This trail takes approximately 2 hours and takes you on a historical journey through the streets, gardens and sea side of Penzance.
1. St John’s Hall
Our town trail begins at St John’s Hall. This monumental building was designed by John Matthews and finished in 1867. It is built from granite from the nearby Lamorna quarry. The top step measuring 5.75m x 1m is one of the largest pieces of granite ever quarried. The West Wing of St John’s Hall was previously a natural history museum and home to the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, the second oldest geological society in the world. The building reflects both the wealth and civic pride of the Town in the Victorian era.
The Hall is home to Penzance’s Town Charter of 1614 which created Penzance as a self governing town (a borough). The Charter confirmed the Town’s rights, which included the holding of valuable markets and fairs, and also obligations like maintaining the harbour and suppressing piracy. The Town prospered and in 1663 petitioned the King to become a “coinage town” responsible for checking the purity of tin ingots and collecting the taxes due. Ingots had to be stamped (coined) before transportation by sea. Strict rules covered the movement of uncoined tin but Stannary Officers reported in 1737 that the “pernicious practice” of clandestinely moving untaxed tin to homes of “pewterers” was “now very rife in Penzance”.
St Johns Hall is a natural rallying point for all public events in the town, and the starting point for all the main festivals – Golowan’s Mazey Day Parades in June, Montol in December and St Piran’s Parade on March 5th.
From St John’s Hall, walk towards the town centre and turn left into Clarence Street which boasts an elegant row of late Georgian villas, once the homes of the town’s merchants who prospered from Penzance’s trade. At the top of the street look out for a granite drinking ‘chute’ the source of fresh drinking water for the neighbourhood in the 19th century.
2.The Cattle Market
The Penzance Cattle Market at the top of Causewayhead was built in 1810 where the present car park is today. It was near the old Penzance Reservoir constructed in 1759 and a slate plaque in the carpark shows the former location of the reservoir sluice gate. The pig market was on the other side of the road.
The first weekly market in the Penzance area was granted in 1332 to the Manor of Alverton following a petition to King Edward III by Baroness Alice de l’Isle. Alice’s brother had been Lord of the Manor and had been executed with her husband for taking part in a revolt against King Edward II and the Manor of Alverton forfeit to the Crown. Remarkably Alice not only convinced King Edward III to award her the valuable right to hold a market every Wednesday and a 7 day fair annually but she persuaded him to restore the Manor of Alverton to her as well. Later, the Penzance Charter of 1614 gave the town the right to hold two weekly markets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The site of the markets changed as the town developed.
Markets drew in large numbers of people and animals as well as produce and fish. They were major commercial events and but also opportunities for country dwellers to socialize. The grandeur of the Market House reflects the importance of markets at that time. There was a Penzance Corporation saying in the 1800’s that ran ‘May the Market and Pier Bring a Thousand a year!’(about £1 million in today’s money)
Causewayhead (formerly Caunswayhead) is named to indicate where the ‘caunsed’ or paved streets of the town gave way to the country road leading to Madron, the route taken by Penzance townspeople on their walk to the mother church of Madron every Sunday until St Mary’s parish was established in 1871.
This pedestrian shopping street was one of the busiest streets in Penzance – a cacophony of tailors, butchers, paper hangers and boot makers with tiny courtyards behind the shops, and cottages side by side with stables, piggeries and rag and bone stores. The main route from the mines to Penzance Harbour ran down this road and down Chapel Street. As you walk down the street you will see the Savoy Cinema, built in 1912, and considered to be the oldest continuously operating cinema in Britain.
Bread Street at the bottom of Causewayhead on your left is a reminder that at the beginning of the 19th Century few houses had their own ovens, so bread and cakes were brought to the public bakehouse to be cooked for a small charge. A number of slaughterhouses also existed in this part of town, some of the 14 that operated in Penzance in the mid nineteenth century. Occasionally animals would escape causing chaos. One can only imagine the public nuisance caused by having slaughter houses so close to the town centre.
4. Penzance Market Cross and Market House
The Penzance Cross is Penzance’s greatest treasure and although it was once located at the bottom of Causewayhead, shown by a Trail plaque, it is now situated further along our trail at the entrance to Penlee House. The Cross has in recent years been dated as 11th century. The Cross originally acted as the marker to define the bounds of the town – everything within a half-mile circle was included in the Borough of Penzance.
The Market House is a handsome public building with its dome widely visible from the surrounding countryside. It was opened in 1838 on the day of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, replacing an older Market House.
5. Sir Humphry Davy and Market Jew Street
Erected in a place of honour in front of the Market House is the statue of the town’s greatest son, Sir Humphry Davy. Born in Market Jew Street in 1778, Humphry Davy was to become one of Britain’s leading scientists and President of the Royal Society. In his early career in London he was hugely popular giving lectures that included spectacular demonstrations to packed meetings. As a young, talented and strikingly handsome young man he had a large female following. He was knighted at the age of 34 and later was awarded a baronetcy. Davy is best known for the invention of the Davy Lamp.
The town trail now takes you down Market Jew Street, a late medieval extension from the market area of the town which is Penzance’s main shopping street. Just over 100 years ago this street would have been packed with carts, wagons and horse buses whilst beneath Sir Humphry’s feet once stood the famous ‘Cabmans’ Rest’ where horse drawn cabs waited for business. Market Jew Street has a unique raised pavement known as ‘The Terrace’ with distinctive railings where strollers and shoppers can pause and rest awhile on a summer’s afternoon.
6. Chapel Street
The trail now returns up Market Jew Street, then left into Queen’s Square and then Chapel Street which was the main route to the harbour until more recent times. The medieval street was largely burnt to the ground with the rest of the Town in 1595 by a pillaging force of Spanish musketeers and pikemen – revenge for the humiliating defeat of the Spanish Amada just 7 years before. The street was rebuilt and by Georgian times was full of grand houses and, from 1797, the Town’s first commercial bank was established to support the mining industry. An un-missable event at this time was the daily arrival of the mules bringing copper ore from St Just to Penzance for export. The arrival of the mules, panniers dripping with ‘red slime’, created great excitement and a great public nuisance as 70-80 animals took possession of the pavements and roadway.
The Egyptian House is probably the most eye-catching of Chapel Street’s buildings with its impressive and colourful facade, built in 1835 to house the collection of the celebrated mineralogist, John Lavin. Interest in Egyptology was all the rage at the time having been stimulated by Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt.
Opposite is the Union Hotel where an early Georgian theatre and Assembly Rooms were the rendezvous for the Town’s gentry and where Mayor Thomas Giddy announced the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death in 1805.
The large Methodist Chapel is on the right going down Chapel Street. Methodism had become the popular religion of the day following numerous visits by John Wesley but not before overcoming fierce opposition from Dr Walter Borlase, Vicar of Madron. After an early visit Wesley recorded in his diary ‘Penzance – where Satan keeps his seat’ but he later softened his view of the Town.
7. Tax and Smugglers
The Artists Residence Hotel was once the home of Richard Pearce, many times mayor of Penzance. The house is said to be haunted by a Mrs Baines following her grizzly murder. When sightings diminished, a Captain Carveth, living opposite, used a magic lantern to project a ghostly image onto the facade!
Opposite is the Turks Head Inn, built around 1233. It is one of Penzance’s oldest buildings having survived the Spanish raid of 1595. Admiral Benbow pub further down the street dates from the
17th century and houses a fascinating collection of maritime artefacts rescued from many vessels shipwrecked locally. If you look up, lying on the roof ridge is the figure of a smuggler with his gun firmly aimed at any customs official that dared to intervene. Both pubs contain tunnels thought to lead to the harbour, useful for smuggling goods away from the watchful eyes of ‘Riding Officers’ or Customs officials. Custom House records from 1731 to 1781 record with monotonous regularity complaints from Custom Officers about the arrogance, ingenuity and audacity of smugglers operating in Mounts Bay. In 1778 it was said that smuggling had spiralled out of control and that in this year alone the equivalent of £7 million worth of spirits was landed in West Cornwall! Even the Mayor of Penzance John Tonkin was bound over in 1770 for smuggling!
By the early 19th century Penzance had become a more law abiding place. A large number of consulates we established as a result of its sea-trade, they included the Danish, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Ottoman, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish consulates, many located in Chapel Street. Another result of international trade was a group of elegant 18th century brick houses in Chapel Street, the ‘Rotterdam Buildings’, built from bricks imported as ballast from Holland, one of which was the early home of the mother of the Brontë sisters – Maria Branwell.
8. The Harbour
Walk down Abbey Slip from where the panoramic vista of Mounts Bay and St Michael’s Mount greets you. The harbour was one of the three pillars of Penzance’s commercial success, the others being mining and the market. It was from here in the 13th century that pilgrims set sail on specially licensed ships bound for the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The importance of the Harbour was recognized in 1512 when it received a charter from King Henry V111 granting Penzance the profits from all ships visiting the harbour in return for accepting an obligation to maintain the quay and sea defences.
The Harbour became increasingly busy with the growth of the tin mining industry. Trade repeatedly outgrew the capacity of the Harbour resulting in proposals to extend and modify the Harbour. These were hugely expensive and controversial projects. The Albert Pier, started in 1845, was expected to cost £15,000 but cost £23, 000 when completed in 1847 (£15.5 million in today’s money based upon average earnings). Penzance Harbour continues to be the focus of new projects and local controversy but it is no longer the economic engine it was in 1888 when Harbour income peaked at £6060 (£2.5 million in today’s money based upon average earnings).
Penzance was home to Cornwall’s first lifeboat, and notable buildings near the harbour include the Lifeboat House (now the Old Lifeboat House Bistro) with its own bell tower to summon the volunteers. Officially opened in 1885, it soon became apparent that the position of the house made launching of the lifeboat difficult – a team of horses were needed to drag the boat around two sharp corners to launch at Abbey Slip. Deep mud at low tide made the situation even harder! As a result a larger lifeboat was procured and housed at Newlyn with the Penzance station finally closing in 1917.
Wharf Road was built in the 1880s and gave the harbour a new waterfront and better access than previously available via Chapel Street. The Ross swingbridge opens to admit ships to the small dry dock created in 1814.
9. Dolphin Inn
Overlooking the harbour for more than 500 years is the Dolphin Inn. Before the sea wall was built, stormy seas used to flood the cellars often leaving the kegs and barrels afloat in seawater! Of the many stories that accompany this building, one is that the Inn served as Sir John Hawkin’s
headquarters when recruiting Cornishmen to fight in the Armada in 1588. Another is that the notorious ‘hanging judge’, Judge Jeffreys ,used the inn as an impromptu courthouse following the crushing of the Monmouth Rebellion (“The Revolt of the West”) in 1685. The Inn is said to be haunted by an old sea captain complete with Tricorne hat, big bushy beard and sailor’s attire.
Look out for Penzance’s newest icon outside the Dolphin – in 2012 Penzance’s Helen Glover and her rowing partner won the UK’s first Olympic gold medal and gained the first gold post-box for a very proud Penzance.
Flanking the harbour, west of the Dolphin was a small fort or barbican, built by Henry VIII to protect the harbour against his continental enemies. The war memorial now sits on hexagonal base of this fortification.
10. Jubilee Bathing Pool
Since its opening to celebrate the Jubilee of King George V in 1935, the Lido Pool has provided recreation for generations of visitors and townspeople alike. The startling white architecture and iconic Art Deco design have become synonymous with Penzance’s seafront. The pool was built over Cribben Zawn, a rocky cove much frequented by smugglers and used as a quiet landing place by press gangs eager to snatch up unwilling recruits for the Royal Navy.
The Art Deco theme continues with the Yacht Inn which bears a strong resemblance to the bridge of a luxury liner. The present premises replaced the old ‘Yacht’ which was the haunt of local seaweed gatherers who, fresh from their labour on the shore would retire to the bar, their clothes still dripping in seawater! St Anthony’s Gardens was created during a frenzy of civic inspired modernisation when ancient cottages, stores and coal yards were demolished and replaced with these public gardens.
St. Mary’s Church overlooks the ‘Holy Headland’ or ‘Pen Sans’ from which Penzance takes its name. The parish church of St Mary’s stands on the site of a medieval chapel, demolished in the 1830s. On its southern side is St Anthony’s Cross, thought to be twelfth century and moved here from St Anthony’s Chapel (on the site of Barbican Lane) in 1850. In the north west corner of the churchyard is a large cholera pit, the mass grave of victims of the epidemic which swept through West Penwith in 1832.
12. Regent Square
Regent Square was built in the 1830s on land which once formed part of the ‘Close Yeare Meadow’ – a popular venue for Sunday School Treats and recreation. These ‘twenty one elegant houses set around a narrow serpentine road’ were occupied by the more prosperous artisans and merchants. A notable resident was Captain Luke Love, master of the schooner Duke of Cornwall which plied weekly to London with goods and passengers. The fastest way to travel to London before the invention of the steam locomotive was by sea. Railway construction began in the 1850s with a direct railway link between London and Penzance established in 1859.
13. Morrab Gardens
Morrab Gardens were purchased by the Corporation of Penzance in 1888 for the creation of a grand muncipal park. The gardens – three and a half acres in size – contain many sub tropical and rare plants which flourish in Penzance’s mild climate. With its bandstand and fountain, it is one of the nicest places to be in Penzance on a summer’s day. The gardens are the home of the Morrab Library, a private library containing a fascinating archive on the history of the local area accessible to the public for a small charge.
14. The Promenade
Until the nineteenth century windswept dunes – the Western Green – flanked the shore towards Newlyn. However, by 1843 the celebrated Promenade was built on this part of Penzance’s coast as Penzance was fast becoming a popular spa town. The only ‘Prom’ on the Cornish Coast, it became a focus of social activity and soon bathing machines stood alongside the luggers and seine boats on the beach while promenaders would congregate in Penzance to stroll up and down, meet friends and be serenaded by the town band. The Casino Arcade on the seafront was previously a popular theatre, the Pavillion Theatre.
When Gilbert & Sullivan produced their now famous opera ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in 1890 the title gently lampooned Penzance because by this time the Town was an docile and genteel tourist destination – about as threatening as Bournemouth is today. Penzance has not however forgotten it’s more colourful past and entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2011 when a total of 8,734 people dressed as pirates packed the Promenade allowing Penzance to claim the title from Hastings. The struggle for supremacy as the ‘pirate capital’ of the country continues.
15 and 16 Artists inspired
The area’s spectacular scenery has attracted visiting artists since the early 19th century and in the 1880’s, helped by the direct rail link to London, artists began to settle here to form a colony known as the Newlyn School. By 1884 there were at least 27 resident artists such as Stanhope Forbes and Frank Wright Bourdillon depicting village life in a rural ‘naturalist’ style.
Penlee House (no. 15) on our trail, was built for Richard Bramwell as a Victorian gentleman’s residence. It is now a first class Art Gallery specialising in the Newlyn School and Museum with historical collections covering 6000 years of history in West Cornwall. Penlee
Memorial Park surrounds the house and holds many unusual sub-tropical plants and trees from around the world with a children’s play area, sensory garden, Victorian pond, memorial garden, open air theatre and tennis courts. Look out for The Penzance market Cross at the entrance.
At the top of Morrab Road, the Art School (no. 16) on our trail, was built in 1880 by Silvanus Trevail using granite from Lamorna quarry for the growing Penzance art community.
Today, Penzance and West Penwith remain a magnet for artists and creative people of every sort.