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Assay House and Penzance The name ‘Assay House’ was chosen as a reminder of the world famous mining heritage of Cornwall, although it was not originally sited in Chapel Street.
Penzance was granted borough status in 1614 and soon became the main town of the Mount’s Bay area. By the mid-17th century Penzance was a ‘Coinage Town’, one of the privileged centres where tin was assayed by having a corner or ‘coin’ removed from a shipment in order to check its quality before it was sold and exported. At that time the Assay House (or Coinage Hall) was sited below the Market Place and was used until 1816, when a larger one — which names Coinage Hall Street — was built near the Quay.
Over the next hundred years or so this brought wealth to the town and gave rise, in part, to the rich architectural heritage of delightful Georgian and Regency buildings that survive today.
Chapel Street itself is rich in history and contains an eclectic mix of buildings and businesses. Most of the street dates back to the mid 18th century but there are a few reminders of the more distant past.
The street gets its name from the Chapel of St Anthony, although where exactly this was is unproven. The current day church, St Mary’s, was built between 1832 and 1835 by Charles Hutchins on the site of St Mary’s Chapel; the site dates back to the 14th century. This building (and not, as one might suppose, the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel) gave its present name to ‘Chapel’ Street, and also its older name, ‘Our Lady Street’.
Just up from St Mary’s is a small row of houses – what makes these unusual is they are constructed from bricks and not granite as most of the buildings in Penzance are. They were built in the late 18th century and referred to as Rotterdam Buildings as it is said they were built with money from Dutch prizes taken by a Penzance privateer. At the time, brick was regarded as being of higher status than granite.
On the opposite side of the road from St Mary’s is a fairly imposing building with its classical facade looking out over the quay; it was in former times a Portuguese Embassy. This asserts the importance of Penzance as trading port in the past.
Another building of interest on Chapel Street is the Turks Head, reputedly the oldest pub in the town.
Across the street from here is the Wesleyan Chapel. Built in 1814 it has undergone many restorations and ‘improvements’ over the years. It is a slightly pretentious building with a white colonnade and paved courtyard at the front.
Higher up Chapel Street is the Union Hotel. Its claim to fame is that it was here that the victory of the battle of Trafalgar was announced but also the death of England’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. The news was brought to Penzance by local fishermen who had intercepted HMS Pickle on her way to Falmouth.
At the top end of Chapel Street is one of the major landmarks of Penzance, The Egyptian House. This was built in 1836 by John Lavin, a Penzance mineralogist, to house a geological museum. On the outside, apart from the fascinating hieroglyphics, you can see Royal Arms from the periods of George III, IV and William IV. Today the Egyptian House is owned by the Landmark Trust.
With such historical interest in Penzance and Chapel Street, The Assay House is ideally named to retain a link to the past.