Polperro has to be one of the most beautiful old fishing ports in Cornwall. Its atmospheric tangle of narrow streets, rows of fishermen’s cottages and picturesque harbour rightly conjure up images of smugglers and wily old sea-dogs. It is an impossibly charming Cornish harbour, much admired and much photographed but perhaps the most photographed building in the whole of this cosy seaside community is the Shell House.
Tucked away down a tight side street known as the Warren this house once belonged to a retired seaman called Samuel Puckey. Born in 1887 Samuel spent much of his life away at sea, visited wild and exotic places far from his native home, and while he was there he did what so many of us are guilty of. He collected shells. Boxes and boxes of shells.
The story of Shell House
When Puckey eventually retired he moved to Polperro and bought a house, then called ‘Peace Haven’. And it was then that he decided to put all those shells he had gathered to use. For five years he worked on decorated the outside of his new home. Between 1937 and 1942 he spent his days covering virtually every surface of the front of the building’s first two floors in the shells he had collected from around the world.
The beautiful ornamentations were pressed into plaster in a mostly random and abstract design but if you look closely you can spot tiny sea shell sea gulls, ships with sea shell sails and, perhaps most impressive of all, a scene that features the Eddystone Lighthouse framed in shells. On a clear day this wave-washed lighthouse can actually be seen out at sea from Polperro, about 10 miles off the coast, perched on its rocky reef. It must have been a scene familiar to Samuel during his time at sea – returning to Cornwall from distant lands and passing the Eddystone as the coast of home came into view.
Samuel lived in the Shell House until the late 1950s and it very quickly became a tourist attraction. In fact so many people were coming to see it and photograph his work that he decide to place a collection box outside and donated the hundreds of pounds given by passers-by each year to local charities and the parish church.
Shell House is a home once again
Samuel Puckey sold his Shell House in 1956, a few years before his death in 1965, and since then it has passed through many hands and taken on many different incarnations. It was a gift shop for a while in the 1960s, selling tourist trinkets and sea shells, of course. Then the house became a bookshop in the 1970s before it was sold again in the 1980s, once more reverting to a private home for a few years. It is now used as a holiday let.
Polperro’s Shell House became a listed building in 1986 in recognition of its unique design and its importance to the community and it remains to this day one of the most photographed buildings in Cornwall!