Penzance is a town, civil parish and port in Cornwall, England. It is well known for being the most westerly major town in Cornwall and is approximately 75 miles (121 km) west of Plymouth and 300 miles (480 km) west-southwest of London. Situated in the shelter of Mount's Bay, the town faces south-east onto the English Channel, is bordered to the west by the fishing port of Newlyn, to the north by the civil parish of Madron and to the east by the civil parish of Ludgvan.
Prehistory to Early Medieval period
Approximately 400 prehistoric stone axes, known as Group 1 axes and made from greenstone, have been found all over Britain, which from petrological analysis appear to come from west Cornwall. Although the quarry has not been identified, it has been suggested that the Gear, a rock now submerged half a mile from the shore at Penzance, may be the site. A significant amount of trade is indicated as many have been found elsewhere in Britain. The earliest evidence of settlement in Penzance is from the Bronze Age. A number of bronze implements such as a palstave, a spear-head, a knife, and pins, along with much pottery and large quantities of charcoal were discovered when building a new housing estate, at Tredarvah, to the west of Alverton. The defensive earthwork known as Lescudjack Castle is not excavated, but almost certainly belongs to the Iron Age. A single rampart encloses three acres of hilltop, and would have dominated the approach to the area from the east. There are no signs of the additional ramparts reported by William Hals in about 1730, and the site is now surrounded by housing with allotments. Excavations in 2008 to the west at Penwith College found an enclosure ditch and pottery indicating a settlement and, an evolving field system with ditches and interconnecting pits suggesting water management. There are traces of a rampart and ditch to the west of Penzance at Mount Misery, and an oval rampart and ditch at Lesingey above the St Just road, which together with Lescudjack, overlook the coast of Penzance and Newlyn.
Until recently, there was little evidence for anything but an early and short Roman occupation of Cornwall. The fort at Nanstallon was occupied from AD 54 to AD 80. With the recent discovery of a Roman fort at Calstock, and a site with multiple complexes near the Norman castle at Restormel, now tentatively accepted as being occupied from AD 54 into the 3rd or 4th century in east Cornwall, the Roman occupation appears more extensive than archaeologists formerly believed. The only evidence so far found, of the Romans in Penzance, are three finds. In August 1899 two coins of Vespasian (69-79 AD) were found in an ancient trench in Penzance Cemetery. The coins were eight feet below ground together with some cow bones, and are now in the Penlee House Museum. A 1934 find from the Alverton area is described as a ″coin of the reign of Constantine the Great″, and was also donated to the museum. A 30 mm (1 3/16 in) sestertius was found on a building site in or around Penzance about ten years previously, and was presented to the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Larger quantities of Roman coins have been found, nearby, at Marazion Marsh and Kerris in Paul parish, but there is no evidence of any Roman settlement in the area, although nearby villages such as Chysauster were occupied at this time.
The Hundred of Penwith had its ancient centre at Connerton, now buried beneath the sands of Gwithian Towans at Gwithian. A Hundred was a Saxon administrative unit which was sub-divided into tithings. The Manor of Alverton, with an area of 64 Cornish acres, gave its name to the second largest tithing in Penwith. The manor included Penzance as well as parts of Madron, Paul, St Buryan and Sancreed.
Although Penzance is not mentioned in the Domesday Book it is likely that the area would have been included. Domesday records that in 1066 the Manor of Alwarton was owned by Alward who was dispossessed by Robert, Count of Mortain, a half-brother of William the Conqueror. The name Alward and tun, a personal name combined with a town or settlement suffix, indicate Saxon land ownership. In Cornwall the tun indicates a manorial centre such as Helston or Connerton. The change of ownership in 1066 was a change from one alien landlord to another, and the name Alverton lives on as the western part of Penzance from St John’s Hall, to the housing estate on the west side of the River Laregan.
High and Late Middle Ages
The first mention of the name Pensans is in the Assize Roll of 1284, and the first mention of the actual church that gave Penzance its name, is from a manuscript written by William Borlase in 1750: ″The ancient chapel belonging to the town of Penzance may be seen in a fish cellar, near the key; it is small and as I remember had the image of the Virgin Mary in it.″ The chapel was built of greenstone and approximately 30 ft in length and 15 ft in breadth of which only a fragment remained in situ and in around 1800 the chapel was converted to a fish cellar. A carving in "Ludgvan granite" thought to be of St Anthony was removed in about 1830 and was used in the wall of a pig sty which was further vandalised in 1850 when "a stranger ... taking fancy to the stony countenance and rough hands, they were broken off and carried away as relics ...". The remains of the vandalised relic were taken to St Mary’s Churchyard by a mason who told Mr Millett that he "popped St Raffidy into a wheelbarrow and trundle him off to the chapel yard." The carving remains in St Mary’s Churchyard and has been dated by Prof Charles Thomas as early 12th century. There are no early documents mentioning the actual dedication to St Anthony which seems to depend entirely on tradition and may be groundless. A licence for Divine Service in the Chapel of St Gabriel and St Raphael was granted in 1429 and nothing more is known of this chapel except, possibly, for the mason who mentioned ″St Raffidy″ in 1850. Adjoining the chapel is St Anthony’s Gardens named in 1933 and containing an archway said to have been taken from the chapel site.
Dominating the skyline above the harbour is the present church of St Mary's. A St Mary's Chapel is mentioned in a 1548 document which states that it was founded by Sir Henry Tyes, Knight Lord of the Manor of Alverton who gave a £4 stipend for a priest. There is an earlier document from 1379, when Bishop Brantyngham licenced for services "the chapel of Blessed Mary of Pensande". At this date it was probably used as a chapel of ease and not used for Sunday services which would have affected the attendance at the Parish Church in Madron. Further evidence of historical settlement from this period is in the St Clare area of the town, where a chapel existed to St Clare or Cleer. The earliest reference is a lease of 1584 "...a certain chapel situate below the high road between Pensaunce and Madderne." In the early part of the 19th century the foundations of a building, said to be the chapel, was discovered and enough was exposed to show the shape of the building. An episcopal licence cannot be traced for this chapel. The name, St Clare, lives on in the town as "St Clare Street" which is part of the road from Penzance to Madron and the St Clare cricket ground at the top of the hill.
Markets were held on a fixed day each week and fairs on fixed date(s) each year. To obtain either, a manorial lord had to apply for a royal charter. The right to hold a market each Wednesday was granted by King Edward III to Alice de Lisle, sister of Lord Tyes and widow of Warin de Lisle, on 25 April 1332; a fair, lasting seven days at the Feast of St Peter ad Vincula on 1 August; and another fair of seven days on 24 August at Mousehole for the feast of St Bartholomew – later to be held in Penzance. The settlement was growing in importance as the weekly Wednesday market was confirmed by King Henry IV and three further fairs, each of two days, was granted on 8 April 1404. These were at the Feast of the Conception of Virgin Mary (8 December), St Peter in Cathedra (22 February) and the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (8 September).
It is not known when a quay was built at Penzance as there is no grant or licence but an Inquest as to the Manor of Alverton in 1322 records eight fishing boats each paying 2 shillings each, and an unspecified number at Mousehole each paying 12 shillings. There was also a payment of 8 shillings for the rent of logii (huts or sheds) of foreign fishermen i.e. those outside the manor. At a second Inquest in 1327 the number had risen to 13 at Penzance; with 16 recorded at Mousehole and both now paying only 1 shilling each: the total rent for logii was 8s/6d (42½p) with 17 tenants paying 6d (2½p) each. Both Inquests record 29 burgesses at Penzance and 40 at Mousehole. A burgess paid his rent with money rather than with personal services and indicated that Penzance and Mousehole were considered to be towns. A comparison of the settlements in West Cornwall can be made with the annual payments, based on the number of fishing boats, made to the Duchy of Cornwall in 1337: Porthia (St Ives) £6; Mosehole (Mousehole) £5; Marcasion (Marazion) £3; Pensanns (Penzance) 12s (60p); Londeseynde (Land's End, (Sennen Cove) 10s (50p); Nywelyn (Newlyn) 10s; and Portmynster (Porthminster, St Ives) 2s (10p). In 1425, 1432 and 1440 ships in Penzance were licenced to carry pilgrims to the shrine of St James of Compostella, in north-west Spain.
In medieval times and later, Penzance was subject to frequent raiding by "Turkish pirates", in fact Barbary Corsairs. Throughout the period before Penzance gained borough status in 1614 the village and surrounding areas continued to be within the control of the Manor of Alverton and was subject to the taxation regime of that manor.
Early modern period
In the summer of 1578 Penzance was visited by the plague. The burial registers of Madron (where all Penzance births, deaths and marriages were recorded) shows a massive increase in deaths for 1578, from 12 the previous year to 155. This is estimated to be about 10% of the population of the village at the time. The plague also returned in 1647 and the registers again show an increase of from 22 burials to 217 in one year.
Being at the far west of Cornwall, Penzance and the surrounding villages have been sacked many times by foreign fleets. On 23 July 1595, several years after the Spanish Armada of 1588, a Spanish force under Don Carlos de Amesquita, which had been patrolling the Channel, landed troops in Cornwall. Amesquita's force seized supplies, raided and burned Penzance and surrounding villages, held a mass, and sailed away before it could be confronted.
Penzance as a town since 1614
The reason for Penzance's relative success probably stems from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries when King Henry IV granted the town a royal market in 1404. Henry VIII in 1512 granted the right to charge harbour dues, and King James I granted the town the status of a Borough in 1614. The Charter defined the bounds of the town by an artificial line formed by a half-mile circle, measured from the market cross in the Greenmarket. The granting of Borough status made the town independent of the County Courts, a right held until County Councils came into being in 1888. Other privileges included owning land and property; imposing fines for breaking bylaws; holding a civil court with jurisdiction over cases not exceeding £50; and providing a prison. The Charter also confirmed the harbour rights given earlier in 1512 and granted two weekly markets to be held on Tuesdays and Thursday; which replaced a single market previously held on Wednesdays. Seven fairs were granted (or confirmed):
The Crown was paid a perpetual rent of five marks (£3 6s 8d / £3.33) in acknowledgment of the rights granted by the Charter, which was paid until 1832, but there was no grant of Parliamentary representation.
The old arms of Penzance were the head of St John the Baptist on a charger, with the legend "Pensans anno Domini 1614". The arms of the borough are Arg. a Paschal lamb proper in base a Maltese cross Az. on a chief embattled of the last between two keys in saltire wards upwards Or and a saltire couped Arg. a plate charged with a dagger point downwards Gu.
Within a year the new Borough bought a substantial degree of freedom from the Manor of Alverton then known as Alverton and Penzance for £34 plus a perpetual annuity of £1 which was last paid in 1936. A market-house and Guildhall was built, and together with the rights bought in 1615, provided almost all the borough income for more than two centuries. The southern arm of the pier was built in 1766 and extended in 1785, to add to the first pier of which was built in 1512.
Further Civic improvements included the construction in 1759 of a reservoir which supplied water to public pumps in the streets.
Penzance has a long-standing association with the local parish of Madron. Madron Church was in fact the centre of most religious activity in the town until 1871, when St Mary's Church (until this period a chapel of ease) was granted parish status by church authorities though it had been registered since the new church was built in 1832.
On 1 November 1755 the Lisbon earthquake caused a tsunami to strike the Cornish coast, over away from the epicentre. At around 2.00pm in the afternoon, the sea rose eight feet in Penzance, came in at great speed, and ebbed at the same rate. Little damage was recorded.
At the start of the 19th century (1801), the town had a population of 2,248. The census, which is taken every ten years, recorded a peak population in 1861 of 3,843, but it then declined, as in most of Cornwall, through the remainder of the century, being just 3,088 in 1901.
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Penzance had established itself as an important regional centre. The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall was founded in the town in 1814 and about 1817 was responsible for introducing a miner's safety tamping bar, which attracted the Prince Regent to become its patron.
The first lifeboat in Cornwall was bought by the people of Penzance in 1803 but it was sold in 1812 due to lack of funds to keep it in operation. The pier had been extended again in 1812 and John Matthews opened a small dry dock in 1814, the first in the South West. In 1840 Nicholas Holman of St Just opened a branch of his foundry business on the quayside. These facilities proved valuable in supporting the steamships that were soon calling at the harbour in increasing numbers.
Gas lighting was introduced in 1830 and the old Market House was demolished in 1836. Its replacement, designed by W. Harris of Bristol, was completed at the top of Market Jew Street in 1838. (The name Market Jew comes from the Cornish language Marghas Yow, meaning Thursday Market, the name of a nearby village now absorbed into Marazion, to which Market Jew Street leads.) St Mary's Church, another prominent feature of the Penzance skyline, was completed in 1836, while a Roman Catholic church was built in 1843. Another familiar building from this period is the eccentric Egyptian House in Chapel Street, built in 1830. The first part of the Promenade along the sea front dates from 1844.
After the passing of the Public Health Act (1848), Penzance was one of the first towns to petition to form a local board of health, doing so in September that year. Following a report by a government inspector in February, the Board was established in 1849 which led to many facilities to enhance public health. The report shows that most streets were macadamised or sometimes paved, and the town was lit by 121 gas lamps from October to March each year, although they were not lit when there was a full moon. Water was supplied from 6 public pumps, and there were a further 53 private wells. There were no sewage pipes at the time, waste being collected from the main streets by a refuse cart.
Penzance railway station, the terminus of the West Cornwall Railway, opened on 11 March 1852 on the eastern side of the harbour, although trains only ran to Redruth at first. From 25 August 1852 the line was extended to Truro, but the Cornwall Railway linking that place with Plymouth was not opened until 4 May 1859. Passengers and goods had to change trains at Truro as the West Cornwall had been built using the standard gauge, but the Cornwall Railway was built to the broad gauge. The West Cornwall Railway Act included a clause that it would be converted to broad gauge once it had been connected to another broad gauge line, but the company could not raise the funds to do so.
The line was sold to the Great Western Railway and its "Associated Companies" (the Bristol and Exeter Railway and South Devon Railway) on 1 January 1866. The new owners quickly converted the line to mixed gauge using three rails so that both broad and "narrow" trains could operate. Broad gauge goods trains started running in November that year, with through passenger trains running to London from 1 March 1867. The last broad gauge train arrived at 8.49pm on 20 May 1892, having left London Paddington railway station at 10.15am that morning. The two locomotives, numbers 1256 and 3557, took the carriages away to Swindon railway works at 9.57pm, and all trains since have been standard gauge.
The ability of the railway to carry fresh produce to distant markets such as Bristol, London and Manchester enabled local farmers and fishermen to sell more produce and at better prices. The special "perishable" train soon became a feature of the railway, these being fast extra goods trains carrying potatoes, broccoli or fish depending on the season. In August 1861 1,787 tons of potatoes, 867 tons of broccoli, and 1,063 tons of fish were dispatched from the station. Fruit and flowers were also carried; the mild climate around Penzance and on the Scilly Isles meant that they were ready for market earlier and could command high prices.
The completion of the railway through Cornwall made it easier for tourists and invalids to enjoy the mild climate of Penzance. Bathing machines had been advertised for hire on the beach as early as 1823, and the town was already "noted for the pleasantness of its situation, the salubrity of its air, and the beauty of its natives". The town's first official guide book was published in 1860 and the Queen's Hotel opened on the seafront the following year. It was so successful that it was extended in 1871 and 1908.
At the same time as the railway was being built more improvements were being made to the harbour, with a second pier on the eastern side of the harbour, the Albert Pier, completed in 1853 to provide even better shelter for shipping, and a lighthouse built on the Old Pier in 1855. The Scilly Isles Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1858 and placed in service the first steam ship on the route, SS Little Western. In 1870 the new West Cornwall Steam Ship Company joined the route, taking over the Scilly Isles Company the following year.
In 1853 the Royal National Lifeboat Institution stationed one of their boats in the town, the first since 1812, and maintained a station here until 1908 when the Watson Class Elizabeth Blanche was transferred to Newlyn as the first step towards setting up Penlee Lifeboat Station. The RNLI still use a boat house built on Jennings Street near the Promenade in 1884 to promote their activities. Penzance, with its dry dock and engineering facilities, was chosen as the western depot for Trinity House that serviced all the lighthouses and lightships from Start Point to Trevose Head. It was opened in October, 1866 adjacent to the harbour and the Buoy Store became the Trinity House National Lighthouse Museum until 2005 when Trinity House closed the museum.
In 1875 a local newspaper described the railway station as a large dog's house of the nastiest and draughtiest kind but a series of works improved this part of the town during the 1880s. The original railway station was rebuilt with the present buildings and train shed over the platforms (1880). The lower end of Market Jew Street was widened and a new road was built to link the station with the harbour over the Ross Swing Bridge (1881), allowing the construction of proper sewers beneath. A larger dry dock replaced Matthews' original facility (1880), and a floating harbour was made (1884) with lock gates to keep in the water at low tide.
Around the headland, public baths were opened on the Promenade in 1887 and the Morrab Gardens with its sub-tropical plants was opened two years later. A bandstand was added to the gardens in 1897.
In 1901 the town had a population of 3,088. The decennial census recorded a continuing decline in population until 1921, when just 2,616 people were recorded. The population then climbed to 4,888 (1931) then 5,545 (1951) – thus more than doubling in 30 years. It was now larger than at any time in the past. (The census boundaries changed in 1981 so these figures do not directly compare with those stated for the current population.)
A proposed electric tramway along the Promenade to Newlyn, which would have continued as a light railway to St Just, failed to gain authorisation in 1898. Instead motor buses were put into service on 31 October 1903. These linked Penzance with Marazion and were operated by the Great Western Railway, being introduced only 11 weeks after the railway's pioneering service between Helston and the Lizard. They were considered a success, carrying 16,091 passengers by the end of the year, so were followed the next spring by further routes to Land's End and St Just. These services developed into the First Devon and Cornwall bus network that currently serves the area and is still centred on a terminus alongside Penzance railway station.
The dry dock was sold on 25 August 1904 to N. Holman and Sons Limited, the engineering business that had been trading in Penzance since 1840. New workshops were built during the 1930s, and the facility continued to be used by the Scilly ferries and other merchant ships, as well as Trinity House, the Royal Navy and Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. In 1951 a new vessel for the King Harry Ferry on the River Fal was launched, built on the keel of an old landing craft. A steam tug, the Primrose, was built in 1963.
Land was reclaimed beside the Albert Pier in the 1930s to allow the railway station to be enlarged at a cost of £134,000. The 1880 building was retained, but extra platforms and sidings were provided to handle more perishable goods, as well as the increasing numbers of tourists.
In 1905 a new bandstand was built on the Promenade opposite the Queen's Hotel, and the Pavilion Theatre opened nearby in 1911, complete with a roof garden and café. Travel to Penzance was easier than ever, with the Great Western Railway introducing the Cornish Riviera Express on 1 July 1904, which left London Paddington at 10:10am and arrived in Penzance just 7 hours later, two hours faster than the previous quickest service. (In 2007 it left Paddington at 10:05am and took 5 hours and 5 minutes.) The railway promoted local tourism with postcards that were sold at its railway stations, and an annual guide book, The Cornish Riviera, in which SPB Mais described the town as "a suburb of Covent Garden, and a great fishing centre ... there is always something going on in its harbour".
1923 saw a new road link the harbour area and the Promenade, and in 1933 the St. Anthony Gardens were built, followed two years later by the Jubilee Bathing Pool opposite. Tourists could now make full use of the whole seafront between Penzance and Newlyn harbours.
One of the many maps available on A Vision of Britain through Time is one from the Ordnance Survey Series of 1900 illustrating the parish boundaries of Cornwall at the turn of the 20th century. This map blows up to show all the parishes and many of the small villages and hamlets.
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