Colourful History

Penzance is a town with a history.

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. Saxon influence did extend to the far west and Penzance's Alverton Street derives its name from a Saxon overlord called Alward.
The Norman Conquest made little impact on the Penzance area other than through regular changes of land ownership between absentee Lords of the Manor.

Ahead In Penzance With John The Baptist

The name Penzance translates simply as 'Holy Head' as much as 'Holy Headland' and a 'Holy Head' is featured on the town's old common seal by the grisly visual pun of the head of John the Baptist on a 'charger' or plate. The Town Corporation chose the illustration as a metaphor when it adopted a common seal in 1614. It was used as Penzance's coat of arms until the present coat of arms was adopted in 1934. The Baptist image is still used on the seal of the town council and on the mayoral chain.

By the 16th century, Penzance's neighbouring town of Marazion was of greater mercantile importance. In 1595 Penzance suffered a further 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.

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. 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'.

Humphry Davy: Famous Son

Humphry Davy was born in Market Jew Street, Penzance on the 17th December 1778. He died in Geneva in 1829 after a remarkable life that exemplified the spirit of the Enlightenment, the European philosophical movement that fostered scientific investigation among its many disciplines. Davy was apprenticed at age seventeen to a talented Penzance doctor, John Bingham Borlase, with whom he first expressed the adventurous curiosity that took him to Bristol where he soon made his mark as an outstanding chemist and innovator. Davy is credited as being the first to demonstrate that chemical compounds can be broken down into their elements through electrolysis. He established the existence of key elements such as magnesium, barium, calcium and potassium. He also experimented with nitrous oxide, the famous 'laughing gas', although his most famous 'invention' was the miner's safety lamp. By surrounding the naked flame of existing lamps with metal gauze, Davy found that the heat generated by the lamp would not reach the combustion level of explosive gases that were often present in mines. The flame would also develop a bluish tinge if dangerous gases were present and, if the air in the mine was starved of oxygen, the flame would be extinguished. Humphry Davy was knighted and became President of the Royal Society. It is a token of his enlightened character that he chose not to patent his safety lamp on the grounds that without the restriction of a patent, the lamp would benefit miners and would be used as widely as possible.

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 unraveled 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.

Reward of the Good and The Dread and Terror of the Bad

Penzance's official coat of arms is a fascinating conflation of symbols and signs that relate to the borough's historic and cultural associations. The grant of the present coat of arms was made in 1934. The Latin motto, 'Quod Improbum Terret Probo Prodest' translates, rather fiercely, as 'For the Reward of the Good and the Dread and Terror of the Bad'. The central shield depicts a 'lamb and flag' a long established tin stamp that was used by the smelting house at Gulval village to mark its blocks of tin. A Maltese Cross represents Madron's connections with the Knights of St John. The crossed keys of St Peter, the sword of St Paul and the cross of St Andrew represent Newlyn and Paul and a castellated crown represents St Anthony. Penzance's great seagoing traditions are celebrated by a ship in full sail with all guns firing, by a fisherman carrying a net and by a rather theatrical pirate. This last celebrates the town's famous association with Gilbert & Sullivan's light opera The Pirates of Penzance.

Penzance 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 St John's Hall as a district liaison office, but in municipal terms, Penzance Council continues to represent unbroken local government status, certainly in terms of its Penzance-based location. The Town Council holds its meetings in St John's Hall and will continue to have great influence on local affairs and on Penzance's continuing status as a thriving Cornish town.

Further sites of interest 


Penzance Time Line