In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Mousehole like this:
MOUSEHOLE, a village in St. Paul parish, Cornwall; on Mounts bay, 2.25 miles S of Penzance. It was formerly called Porth-Enys; was once a market-town; was burned in 1595 by the Spaniards; is now a seat of the pilchard fishery; and has a post-office under Penzance, a coast-guard station, and a Wesleyan chapel. St. Clement’s Island lies opposite the village near the shore; and had formerly a chapel. A charming terrace-road, with very fine views, goes along the margin of the bay from Mouse-hole to Penzance.
Mousehole’s ancient name was Porth Enys, the “port of the island”, a reference to St Clement’s Isle, the low rocky reef that lies just offshore and where a hermit is said to have once tended a guiding light. Opinions differ about the derivation of Mousehole’s intriguing present name. One local explanation is that it may derive from the Cornish Moeshayle, meaning “at the mouth of the river of young women”, but some authorities argue for the literal “mouse hole”, as being a reference to the original tiny harbour, or to a nearby sea cave. There are recordings of the name Mousehole being used as far back as 1242 and its seems that Mousehole and Porthenys were used equally for many years.
Back in the 13th century, Mousehole was the main port in Mounts Bay and remained so well into the 16th century until Penzance and Newlyn began to gain ascendancy. In 1337 when Edward Woodstock, son of Edward III, became Duke of Cornwall, annual payments were levied on all ports and had to be paid to the Duchy. These were based on the number of boats fishing. In that year St. Ives was assessed at 120 shillings, Mousehole 100 shillings, Penzance 12 shillings and Newlyn 10 shillings.
Mousehole exported cured fish train oil and woollen cloth to the English garrisons of Gascony in the fourteenth century and brought back salt for fish curing. Its breakwater was the earliest in Cornwall, begun in 1393
Thus it seems all went well for Mousehole until the Spanish Raid of 1595, after that things were never quite the same.
However, even in the last century there were still hundreds of people employed in Mousehole in fishing, packing and transporting of fish. Over the years the harbour walls were gradually extended and built to cater for the hive of activity taking place. In the early 20th century, there were still over 70 commercial fishing boats based in Mousehole, mainly fishing for pilchard. It was claimed that, when the fleet was in port, you could walk across from one pier to the other without getting wet by stepping on the boats moored up.
By the early 1590’s, the war between Spain and England had settled into an uneasy stalemate. However, this culminated in a raid by the Spanish on Mount’s Bay in July 1595 which had disastrous consequences for Mousehole. Control of local defence efforts in Cornwall lay in the hands of the Deputy Lieutenants, Sir William Mohun and Sir Francis Godolphin. In 1588, at any rate in theory, Cornwall had claimed to be able to furnish for its defence 5,560 men, including 1,395 shot, 633 corselets, 1956 bills and halberds, 1528 bows, 4 lances and 96 light horse, and the totals were probably roughly similar seven years later.
The main problem with the defence of Cornwall lay in its isolation, and the great length of coastline, with its many bays and deepwater inlets which were potential landing points. Mount’s Bay was singled out by the Spanish and in July 1595 Spanish galleys dropped anchor off Mousehole harbour to ferry ashore a force estimated at 200 pike and shot. The Spanish burnt the village and some surrounding hamlets, including the village of Paul. The inhabitants had made off in panic. However, Jenkyn Keigwin alone stood defiantly outside his home “The Keigwin” until he was shot dead by a Spaniard, the musket ball sinking deeply into the door behind him. While these invaders were soon despatched, this event marked the last time England was ever invaded by hostile forces. Keigwin House still stands today and is the oldest house in the village, built in the 14th Century.
Mousehole harbour was always exposed to hard southerly gales. The most famous wreck is the Thames barge, “Baltic”, which was bound for Newlyn with cement when she ran onto Mousehole Island on a rough November night in 1907. Her crew, and the captain’s wife and daughter, were rescued by six Mousehole fishermen who manned the crabbing boat “White Lady”, which had to be manhandled over the great baulks that closed the harbour mouth against the winter seas. The “Baltic” was salvaged and now lies as a hulk in a muddy creek in Essex, but a young Irish sailor onboard settled in Mousehole and married the Harbourmaster’s daughter.
Mousehole supplied the crews of the RNLI lifeboats after the station was transferred in 1913 to the lifeboat house which still stands on Penlee. The Penlee lifeboats carried out many heoric rescues, including saving those onboard the famous old battleship “Warspite” which, on tow for the scrapyard, was driven ashore by a SW gale at Prussia Cove on 25 April 1947.
The village is not without a long and at times traumatic history. The Penlee lifeboat disaster occurred on 19 December 1981 off the coast of Cornwall. The Penlee Lifeboat went to the aid of the coaster Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas. Conditions were atrocious with hurricane force winds and waves up to 60 feet high. After the lifeboat had managed to rescue four people, both vessels were lost with all hands. In all, sixteen people died including eight volunteer lifeboatmen, all from the village.
The memory of the event lives on. Every year, on the 19th December, the famous Christmas lights are switched off, in memory of those who gave their lives. This tragedy is commemorated in a Garden of Remembrance just to the north of Mousehole on the road to Newlyn at the Penlee station which was closed after the lifeboat “Solomon Browne” was lost. The present Penlee lifeboat is based in Newlyn.