A history of cornwall online - through its objects


Where will you find a Saracen's head and a traditional shop?

  • Glasney College Finds

    Glasney College Finds

    Glasney College, founded in 1265, was one of the most important of Cornwall's religious institutions. Its church dominated Penryn for almost 300 years and it was the birthplace of many Cornish plays. An excavation in 2003 revealed these significant tiles and pieces of architectural stonework.

    Visit Penryn Town Museum

  • Saracen's Head Crest

    Saracen's Head Crest

    Since the early 17th century, the Saracen's Head has been the symbol of Penryn town. It is thought to refer to pirates from North Africa who operated off the Cornish coast at this time. This Saracen's Head once stared out from the door of Lavin's, the local clothing shop.

    Visit Penryn Town Museum

  • Election Decanter and Glasses

    Election Decanter and Glasses

    At one time Cornwall had 44 MPs - more than any other English county. Until 1832, the Borough of Bossiney (BB) had two MPs and held elections in the old town hall at Tintagel. There were usually only nine or ten voters and votes could be bought for £150.

    Visit Old Post Office Tintagel

  • Passmore Edwards Bust

    Passmore Edwards Bust

    John Passmore Edwards was Cornwall's best known philanthropist. He was born at Blackwater and in his lifetime funded the construction of twenty public buildings in Cornwall as well as many more around the country. 2011 marks the centenary of his death.

    Visit St Agnes Museum

  • Asylum Dress

    Asylum Dress

    Once the mere whisper of the name of Bodmin's Lunatic Asylum, later St Lawrence's Hospital, was enough to strike feat into the hearts of Cornish men and women. Thankfully, today attitudes to mental health have changed. This dress, from the 1890s, was typical for a female patient.

    Visit Bodmin Town Museum

  • Elliot's Shop

    Elliot's Shop

    Elliot's shop - now a museum - reminds us how shopping in Cornwall used to be. Frozen in time, these brands are products that stir fond memories. It finally closed its doors in 1973 after 70 years of trading; Frank Elliot, the last shopkeeper, blamed decimalization and high business rates.

    Visit Elliott’s Grocery Store

  • Silver Penny

    Silver Penny

    A thousand years ago Cornwall minted its own coins. This penny was made in Launceston. Following his victory in 1066, William the Conquerer issued coins like this across the whole of England and built a castle in Launceston to subdue the Cornish.

    Visit Lawrence House Museum, Launceston

  • Rice's Nuisance Book

    Rice's Nuisance Book

    In the 1800s, social campaigner Henry Rice transformed Liskeard, bringing piped water and sewers to the town and designing many new buildings. In notebooks called 'nuisance books', he recorded his inspections of the insanitary, over-crowded conditions of the poor.

    Visit Liskeard and District Museum

  • Cornish Bricks

    Cornish Bricks

    Granite has long since been the iconic building stone of Cornwall, but from the 16th to the 20th centuries, many Cornish houses were also built of Cornish bricks. Bricks were stamped with the name of the brickworks and some were made from waste sand and clay from the china clay industry.

    Visit Wheal Martyn

Cornwall is commonly labelled as a rural county but we have a long tradition of urban development that has resulted in 26 major towns.

The need for market centres in the Middle Ages drove the growth of towns. Launceston was Cornwall’s principal town after 1066 and obtained the right to mint its own coins. It became the seat of the Earl of Cornwall, Robert Mortain, William the Conqueror’s brother, who also built a castle here.

Penryn was the principal port of the River Fal, long before Falmouth came into being. It is one of Cornwall’s oldest towns and came to prominence in the mid-13th century. Glasney College was founded in 1265 and became a major ecclesiastical and intellectual centre in medieval Britain. Penryn also became a centre for commerce and attracted merchants from far and wide, encouraging the growth of a cosmopolitan population. This continues to be reflected in the town’s symbols, such as the Saracen’s head.

Many towns were also ancient boroughs that governed their localities, such as Bodmin, Truro, Liskeard and Helston. By the turn of the 19th century, Cornwall had a large number of rotten boroughs centred on tiny hamlets or estates with hardly any inhabitants, but which were still allowed to elect their own MPs, such as Bossiney near Tintagel. These were abolished after the 1832 Reform Act.

The architecture of Cornish towns is characterised by rows of granite terraces, most of which were built in the mid-19th century to accommodate expanding urban populations. However, more expensive bricks were also used as building materials and as exterior cladding, often used to portray the wealth of the property owner.

As more people moved from rural to urban areas the living and working conditions in towns became unhealthy. Reformers such as architect Henry Rice of Liskeard recorded the problems he observed to make improvements in the town. Another reformer and benefactor was John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) who was responsible for many civic buildings and institutions including hospitals, libraries, schools and galleries. Other institutions have faded from our urban landscapes as social attitudes changed, such as lunatic asylums.

Many Cornish towns still retain a high proportion of independent shops compared with other British high streets. Elliott’s Shop in Saltash is now a museum and tells the story of how the local grocer was once the centre of its community.