When you’re out and about in town, do you ever stop, look up and wonder what our high street would have looked like 100 years ago?
Launceston, once ‘the gateway into Cornwall’, has always been a bustling market town. Today, as cars roll along the tarmacked roads, shoppers quip in and out of the shops and residents stop for a chat with old friends by the war memorial, it’s easy to think this modern town is worlds apart from the old Lanson, with its horse and carts trundling along dusty roads, the old butter market attracting eager local folk, and the clanging of metals and the old Cornish accents ringing out across the square.
With thanks to Roger Pyke from Launceston Then for allowing us to print the information he has on the history of the town centre, as well as supplying some amazing photographs of Launceston from times past, we have put together a little bit of backstory on the town and how the high street was and always will be an important part of our community.
In the early 1800s, the old Guildhall was situated in the centre of Broad Street and was divided into two halls, one for the Nisi Prius and the other for the Crown Court, located on the White Hart side. On the Nisi Prius side, there were three shops - occupied by a watchmaker and grocer, a bootmaker (can you guess which shop resides there today?) and a barber.
Before the hall and county jail at Bodmin was established in 1838, Launceston was once the centre for all county court hearings, taking place in the town centre at the Guildhall. In 1840, the county jail at Launceston Castle and the Guildhall were demolished, making way for a new market house. The Upper Market, known to many as the corn and butter market, was located in the town square, and a new meat market was established by St Mary Magdalene’s Church, now where the Market House Arcade stands today. Unfortunately, many people weren’t pleased with the overall look of the butter market, which had been designed by architect George Whightwick in an Italian style.
In May 1875, the Cornish & Devon Post reported that a fire had broken out at Mr A Lyne’s shop on Broad Street, a grocer and forage dealer. Sadly for Mr Lyne, the fire engine ‘The Volunteer’ broke down after pumping water from the reservoir for just a few minutes. People formed a double line, passing buckets of water to tame the flames until The Volunteer was repaired and was able to put the fire out completely. Unfortunately, this didn’t save Mr Lyne’s shop, and ruined two other residents’ homes.
The butter market became ‘the hub’ of the town for many years, right up until the war years. When the end of the First World War came, it was decided in 1919 to demolish the butter market to make way for a new war memorial. By the end of 1920, the butter market had been removed from Launceston.
On 25th May, 1921, the Duke of Cornwall laid the foundation stone and the building of the war memorial began.
The town centre remained this way for the next 80 years, before the square was pedestrianised with the Launceston Townscape Heritage Initiative. Controversially, it stopped motorists parking in the square.
Today, we can still see remnants of Launceston’s past in the buildings that stand tall along the old streets. The war memorial, which was altered with the coming of a second world war, is honoured each year for Remembrance commemorations, and the square - pre and post-Covid, of course - allows for markets and events to take place in the centre of the town.
There’s no doubt that Launceston’s history is rich, interesting and full of old characters and events. The making of today’s high street and square is thanks to the hard work and dedication from the town and its business owners, but also tribute to the developments made by people in the past.
Do you know any interesting facts or have any quirky stories about the high street or town square? Email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can share it with our social media followers!