Bronze and Iron Ages
Evidence of Iron Age settlement can be found in Penzance in a number of sites including Lescudjack Castle, an Iron Age settlement within the current Penzance parish boundaries.
Evidence of historical settlement from this period can be found in the St Clare area of the town, where a chapel not unlike St Anthony's existed dedicated to St. Clare or Cleer. Throughout the period prior to Penzance gaining borough status in 1614 the village and surrounding areas fell within the control of the Manor of Alverton and was subject to the taxation regime of that manor.
Although the first historical mention of Penzance (as a place for landing fish) was in 1322 in local manorial records, the town was, until the 17th century, overshadowed by its near-neighbour Marazion. (Marazion was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1088 and is the oldest chartered town in Britain, having been granted this status by King Henry III in 1257.) In medieval times and later, Penzance was subject to frequent raiding by Turkish pirates. The name of one of Penzance's oldest buildings 'The Turk's Head' pub is said to be a reference to these incidents. There is however, no written evidence to this effect.
Tudor and Stuart period
In the summer of 1578 Penzance was visited by the plague. The burial registers of Madron (where all Penzance births, deaths and marriages were recorded) shows a massive increase in deaths for 1578, from 12 the previous year to 155. This is estimated to be about 10% of the population of the village at the time. The plague also returned in 1647 and the registers again show an increase of from 22 burials to 217 in one year.
Being at the far west of England, Penzance and the surrounding villages have been sacked many times by foreign fleets. On July 23rd 1595,[several years after the Spanish Armada of 1588, a Spanish force under Don Carlos de Amesquita, which had been patrolling the Channel, landed troops in Cornwall. Amesquita's force seized supplies, raided and burned Penzance and surrounding villages, held a mass, and sailed away before it could be confronted..
Penzance as a town since 1614
The reason for Penzance's relative success probably stems
from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries when Henry IV of England granted the
town a Royal Market. Henry VIII later granted the right to charge harbour dues,
and King James I granted it the status of a borough.
During the English Civil War Penzance was sacked by the forces of Sir Thomas Fairfax apparently for the kindness shown to Lord Goring and Lord Hoptons troops during the conflict
Penzance borough council undertook several major projects, including the building of the Market House (which was the home of the Corn Exchange and the then Guildhall), and the harbour, the first pier of which was built in 1512. The southern arm of the pier was built in 1766 and extended in 1785.
Civil improvements in this period included the construction in 1759 of a reservoir which supplied water to public pumps in the streets.
Penzance has a long-standing association with the local parish of Madron. Madron Church was in fact the centre of most religious activity in the town until 1871, when St. Mary's Church (prior to this period a Chapel of ease) was granted parish status by church authorities.
In 1755 the Lisbon earthquake caused a tsunami to strike the Cornish coast over 1,000 miles away. The sea rose eight feet in Penzance, and ebbed at the same rate.
At the start of the 19th century (1801), the town had a population of 2,248. The census, which is taken every ten years, recorded a peak population in 1861 of 3,843, but it then declined, as in most of Cornwall, through the remainder of the century, being just 3,088 in 1901.
By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Penzance had established itself as an important regional centre. The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall was founded in the town in 1814 and about 1817 was responsible for introducing a miner's safety tamping bar, which attracted the Prince Regent to become its patron.
The pier had been extended again in 1812 and John Matthews opened a small dry dock in 1814, the first in the South West. In 1840 Nicholas Holman of St Just opened a branch of his foundry business on the quayside. These facilities proved valuable in supporting the steamships that were soon calling at the harbour in increasing numbers.
Gas lighting was introduced in 1830 and the old Market House was demolished in 1836. Its replacement, designed by W. Harris of Bristol, was completed at the top of Market Jew Street in 1838. St Mary's Church, another prominent feature of the Penzance skyline, was completed in 1836, while a Roman Catholic church was built in 1843. Another familiar building from this period is the eccentric Egyptian House in Chapel Street, built in 1830. The first part of the Promenade along the sea front dates from 1844.
After the passing of the Public Health Act (1848), Penzance was one of the first towns to petition to form a local board of health, doing so in September that year. Following a report by a government inspector in February, the Board was established in 1849 which led to many facilities to enhance public health. The report shows that most streets were Macadamised or sometimes paved, and the town was lit by 121 gas lamps from October to March each year, although they were not lit when there was a full moon. Water was supplied from 6 public pumps, and there were a further 53 private wells. There were no sewage pipes at the time, waste being collected from the main streets by a refuse cart.
Penzance railway station, the terminus of the West Cornwall Railway, opened on 11 March 1852 on the eastern side of the harbour, although trains only ran to Redruth at first. From 25 August 1852 the line was extended to Truro, but the Cornwall Railway linking that place with Plymouth was not opened until 4 May 1859. Passengers and goods had to change trains at Truro as the West Cornwall had been built using the 4 ft 8½ in (1,435 mm) standard gauge, but the Cornwall Railway was built to the 7 ft 0¼ in (2,140 mm) broad gauge. The West Cornwall Railway Act included a clause that it would be converted to broad gauge once it had been connected to another broad gauge line, but the company could not raise the funds to do so.
The line was sold to the Great Western Railway and its "Associated Companies" (the Bristol and Exeter Railway and South Devon Railway) on 1 January 1866. The new owners quickly converted the line to mixed gauge using three rails so that both broad and "narrow" trains could operate. Broad gauge goods trains started running in November that year, with through passenger trains running to London from 1 March 1867. The last broad gauge train arrived at 8.49pm on 20 May 1892, having left London Paddington station at 10.15 that morning. The two locomotives, numbers 1256 and 3557, took the carriages away to Swindon railway works at 9.57, and all trains since have been standard gauge.
The ability of the railway to carry fresh produce to distant markets such as Bristol, London and Manchester enabled local farmers and fishermen to sell more produce and at better prices. The special "perishable" train soon became a feature of the railway, these being fast extra goods trains carrying potatoes, broccoli or fish depending on the season. In August 1861 1,787 tons of potatoes, 867 tons of broccoli, and 1,063 tons of fish were dispatched from the station. Fruit and flowers were also carried, the mild climate around Penzance and on the Scilly Isles meant that they were ready for market earlier and could command high prices.
The completion of the railway through Cornwall made it easier for tourists and invalids to enjoy the mild climate of Penzance. Bathing machines had been advertised for hire on the beach as early as 1823, and the town was already "noted for the pleasantness of its situation, the salubrity of its air, and the beauty of its natives". The town's first official guide book was published in 1860 and the Queen's Hotle opened on the sea front the following year. It was so successful that it was extended in 1871 and 1908.
At the same time as the railway was being built more improvements were being made to the harbour, with a second pier on the eastern side of the harbour, the Albert Pier, completed in 1853 to provide even better shelter for shipping, and a lighthouse built on the Old Pier in 1855. The Scilly Isles Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1858 and placed in service the first steam ship on the route, SS Little Western. In 1870 the new West Cornwall Steam Ship Company joined the route, taking over the Scilly Isles Company the following year.
Penzance, with its dry dock and engineering facilities, was chosen as the western depot for Trinity House that serviced all the lighthouses and lightships from Start Point to Trevose Head. It was opened in 1866 adjacent to the harbour and the Buoy Store became the Trinity House National Lighthouse Museum until 2005 when Trinity House closed the museum.
In 1875 a local newspaper described the railway station as a large dog's house of the nastiest and draughtiest kind but a series of works improved this part of the town during the 1880s. The original station was rebuilt with the present buildings and train shed over the platforms (1880). The lower end of Market Jew Street was widened and a new road was built to link the station with the harbour over the Ross Swing Bridge (1881), allowing the construction of proper sewers beneath. A larger dry dock replaced Matthews' original facility (1880), and a floating harbour was made (1884) with lock gates to keep in the water at low tide.
Around the headland, public baths were opened on the Promenade in 1887 and the Morrab Gardens with its sub-tropical plants was opened two years later. A bandstand was added to the gardens in 1897
In 1901 the town had a population of 3,088 The census taken every ten years recorded a continuing decline in population until 1921, when just 2,616 people were recorded, after which it climbed rapidly to 4,888 (1931) then 5,545 (1951) - the population had more than doubled in twenty years and was now larger than at any time in the past.(The census boundaries changed in 1981 so these figures do not directly compare with those stated for the current population)
A proposed electric tramway along the Promenade to Newlyn, which would then have continued as a light railway to St Just, failed to gain authorisation in 1898, instead motor buses were put into service on 31 October 1903. These linked Penzance with Marazion and were operated by the Great Western Railway, being introduced only 11 weeks after the railway's pioneering service between Helston and The Lizard. They were considered a success, carrying 16,091 passengers by the end of the year, so were followed the next spring by further routes to Land's End and St Just. These services developed into the First Devon and Cornwall bus network that stills serves the area and is still centred on a terminus alongside Penzance railway station.
The dry dock was sold on 25 August 1904 to N. Holman and Sons Limited, the engineering business that had been trading in Penzance since 1840. New workshops were built during the 1930s and the facility continued to provide facilities for the Scilly ferries and other merchant ships, as well as Trinity House, the Royal Navy and Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service. In 1951 a new vessel for the King Harry Ferry on the River Fal was launched, built on the keel of an old landing craft. In 1963 they even built a steam tug, the Primrose.
Land was reclaimed beside the Albert Pier in the 1930s to allow the railway station to be further enlarged at a cost of £134,000. The 1880 building was retained but extra platforms and sidings were provided to enable it to handle more perishable goods, and also the increasing numbers of tourists travelling to the area.
In 1905 a new bandstand had been built on the Promenade opposite the Queen's Hotel, and the Pavilion Theatre opened nearby in 1911, complete with a roof garden and cafe.
Travel to Penzance was easier than ever, with the Great Western Railway introducing the Cornish Riviera Express on 1 July 1904, which left London Paddington at 10:10 and arrived in Penzance just 7 hours later, two hours faster than the previous quickest service. (In 2007 it leaves Paddington at 10:05 and takes 5 hours and 5 minutes.) The railway actively promoted local tourism with the production of postcards that were sold at its stations, and the annual publication of a guide book, The Cornish Riviera, in which SPB Mais described it as "a suburb of Covent Garden, and a great fishing centre ... there is always something going on in its harbour".
1923 had seen a new road link the harbour area and the Promenade, and in 1933 the St. Anthony Gardens were built, followed two years later by the Jubilee Bathing Pool opposite. Tourists could now make full use of the whole seafront between Penzance and Newlyn harbours.