mention of fish.

However, close to the shore, not far from the old ‘fishermen’s cottages’, there are large fish cellars once used for salting and storing pilchards. Though these lay in ruins for many years before being restored by a local family, it is clear that at some point Port Quin must have been part of Cornwall’s historic fishing industry.

So what happened?

port quin

The Legend of the Hopeless Dawn

There is a pervasive myth that is often repeated whenever Port Quin is mentioned. In fact it is often the only thing that anyone knows about the village.

A story that has become the history of the Port Quin and the inspiration for a famous painting that hangs in the Tate Gallery in London. Entitled ‘The Hopeless Dawn’, artist Frank Bramley’s atmospheric oil painting depicts the grief of a Cornish widow. She lies face buried in the lap of an older woman; on the table is an uneaten meal and there is a lit candle that has presumably been burning all night, the flames are right down to the top of the candlestick. Outside the window there is a grey sky and a wild sea. Created in 1888 it is said to portray tragic events at Port Quin.

“Tradition says that a gale of wind sank in a single night the entire fishing fleet and thirty-two women were widowed. The place never recovered from this disaster and is almost entirely deserted, only a few cottages being inhabited.”

A. G, Folliott-Stokes, 1928

The story that is told is that an entire generation of men was lost in a single night, a tragedy that left most of Port Quin’s women widows and its children fatherless . . .

But it is very unlikely that this dramatic event actually happened.

It appears to have been the invention of the ever-romantic, ever-a-little-bit-morbid Victorians. A tale that was told and retold until it became the acknowledged history of this quiet cove. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the truth was probably much more mundane.

The Decline & Fall of Port Quin

“Full of Ghosts – Where the storm came from or why it would be profitless and futile to ask. But come it did and Port Quin was changed for all time. Heartbroken mothers and widows and fatherless children picked up their belongings the next day and left, never to return. And from that day to this never a fishing boat has put out from Port Quin. The heart of the place was broken in a night and it has never been mended . . . The place was too full of ghosts. Ivy is climbing over the roofless walls, nettles, brambles and briars grow unchecked within. of the Wesleyan chapel where the fishermen would worship there is nothing left but a broken wall.”

Cornish Guardian, 2nd September 1937

The legend says that after the tragedy the womenfolk of Port Quin packed their bags and left the harbour never to return and that fishing boats were never seen in the cove again. But there are no contemporary accounts of these events, no parish records of multiple burials and no mention of the tragedy in the newspapers until the 1890s when they are suddenly presented as history.

However, it is clear by the many descriptions of the village in the late 19th, early 20th century as being deserted ruins that something happened. But whatever it was it was probably not all at once, not over in one night.

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The 1841 census records a thriving settlement of some 23 households in Port Quin, with a population of 96 men, women and children. The only strange thing is that a man called John Tambling is the only fishermen mentioned in the whole village, all the other men are noted as farmers or agricultural labourers. It would appear that by the early-19th century Port Quin had already moved away from fishing and was making its living from the land. The newspapers mention large quantities of sand and seaweed available from the harbour, being sold as fertiliser.

“Port Quin: This quaint little place was some years since a prosperous fishing village but now the fish cellars are turned to other uses and are crumbling to ruin.”

Cornwall & Devon Post, 20th August 1887

After 1841 the population steadily declined each successive decade. By 1891 there are just six households remaining in Port Quin, with only 20 people resident, many of them elderly.

port quin

Travel writers visiting the village in the 1920s describe a deserted place with ‘ruined walls and gaping roofs” and the myth of ‘The Hopeless Dawn’ was being readily repeated.

The Lakes Parochial History of the County of Cornwall published in 1867 might give us a real (though small) clue as to what actually happened to the fishermen of Port Quin.

“Port Quin or Guin is a village and small seaport . . . It is said to have been formerly a large fishing town now ‘all decayed’ as Norden says since the growing of Port Isaac. At present the trade is confined to a limited importation of coals.”

Although Port Quin was and still is considered a safe harbour, it is small and the narrow entrance makes it difficult to enter in rough seas or if you are unfamiliar with the area. Port Isaac was a much better option for a fishing fleet and it appears that at some point in the past, between 1816 and 1841 the fishermen of Port Quin abandoned their little harbour in favour of that expanding neighbouring port.

Not quite as dramatic as the ‘Hopeless Dawn’ legend would have us believe, but still sad none the less.

Visiting Port Quin Today

It is worth noting that it is possible that Port Quin’s beauty has been preserved because it became this forgotten backwater. There has been very little development here in comparison with its more successful neighbours. The little harbour has a frozen in time feel about it.

port quin

This truly stunning stretch of coast makes beautiful walking and Port Quin itself is also a very popular place for sea swimming and diving.

It is part owned by the National Trust and there is a small carpark paid for by donation. *Please note the roads to and from Port Quin are NOT suitable for large vehicles, caravans or campervans.

Further Reading

‘For the Fallen’ – the famous war poem written at Pentire Head

Captain John Piers – Cornish pirate

Walking Opportunities

Circular walk from Port Quin to Port Isaac.

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5 thoughts on “Port Quin – the Mystery of ‘the Hopeless Dawn’

  1. Thanks for putting the record straight about the story. I would like to correct a couple of small details in your blog. The National Trust owns less than half the cottages, nor does it own the fish cellars, which were renovated by my family in the early 80s. We don’t own it either.

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