In our shop next to Fowey’s St Fimbarrus church, we often get asked what the big castle-like building is, surrounded by lush greenery, slap bang in the middle of Fowey.
Place House is not open to the public and has been home of the Treffry family since the thirteenth century. However, its origins could be a little murkier.
Fowey in the 1300s was a vibrant place with its narrow alleys, pungent smell of fish, and its own inhabitants dressed in richly coloured clothes. The taverns were packed with seamen speaking many languages – English, Cornish, Breton, French, Welsh and Irish (all medieval versions of one another).
Piracy had always been a normal characteristic of maritime life, a form of highway robbery at sea. During the 1300s, robbery at sea gradually evolved from spasmodic attacks on stray ships to a highly organised form of business financed by prosperous merchants.
In its piracy heyday, Fowey produced so many adventurous, if a little aggressive, seamen and merchants, who were strong and resourceful enough to put Fowey far ahead of all other ports in Europe in an occupation that was highly profitable.
The most successful Fowey pirate was Mark Mixtow, a licensed privateer whose small flotilla of three ships was supposed to be attacking enemy (French) vessels. But Mixtow could not resist the temptation to prey on just about every neutral ship he came across. After seizing a ship off Falmouth, looting the cargo at Fowey, and the plundering of several Spanish vessels, Mixtow became an embarrassment to the Crown and was asked to account for his deeds.
The fortunes of Fowey were built on piracy. It became a highly developed form of trade, and everybody was involved in it, from merchants to country squires and government officials.
Indeed, amongst the most famous merchant pirates of Fowey was a Treffry – whose family then went on to build Place House. Did a pirate’s scurrilously gathered fortune build Place House? We may never know.