In 1663 Penzance became a Coinage Town, responsible for the collection of tin coinage, the tax on tin which was passed on to the Duchy of Cornwall. To ensure that the tax was collected the Crown appointed four supervisors to oversee the operations of the blowing houses and smelters. In 1739 the Penwith and Kerrier Stannary was under the supervision of Charles Pennecke who was responsible for 12 locations spread across Breage, Sithney, Wendron, Constantine, Mawgan in Meneage, Phillack, Lelant, St Erth, Ludgvan, Gulval, Madron and Paul. Coinage days were held four times a year in each of the coinage towns and smelters and blowers were required to bring their tin ingots to the coinage hall for the purposes of assay and taxation.
For the system to work the supervisors needed to know pretty accurately how much tin was being produced by the blowers and smelters. With 12 locations to supervise Charles Pennecke divided his area taking responsibility for the Helston focused smelters himself and appointing a deputy to look after the four Penzance focused locations, these being Ludgvan, Chyandower in Gulval, Trereife in Paul and the St Just House in Madron in the vicinity of Polgoon. By 1739 these were all reverberatory furnace smelters with the exception of the St Just House which was no longer operating but remained on the list of Pennecke's locations. Pennecke's deputy was John Batten, he was 28 years old in 1739 and would go on to be the operator of the Trereife smelter at Stable Hobba before dying at the age of 58 in 1769. John Batten laid the foundations of the Batten dynasty which by the end of the century would be a leading Penzance family, occupying the mayoralty on four occasions in 1790s, taking ownership of Trereife and in 1797 founding Penzance's first bank.
Stannary regulations were strict with regard to the movement of uncoined tin. These restrictions were intended to prevent smuggling and required that tin be moved from the smelter to the coinage hall by the most direct route and that it be undertaken only during the hours of daylight. Late on the evening of 25 July 1739 John Batten seized two blocks of tin which were being carried on horseback up Chapel Street in Penzance. The tin, which would have weighed about six cwt, was seized on the grounds that it had not been coined and was being moved in darkness.
Batten presented his case to the Stannary Court at Marazion:
“The said Charles Llewellyn conveyed the said two pieces of tin by night from Kenegy aforesaid to a place within the said town of Penzance called the New Street Stairs and from thence athwart a street called the New Street into another street called the Chappell Street within the said town, which was also out of a direct road to the coinage hall there. That your supplicant and appellant about eleven of the clock at night suspected a fraudulent practice of the said Charles Llewellyn and meeting the horses laden with the said tyn in the street called Chappel Street with the tyn covered and men riding on such heavy loads of tyn in the night…..did seize the said two pieces of tyn….”
New Street Stairs are almost certainly the stairs going up to New Street and Chapel Street from what is now the Abbey Basin. A drawing in the Penlee gallery by Walter Tremenheere, probably executed in the early 1780s when he living in Penzance on half-pay from the Marine Corps, is titled The Quay from New Street Slip.
Batten said that tin had been smelted at Angarrack and moved from there to Kenegy where it had been hidden in a stable for two days before being brought to Penzance.
Much to the surprise of Batten and Pennecke, the case against Llewellyn was dismissed and he was awarded £20 damages against Batten. The expected guilty verdict would have allowed Batten and Pennecke to share half the value of the tin while the Duchy took the other half. Batten appealed to the vice-Warden of the Stannaries, Sir Richard Edgecumbe, but the outcome is unknown. Who Charles Llewellyn was is also unknown though he was possibly a Penzance pewterer. Pennecke had a number of difficulties with pewterers who would get hold of uncoined tin and melt it before the Stannary officials could get their hands on it. Once melted it was impossible to prove that it was uncoined.
In 1737 Pennecke commented that “this pernicious practice among pewterers of clandestinely carrying the tyn to their houses and working it into pewter is now very rife in Penzance.” He was not the only one concerned by tin smuggling. The Treasury Minute Book for July 1710 contains a note to have “a body of instructions for a General officer to be appointed to inspect the blowing houses and to obviate the running of tin from thence without paying the customary Coinage Duty..”
Coinage would continue for another 100 years, until 1838, and no doubt many more uncoined 300 lb ingots of tin found their way through the dark streets of Penzance into the workshops of pewterers or the holds of free-trading ships.
This account is largely sourced from Some Cornish Blowing and Melting Houses in Essays in Cornish Mining History vol 2, D.B. Barton, Truro, 1970. More details on the administration of the coinage are to be found in the various state papers held in British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/