Shipwreck Treasure Museum's very own daring history of adventure, pioneers and chilling tales...
Did you know we have six ground-breaking shipwreck treasure seekers to thank for locating and salvaging thousands of artefacts on display?
This band of early undersea explorers began locating shipwrecks and salvaging their contents in earnest in the 1960s. The museum owes its existence to the pioneering adventurers who brought long lost artefacts back to dry land that provide an incredible insight into the past.
Want to know all about us as Charlestown’s very own Shipwreck Treasure Museum?
Let us take you on the voyage of our story, starting from the very beginning, up to right now…
Before the harbour, the village of West Polmear was a small fishing village of just 9 cottages. That changed when local businessman, Charles Rashleigh, saw an opportunity in the growing china clay industry developing around St. Austell and decided to build a harbour. The harbour was built in 1799, and as a result of the prosperity he had brought to the village, the residents renamed the village Charles’ Town, which later became Charlestown.
Business is booming and the harbour grew with the community around it over time. The building that houses the museum is established as part of the China clay industry, used a storage building for blocks of China clay before they were dropped into the tunnels below for transportation to the ships in the harbour.
Fully loaded mine carts ran underneath the building taking tonnes of clay down chutes to load onto ships in the harbour.
From paper, to toothpaste, to space. Cornwall’s most precious cargo was off all over the world.
Charlestown saw huge success in the time of tall ships and horse drawn carriages, so much so that the road leading into Charlestown is the widest road of any road leading into a harbour in Cornwall, the road was designed to carry 4 china clay carts pulled by horses side by side in and out of the village. The harbour was full to capacity, with many of the first photographs showing wall to wall tall sailing ships, so much so that you could walk from one side to the other using the ships.
In time, faster methods became more commonplace in export and tall sail ships began to be replaced by steam alternatives. Yet the iconic tall ships never fully went away for Charlestown.
Though the harbour continues its exports, the would-be museum building ceases its operation in 1968 when it became more economical to transport clay in trucks directly to the harbour. The building falls into disrepair and is closed off to the public.
The building was saved by Richard and Bridget Larn, two divers who ran a diving training school called ProDive in Charlestown around that time, and the doors opened as The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre in 1976.
Richard and Bridget (along with their teams!) found and salvaged the majority of the collection at the museum and established the largest private collection of shipwreck artefacts anywhere in Europe.
The couple are regarded among Britain’s leading historic shipwreck experts and have written more than 65 books on the subject, including the guidebook available in the museum to this day!
1980’s / 1990’s
Charlestown becomes an increasingly popular spot for filming around the same time as the export of china clay decreases. When commercial ships become too large for the harbour, Charlestown ceases to be commercially viable, and shipments decrease over time, and eventually stops commercial exports completely.
The museum changes hands in 1998, and the Centre survives through the difficult climate.
The Charlestown Shipwreck and Heritage Centre continues as a staple and local favourite Cornwall attraction. In its 41-year lifetime the centre develops with a boating lake, a RNLI lifeboat, a packed Charlestown Heritage section, underground tunnels displaying clay mining history, an Audio-Visual room, a resident Sea Witch and the longstanding local fan favourite, Peg Leg Pascoe. Old Peg Leg welcomed visitors from his jail cell for more than 30 years, telling his tale of piracy and capture, he was adored by locals, and tolerated by staff.
2016 – Present
The centre is put up for sale and sold for £1.35 million in November 2016. With the acquisition in 2017, there’s many exciting plans to ensure that the museum continues to inspire, challenge, and captivate in equal measure, and so the renovations begin…
The underground tunnels grow with extensions, the shop is refurbished, exhibits are developed, brand-new shops and restaurants join the crew, custom artwork and stained windows add a splash of colour inside, and it’s finished with a swanky new paint job outside to tie everything together as the Merchants of Charlestown.
As with any shipwreck story, ours too had its share of difficulty, ingenuity and pioneering. From the rough seas of COVID to a few ironic floods, it’s been a little choppy in places, but nothing our expert crew can’t handle!
More daring explorers dive in than ever before and the museum becomes the second oldest tourist attraction in Cornwall!
2022 and on…
Now, with a whole new entrance, a new exhibition hall, and even more extensions to the tunnels.
With well over double the size we’ve had in the past, we’ve pushed the boat out and opened not one, but three brand-new exhibitions this year. Not only that, but we’ve added our own bespoke museum’s shop, even more incredible food, and a boatload of new events. But we’re not done yet, we’ve got a creative and curious a crew and brave captains of our own ready to brave uncharted waters.