The history of Looe as a trading and fishing port can be traced to pre-medieval times.
During the 16th century, the twin towns of East and West Looe; linked by a bridge over the Looe River; were each granted a Royal Charter and were administered by a Mayor and Burgesses.
The Mayor and Burgesses of each town were also responsible for the repair and maintenance of the quays and foreshore on their respective sides of the river.
By the early 19th Century, Looe was not only a thriving fishing port but had become a major Cornish trading Harbour.
The late 1830’s saw the Burgesses of both East and West Looe trying to improve their respective harbour sides with slipways, jetties and new quay walls. However, these developments altered the flow of the river and during bad weather conditions, vessels moored either side of the harbour were damaged.
Vessel owners complained about the state of the harbour to the respective town Burgesses, which caused friction between the two Administrations.
The problem of conditions in the port remained and finally, complaints to the Government of the time resulted in Captain Vetch, an Admiralty surveyor, being sent from London in 1846 to study the situation in the port.
As a result of the report of Captain Vetch to the Admiralty, THE EAST AND WEST LOOE HARBOUR AND BRIDGE ACT was enacted by Parliament in 1848. This was . . .
“An Act for maintaining and improving the Harbour of LOOE, in the County of Cornwall and for taking down the present Bridge between East and West Looe across the said Harbour and erecting a new bridge thereof”
This is a Public Act and the recital of the 1848 Act referred to…
“the proper maintenance and improvement of the Harbour of LOOE which would promote the trade of the towns of East Looe and West Looe and of the adjacent towns and districts and would also benefit the fisheries. But the said harbour cannot be effectually maintained and improved unless the same be placed under one management”
The statutory instrument gave the Commissioners temporary powers to compulsory purchase parcels of land abutting the harbour below the bridge. Some of such land being returned to the original owners after one year. East Looe beach was one of the properties returned to the Burgesses of East Looe by the Commissioners. [To this day, the Commissioners still retain ownership of 10 feet of East Looe Beach abutting the Banjo Pier.]
The Commissioners also had jurisdiction over the tidal waters of the East and West rivers above and below the bridge and…
“1000 yards seaward of the old groyne.”.
(The “old groyne” was situated approximately where the toilets are today on the seafront at East Looe.)
The Act effectively took the management of Looe Harbour out of the hands of the squabbling Burgesses of East Looe and West Looe. The first Board of Looe Harbour Commissioners consisted of 15 men, who were responsible for the complete management of the Harbour. The Commissioners had powers to employ a Harbour Master and Clerk for the day to day running of the port.
Revenue for the upkeep of the Harbour was collected through the levy of “harbour dues”, rental of harbour side properties and dues levied on fish landings. [These methods of income are current as of this present day]. Under the new management regime, the harbour prospered and in 1858 a new Bridge was rebuilt farther upstream from the site of the old one.
The railway came to the harbour in 1860, thus spelling the demise of the Liskeard – Looe Canal and opening up a broader spectrum for the traders from the port of Looe. Rail track was laid along East Looe quay to the seafront. This facilitated easier and efficient loading and offloading of fish, timber, granite, cement and other commodities from the many large sailing [and later power driven] vessels which traded to and from the port.
When the Lifeboat Station was opened on the seafront at East Looe in 1866, the Harbour Commissioners constructed a slipway into the harbour to facilitate the launch of the Lifeboat should launching off East Looe beach due to tidal conditions be impossible. A standard self-righting rowing and sailing Lifeboat remained on station until 1930, when power driven boats made it obsolete and the RNLI closed the station. In 1992 the RNLI reopened the Looe Station with a “D” class inshore Lifeboat. In 2003 the new Albatross Lifeboat House became operational with an additional “Atlantic” class boat put on station. The new boathouse has been constructed abutting East Looe Quay with a new slipway to facilitate launching directly into the harbour.
The number of Harbour Commissioners has reduced over passing years, for various reasons, from 15 to 12.
By 1972, the 12 Commissioners included [as unelected co-optees] the Mayor of Looe Urban District Council and the Looe Railway Station Master. With Caradon District Council replacing Looe Urban Council and the demise of the position of the Looe Railway Station Master, the current Board now consists of 10 Commissioners elected triennially by the voters of Looe.
On 6 June 1985, the administration of the Harbour became a Charitable Trust and is now known as The East and West Looe Harbour and Bridge Charity. Looe is one of the only two Charitable Trust Harbours in Cornwall.
Since 1848 the Harbour has gone through many changes; primarily because of the nature of the “ups and downs” in the manner of trade through the port. Fishing has always been the main integral industry in the port and although methods of fishing and legislation have changed over the years, there is still a viable Fresh Fish Auction Market held each weekday on the quayside.
The modern Board of Commissioners have control of the two harbour side car parks, lease various units and buildings to fishing related industries as well as employ 10 persons for the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of harbour.
As well as moorings and quayside berths for some 85 private boats and dinghies; the fishing fleet at Looe consists of 47 vessels of various sizes [mainly under 10 metres in length] from Trawlers to hand line mackerel boats. The fleet employs approximately 120 fishermen with another 40 workers employed in the ancillary related industries.