The following description is lifted directly from [Millett 1876]. It must be read in the context of that date. [Copy kindly loaned by Jackie Hill.]


Delivered at the Penzance Institute on the 13th March, 1876

With a List of the Mayors of Penzance, and other additional matter.



Vice President of the Institute, Honorary Secretary of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, etc.

Illustrated with Wood Engravings




The Old Market House, Penzance. Taken Down in 1836

The Old Market House, Penzance. Taken Down in 1836


In accordance with the wishes of those who have done me the honour to suggest that my attempt to outline the history of Penzance should be printed, it now appears in its present form—without the slightest pretentions to being anything more than a mere sketch.

When the title of this lecture was chosen my design was to have said further concerning Penzance present; but, notwithstanding much “cutting out,” it was only found possible to crowd an imperfect history of Penzance past into one short hour.

Mr. Joseph Blight’s wood engravings aid me in illustrating my subject; but especially am I indebted to him for the view of the old Market house, which, having engraved expressly for this occasion, he presents—in the same spirit as, perhaps, some persons may glance at these pages—for

Auld Lang Syne.

Penzance: past and present

About seven centuries ago a few fishermen’s huts were clustered round a small chapel, dedicated to St. Anthony, upon a little headland which jutted into the sea just midway between Mousehole and St. Michael’s Mount. At this remote period the chapel was probably a somewhat conspicuous object, and since it was dedicated to that peculiar Saint who preached to fishes (and who thus perhaps became entitled to be considered an especial Patron Saint of fishermen), doubtless the site was regarded with a certain amount of veneration by the simple people of the neighbourhood. Hence it became known as the Holy head, or in Cornish—the only language then commonly spoken in the west—as Pensans; pen signifying head, and sans holy.

Such is the traditional origin of the town, which, from this point, slowly but surely extended; at first up the hill northward, and then chiefly in an easterly direction, until, in more recent times, it began to grow westward.

The name Penzance has been variously interpreted, Camden authoritatively derives it thus:—“Pensans, that is the head of the sands;” but Polwhele declares that such an admixture of Cornish and English, in the name of an old town in Cornwall, is unworthy of a schoolboy, and too ridiculous for a man such as Camden to suggest. Carew interprets Pensans “the Saint’s head;” and Mr. Gough (quoting Bishop Gibson), in his Additions to Camden, similarly explains it; pointing triumphantly to the town arms—John the Baptist’s head in a charger. “If,” he says, “this interpretation did not put it beyond dispute, it might from its situation be interpreted Pensavas,—the head of the channel.” Save us from the Savants! might very well have been the exclamation of several of the Cornish towns, whilst their names were thus tortured and dissected by such learned gentlemen, who were often at variance, and frequently ludicrous in their attempts to explain the names of places. St. Ives distractedly wreathed her head with ivy; Camborne took refuge in “a crooked well;” Helston was found on “a hill by a green moor,” or, as others say, in “a marsh;” but Marazion, or Market-jew, became especially depressed,—“the bitterness of Sion” was upon her, nor did a “Thursday’s market” serve to revive her drooping spirits. Poor persecuted place, whose name, spelt in a variety of ways, and cumbered with many meanings, is even yet a mark for the arrows of speculation and conjecture. She has lifted up her head of late though, and whilst endeavouring to enlarge her borders is ready to believe that her name is of royal origin. (See W. C. Borlase’s Sketch of the Tin Trade, p. 42.)

Such interpretations as the Saint’s head and the head of the channel call forth the criticism of Mr. Polwhele. He pronounces the one to be false and the other ridiculous; but whilst he amusingly demurs at the various interpretations suggested by those who professed to be learned in such matters, he himself offers another, little if at all more satisfactory, and is at great trouble to show at some length that Penzance is the same in Cornish as Mount’s-bay in English. Price considers the name to mean “the head of the bay” (from pen a head, and zanz a bay), rather than the Saint’s head; though he shows that zanz also means Saint. In his vocabulary, however, he gives other meanings for the same word zanz, viz.—holy, consecrated, sanctified; and since we find that it not unfrequently occurs, undoubtedly having this meaning in the names of places in Cornwall—as in Lezant or Lansant, the holy church, in the east of the county; and Sancreed, or the church of the holy creed, in the west,—in the immediate neighbourhood of Penzance—it is a little remarkable that he should not have mentioned this third, and probably the correct, interpretations of Holy headland.

When Domesday-book was compiled—that is to say about the year 1086, it being then completed, having been six years in preparation—there was perhaps no trace of the little fishing village which gave rise to the present flourishing borough, and the very name Penzance may have been unknown; but the Parish of Madron, in which it is situated, was then taxed as part of the manor of Alwarton or Alverton, which takes its name from Alward, who possessed it in the time of Edward the Confessor: Alverton being literally Alward’s town. That there was some trace of Penzance, however, in the thirteenth century is certain, for it is recorded, in an inquiry instituted in the second year of the reign of Henry VI. (dated 9th February, 1548-49), that Sir Henry Le Tyes, Knight, Lord of the manor of Alverton, had founded a chantry here in the chapel of Our Lady, distant from the Parish Church two miles and a half, and endowed it with £4 out of the lands of the said manor, for the salary of a priest to celebrate there. There appears to be some reason for supposing that this chantry was founded about 1284. Tradition also speaks of a castle which was erected by one of the Baronial family of Le Tyes, for the defence of the town, and there has been some controversy as to its probable whereabouts, but taking into consideration the style of warfare of those times, no more commanding or more suitable position can be conceived for such a building than the site of the present St. Mary’s church, which has succeeded the chapel of Our Lady of ancient days. At the Quay, a little to the south-east of this spot, is a small thoroughfare called Barbican Lane, and the existence of such a name is suggestive of there having been a fortification of some importance in the vicinity. The modern battery, which is at no great distance, and was built in 1740, can scarcely have given rise to the appellation, which has been in use from time immemorial. The fact of the chantry having been established here by Sir Henry, has in the opinion of some favoured the supposition of a castle having existed at or near the same place; the former probably being included in the precincts of the latter. The name Buriton, too, which is more or less connected with Penzance, has been adduced as a further proof, since it might be understood to mean Castle town. The term “Buriton alias Penzance” has been said by Polwhele1 to occur in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of Henry VIII., but this is questionable. “Buriton” certainly will be found there, but it refers to a rectory in the diocese of Winchester. “Buriton alias Penzance” does occur, however, in a comparatively modern document, viz.—the deed of consecration of St. Mary’s chapel, in 1680, subsequently to the town having been constituted a borough, and it has even been suggested that the word is a mere corruption of Borough town; but there is a dash of antiquity and a flavour of romance about the name, to which doubtless it owes much of the vitality it still possesses.

The family of Le Tyes—the great people of this neighbourhood when Penzance was in its infancy—were of German extraction, Le Tyes being equivalent to Teutonicus. The first of them in England was one of King John’s military engineers, brought over from Germany. After Alward, alerady mentioned, the manor of Alverton was held successively by Robert, Earl of Moretain; Pomeroy; Richard, Earl of Cornwall; and then by Terric Le yes, from whom it passed to his nephew Waleran, who possessed it in the year 1223. Waleran married a lady with a pretty name, Sybylla, a name which has for ages continued to be a favourite in this district, as the Parish Registers of Madron will testify. Then through three generations of Henries—the second of whom, the first Baron Tyes, was remarkable as having procured a charter for Mousehole in 1300, dying in 1308; and the third for being a rebel, and getting beheaded on 3rd April, 1321—the manor descended to Alice, the sister of the last named Henry, second and last baron. Alice married Warine De Lisle; and let all Penzance do honour to her memory, for she was our lady patroness, and used her influence successfully in behalf of the town, at an early period of its history.

Whilst the origin of Penzance is traditionally ascribed indirectly to St. Anthony, it is curious, remembering the temptations of that holy man and his supposed remarks thereon, that the very first privileges the town obtained from the crown were due to female influence. The little village grew and flourished; until in the year 1332 it had attained to such importance that Alice De Lisle, then lady of the manor of Alverton, petitioned Edward III. for a weekly market to be held here on Wednesdays, and a fair of seven days continuance at the festival of St. Peter. Her petition was granted, and this is one of the first definite and authentic pieces of history we have relating to the town. It is noteworthy that our annual merry making—our fiery carnival, which commences at nightfall on St. John’s eve and ends with the small hours on the morning of St. Peter’s day, pretty nearly coincides with the period allotted to the ancient fair of seven days. Now that Penzance had become a market town, and as the inhabitants increased in number, the little chapel of St. Anthony evidently proved insufficiently large for the growing congregations; and soon we learn that the chapel of St. Mary, or Our Lady, in which a chantry had been founded at an early date, as already mentioned, was licensed on the 15th June, 1397, by Stafford, Bishop of Exeter; possibly in consequence of its having been rebuilt or enlarged, or perhaps simply from being handed over to the public at this time. One Lawrence Trewythgy was then vicar of Madron, to which eventually St. Mary’s became a chapel of ease, but was in modern times destined to be a vicarial church in itself.

Polwhele in his valuable History of Cornwall enlarges upon the subject of the traditional fort and chapel of St. Mary, at Penzance. His speculations are ingenious and interesting; but since he has no more to build upon than the few facts already detailed, I shall simply refer you to his remarks, and remind you that his works teem with information relating to the county, and have been said to be a second Iliad in a nutshell.

Alice De Lisle had a son, Gerard (who was born in 1305, and died in 1360), and he had a son, Warine, (born 1333, and died 1381), whose only daughter and heiress, Margaret, carried the manor of Alverton to her husband, Thomas, tenth Baron Berkeley; and he in the year 1404 petitioned the crown for three fairs of two days each to be held here, instead of one of seven days. This, together with the right of holding a market on Wednesdays, as formerly conceded to his wife’s ancestress, was granted to him by Henry IV.

At a comparatively early period in the history of Penzance, the chapel of St. Clare must have been of some considerable consequence. It is spoken of in a document, to which I shall hereafter have occasion to allude, as a rectory of about a quarter of the value of the rectories of Madron and Penzance together. It has, moreover, given its name to the locality in which it formerly stood. Not a trace of this chapel now remains above ground; though its foundations were to be seen as lately as the latter part of the last century, in the field at present used as an archery and cricket ground, occupying the most elevated site within the borough, and probably some remains of them are still beneath the sod. They stood at the south-west corner of the field which adjoins the high road between Penzance and Madron, and were near the borough bound-stone.

On the 12th August, 1429, another chapel, that dedicated to St. Gabriel and St. Raphael was licensed at Penzance, by Lacy, Bishop of Exeter. The necessity for additional accommodation suggests an increasing population; and with this there must have been a fair amount of prosperity, for a quay had been built, and Penzance had become a “trading port,” “a place of ships and merchandise;” nor was it defenceless, as appears by that small but important charter or grant (the oldest document now in the possession of the corporation) which, early in the sixteenth century, the town obtained from Henry VIII. It is signed by the King himself, being dated 16th March, 1512, and is addressed “To our Styward, Receyvour, Auditors, Reves, and Baillyffs of our Towne of Pensans, within our Countye of Cornwall,” &c. It grants the profits of “the ankerage, kylage, and bussellage” (i.e. bushelage), of all ships visiting the harbour, upon condition that the quay and bulwarks of the town are well and competently repaired. This charter then originated an important source of revenue.

In August, 1537, there was something of a naval engagement in Mount’s bay between the French and English, as we learn from Froude’s History of England, (vol. iii., p. 251). The two nations were not formally at war, for Henry VIII. could ill afford to declare it at this time; but some French cruisers, and Flemish also, had been committing depredations upon our shipping in the most outrageous manner, consequently Sir Thomas Seymour (the Queen’s brother), Sir George Carew, Sir John Dudley, and Christopher Coo (a rough English sailor), were appointed to the command of a small fleet, which was quickly fitted out at Portsmouth. “The people of Penzance, one August afternoon, heard the thunder of distant cannon. Carew and Seymour, searching the western coast, had come on the traces of four French ships of war, which had been plundering. They came up with them in Mount’s bay, and closing against heavy odds, fought them there till night. At daybreak, one of the four lay on the water a sinking wreck. The others had crawled away in the darkness, and came no more into English waters.”

Leland, writing about the year 1540, says, at “Pensandes there is a little pere,” and again, “Pensants, stonding fast on the shore of Montbay, ys the Westest Market towne of al Cornwayle, and no socur for Botes or Shyppes but [the] a forsed pere or key.” He goes on to say that “there is but a chapel in the sayd towne, as ys in Newlyn, for theyr paroches chyrches be more than a myle of.” Thus we see that either Leland did not happen to hear of the existence of other chapels, or, they might have fallen into disuse, whist St. Mary’s had become more prominent.

In the year 1550 the manor of Alverton was in the possession of Henry, Earl of Rutland, who was endowed with it by Edward VI.; but at the death of the former, in 1563, it reverted to the crown.

On the 8th January, 1574, Queen Elizabeth granted a lease in reversion of the tithes of Madron, Penzance, and St. Clare, for twenty-one years, from 24th June, 1585, to Peter Coryton, Esq., and William Hogben, of All those our Rectories of St. Clare, Madron and Penzance, with all their rights and appurtenances now in the possession of Peter Coryton; parcels of land lately belonging to the Priory of St. John of Jerusalem, in England, now dissolved. I need scarcely remind you that these Knights Hospitallers had an establishment in Landithy, at Madron.

Another document, dated 2nd December, 1584 (27 Eliz.), leases to Thomas Betts, gent., from Michaelmas, 1584, All that our piece of land adjoining the Cattle Pound, within our manor of Alvarton and Pensaunce, lately in the occupation of Richard Lanyne, Jun., at an annual rent of 2s.; and another waste piece of land called Ropers’ Place, adjoining the town of Penzance, at an annual rent of 6d.; and one waste parcel of land adjoining a certain chapel situated within the high road between Penzance and Madderne, at the annual rent of 4d.; and a garden at the same place, called the Hemp Garden, adjoining the house of one John Beachym, gent, now or lately in the occupation of Thomas Clies, at the annual rent of 6d., lately parts of the lands of Henry, Earl of Rutland.

When next we hear of the manor of Averton and Penzance it had been granted to one of the Whitmore family; a descendent of whom, Sir George Whitmore, eventually disposed of his rights to Richard Daniel, of Truro, whose daughter he married.

About the middle of the year 1578 this neighbourhood was visited by plague; and the Register of Burials at Madron tells the sad tale, which, so far as I am aware, has not been elsewhere recorded. The population of the entire parish at this time must have been small; and judging from the names, and the number of them, Penzance must have suffered severely. On more than one occasion as many as five burials are registered in a day, during July and August; indeed, whole families seem to have been swept away. Thus we find that on the 7th June, John son of John Skott, was buried; on the 9th (the very next entry), Richard and William, sons of the same; on the 13th, Christian, his wife; and on the 16th, John Skott himself.

Madron Church and Landithy, with Boscathnoe Cross in the foreground

Madron Church and Landithy, with Boscathnoe Cross in the foreground.

1 History of Cornwall, vol. iii., Supplement, p. 29.

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