History of Penzance

Image: Penzance from "A Week at the Land's End" by J.T. Blight, 1876.

Lysons History of Cornwall, published in 1814, described Penzance:

"... large market and corporation town, formerly called Burriton, is situated on the sea-coast, in Mount’s-bay, 283 miles from London, and eleven from the Land’s-end.

A market at this town to be held on Wednesdays, was granted in 1332 to Alice De Lisle, then lady of the manor of Alwarton, with a fair for seven days at the festival of St. Peter ad vincula: this market was confirmed in, 1404, to Thomas Lord Berkeley, with three fairs of two days each; one at the Conception, another at the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, and a third at the festival of St. Peter in cathedrá.

In later times there have been two markets, formerly Tuesday and Thursday, since changed to Thursday and Saturday: these markets are well supplied with provisions of all sorts: Thursday is a considerable corn-market. The present fairs are, May 28, the Thursday after Trinity-Sunday, and the Thursday before Advent-Sunday.

The town of Penzance was originally incorporated in 1614; the charter was confirmed by King Charles II. The corporation consists of a mayor, eight aldermen, twelve assistants, and a recorder.

Spanish invasion

Carew relates the particulars of this town having been set on fire by a small party of Spaniards, who landed near Mousehole, on the 23d of July 1595, and who, as Camden observes, were the only Spaniards that ever landed in this kingdom as enemies.

Sir Francis Godolphin, having summoned the county to his assistance, attempted to save Penzance from the threatened danger; but his followers being seized with a sudden panic, he was obliged to abandon it to its fate. The Cornish men having rallied the next day in greater numbers and in better heart, the Spaniards, who had already set fire to Newlyn and Mousehole, as well as Penzance, quitted the coast without attempting any further hostilities.

Royalist Penzance plundered by Parliamentarians

Penzance, is said to have been plundered by Sir Thomas Fairfax’s army in 1646, as a punishment for the kindness which the inhabitants has shown to Lord Goring’s and Lord Hopton’s troops.

Penzance is a large and populous town, much frequented in the winter by invalids, on account of the mildness of the climate. The number of houses in 1801 was 694, of inhabitants 3,382; in 1811, there were 784 houses, and 4,022 inhabitants.


Here is a considerable pilchard-fishery, and a great export-trade for tin, copper, and fish; the imports are coals, groceries, cloth, and other articles of merchandize. Penzance was added as a fifth to the coinage towns about the time of the Restoration; all the tin is now coined at this town and Truro.

Churches and Chapels

The chapel of St. Mary at Penzance, existed before the year 1612; it was enlarged in 1671, but not consecrated till 1680, when it was endowed with land, now let at 20l. per annum, by John Tremenhere, Esq.: a cemetery was then inclosed and consecrated, and the limits of the town were defined to be the limits of the chapelry. It has since been twice augmented bu Queen Ann’s bounty. Marriages have not been solemnised at this chapel since the marriage-act. Penzance is not deemed a separate parish, but has its own vestry, and maintains its own poor. There was an ancient chapel at Penzance, dedicated to St. Antony, near the Quay, on the site of which is now a fish-cellar. The registers of the see of Exeter mention chapels there, dedicated to St. Raphael and St. Gabriel.

There are meeting-houses at Penzance for the baptists, independents, quakers, and methodists; and a Jews’ synagogue."

Penzance Jewish Cemetery

Of the 25 Georgian (18th century) Jewish cemeteries outside of London the English Heritage Grade II listed Penzance cemetery is regarded as the finest.

It is entirely enclosed by a substantial high wall (dating from 1845) and at its entrance there is a complete Bet Tohorah, or "Cleansing House", a very rare feature to survive from this period.

The burial ground was established around the 1740s on a plot of unenclosed land in the Leskinnick area of the town in what was then an open wooded valley. The land on which this original burial plot stood was owned by Canon Rogers of Sithney, who also owned land in Lescudjack and Ludgvan, and who clearly wanted to encourage the Jews to settle in Penzance.

Later, the Jewish Congregation acquired leases to other adjacent plots, partially enclosing the ground to protect the site from the expanding building of surrounding houses. In 1844, the Jews bought the freehold to the whole of the present area, and completely enclosed the cemetery. Soon, the cemetery was boarded on one side by the school and the community hall of Saint John's Church.

Free of any invasive trees or vegetation, set apart from any main thoroughfare, on a gentle south-east facing gradient, the cemetery enjoys a perfect, secure location.

With the exception of the oldest section of ground, where the earliest headstones (prior to 1791) have been lost, the surviving fifty or so headstones are in almost perfect condition and their Hebrew and English inscriptions are of an exceptional quality.

The cemetery, which is now classified as a "closed" burial ground, is owned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London. As a private site, there is no right of public access as such, but the cemetery's voluntary custodian can arrange visits for members of the public by appointment.

The cemetery is maintained locally by the Town Clerk's Office, and also falls under the supervision of the Penlee House Museum and Gallery.

The cemetery's history, together with complete headstone translations and personal information on all of those interred there can be found in "The Lost Jews of Cornwall" (edit. Keith Pearce and Helen Fry: Redcliffe Bristol 2000, pp. 345) and in an expanded and updated form in "The Jews of Cornwall - A History" by Keith Pearce (Halsgrove 2014, pp. 688).

For an appointment to visit the cemetery Tel. (01736) 363625 or 363405.

Penzance History in Brief

Mount's Bay inundated by a sea-flood. Several towns and many people drowned.

Mount's Bay suffers another inundation by the sea.

Chantry of St Mary's founded.

Edward III granted to Alice de l'Isle of Penzance a weekly market on Wednesdays and a fair of seven days for the festival of St. Peter in June.

Penzance Market granted by Henry IV to Lord Berkeley.

Charter from Henry VIII allowing Penzance to keep profits from all ships visiting the harbour.

The Plague struck Penzance

Penzance burned by the Spanish

'The Survey of Cornwall' by Richard Carew is published. It contains a partial account of the history of Penzance.

Penzance granted a new charter by King James I. Now a Corporation with a mayor it could hold 7 fairs per year and 2 weekly markets.

Turkish Pirates around the coast.

The Borough was attacked by Parliamentarians at the end of the Civil War because of its loyalty to the King.

The Plague struck Penzance again

Charles II bride, Catherine of Braganza, anchored off Penzance

Penzance is made a coinage town

Boundary stones of Penzance Borough set up

Bishop Trelawny visited Penzance

A battery of guns built at Penzance in case of Spanish attack.

John Wesley first preached at Heamoor.

The effect of the Lisbon earthquake was recorded in Penzance when a tsunami hit the town - the sea rose 8 feet (nearly 3 metres) before receding with minimal damage.

Pirates visited Penzance.

Old Pier built. This was later extended in 1785, 1812 and in 1853.

Sir Humphry Davy born 17th December, Ludgvan, Penzance. Chemist and Inventor of the Davy Safety Lamp. He died in 1829 at Geneva, Switzerland.

Grammar School was founded.

Joseph Carne born in Penzance. Geologist. FRS. Manager of the Hayle Copper Works. Died in 1858.

The first theatre in Penzance opened.

Penzance's first bank opened.

Independent Chapel built. Enlarged 1870.

Sir Humphry Davy discovered Barium

Public Dispensary established.

Royal Geological Society of Cornwall founded.

Gas lighting was introduced to Penzance

Old Market-house was taken down.

Penzance Gazette was first published becoming the Penzance and Cornwall Gazette in 1855, continues until 1858.

Richard Quiller-Couch started his medical practice in penzance. Western Promenade constructed.

Butter and Vegetable Market built.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Bay and St Michael's Mount. Prince Albert landed at Penzance.

Roman Catholic Church built.
First publication of The Penzance Journal newspaper which continues until 1850.

Trinity House erected warning markers on two half-tide rocks off Penzance, visible 15 feet above high water.

August 25. West Cornwall Railway opened from Penzance to Truro.

Queen's Hotel built. Enlarged in 1871 and 1908. Still receiving visitors today.

1861 - 1869
Lighthouse prepared at the Trinity Yard, Old Quay, Penzance, for erection on the Wolf Rock. First lit in December, 1869.

Post Office moved from Chapel Street to the Market House.

Horse Races held at Eastern Green.

1867 - 1868
St John's Public Buildings constructed

Railway Viaduct washed away the second time. Present stone viaduct constructed soon after.

Tidings Newspaper first published, ceased 1945. Last time the Borough Bounds were beaten.

October 17. Sir Humphry Davy's Monument inaurgurated.

West Cornwall Dispensary and Infirmary established at St Clare Re-built 1906. Excursion Brakes first ran to Land's End.

'A Week at the Land's End' by J.T. Blight is published. It includes information on the history of Penzance. See image above.

Present Railway Station opened. February 11th to 15th. Davy Celebrations in St. John's Hall.

School of Art erected. Road between Penzance and Newlyn washed away by the sea.

St. John's Church erected. Morrab Road commenced.

Post Office built. Enlarged 1893. Norton's Baths on Western Promenade removed.

November 11. Floating Dock opened.

Morrab Gardens opened.

March 9. The Great Blizzard.

Double sea wall built from Cornwall Terrace to the western end of the Promenade.

H.M. King Edward VII visited Penzance and St Michael's Mount.

Old Coinage Hall taken down.

July 1. About 60 Whales were stranded on the Eastern Beach, near Ponsandane.

Electric Light first introduced into the town.

Cinema opened at Causewayhead.

After a storm, a number of tree-trunks forming part of the submerged forest in Mount's Bay were exposed at Larrigan Beach, Penzance.

Jubilee Pool opened to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V.



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