History of Looe in Cornwall

Looe is old, there is no doubt about that. But just how old is it? Archeological evidence such as the Giant’s Hedge and the stone circle at Bin Down (meaning ‘hill fort’) suggest that the area around Looe was inhabited as early as 1000 BC.

Centuries later, at the time of the Domesday Book, the manor of Pendrym (modern-day East Looe), was held by William the Conqueror and came to be managed by the Bodgrugan (Bodrigan) family. Whilst across the river the land in West Looe belonged to the manors of Portalla and Portbyhan.

In those early days, East Looe was known as a “planted borough”, similar to that of modern new towns; laid out in a grid-like pattern. Even today the low-lying parts of Looe suffer flooding when the tides are high. In early Looe, most houses would have been constructed with the living quarters upstairs, with storage areas below for boats, tools and fishing tackle.

Development, trade and politics

Looe was thriving at this time as the port had become one of Cornwall’s largest. It exported local tin, arsenic and granite, as well as being home to the thriving fishing and boatbuilding industries. The records show that town provided 20 ships for the siege of Calais in 1347.

Looe continued to thrive, the textile industry played an important part in the town’s economics. Trade and transportation to and from Newfoundland also aided the town’s success. The Old Guildhall in East Looe is believed to date from around 1500.

Between their incorporation in the mid-1500s (East Looe 1571, West Looe 1553) and the Great Reform Act of 1832, West Looe and East Looe were renowned examples of rotten boroughs, each returning two MPs to the unreformed House of Commons, despite their tiny populations. The seven-arched bridge which remains today was built in 1853 to cope with the increased traffic passing through Looe.

By the start of the 1800s, Looe’s fortunes were in decline. War against Napoleon had taken its toll on the country; in 1803 the town formed a volunteer company to man guns in defence against attack from the French, and the blockade of 1808, preventing the Looe fleet from reaching their pilchard-fishing ground.

In 1805 the old St. Mary’s Chapel (apart from the tower) had to be demolished due to dilapidation, and in 1817 the town was badly damaged by heavy storms and flooding.

With the building of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal linking Looe to Liskeard in 1828, and the development of booming copper mines in the Caradon area from 1837, Looe’s fortunes began to pick up again. The canal was used first to transport lime from Wales for use in Cornish farming, and later to carry copper and granite between the railhead at Liskeard (from where rail links reached to the Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor) and the port at Looe. In 1856 the large quay of East Looe was built to handle the demands of the shipping trade, and in 1860, with the canal unable to keep up with demand, a railway was built linking Looe to Moorswater near Liskeard, along the towpath of the canal, which was used less and less until, by 1910, traffic ceased entirely. The railway was later linked to Liskeard proper, and as the mining boom came to an end, it began carrying passengers in 1879.

In 1866 a lifeboat station had been established on East Looe beach, and in 1878 a new Town Hall was built, the present-day Guildhall. Around this time recommendations were made that the two towns be merged under one governing body, and despite much protest the Looe Urban District Council was formed in 1898 to govern the whole of Looe.

With the Victorian fashion for seaside holidays, Looe had become a tourist town, dubbed “the playground of Plymouth”. This trend continued throughout the 20th century; more and more hotels and tourist facilities were built in the town, and Looe grew and prospered, with peaks in fishing and boatbuilding following the First and Second World Wars.

Bridges

Looe Bridge in CornwallIn 1411 a wooden bridge was built over Looe river to connect East and West. A fire destroyed the bridge and it was replaced by the first stone bridge in 1436. This bridge featured a chapel dedicated to St. Anne in the middle. The seven-arched bridge which remains today was built in 1853.

Looe Island (St. Georges Island)

Some time before 1144, a monastic order began using Looe Island, and built a chapel there; the monks may have provided a rudimentary lighthouse service using beacons. Another chapel sat opposite on a hillside just outside West Looe; both are now marked only by ruins.