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The History of Liskeard

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The town of Liskeard derives its name from Lys Kerwyd, which means Kerwyd’s Palace. Unfortunately, nothing is really known about who Kerwyd was. The town lies inland, to the north of the charming Cornish seaside resorts of Looe and Polperro . It is known that the town is over 1000 years old and that it had a market at the time of the Domesday Book (1086). It became a chartered borough in 1240, an honour granted by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, a brother of Henry III and master of Launceston Castle at the time. This further increased the prosperity of the town, which gained both a three day fair and a castle in the years that followed. A fair was hugely important to the prosperity of a town in the Middle Ages. Only certain towns were granted licence to hold them and they therefore attracted trade from a wide area. At this time Liskeard with a population of only a few hundred, although prospering, would have seemed tiny by modern standards. Liskeard gained additional status and trade from being officially a stannary town, a place where tin was stamped and taxed. The wool market was also doing a thriving business in Liskeard during the Middle Ages.

St Martin’s Church was built mainly in the 15th century, although the tower was built as late as 1902 and some parts remain that were built prior to the 15th century. It is one of the largest churches in the county. The status of Liskeard as a major town and centre for local agriculture remained fairly constant, with some dips in fortune, until early in the 19th century. At this time the development of the copper, lead, silver and arsenic mines in the district led to a sharp rise in the status and prosperity of Liskeard. Building boomed at the time, with the erection of many grand houses, but also many slums. The character of the town comes largely from over one hundred houses designed by Henry Rice, the principal architect in the town at that time. Most of these buildings still stand and you can walk a trail which takes you specifically round his buildings. In 1828 a canal was built connecting the town with Looe on the coast, enabling the transport of ore. For forty years the town boomed due to mining. This began to decline after many of the miners left for foreign shores, choosing to be hard rock miners in Australia, America, Canada and South Africa. The population of Liskeard boomed to about 6500 during the mining years, but declined somewhat afterwards. In 1951, the population was only about 4500. Even today, Liskeard is a relatively small town with a population of only 8000.

Until the 19th century, the importance of Liskeard had been reflected in the fact that it returned two MPs to Parliament, from the 13th century until this number was reduced to one in 1832. Later in the 19th century Liskeard was merged with the county constituency and lost this remaining MP. The town suffered from a nationwide slump in agriculture after World War I , and its prosperity did not really recover during the 20th century. The town is easily accessible, being on the main London to Penzance railway line, and also on the A38 trunk road. Being on a major road, however, led to increased traffic levels. This was heightened after the opening of the Tamar Road Bridge in 1961 which led to increased prosperity from the extra traffic. However the additional levels of pollution it brought with it has affected some of the old buildings, causing damage and decay. Fortunately, the modern era of care and conservation for historic buildings may help to save those that remain.

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