What’s the first thing you think when we say ‘Penzance’?
(Apart from ‘Cornwall’s coolest portside town’, naturally.)
That’s right: PIRATES. ☠️ 🏴☠️ ⚓️
In this post, we are going to investigate the truth, the lies and the sometimes shocking connection between our beautiful town and the folk in unusual pantaloons.
By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be able to separate the pungent tobacco-tinged romance from the sometimes disturbing reality.
You’ll even get top tips for visting piratey sites in and around our town.
Without further ado – ‘ALL HANDS HOAY’. (That’s ‘Everyone on deck’, to any landlubbers.)
Let’s get started.
We need to talk about Gilbert and Sullivan
We’re going to drop a bombshell. The biggest association between pirates and Penzance is a tissue of total nonsense.
‘Go on Love Penzance,’ we hear you say, ‘why not tell it like it is.’
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance premiered at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton in 1879 before opening in New York.
But here’s some shocking facts. (You might need a glug of grog before reading on.)
🏴☠️ Penzance is referenced only in the title. The play is set in two nameless locations near our town – it does not feature at any point.
🏴☠️ The pirates in the play are revealed to not be pirates at all, but well-heeled lords dodging work and faffing about on the Cornish coast.
🏴☠️ Worst of all, it seems that Penzance was generally seen as the OPPOSITE of a piratey town. Gilbert and Sullivan used Penzance in the title as an ironic joke, because the town was considered a quaint, quiet backwater.
Well, that’s that then.
Time to fold up the stuffed parrot and eyepatch in a drawer and move on from this Penzance piratey nonsense.
NOT SO FAST, you bilge suckers!
It’s time for a plot twist…
Penzance WAS riddled with pirates in the 16th Century
By the time Gilbert and Sullivan had their little joke, Penzance was a relatively lawful place. But back in the 1600s it was a haven for piratical activities. Only here’s something to topple your crow’s nest: Penzance people weren’t pirates, they were the VICTIMS of nautical ne’er do wells.
Pirates from the Barbary Coast, a region of North Africa, had been raiding Cornish villages since the 1600s. Sadly, many locals were enslaved and taken back to the continent.
Says Historic UK, ‘In August 1625 corsairs [Barbary pirates] raided Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, capturing 60 men, women and children and taking them into slavery. In 1626 […] boats out of Looe, Penzance, Mousehole and other Cornish ports were boarded, their crews taken captive and the empty ships left to drift.
‘It was feared that there were around 60 Barbary men-of-war prowling the Devon and Cornish coasts and attacks were now occurring almost daily.’
Attacks continued well into the 18th century. It was only after a campaign by the British and Dutch in 1816 that the Barbary pirates’ reign of terror was broken.
So Penzance people weren’t piratey at all, then?
In truth, there isn’t a huge amount of evidence of pirates directly from Penzance. However, according to Historic Cornwall, some of the most famous pirates of all, including Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Anne Bonny, lived in Cornwall at times during the eighteenth century. So there’s a possibility that fearsome Blackbeard, his facial furniture famously lit up by candles, may have staggered up Chapel Street, heavily refreshed after a night on the town.
But also there’s a chance that, um… He. May. Have. Not.
The romance of the smugglers
If you want more solid evidence of piratey activity in Penzance, we need to turn to smugglers. These furtive felons were considered close cousins of pirates. They circumvented cripplingly high taxation on basics such as tea, alcohol and tobacco by importing from abroad and making shore back home in Cornwall’s many hidden coves and inlets.
In other words, they were tax dodgers with a damned good story.
One story in particular, features Penzance at its centre.
John Carter, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Prussia’ (a nickname from childhood), smuggled in and around Penzance from 1777-1807. His house above Bessie’s Cove, Piskies Cove and Port Leah (known today as Prussia Cove) in Mount’s Bay was rumoured to have secret tunnels leading directly to the shore.
Carter owned two impressive ships – a 19-gun cutter and a 20-gun lugger – with around thirty crew on each. They sailed to Europe, picked up cheap contraband, shopped it back and distributed it before you could say, ‘Anyone fancy a top up?’
Famously, he was known for his honour. When a customs man confiscated Carter’s cargo and stored it at Penzance’s custom house, the booty was swiftly stolen.
It was said they knew Carter was the culprit because only his confiscated goods – and nothing more – were taken in the escapade.
Pirates in Penzance today
Today, Penzance isn’t shy in playing on its pirate associations. We have the famous Pirates rugby team, of course. There are cafes, pubs, restaurants and gift shops dripping with piratey booty and atmosphere.
Also, fun pirate fact – many of the pirate murals around Penzance are based on REAL Penzance townspeople.
But as we spy land and reach the end of this post, what’s the verdict on pirates and Penzance?
Perhaps it pays to keep things shrouded in a little mystery and say there’s a fair amount of truth, half-truth and outright fancy associated with the pirates and Penzance connection.
That’s cleared that up then!
We’ll leave you with this thought-provoking story, which proves that the piratical, authority-dodging spirit IS strong in Penzance.
Penzance narrowly lost out TWICE in Guinness World Record attempts to gather the most pirates in one place, in 2013 and 2017.
Local legend has it that a contingent of exuberant pirates, dressed up for the event, missed the official count…
… Because they had dropped anchor in a local boozer and were three sheets to the wind.
The scurvy DOGS!
Visit piratey places in Penzance
The Admiral Benbow
Many Penzance pubs are big on piratey vibes, but a special mention must go to the Admiral Benbow. Not just for the extraordinary nautical décor and THAT name (Treasure Island, anyone?) but because in 2008 ACTUAL smugglers’ tunnels leading to the harbour were discovered on site.
Just over seven miles from Penzance, this pretty rocky cove was the centre of operations for smuggler John Carter – the King of Prussia – whose house still stands on the cliffs above.
Gaze out to the beautiful bay and imagine the site of corsairs approaching, as they did – regularly – from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Chilling, indeed.
Chapel Street, Abbey Basin, Penzance Harbour
These areas are at the heart of historic old Penzance where the architecture, waterside pubs and boats in the harbour all reflect Penzance’s piratey aura. Feel your rebel spirit roused, possibly after a spiced rum or three.
Find more inspiration on where to visit, shop, eat and stay in Penzance and surrounding areas at lovepenzance.co.uk.