Situated in the shelter of Mount's Bay, the town faces south-east onto the English Channel, is bordered to the west by the fishing port of Newlyn and to the east by the civil parish of Ludgvan. The town's location gives it a temperate climate that makes it warmer than most of the rest of Britain.
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.
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 ten minutes at Penzance, and ebbed at the same rate.
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 standard gauge, but the Cornwall Railway was built to the 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 Hotel 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.
Penzance railway station is situated at the bottom of Market Jew Street and close to the harbour. It is the western terminus of the Cornish Main Line which runs above the beach to Marazion, affording passengers good views of St. Michael's Mount and Mount's Bay. Most services are operated by First Great Western, both local services to St Erth, St Ives, Hayle, Camborne, Redruth, and Truro, and direct trains linking Penzance with Plymouth, Exeter St Davids, Bristol Temple Meads, Reading and London Paddington. The Night Riviera train offers an overnight sleeping car service to and from Reading and London. Journey time to Plymouth is typically under 2 hours; to Bristol around 4 hours, and London less than 5½ hours.
CrossCountry run a small number of services (departing in the morning, returning in the evening) via Bristol and Birmingham New Street to Glasgow Central via Preston and Carlisle, also to Dundee via Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh Waverley. The journey time to Birmingham is just under 5½ hours, and nearly 10 hours to Glasgow.
The bus and coach station is adjacent to the railway station from where National Express operates coach services to London Victoria (taking around 9 hours) via Heathrow Airport. Local bus services run by First Devon and Cornwall connect Penzance with most major settlements in Cornwall, including Truro, St. Ives, St Just, St Buryan, Land's End, and also Plymouth in Devon.
A ferry service is operated between Penzance Harbour and the Isles of Scilly by The Scillonian III, carrying both foot-passengers and cargo. Sailing time is approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes. Alternatively, a passenger helicopter service operates from Penzance Heliport to the Isles of Scilly run by British International Helicopters. Flying time is approximately 20 minutes. A bus service run by the Skybus Airline Service connects with Land's End Airport for fixed wing flights (15 minutes) to the Isles of Scilly. This service operates from the railway station, near the taxi rank, rather than the bus station.
Newquay Airport is 41 miles (66 km) away and offers flights to Gatwick, Stansted Dublin and Cork airports. Plymouth Airport is 77 miles (124 km) away has services to Gatwick, Bristol, Dublin and Manchester airports.
Until 1934 the Borough of Penzance referred only to the town, but has since been extended to include the nearby settlements of Newlyn, Mousehole, Gulval and Heamoor. The Civil Parish of Penzance was further extended in 2004 under District of Penwith (Electoral Changes) Order 2002 to include Eastern Green, formerly part of the Ludgvan civil parish area.
In 1974 the Penzance Borough was abolished and replaced, first by the Penzance Charter Trustees and then from 1980 by Penzance Town Council. The principal local authorities in the area are now Penwith District Council and Cornwall County Council. For the purposes of election to the Cornwall County Council, Penzance returns 3 councillors to the Penzance Electoral Division.
Penzance Town Council does not have in place a system of political registration so councillors do not form groups of any kind and technically act independently, however the current political composition of the council (as of 3 May 2007) is as follows: independent 10, Liberal Democrats 7, Mebyon Kernow 3. Nine won by election and 11 were elected unopposed.
Penzance also elects a mayor every year in May from the members of Penzance town council. Although mayors have a political affiliation, this position is largely ceremonial.
The current mayor-elect is Roy Mann an Independent and the deputy mayor-elect is Richard Clark, of Mebyon Kernow
The economy of Penzance has, like many Cornish communities, suffered from the decline of the traditional Cornish industries of fishing, mining and agriculture. Penzance now has a mixed economy consisting of light industrial, tourism and retail businesses. However, like the rest of Cornwall, housing remains comparatively expensive, wages low and unemployment high within the parish area. House prices have risen 274% in 10 years the fastest rise in the UK. The fishing port of Newlyn, which falls within the parish boundaries, provides some employment in the area, but has also been greatly affected by the decline in the fishing industry over the last 30 years. In the 2004 index of deprivation Penzance is listed as having 3 wards within the top 10% percent for employment deprivation, Penzance East (125th most deprived in England) Penzance West (200th most deprived in England), Penzance Central (712th most deprived in England) 18-31% of households in the parish being described as "poor households". The Penzance East Ward also has one the highest unemployment rates in Cornwall stated as 15.4%.
Large sections of the Penzance Parish are classified as conservation areas under the Penwith local plan and are subject to special planning laws. The current conservation area forms most of the core of the town of Penzance and the historic harbour areas of Newlyn and Mousehole.. A number of Georgian and Regency buildings are present in the town. However, the majority of developments in the town centre itself are of mixed date, including several 20th century buildings - one of which, the former Pearl Assurance building (now the Tremenheere Wetherspoons pub), was subject to comment by Sir John Betjeman who wrote, in 1963:
Penzance has done much to destroy its attractive character. The older houses in the narrow centre round the market hall have been pulled down and third-rate commercial 'contemporary', of which the Pearl Assurance building is a nasty example, are turning it into Slough.There are three large residential council estates in Penzance: Penalverne, Treneere (both built in the 1930s) and the Princess Royal estate at Alverton (built in the early 1950s). Much of the housing with this area is owned and operated by Penwith Housing Association. The sub-tropical Morrab Gardens, has a large collection of tender trees and shrubs, many of which cannot be grown outdoors anywhere else in the UK. Penzance Regency and Georgian terraces and houses are common in some parts of the town. Penzance's former main street Chapel Street has a number of interesting features including the Egyptian House, The Union Hotel (including a Georgian theatre which is no longer in use) and The Branwell House, where the mother and aunt of the famous Brontë sisters once lived.
Also of interest is the seafront with its promenade and the open-air seawater Jubilee Bathing Pool (one of the oldest surviving Art Deco swimming baths in the country), built at the beginning of the 20th century during Penzance's heyday as a fashionable seaside resort. The pool was designed by Captain F. Latham, the Penzance Borough Engineer and opened in 1935, the year of King George V's Silver Jubilee. Penzance promenade itself has been destroyed in parts several times by storms. The most recent example was on the 7th of March 1962 (Ash Wednesday), when large parts of the western end of the promenade, the nearby Beford Bolitho Gardens (now a play park) and the village of Wherrytown suffered severe damage.
Every June since 1991, the Golowan Festival (which includes Mazey Day) has been held in the town. Before the 1930s Penzance was the scene of large May Day celebrations, which saw local children making and using tin 'May horns' and 'May whistles'a small revival of these traditions will take place on May 4th 2008. The Feast Day of Corpus Christi was also celebrated in Penzance. The Corpus Christi fair has been a long standing event in the town, and is currently undergoing attempts to revive it in a more traditional format.
Allantide, a Cornish version of Halloween, was also a popular activity in the town. Many of these customs were recorded by local antiquarian M. A. Courtney and have influenced historical views of traditional Cornish cultural activities.
Penzance is home to the Acorn Theatre sited within a former Methodist chapel. The theatre provides a mixture of theatre, film, dance music and cabaret and is partially public funded. The Savoy is an independent cinema located in the town which opened in 1912 and was originally named the Victoria Hall Music Hall, The Savoy is one of the locations of performances sponsored by the Penwith Film Society (an arts cinema society based in the Penwith area). It is reputedly the oldest continuously used cinema in Britain. Prior to World War II, Penzance was also home to a further 3 cinemas and at least 2 theatres, one of which, the Pavilion Theatre, is now home to an amusement arcade.
Former England and Surrey cricketer Jack Richards (born Clifton James Richards) was born in Penzance. Although he only played 8 test matches, Richards was the wicket keeper during England's Ashes win in 1986.
Penzance was the birthplace of the famous chemist Sir Humphry Davy. Davy was President of the Royal Society and invented the process of electrolysis, was the first person to isolate sodium, as well as proving (with Michael Faraday) that diamonds are made of pure carbon. Today he is possibly best known as the inventor of the Miner's Safety Lamp, or Davy Lamp. There is a statue of Davy at the top of Market Jew Street, near the house in which he was born. One of Penzance's secondary schools is also named after the scientist
From 1967 to 1974 Penzance was twinned with
This twinning arrangement was passed to the Penwith District in 1974. On March 31 2009 this arrangement will be passed back again to Penzance.