The history of Penzance

Humans settled on the shores of Mount’s Bay as early as the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods while primitive hunter-gatherers probably foraged through the area for many thousands of years before.

Bronze Age implements have been found in the immediate vicinity of Penzance and the town’s most important antiquity, a substantial earthwork on Lescudjack Hill, the town’s highest point, dates from the later Iron Age period.

A fishing settlement probably developed, post-Iron Age, on the low-lying rocky headland where Penzance’s inner harbour now stands.

The Romans are not known to have established long term settlement on the Land’s End Peninsula although Roman artifacts have been found in the area.

The Phoenicians were probably the first to utilise Cornish tin; and some mines, like the nearby Ding-Dong Mine, can be traced to a high antiquity. It is said that one one of these tin-trading expeditions that Joseph of Arimathea brought the young Jesus Christ to Penzance.

Saxon influence did not extend to the far west. The Norman Conquest made little impact on the Penzance area other than through regular changes of land ownership between absentee Lords of the Manor.

By the 16th century, Penzance’s neighbouring town of Marazion was of greater mercantile importance. In 1595, Penzance suffered a setback when it was attacked by opportunistic Spanish raiders who landed from four galleys, set fire to the nearby villages of Mousehole and Paul and then moved on to Penzance where they looted and burned much of the medieval harbour area.

Penzance’s recovery came with the granting of borough status in 1614 and it soon became the main town of the Mount’s Bay area. By the mid-17th century Penzance was a ‘Coinage Town’, one of the privileged centres where tin was assayed by having a corner or ‘coin’ removed from a shipment in order to check its quality before it was sold and exported.

Over the next hundred years or so this brought wealth to the town and gave rise, in part, to the rich architectural heritage of delightful Georgian and Regency buildings that survive today.

Abbey Slip. Picture by Luke Brown.
Penzance Promenade, circa 1880.

Cast of Characters
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Penzance prospered as a market town and port. West Cornwall, with its granite bulwark of Land’s End, was always a welcome landfall for world-weary sailing ships heading into the English Channel from the far corners of the oceans. In favourable conditions, Mount’s Bay was an ideal anchorage.
Penzance knew such great Elizabethan sailors as Raleigh and Hawkins. It knew press gangs and privateers, Barbary pirates, Spanish raiders and adventurous smugglers. Throughout the centuries Mount’s Bay fishing boats brought news of great events that were passed on to them from homebound ships. The smugglers of silk, brandy, spices and wine brought back tales of the French Revolution and the Spanish Wars. Penzance is said to have known of the
victory at Trafalgar, and of Nelson’s death, before the news reached London (see page 17). Cornwall was a centre of pilchard fishing from the Tudor period onwards and in later centuries much of the town’s trade was the export of salted fish, chiefly to the Mediterranean. Trade with France gave Penzance even more romantic connections and it is likely that the port was involved with smuggling as much as it was with legitimate trade although, in its day, smuggling was considered entirely legitimate and involved highly respected citizens in its ‘free trade’.

Penzance entered the 19th century as a self-confident and thriving borough. During the century, great progress was made in developing the harbour and by the last quarter of the century the town still profited from its traditional connections with the sea and with mineral mining. It was still a busy market town. This economic fabric might eventually have unravelled because of changes in commercial and industrial conditions, but Penzance benefited enormously from one of the greatest developments of the Industrial Age, the railway.

The Great Rail Link
By 1849 trains were running between London and Plymouth. Brunel’s railway bridge over the River Tamar was opened in 1859 and by 1866 Penzance was finally linked to London on a through line. It became the southwest terminus of one of the great railway routes of Victorian Britain.
This rail link with London was of huge value to Penzance. It meant that perishable products such as fish and early flowers and potatoes could be transported to major markets within a day. The traffic was two-way, but the return was in human form as the fast developing tourist industry brought more and more visitors to the ‘picturesque’ west.
Town of the Future
The first decades of the 20th century saw Penzance facing the ups and downs of a changing world in which local decisions and local economics had less influence in the face of national and even global markets. The town’s traditional involvement with seagoing and mining declined, but its importance as a market town and commercial centre remained intact and tourism grew rapidly.
Today, Penzance has a thriving business sector concentrated on retailing, tourism and small commercial ventures rather than large scale industry or manufacturing. There is an industrial estate at the eastern approaches
to the town and it is in this area too where
national retailers such as Tesco, Morrisons, B&Q, Currys and Halfords are located. In-town shopping and business is also multi-faceted and Penzance has never been better equipped to capitalise on the potential of the 21st century.
Penzance Town Council
When the Local Government Act of the early 1970s came into force, the Borough of Penzance lost much of its executive power, which was taken over by a new Penwith District Council. Until 2009, the district council had its offices at St Clare on the outskirts of Penzance and many of its meetings were held in St John’s Hall, a handsome granite building in Alverton Street.
In April 2009, the district Councils of Cornwall ceased to exist and the county came under the control of a Unitary Authority known as Cornwall Council, based in Truro in the old County Council offices. A Cornwall Council facility currently operates in the old Penwith Council offices at St Clare as a district liaison office, but in municipal terms, Penzance Town Council continues to represent unbroken local government status, certainly in terms of its Penzance-based location. The Town Council holds its meetings in Penlee Centre, Penlee Park, Penzance, TR18 4HE, and will continue to have great influence on local affairs and on Penzance’s continuing status as a thriving Cornish town.