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History of Looe


Origins of the town
The bridge between East and West Looe
An early "new town"
An extraordinary aristocrat

Coming soon! - The story of the Looe-Liskeard Canal

Origins of the town(s):

East Looe and West Looe originated as separate towns. They were what is called "planted boroughs" and first mention of them is in 1201.

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The bridge between East and West Looe

The town towns were joined by an estuary bridge, the earliest in Cornwall, by 1411. The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes 1685 - c.1712 ,ed. Christopher Morris, London, 1982 records that she recorded the bridge as having 14 arches in 1698. The bridge was replaced in 1853 by a new one about a hundred yards further upstream.

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East Looe an early "new town"?

East Looe was built on a sand spit alongside the present river and it was actually a planned town - planned to a grid of streets. The houses on the four parellel streets were timber fronted but had stone walls for fire prevention. Later frontages were built on some of these old houses so it is not immediately apparent now what an old town East Looe actually is.

The Guildhall is believed to have been built about 1500 and one house is dated 1555 and another 1632. The Golden Guinea restaurant is one of many ancient houses still in use today and whose interiors, in some cases, give more clues to their age than do the later exteriors which have disguised them.

Up until 1832 the twin towns had two Parliamentary seats - but lost them with parliamentary reform.

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An Extraordinary Aristocrat

One might normally expect the Church of England's parish church to have the most interesting history, but in West Looe, it is eclipsed by that of the Congegational Chapel on the Quay. Its history is one of the most unusual in the whole history of Non-conformist churches.

The Chapel was founded in the 1770s (date not certain), due to the efforts of its first pastor, the Rev. Sir Harry Telawny, Bart. For some reason he was ordained at Southampton, in itself extraordinary, and it seems not to be known why he was not ordained either at West Looe or at least somewhere nearer than Southampton. The ordination service was attended by an immense crowd - the largest in the Southampton chapel's history - and had more pomp in it than was customary for non-conformists. There is some mystery about the proceedings which seem to have over-ridden the normal pre-requisites.

Sir Harry, in his address, said the "the dear people at West Looe being, for the most part, brought out of darkness into marvellous light through my poor instrumentality, are abundantly beloved by me". Even at Westminster School Sir Harry had been a young man of earnest religious inclination. At Oxford, he preferred the company of men of inferior rank who were religiously inclined. As was required in those days, he attested his faith in the established church at the time he took his Bachelor's degree, though he had something of a crisis of conscience in so doing.

Over the next few years, in alliance with Rowland Hill, he travelled throughout Cornwall and parts of Devon preaching wherever they could, in streets, fields and marketplaces. Partly because of his social position and the reputation of his family, but also because of his commanding appearance, fluent speech and magnificent voice, large numbers of people would gather to listen to him.

At West Looe, on a site near the market-place, which is now a private house, at his own expense he built a chapel. Whilst he was pastor (the period is unclear) large numbers flocked to his services from as far afield as Plymouth. He preached the opening sermon at the new Congregational chapel at Mevagissey in 1776.

Sir Harry planned to live his life and die as pastor of the chapel, but it seems that great pressure was brought to bear on him to return to the Established Church (of England) - he was reminded of the desirableness of returning to the religion of his ancestors and retrieving the honour of his family. His scruples were overcome by an assurance that subscription to the Articles of the Established Church was simply an affirmation that he was a Christian. However, after a short time, his religious views underwent further change and he entered the Roman Catholic Church, eventually, after his wife's death, actually becoming a priest. He died in 1834.

His congregation at the little chapel remained steadfast in their faith, but their pastor became their foe. He had the chapel, which was his property, pulled down and prevented them from having another meeting place, so they had to meet in secret in each others' houses. Eventually, the congregation purchased a piece of land and raised the funds to build a small chapel which opened in 1787.

An American minister preached the opening sermon and took his text from Ecclesiastes ix.14: 'There was a little city and a few men within it, and there came a great king and beseiged it and built great bulwarks against it; now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city, yet no man remembered that same poor man' . One suspects this text was chosen with care.

The new chapel was too poor initially to afford its own pastor, but eventually one of the congregation emerged as minister - a Mr James Angear, but by the time he resigned in 1807 the numbers had increased sufficiently to support a minister and the chapel was enlarged in 1830 and 1849.

There is a page on the life of Sir Harry Trelawny on the Polperro website - please visit this to learn more extraordinary things about the life of this most unusual local aristocrat - click here.

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A fuller history:

These brief notes have been based on the HMSO publication "Exploring Britain's Heritage" - Devon & Cornwall, by Andrew Saunders.

Do you have recollections of Looe years ago?

These present notes give just the barest flavour of the long history of the two towns and we hope to have a much fuller account on this website before too long, both of the history of much earlier times but also of the more recent period, from Victorian times to the present day and in particular we are very keen for "eye-witness" accounts by people who have known Looe over long life-times and can fill in the human interest detail between the dry facts about dates and major events - if you are in this category yourself, or if you know someone - a grand-parent or great grand-parent perhaps - who would be interested to write down some of their recollections, or to record them, we would be very pleased to publish them on this website. Please contact our webmaster by using the mailbox below or telephone 01503 272 273 - thanks.

Any volunteers to be "History Editor"?

We would also be very pleased to hear from any local historian who would be interested to take on the role of "history editor" for the website - computing expertise not essential - any volunteers? Please contact "mail" at "looe.org".

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