The earliest reference to Helston is when Harold, who was Earl of Cornwall, became King after the death of his brother-in-law, Edward the Confessor – this was on the 5th January 1066. At the Domesday Inquest in 1088, Helston was still held by the Crown and contained 4,760 acres. The Manor of Helston was considerably larger than it is today; taking in the whole of Wendron and large portions of Stithians.
Like most towns, Helston had its own fortification. This was in the form of a castle which was situated in the vicinity of the Bowling Green. It is reputed to have been built during the reign of Edmund, Earl of Cornwall (1272-1300). The location of the fortification was chosen because at that time enemy ships had access to the town from the sea. The incoming tide met with the River Cober and formed a tidal creek. Towards the end of the 13th Century, Helston was completely cut off from the sea by the sudden formation of a bank of shingle known as the Loe Bar. This blocked the mouth of the creek. To make up for the loss of their harbour, the townspeople acquired the nearby port of Gweek.
On the 15th of April 1201, Helston was granted its First Charter by King John. The Charter gave the people certain privileges and probably the greatest was that tenants could hold houses and lands under their landlords, instead of being peasants working under conditions of slavery. It also gave the inhabitants the right to be tried in their own courts – a privilege taken away from the townspeople in 1990.
A Charter of 1305 granted by King Richard made Helston one of the five Coinage Towns in Cornwall. The town was surrounded by tin mines and the granting of this Charter made the town very prosperous. Tin mined in the area would be brought to Helston to be assayed and a Coinage Hall was built for this purpose. The Coinage Hall, along with a Duchy Officers’ House, a gaol and the Chapel of Our Lady, were built in the middle of the main street, or Coinagehall Street as it is known today. These buildings were demolished at the beginning of the 19th Century.
The above mentioned port of Gweek was an important place for the export of tin until comparatively late times. Ancient roads connecting it with tin bearing country can still be traced.
In 1336 another Charter was granted. This gave the town a weekly market and four annual fairs. The income from the market and fairs helped considerably with the finances of the town.
In 1576 a large Market House was built where the Guildhall stands today. This included a Corn Exchange, Meat and Fish Market. This was replaced in 1839 by the present Guildhall, a new and larger Market House being built simultaneously. This large Market House was built during a very prosperous time in the town’s history. Hundreds of men and women were employed in the local and very productive tin mines, and would converge on the town. This Market House became the town’s Museum in 1949.
Helston from 1294-1832 was an important Parliamentary constituency returning two Members of Parliament. By the Reform Act of 1832, Helston was deprived of one of its members and by the Redistribution of Seats Act; it was deprived of the other in 1885.
Various members of the Godolphin family represented Helston in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Sidney Godolphin was described as the greatest statesman to come out of Cornwall. The Godolphins, who were great benefactors to the town, obtained their wealth from a local tin mine, Great Work.
Their town house in Coinagehall Street, now known as The Angel Hotel, was a convenient base for business meetings and mining transactions. St. Michael’s Church was struck by lightning in 1727 and rapidly fell into disrepair. The townspeople were not in the position financially to restore the church and appealed to Francis, Earl of Godolphin for help. He then undertook to pay for the entire cost of the rebuilding, which amounted to around £6,000. The church was re-opened for divine worship on the 18th of October,1761.
In 1767, Lord Godolphin presented six bells to the church – a further two being added in 1904, making a peal of eight.
Education has always played a prime role in the town. A Grammar School was established as early as 1550. It was known as the “Little Eton of England”. Among its celebrated headmasters were the Reverend Derwent Coleridge, son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Reverend C.A. Johns, author of “A Week at The Lizard” and “Flowers of the Field”.
One of the school’s most distinguished pupils was Charles Kingsley, author and poet. Comprehensive Education was introduced in 1972 which saw the demise of the Grammar School in the town.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, Helston was becoming a very depressed town with so many mines closing in the area. The traders were suffering extreme difficulties and many small shops closed to make way to bigger, family-owned businesses. This mode of trading continued well into the 20th Century. However, the Helston Railway Act of 1880 sanctioned the construction of a branch line of eight and three-quarter miles from Gwinear Road Station through to Helston. This improved trade both for farmers exporting their produce to up-country markets and also brought goods to retailers in the town. Tourism increased and passengers alighting at the Station were taken to newly built Hotels on the Lizard peninsula.
In 1962 the passenger service to Helston Station came to an end under the Beeching plan, for economic reasons – one of 2,500 stations throughout the country to face closure. Helston Station remained open for a further two years to cope with the still busy freight service. The end of an era came with the closure of the Station on the 4th of October 1964.
The building of what has become the largest Naval base in the country, Culdrose, in 1947 again saw great changes in the town. Civilian employment was one of the key issues and Helston became a very prosperous town again in the 1960s. The 1960s saw a rapid growth in building and new estates sprang up around the town. All this led to the prosperity of the town. Sadly, today we are again witnessing the loss of many small traders, due mainly to the modern ‘out of town’ shopping complexes and the advent of the internet.
However, the town still retains many of its ancient features and its time-honoured annual Flora Day festival, the latter being an occasion for Helstonians to celebrate and look to the future.
Unfortunately through decline and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, Helston Cattle Market closed in February 2001. The area once occupied by the market has been incorporated into Coronation Park, where there is also a skate park and a community building aptly named The Old Cattle Market; these, together with a Lakeside Café, afford perfect leisure facilities.
One must be optimistic that history will, in some respects, repeat itself and Helston will be known once again, as in years gone by, as “The Metropolis of the West”.
Compiled by Martin Matthews, Honorary Freeman of Helston