Looe (meaning deep water inlet) is a small coastal town, fishing port and civil parish in the former Caradon district of south-east Cornwall, England, with a population of 5,280 (2001 census). Looe is divided in two by the River Looe, East Looe and West Looe(meaning little cove) being connected by a bridge. The town is approximately 20 miles (32 km) west of the city of Plymouth and seven miles (11 km) south of Liskeard.
The town is situated around a small harbour and along the steep-sided valley of the River Looe which flows between East and West Looe to the sea beside a sandy beach. Off shore to the west, opposite the stonier Hannafore beach, lies the picturesque St George's Island, commonly known as Looe Island.
Prehistory and foundation
Archeological evidence, such as the so-called Giant's Hedge and the stone circle at Bin Down (from the Cornish "Bin Dun", meaning "hill fort") on a hill above East Looe, indicates that the area around Looe was inhabited as early as 1000 BC.
At the time of the Domesday Book the manor of Pendrym, which included much of the site of modern-day East Looe, was held by William the Conqueror as part of his own demesne and came to be managed by the Bodgrugan (Bodrigan) family. Land across the river belonged to the manors of Portalla (or Portallant) and Portbyhan (variously spelt Portbyan, Porthbyghan, Porthpyghan, among others).
Shutta, on the steep hillside over East Looe, is known to have been inhabited by the twelfth century. At some time between 1154 and 1189 a charter was granted by Henry II to Sir Henry Bodrugan for the town of East Looe. West Looe was given free borough status sometime after this (the first known historical mention of the town dates from 1327) and in the 1230s East Looe gained the right to hold a weekly market and a Michaelmas fair.
In these early days, East Looe may have been a "planted borough", a concept similar to modern new towns; much of it is laid out in a grid-like pattern. Even today the low-lying parts of Looe suffer frequent flooding when the tides are very high. Most houses in early Looe would have been constructed with the living quarters upstairs above storage areas for boats, tools and fishing tackle.
Some time before 1144, a monastic order began using Looe Island, and built a chapel there; the monks may have provided a rudimentary lighthouse service using beacons. Another chapel sat opposite on a hillside just outside West Looe; both are now marked only by ruins.
The parish church of East Looe was at St Martin by Looe but there was a chapel of ease in the town. The Church of St. Mary in East Looe was dedicated in 1259 by Walter Bronscombe, Bishop of Exeter. It fell into disrepair and was rebuilt, commencing 1805, although the original tower still remains. In the centre of the bridge stood the chapel of St Anne (dedicated in 1436): the dedication was attributed to the town chapel by Dr Oliver and it has since been adopted, displacing that to St Mary.
The parish church of West Looe was originally at Talland but there was a chapel of ease in the town. St. Nicholas' Church in West Looe was in existence before 1330, at which time it was endowed and enlarged. After spells as a Guildhall and schoolhouse, it is now back in its original use, having been substantially restored in 1852, 1862 and 1915.
Development, trade and politics
An early wooden bridge over the Looe river was in place by 1411 this burned down and was replaced by the first stone bridge, completed in 1436 and featuring a chapel dedicated to St Anne in the middle (the current bridge, a seven-arched Victorian bridge, was opened in 1853). By this time Looe had become a major port, one of Cornwall's largest, exporting local tin, arsenic and granite, as well as hosting thriving fishing and boatbuilding industries. The town provided some 20 ships for the siege of Calais in 1347.
Looe thrived in this era, being both a busy port and situated near one of the main roads from London to Penzance. By this time the textile industry had come to play an important part in the town's economics, in addition to the traditional boatbuilding and fishing (particularly pilchards and crabs). Trade and transportation to and from thriving Newfoundland also aided the town's success. The Old Guildhall in East Looe is believed to date from around 1500.
Between their incorporation in the 16th century (East Looe 1571, West Looe 1553) and the Great Reform Act of 1832, West Looe and East Looe were renowned examples of rotten boroughs, each returning two MPs to the unreformed House of Commons, despite their tiny populations. For example, Admiral Sir Charles Wager, a son and grandson of Kentish mariners, held the office of West Looe MP early (1713–1715) and at the end (1741–1743) of his political career. The seal of East Looe was An antique one-mast vessel in it a man and boy against the side of the hulk three escutcheons each charges with three bends, with the legend "Si: comunetatis de Loo". The seal of West Looe was An armed man holding a bow in his right hand and an arrow in his left, with the legend "Por-tu-an other wys Westlo".
By the start of the 1800s, Looe's fortunes were in decline. War against Napoleon had taken its toll of the country; in 1803, the town formed a volunteer company to man guns in defence against attack from the French, and the blockade of 1808, preventing the Looe fleet from reaching their pilchard-fishing ground, put considerable pressure on the town. In 1805, the old St. Mary's Chapel (apart from the tower) had to be demolished due to dilapidation, and in 1817, the town was badly damaged by heavy storms and flooding.
With the building of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal linking Looe to Liskeard in 1828, and the development of booming copper mines in the Caradon area from 1837, Looe's fortunes began to pick up again. The canal was used first to transport lime from Wales for use in Cornish farming, and later to carry copper and granite between the railhead at Liskeard (from where rail links reached to the Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor) and the port at Looe. In 1856 the large quay of East Looe was built to handle the demands of the shipping trade, and in 1860, with the canal unable to keep up with demand, a railway was built linking Looe to Moorswater near Liskeard, along the towpath of the canal, which was used less and less until, by 1910, traffic ceased entirely. The railway was later linked to Liskeard proper, and as the mining boom came to an end, it began carrying passengers in 1879.
In 1866, a lifeboat station had been established on East Looe beach, and in 1878 a new Town Hall was built, the present-day Guildhall. Around this time recommendations were made that the two towns be merged under one governing body, and despite much protest the Looe Urban District Council was formed in 1898 to govern the whole of Looe.
With the Victorian fashion for seaside holidays, Looe had become a tourist town, with nearby Talland Bay being dubbed "the playground of Plymouth". This trend continued throughout the 20th century; more and more hotels and tourist facilities were built in the town, and Looe grew and prospered, with peaks in fishing and boatbuilding following the First and Second World Wars.