A History of Penzance

By Tim Lambert

Early Penzance

Penzance began as a small fishing village. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. There may have been a settlement at that time that was too small to warrant a mention or it may have grown up later.

The name Penzance is derived from the Cornish words Penn Sans meaning holy headland. It is believed the name comes from a chapel built upon the western headland. It first appeared in writing in 1284.

In the 14th century, Penzance grew from a village into a town (albeit a very small town by today’s standards). In 1332 it was given a charter (a document granting the inhabitants certain rights). They were allowed a weekly market and an annual fair lasting 7 days. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year. People would come from all over Cornwall to buy and sell at a Penzance fair).

Medieval Penzance was a small but busy little port. In 1404 it was allowed 2 weekly markets and 3 annual fairs.

In 1512 Henry VIII granted the people of Penzance the right to keep the harbour dues, a sign of the town’s growing importance. In about 1540 a man named John Leland described Penzance:

Penzance about 2 miles from Mousehole, standing fast on the shore of Mounts Bay is the most western market town of all Cornwall and has no haven for boats of ships except a man-made pier or quay.’

Like all Tudor towns, Penzance suffered from outbreaks of plague. There was an epidemic in 1578. A further epidemic occurred in 1647. A worse disaster overtook the town in 1595 when it was sacked and burned by the Spanish. Penzance took years to recover.

However, in 1614 Penzance was given a new charter. This time Penzance was given a mayor and corporation. Penzance was now a ‘proper’ town. It was also strategically important. The preamble to the charter said ‘Penzance is an ancient town and port both populous and of great force and strength to resist the enemies that shall invade there and defend the adjoining country.’ The charter also allowed Penzance 2 weekly markets and a total of 7 fairs.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Penzance resolutely supported the king. When the civil war ended in 1646, Penzance was plundered by parliamentary soldiers. In 1648 an uprising occurred in Penzance. Men volunteered to fight for the king but were quickly defeated by parliamentary soldiers (who then plundered the town again!).

However, in 1663 King Charles I made Penzance a coinage town, where tin was weighed and taxed.

Penzance in the 18th Century

During the 18th century, Penzance continued to be a busy little port and market town. During the 18th century, the tin industry in Cornwall boomed and tin became the main export from Penzance. Other exports were grain and smoked pilchards.

Penzance gained its first fire engine in 1743 although it was only a hand pump with a leather hose drawn by horses.

Meanwhile, in 1739 a war began with Spain. In 1740 fearing a Spanish attack the corporation built a battery of guns to defend Penzance.

In 1769 Penzance was described as a ‘place of considerable note’. Many of the Cornish gentry had second houses in the town. The streets of Penzance were paved (unlike many towns at that time) and it had about 600 houses. So it probably had a population of around 3,000.

The first Jewish Synagogue in Penzance was built in 1768 and a grammar school was founded in 1779. The first theatre in Penzance opened in 1789 and in 1791 Assembly Rooms were built where balls were attended and card games could be played. The first bank in Penzance opened in 1797.

Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) was born in Penzance. In 1815 he invented the miner’s safety lamp.

Penzance in the 19th Century

In 1801 Penzance had a population of 3,382. In the early 19th century it began to grow rapidly. By 1851 the population of Penzance had reached 9,214. Penzance has an unusually mild climate and it grew as a health resort. Many new streets were built including North Parade in 1826. (South Parade was built earlier, in 1790). Clarence Street was built in 1827. Victoria Place followed in 1829. Adelaide Street was built in 1835 and Regent Square in 1839.

Perhaps the most famous house in Penzance is the ‘Egyptian House’ built in 1838. (It is nothing like anything in Egypt!). The Market House was built in 1838 so was a new Guildhall.

In 1852 a railway from Penzance to Redruth was opened. It was later extended to London. That made it easier to transport tin and fish from Penzance to the capital.

The port of Penzance continued to boom. Tin was still the main export. The Albert Pier was built in 1847. In 1853 the old pier was extended and in 1855 a lighthouse was built on the end. Wharf Road was built in 1866. Ross Bridge was built in 1881 to connect the piers to the railway station. A floating dock was built in 1884.

There was also a shipbuilding industry in Penzance in the 19th century. However, at the end of the 19th century, the old tin industry went into steep decline.

In 1809 a dispensary opened in Penzance where the poor could obtain free medicines. In 1830 Penzance gained gas street lighting. Also in 1830, Penzance gained a piped water supply. At first, it was supplied by a private company but the corporation took it over in 1852. Also in the 1850s, a network of sewers was created. Penzance gained its first newspaper in 1839.

A promenade was built in Penzance in 1844 and after the railway arrived tourism became increasingly important.

In the 19th century amenities in Penzance improved rapidly. The first cemetery in Penzance opened in 1856. A modern fire brigade was formed in 1860 and an infirmary opened in Penzance in 1873. Morrab Gardens opened in 1889 and Princess Mary Recreation Ground opened in 1893.

Penzance in the 20th Century

In 1901 Penzance had a population of 13,136 and in the 20th century, Penzance continued to develop as a resort. Alexandra Grounds opened in 1903. In 1912 Penzance gained electric street lights. Also in 1912, Penzance gained its first cinema. A war memorial was erected in Penzance in 1922. The Winter Gardens opened in 1926. St Anthony Gardens opened in 1933.

In 1934 the boundaries of Penzance were extended and Jubilee Bathing Pool opened in 1935. Furthermore during the 1920s and 1930s Penzance council began the work of slum clearance and the first council houses were built.

During World War II 16 people were killed in Penzance by German bombing.

Penlee Memorial Park was purchased by the corporation in 1946. Penlee House Gallery and Museum opened to the public in 1949.

After 1945 many more council houses were built in Penzance including the estate at Alverton.

Today tourism is an important industry in Penzance. Wharfside Shopping Centre opened in 1999.

A view of Penzance

Penzance in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Penzance continues to thrive. The Exchange opened in 2007. In 2023 the population of Penzance was 20,000.