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Launceston, Cornwall

Historical Description

Launceston, a municipal borough and head of a county court, a petty sessional, and a union workhouse district in Cornwall. The town stands on the Kensey near its junction with the Tamar, and has a station on the L. & S.W.R., and is the terminal station on the Launceston and South Devon section of the G.W.R., 223 miles from London. It was anciently called Dunheved or Dunneheved, signifying " the high hill," or " hill-head." It possibly was the site of a Roman station and the scene of many severe contests between the ancient Britons and the Saxons; it figures in Domesday book as a town before the Norman Conquest; it has extensive remains of a castle; and it was the scene in 1643-45 of important actions in the civil wars of Charles I. The castle occupies a scarped and terraced trap-rock knoll, rising about 100 feet above the river Kensey; is defended on two sides by a deep natural valley; comprises a circular tower on the summit, 18 feet in diameter and 32 high-a concentric surrounding wall, at the distance of about 10 feet, standing like a coronal on the cap of the knoll-a gate-tower, at the base, reached by stairs going down the steep-a considerable space there, which seems to have been originally occupied by basement works-and traces of walls outside that space, which appear to have encircled the whole castle. The pristine masonry has all disappeared, the oldest extant portions not presenting any feature which can be called even Early Norman; one gate is possibly of the Early Decorated period, but the stairs leading down from the summit to the gate-tower are entirely modern. Yet most of the existing structures are believed to have been preceded by more ancient ones on the same sites; they also, as a whole, present a venerable, ivy-clad appearance, and they have been repaired at much cost by the Dukes of Northumberland to arrest the progress of decay. The encircling walls are remarkable, and have been compared to those of Ecbatana and other ancient oriental towns. The precinct has been laid out in a tasteful manner as a public pleasure ground. The manor of Dunheved was given by William the Conqueror to the Earl of Mortaigne; it reverted from that Earl to the Crown; it passed into a ruinous condition so early as the time of Edward III., and was then annexed to the Duchy of Cornwall; it underwent repair in 1645, was then garrisoned for Charles L, and was captured in the following year by Fairfax; it was given at the Restoration to Sir Hugh Pyper as lessee, and it remained with that knight's representatives till 1754, and then passed in lease to the Dukes of Northumberland. Roman coins have been found, and some leather coins were found in 1540. The castle is part of the Duchy of Cornwall. The Prince of Wales takes from Launceston the title of Viscount. Lord Halsbury is Constable of the Castle by appointment— f His Royal Highness.

The town occupies declivitous and uneven ground contiguous to the castle. It was formerly walled, and it retains some vestiges of its walls. Only one gateway, on the SE at. The entrance from Devon, is standing, and this is of Decorated English date. Launceston was one of the decayed towns, for the rebuilding of which an Act of Parliament was passed in the time of Henry VIIL, and it was recorded by Norden to have been " much repaired of late years," and to have-" increased in wealth." It now consists of two principal streets, with several smaller ones, in general narrow, but well-built, and it is connected by a bridge over the Kensey with the town and disfranchised borough of Newport, in the parish of St Stephen. The old guild-hall was long since demolished. Two large market-houses were built in 1840-42, and a new guild-hall was erected in 1881. A college of secular canons existed before the Conquest about half a mile from the town. Warlewast, Bishop of Exeter, removed that college to St Thomas about the year 1126. An Angustinian priory was founded by that bishop in the W suburb under the Castle Hill, and endowed with the best part of the college lands. Tho site of this priory and numerous bases of its pillars and fragments of its walls have lately been discovered and are now visible. The parish church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1524 by Sir Henry Trecarrel, is in the Early Tudor style,. consists entirely of square granite blocks, all richly filled witli sculptured representations of shields, armorial bearings, flowers, and other emblems, and contains a curious polygonal wooden pulpit, and monuments of the Pypers. The interior was restored in 1893, the deal pews being removed and oak seats with carved bench ends substituted, while richly carved oak choir stalls and parclose screens were placed in the chance], The church, whieh is unique in the richness of its external decorations, has perhaps the best collection of modern oak carving in its interior fittings. The tower is of earlier date and of different material, and it stands apart from the church, but is connected with it by a large vestry. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Truro; gross value, £200 with residence. Patron, the Bishop of Truro. A new town-hall was opened in 1887. There are Congregational, Wesleyan, United Free Methodist, Baptist, and Bible Christian chapels. There are also a temperance institute, a workhouse, a free dispensary and hospital, an endowed school, four banks, two political clubs, a reading-room, the Launceston Museum, a masonic hall, and an Oddfellows' hall. St Leonard's Hospital was originally founded for lepers before the time of Richard II.; it had an endowed income.

The town has a post, money order, and telegraph office; is a seat of petty sessions and county courts. The market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays, and fairs for cattle are held on the last Wednesday of each month. The town was chartered by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III., received numerous subsequent charters from the Crown, is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors, sent two members to Parliament from the time of Edward I. till the Act of 1832, afterwards only one, until it was disfranchised by the Redistribution of Seats Act in 1885. In 1889 the municipal boundaries were extended, and they now include the parish of St Mary Magdalene, the hamlet of St Thomas, parts of St Stephen and St Thomas the Apostle and of Lawhitton. Population, 4345. The parish, bearing the name of St Mary Magdalene, includes practically the whole of the town, and has a population of 2595.

Launceston Parliamentary Division, or North-Eastern, Cornwall, was formed under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, and returns one member to the House of Commons. Population, 48, 084. The division includes the following:- Lesnewth (hundred of)-Advent, Cleather (St), Davidstow, Forrabury, Gennis (St), Juliot (St), Lanteglos-by-Camelford, Lesnewth, Michaelstow, Minster, Otterham, Teath (St), Tin-tagel, Treneglos, Trevalga, Warbstow; East Middle-Cal-lington, Calstock, Dominick (St), Ive (St), Linkinhorne½ Mellion (St), Pillaton, Quethiock, Southill, Stokeclimsland; East North-Altarnun, Boyton, Egloskerry, Laneast, Lawhitton, Lewannick, Lezant, Mary Magdalene (St), Northilly Southpetherwin, St Stephen's-by-Launceston, St Thomas the Apostle, St Thomas (hamlet),'Tremain, Tresmeer, Trewen; Stratton-Jacobstow, Kilkhampton, Launcells, Marham- chnrch, Moorwinstow, Ponghill, Poundstock, Stratton, Tam-erton (North), Week (St Maiy), Whitstone; Trigg (part of) Blisland, Breward (St), Egloshayle, Endellion, Kew (St), Mabyn (St), Minver (St Highlands), Minver (St Lowlands), Temple (St), Tudy (St).

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyCornwall 
Ecclesiastical parishLaunceston St. Mary Magdalene 
Poor Law unionLaunceston 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Launceston from the following:


Online maps of Launceston are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Cornwall papers online:

Visitations Heraldic

We have a copy of The Visitations of Cornwall, by Lieut.-Col. J.L. Vivian online.

RegionSouth West
Postal districtPL15
Post TownLaunceston