A History of Penzance

History of Penzance

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Head of John the Baptist - Penzance
Head of John the Baptist

Pen Sans was the original name for the town of Penzance. The name comes from the old Cornish language wherein ‘Pen’ meant point of land, or headland, and ‘Sans’ meant sacred or holy place to do with a church or religious site. If we translate the name Pen Sans into modern English it means ‘Holy Headland’ that part of the modern town now known as the Battery Rocks and Barbican lane. The religious site here was said to be an ancient Chapel named after St Anthony. In 1750 a famous Cornish Historian, Dr William Borlase, who wrote a very important book on Penzance says:
The ancient Chapel belonging to the town of Penzance may be seen in a fuel cellar near the quay: it is small and as I remember had the image of the Virgin Mary in it.

Another writer in 1880 said that this early chapel was:

a small oblong structure, pointing directly east and west, of about 30 feet in length and 15 feet in breadth… The entrance was from the south and towards the west.

A carved stone figure was set into the east wall but was badly damaged over the years. In 1850 it was removed to St Mary’s churchyard where it can still be seen. The St Anthony Gardens, opened in 1933, take their name from the old site.

Lescudjack Castle: The Iron Age

The earliest building on the site of the present town of Penzance that can still be seen today is the huge Iron Age castle or hill fort on the summit of the hillside where Castle Road now stands. This great fort was known as Lescudjack Castle and this part of the town now takes its name from the building. The castle is only one of many in West Cornwall but it was the largest, covering three acres of ground.

When you look at the remains of this castle today, it seems difficult to believe that it was once a great building. But it was never like the Norman Castles with their towers, walls, drawbridges and dungeons. The Iron Age castles were much simpler but they were still very difficult to build and to attack. At Lescudjack Castle there was a single great wall of stones earth and grass shaped in an oval. Outside this there was a deep ditch for extra protection. The walls are known as ramparts and certainly would have had rows of wooden stakes set on top to give added height and strength for the defenders inside. The ditch running round the ramparts is known as the vallum and some writers describing the castle have said that until a hundred years ago Lescudjack had three great ditches. Inside the walls there would have been hut circles, stoves and workshops. Food supplies and water would be important.

The Iron Age covered many centuries from approximately 500 BC to 400 AD, nearly 1,000 years and this is the time to which the castle belongs.

Lescudjack as a name comes from the Celtic language: Lys Scosek, which means shielded stronghold. The castle was certainly built in a very important position above a steep valley (the Coombe) to the east, and at the top of the hill slope leading up from the sea on the south and west.

Chun Castle on the moorland hills near Morvah (St Just) is the best preserved and we can get a good idea of the Iron Age castles from this famous example.

Alwarton: Alverton Manor

The present day district of Penzance known as Alverton has a history going back over a thousand years. Modern Alverton gets its name from a Saxon Lord called Alward, who held the manor, or ‘ton’ as it was known to the Saxons. Alward’s ton, Alwarton and, finally, Alverton gives us form of the name and its origin.

Alwarton was certainly included in the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086. The king wanted a complete record or survey of the people, the lands and the wealth of his new kingdom in order that he could see to its government in the best possible way. Like all parts of the country the manors of West Cornwall were surveyed. This is the entry for Alwarton:-
The Count has manor which is called Alwarton which Alward held T.R.E. (Tempora Regis Edwardi; in the time of King Edward) Therein are 3 hides of land, and they rendered yeld for 2 hides. Sixty teams can plough these. Thereof the Count has in demesne half a hide and 3 ploughs and the villeins have 2½ hides and 12 ploughs. There the Count has 35 villeins and 2 bordars and 11 serfs and 1 rouncey and 17 unbroken mares and 9 beasts and 4 swine and 100 sheep and 3 acres of meadow and of pasture 2 leagues in length and in breadth. And it renders £20 yearly and when the Count received it, it was worth £8.

“The Count” mentioned here was Robert Count of Mortain, William’s half-brother, who was given the land when it was taken from Alward. Robert owned a great deal of land in Cornwall and was a powerful Norman Lord.

There were several manors in West Cornwall all recorded in the Domesday Book. These were part of the ‘Hundred’ or district of Conarditon, which was the West Penwith area. Together with Alwarton, the others would include the manors of Bret-Brea (St Just), Chelenoc (Kelynack), Witestan (Whitesand, Sennen), Ecglosberria (St Buryan), Luduham/Ludeum (Ludgvan), Lordicla (Lanisley Gulval). Witestan, for example, was much poorer than Alwarton. The survey there said:-
" The Count has 1 manor which Alward held T.R.E. now Ralf holds it for the Count. There is one ferling of land and it rendered geld for ½ a ferling. Therein is half a plough and 1 serf and 8 beasts and 8 swine and 40 sheep and 40 goats and 12 acres of woodland worth 15s. When the Count received it it was worth 20s."

Witestan had only a small amount of land for crops and was mainly grazing land for animals. There were also very few people there unlike Ludeum (Ludgvan) which had 14 villeins, 40 borders and 9 serfs. Richard held the manor for Robert of Mortem and there was land to support numbers of animals and crops: 27 unbroken mares, 22 beasts, 17 swine, 140 sheep with 300 acres of pasture and land that 30 teams could plough.

The exact site of the manor house at Alwarton is not known but it must have been somewhere not far from the river or the modern-day Alverton road, perhaps near Tredarvah Farm house, on ground above the wet, marshy valley that reaches down to the sea.

The Harbour

Nobody can say exactly when the first quay was built at Penzance, but in Tudor times an important writer, John Leland, gave us a short mention of it:-
Pensants - standing fast in the shore of Mount Bay, ys the westert market town of al Cornwayle, and no socier for botes or shyppes, but a forced pere or key.”

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Penzance from the Harbour
Penzance Harbour

Marazion and Mousehole had each been more important than Penzance as ports, but in the eighteenth century Penzance harbour became busy with the tin trade. In 1745 the quay at Penzance was rebuilt and was lengthened again in 1782. Valuable tin bars called ingots were some of the most important cargoes leaving the harbour and these came from the smelting works built at Chyandour. The first lighthouse was set up in 1817 but the one that we see today was built in 1855 when the pier was made stronger and greater in length. Albert Pier was opened in 1847 and railway lines were laid along it for trains to reach the dock side. The inner harbour called ‘floating dock”, which is protected by large gates, was opened in 1884. Running along the harbour from the station was a new road opened in 1866 and was very important in helping trade.

The following is a copy from the original document from Henry VIII to the people of Penzance, written in March 1512. It gave the people the right to collect for the town all money paid by ships using the harbour - payment for “ankerage, kylage and bussellage.
We (Henry)… gyve and graunte unto our tennants of the seid towne of Pensanse... all manner of profits that unto us or oure heim Kyngs of England shoild growe by reason of the ankerage, kylage and bussellage of every shyppe that shall arrive... from the fest of Seynt Mighell Tharchaungell last pass as long as they do well and competentlye repayr and maynteyn the seid kaye and bulworks for the saufgard of alle such shyppes as shall lord at the same and for the saufgard and defence of our seid towns.

Wherrytown: Wherry Mine

A short distance off-shore from Wherrytown at the western end of the promenade, there is an outcrop of rock that is uncovered at low tide: this was the site of an early and interesting tin mine which began working in 1778. This mine was always difficult to operate because of its unusual position below the shore-line and special arrangements were needed to make work possible.

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Penzance Promenade - 1900s
View to Wherrytown

The mine was started by a man called Thomas Curtes who realised that the Wherry rocks held valuable tin, but this site was dangerous. Work to sink the shaft was very slow and could only be carried out during good weather and the times of low tide. Protection from the sea and constant flooding was arranged by constructing a heavy stone collar around the top of the shaft and by building a tall 20 foot wooden tower above this. The wooden defence was made as water-tight as possible and had to keep out the sea during the high tide which covered the rocks to a depth of 19 feet. This wooden structure also had winding equipment set at the top in order to draw out the tin and drain water in the workings.

By 1790 the mine was 36 feet deep and before work began on each shift four men had to spend two hours in draining the mine. Once the tin was brought to the surface it was taken ashore in small flat-bottomed boats called ‘wherries’ or simply carried at lowest tides. During the summer of 1790 ten men worked the mine and sold tin worth £600. In 1792 the tin mined at Wherry was worth £3,000.

As the mine became richer, better working facilities were introduced A steam engine was erected on the shore and was connected to pumps and machinery out at the shaft by means of a long trestle bridge reaching out over the sand and tidal waters. A horse was used to draw the tin ore from below ground and to do this it walked up and down the length of the bridge winding the rope on simple machinery. The buckets containing the ore were called ‘kibbies’. The steam engine gave much better drainage and helped the mine to develop more efficiently.

In 1798 the mine was brought to a swift and unexpected end when the wooden tower over the shaft was destroyed by a ship which had broken its moorings at Newlyn and collided with the workings during a storm. The Wherry mine had been quite rich and had produced tin worth £70,000 over twenty years. Because it was known to be a valuable mine work began there again in 1836 using a steam engine and the trestle bridge to the shaft, but after four years the mine closed and all the equipment and machinery was sold.