“murder cannot be hid long . . . the truth will out.”Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1596
In October 1813 a group of workmen were employed to take down a derelict building near the old quay in Penzance. As they began lifting the stone slabs covering the ground floor they made a grisly discovery. Sadly, it was a development that only served to confirm the suspicions of the local people . . . that something very wrong had happened in that house.
Penzance Old Harbour
In the early 19th century the harbour front in Penzance was very different from how it appears today. Construction of the Albert Pier, close to the railway station, wasn’t begun until 1845 and of course the reclaimed land between that ‘new’ pier and Wharf Road, where the car park is, was still open water until the 1930s.
In around 1812 extensive work was being carried out in the area around the old harbour near Quay Street and Battery Road, including extending the old pier which had been built in 1766 on the site of a much earlier structure. John. S Courtney who had lived in Penzance all his life published a small pamphlet in 1878 recording his memories of town and its people. In it he explained that the planned improvements were intended to try and stop waves breaking over the Dolphin Inn, which itself stands on reclaimed land. He describes the area then:
“Commercially it is quite a different scene now to what it was at that time. Then, and for many years after, all the merchandise was loaded and unloaded at the Old Pier, and thence came to the town through Quay Street and Chapel Street; now the greater part of all the trade is carried on at the Albert or New Pier . . . Near the Old Pier head was a pile of porphyry rocks called Carn Jenny, pieces of which were much prized by carpenters and others who used it to sharpen their tools; this rock was blasted when the new extension was built.”
The old building that was being taken down in 1813 stood in this area and was perhaps considered an eye-sore. It had once been a inn and boarding house at the centre of this commercial hubbub but for some reason had stood empty for a few years and fallen into disrepair. And there were rumours . . . rumours of a strange disappearance, rumours of murder, rumours that the old inn was haunted.
The Penzance Ghosts
Socially in the 19th century there appears to have been a real disparity between how the so-called educated classes viewed the supernatural and the powerful, deeply-held superstitions of ordinary folk. It seems that the upper classes almost took pride in scoffing at what they saw as the ‘uneducated’ people’s childish and primitive fears.
“The lower classes, who have always had a taste for the marvellous, are fully persuaded that this is a supernatural visitation by some troubled spirit and numberless tales of the most exigent nature have been circulated.”Extract from the West Briton, 1821
Even Courtney, who lived in Penzance for some 50 years and clearly loved the place and its people, describes the locals as ‘delusional’ when it came to their belief in ghosts.
A house on North Parade remained unoccupied for a number of years because local people believed it was haunted and Courtney describes how several other old premises in Penzance had that same reputation. The ghost of a Mrs Baines was said to haunt one, condemned to the impossible task of spinning black wool into white for all eternity. And then there was the legend of a coach with headless horses rumbling through the town in the middle of the night, he wrote that during his lifetime many old folks claimed to have heard it.
“the belief in ghosts was almost universal amongst the lower classes.”J. S. Courtney, 1878.
And there was one more house that had the people of Penzance spooked.
The Unknown Inn in Penzance
“As some workmen were lately employed in taking down an old house near the quay at Penzance, they discovered beneath one of the floors a human skeleton, which, from its appearance, must have lain there a considerable time. The house has been uninhabited as a report prevailed of it having been haunted . . .”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6th November 1813
The above article in the Royal Cornwall Gazette goes on to explain that the building had for “many years since” been a public house but sadly I have been unable to firmly identify what this inn was called. There are several historic pubs in Penzance that would have been there at the time of the skeleton’s discovery and for long before, including the Admiral Benbow, the Turk’s Head, the Seven Stars and the Dolphin Inn.
However, none of these are the building we are looking for as they are still standing today. After much research I did come across an advert for the ‘King’s Head Inn’ in Penzance run by a man called John Ford between roughly 1808 and 1810. And after that date there is no further mention of it operating.
John Ford explains in his advertisement that he has moved from the Seven Stars Inn in Penzance and is now offering “gentlemen travellers and the public in general” some “neat and commodious” accomodation as well as “choice wines and liquors” in the Kings Head Inn. I can’t say for sure that this is the building we are looking for of course but it is my best candidate so far.
The Unknown Sailor
After the workmen uncovered the skeletal remains there was speculation in the newspapers (and I am sure on the streets too) and it became clear that local people had believed that the former inn was haunted by a ghost for a very specific reason.
Reports appeared that a sailor had been lodging in the rooms above the then public house and that he was “possessed of considerable property”. One day this wealthy young man suddenly disappeared and was never heard of again. His face was missed about the town as he had been a regular at the inn and it seems that even then, before any evidence of foul play had come to light, people conjectured that there had been foul play. That the sailor had been murdered.
After the discovery in 1813 the newspapers came to the same conclusion.
“There can be little doubt but that the unfortunate man was murdered and secreted in the place above mentioned. The circumstances have given rise to much speculation at Penzance.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6th Nov 1813
But who this sailor actually was is as much of a mystery as the name of the inn he was staying in. His name was never mentioned in the newspaper articles in 1813, nor in 1890 or 1934 when the story was reprinted in the press. Perhaps too much time had passed and the people of Penzance that had known him, though they still remembered the circumstances of his disappearance, had forgotten his name.
In fact, it seems that there was no further investigation into the case at all.
It is unclear where the remains of the sailor (if it was him) were laid to rest after their discovery. I can find no reference to the burial in any parish records in the vicinity. Although it does seems that foul play was likely whoever was responsible for burying the body beneath the floor of this old house in Penzance was long gone by 1813. And the inn had been shut up and the whole episode forgotten, a ghost story the only reminder, until the skeleton had been accidently brought to light. As the Cornishman newspaper pointed out while discussing the case in 1890 contrary to Shakespeare’s idiom “Murder does not always ‘out'”.