Down to the sea in ships

Anne Gardom pays a visit to Falmouth


The National Maritime Museum Cornwall, is an exciting and beautiful combination of skills and ideas. Small boats have been part of our national life as far as memory can stretch and archaeology reveal. In the harbour at Falmouth this purpose-built museum tells their story.

The museum itself stands in the sea at the end of Falmouth Harbour. In front of it is a generous open space surrounded by little shops and cafes, behind it Falmouth harbour and the masts of small boats. Its silver-grey wooden cladding gives it a traditional and permanent look, and at the far end its tower, topped with a small restaurant and a viewing balcony, stands in the waters of the tidal basin.

The museum is designed to tell the story of small boats – their users and their uses, the skills that made them, the men that sailed them and the stories told about them. It brings together under one roof the Small Boat Collection from the Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and the varied contents of the Cornwall Maritime Museum in Falmouth. Thus it tells the story of small boats world-wide, and especially as these relate to the history of Falmouth.

Close up

"Small boats are shaped by the lives of those whom know and use them" – this is the theme of the first display on entering the museum. To the sound of the sea you enter a display area, where a multiplicity of small boats is suspended in space. A ramp leads up one side of the wall, giving you a chance to see the boats from close up.

As you walk up there are push-button display screens which give you information about the different boats, and behind is a large screen displaying photographs of oyster-catching, Thames launches, canoeing in mountain rivers, demonstrating the different uses of boats all over the world – even the drama of a thunderstorm at sea!

The different uses of boats is explored in display cases with pull-out drawers for extra information and exhibits. Leisure boating and the rise of the Mirror dinghy – the very first popular D.I.Y. Boat (it was an enormous boost to the leisure boating industry and still remains popular) is in one showcase. Another shows Ellen McArthur and her round the world solo journey. There is a display of whaling – with bone carvings and scrimshaw made by the sailors in their time off from this tough and hazardous way of making a living. The endless adaptability and ingenuity of the makers and users of the small craft is the subject of these displays.

In the Central Hall is a perfect flotilla of small boats. The collection available is so large that the boats on display will be changed periodically. The height of the hall was designed so that the boats could be fully rigged and hung from the roof, and the stairs and the ramps around the hall enable you to see them from all angles; press-button interactive screens give information on individual boats in this very varied collection of small craft.

Here also is a chance to test sailing skills without having to go to sea, using a purpose-built tank with eight remote-controlled sailing boats. There is a constant steady breeze and a course laid out in the tank. Helming and sail control can be practised without any danger of even getting your feet wet.

"You must run when you can, you must fight when you can no longer run, and when you can fight no more you must sink the mails before you strike". These were instructions for a packet ship captains.

Far flung

Falmouth was famous for its packet ships and a gallery is devoted to this fascinating aspect of its history. The packet ships were Britain’s first regular international communication and ran from the late 1600s to about 1850. They sailed from Falmouth to such destinations as Lisbon, Cadiz, Gibraltar and further afield to Buenos Aires, Jamaica and Barbados. They flew their own flags and traded under their own titles – one was Peninsular and Oriental, still well known today as P&O. They carried mail, passengers, and goods such as sugar, tobacco, silk, tea and porcelain. The packet ship captains became wealthy men and built themselves mansions in and around Falmouth. The Church of St Michael and All Angels was built by them so that their wives and daughters could worship secluded from the rougher elements of Falmouth parish church! Falmouth, the first landfall in Britain, was the centre of these vital lines of communication all over the world.

The movement of people through Falmouth is part of its history. Emigrants left from this port to seek new lives in Australia, Canada and America. Their travelling conditions were harsh, the lists of instructions and requirements for the journey make daunting reading. When they reached their destination, the spades, scythe and shovels they brought with them were an essential part of their equipment to survive.

Later on in the Second World War, Falmouth was one of the south coast ports used for the D-Day landings. Thousands of American soldiers were billeted down in Cornwall. In conditions of great secrecy and security, landing craft were built, jetties constructed and small harbours and beaches adapted for the use of these boats. The photographs and the newspaper articles describe events well within living memory, and still part of the history of this place.

The actual building of boats has always been important in Falmouth and there is, in this museum, an area where boat-building and repairs are carried out. Here you can learn about the huge variety of materials from which boats are made, why they are made in special shapes and sizes, who built them, and why they don’t sink. The museum’s own boats are worked on in this part of the museum, and watching people at work is always a pleasure.


The Tower at the end of the Museum is built out into the sea. The base of it is under sea level at high tide and you can have a fish’s-eye view of Falmouth Harbour. The tide comes in quite quickly and small fish, marine shrimps, sometimes large fish and barnacles can be seen. When the tide goes out you look across mud flats and see how the seagulls and other scavengers are part of this demanding and constantly changing habitat.

At the top of the Tower an all-round glassed-in gallery gives views of the whole town and harbour. It is possible see the two castles of St Mawes and Pendennis, the Customs House, the captains’ houses; out in the harbour there are dozens of pleasure boats of every kind, ferries and fishing boats. The screens give inter-active information on what you see, and the telescopes and powerful binoculars make the view endlessly fascinating.

Britain is a nation with a great maritime history. This Museum, with its high purpose-built spaces and galleries, gives us a chance to learn about this history by allowing us to share briefly in the lives of those who have made their living on the sea and still do so.

The Museum open daily 10:00–17:00.


Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent of New Directions


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