Boroughs were self-governing bodies, incorporated by royal charter(s), and independent of both the manorial courts and the county sheriff. They enjoyed commercial rights, including the right to hold markets and fairs, levy tolls, hold assizes and form merchant guilds. The freemen enjoyed burgage tenure: the right to inherit, hold and sell property without payment of manorial feudal dues. Parliamentary boroughs could also send representatives to parliament.

From the time of Edward I six Cornish boroughs sent members to parliament (Bodmin, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Truro). Fifteen more were given the privilege by the Tudors (Bossinney, Callington, Camelford, Fowey, St Germans, Grampound, St Ives, East Looe, West Looe, St Mawes, Mitchell, Newport, Penryn, Saltash and Tregony). Most of these boroughs lost their elective franchise in 1832, when the Representation of the People Act swept away the Parliamentary privileges of rotten and pocket boroughs (Grampound had been disenfranchised in 1821).

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The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act reformed the administration of the boroughs. The original charters were repealed, and new councils were established, to be elected by the resident householders, and with paid officials (a clerk and a treasurer).

Records of major boroughs include charters of incorporation, minutes of meetings, accounts, borough court records, rates, deeds, leases and papers relating to the administration of borough property. After 1835, the minutes and accounts of the newly constituted councils and committees relate to a variety of aspects of town life (see also the sections on Improvement and Harbour Commissioners and Administrative Reform and Statutory Authorities) .

Papers relating to Parliamentary elections are not generally found among the administrative records of boroughs, but may survive among the records of those families that were patrons of Members of Parliament.

The East Looe, West Looe and Marazion borough archives have been deposited by Town Trusts, charitable bodies which took over the regalia and records of the former boroughs when their administrative functions were transferred to the new District Councils.

Borough archives survive for:

  • Bodmin (catalogue reference B/BOD, DC/NC 1 (post-1835 only)
  • Falmouth a few records only (catalogue references B/FAL (modern plans) and DC/CRK (deeds)
  • Fowey a few records only (catalogue references DC/AUSF (post 1835), DC/RES and B/LOS)
  • Helston (catalogue references B/HEL, RO)
  • St Ives (catalogue reference B/IVES (post 1835)
  • Launceston (catalogue references B/LAUS and DC/NC 6 (post 1835)
  • Liskeard (catalogue reference B/LIS )
  • East Looe (catalogue references DC/LOO, DC/ELO, X155 (pre 1835)
  • West Looe (catalogue reference B/WLO)
  • Lostwithiel (catalogue references B/LOS, also a few deeds in DC/RES)
  • Penryn (catalogue references B/PENR, also a few deeds in DC/CRK)
  • Penzance (catalogue referneces B/PENZ (a few records only, post 1835) and DC/PEN)
  • Saltash (catalogue reference B/SAL a few records only, post 1835)
  • Truro (catalogue references B/TRU, also modern planning records in DC/CRK)
  • See also, boundary commission reports, 1835 and 1837 (catalogue reference FS3/1224).