Bob Fitzsimmons: Cornwall’s world boxing champion

Cornwall can claim a world boxing champion. And not just a champion but someone who won three world championships at different weights – middle, heavy and light heavy.

The house in Wendron Street where Bob was born

In actual fact, Bob Fitzsimmons’ connection to Cornwall was rather tangential. Born in Helston on this day in 1863, his father was an Ulsterman employed as one of Helston’s two borough policemen, although his mother was the aptly named Jane Strongman from Truro. The family upped sticks and migrated to New Zealand in 1872 when Bob was just nine, along with other Cornish emigrants attracted to South Island. His father set up there as a blacksmith and eventually Bob followed him into that trade, a useful calling for a boxer.

Bob Fitzsimmons began boxing around 1878 and in 1883 did what many Cornish people in the 1880s and 1890s did and began travelling, hopping from country to country across the English-speaking world. A few years as a semi-professional boxer in Australia ended with a disputed middleweight championship contest, which Bob’s fans contended was rigged. In 1890 he moved on to San Francisco and began fighting in the States. Within a year he had fought and beaten Jack Dempsey to become the middleweight world champion.

Bob in pugilistic pose

From 1897 to 1899 Fitzsimmons held the heavyweight championship after knocking out James J. Corbett in the fourteenth round of a bruising battle in Carson City, Nevada. When the light heavyweight title was established in 1903 Bob took that too, holding it for two years, into his early 40s.

Boxing wasn’t his only business, however. He also wrote a book on self-defence, acted, and managed to get married four times and divorced twice during this time.

Sadly, Bob also went on to prove the old adage that the higher you rise the further you fall. He carried on boxing too long, losing in his later career to a string of nonentities before finally giving up in 1914. A US citizen since 1893, he died in 1917 of pneumonia in Chicago, his childhood days in Helston by then no doubt a dim memory.

Observations on the Cornish dialect in 1836

In 1836 the Penny Magazine published a long article on Cornwall, its occupations, housing and diet. Here’s an extract which includes some comments on the local dialect.

It is still usual to call elderly persons ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, and the ‘good night’ is commonly given in passing. The use of nicknames is very prevalent. These are not only personal but hereditary, and many families are distinguished by them.

Many French words, as well as terms from the extinct Cornish language, are in common use; the latter especially in terms of art among the miners. A sort of recitative or sing-song pronunciation is characteristic and amuses the stranger much. Agriculturists, miners and fishermen pronounce very differently from each other in some districts; and within ten miles all these varieties of sound may be sometimes met with. The people generally are much inclined to use the points of the compass, and the eastward, the westward, the south country, etc. are frequently heard.

Rarer Cornish surnames continued

To explain the origin of the following three surnames we have to negotiate various spelling changes over the centuries.

In the 1500s we find no-one called Weary until Richard Weary was baptised at St Pinnock, near Liskeard, in 1598. On the other hand, there were many Werrys. As the surname Weary appeared in broadly the same districts as Werry we can safely conclude it was a spelling variant of that name. I have discussed Werry/Wherry in my book on surnames, where I tentatively follow Morton Nance’s suggestion of an origin in a previously unknown saint’s name. Whereas Wherry and Werry came to be centred on mid-Cornwall, the Weary variant tended to be found further east.

Werring is not so common nowadays. It was found principally in south-east Cornwall in the nineteenth century. But in the 1500s it was spread over a somewhat wider zone, but all significantly found in English-speaking east Cornwall. The addition of <ng> to a name ending in <yn> or <in> was common in the English language at that time. Werring came via Weryn from Waryn, a medieval first name popular among the Normans, also probably the origin of Warne.

Our third surname – Whinnen – is more difficult. In 1543 there were two examples of Wynyan, at St Just in Roseland and at Cury on the Lizard. By the 1600s the name, as Wynnan, Wannen or Winnan, had settled down mainly on Breage and neighbouring parishes. The <h> was introduced first at Gwinear in 1766. By 1861 spellings with <wh> vied with those with just <w> in equal numbers. By that time Whinnens were found mainly at Camborne and Hayle, whereas the spelling Winnan was more scattered. The name looks Cornish but what does it mean? It could be from a name Wynyan – there is a Winnianton in Gunwallow, not far from Cury. It’s most likely to stem from that place without its (English) additional <-ton>. Or is there a connection with the Cornish word gwin or gwyn (white), suggesting a nickname?

Rumours of plague? Mortality crises in 16th century Cornwall

In May of 1591 deaths began to spiral at Redruth. That year saw burial numbers in the parish registers hit a figure nine times higher than the usual. Yet by Christmas the crisis was over and burials had reverted to their normal level.

Sudden short mortality crises like that at Redruth suggest an airborne infection, such as the ‘sweating sickness’ of the early 1500s. Pneumonic plague is another possibility, although plague mortality usually occurred slightly later, peaking from July to September. A third possibility is famine or poor nutrition caused by food shortages. Although burials in Redruth in 1591 were consistently higher than normal all year, there was no sign of the mortality peak of early spring that might be expected if famine were the cause.

Plague was reported in the period 1589-93, spreading out from Plymouth. Many decades ago Norman Pounds identified mortality crises in Morval, St Neot and St Columb Minor. At St Columb it was particularly severe, with a pattern that closely mirrors the classic plague mortality. That said, there is no evidence of any similar mortality crises in these years in the registers of St Erth, Gwithian and Mawgan in Meneage in the west, or at St Breward in the east.

Redruth’s neighbour Illogan experienced a similar mortality crisis in 1591, but the worst months in Camborne occurred much later, in the early winter of 1593, when deaths rose to ten times the normal level. The localised nature of these mortality crises and their dispersed timing might raise some questions about the cause. Was it simply plague or were there additional or multiple causes?

A similar mortality crisis at Camborne beginning in August 1547 more neatly fits the bubonic plague pattern. This event, when deaths that year were again over ten times the norm, is intriguing as it occurred less than two years before the rising of 1549. Unfortunately, at this date there are very few parish registers available to see whether other Cornish parishes experienced a similar crisis at the same time.

The whole issue of mortality crises in Cornwall in the 1500s and 1600s requires more research, especially as no Cornish data were used in Wrigley and Schofield’s classic The Population History of England 1541-1871.

The Battle of Stamford Hill: May 1643

Just over 367 years ago the second major Cornish battle of the British Wars took place. After their victory at Braddock Down in January the Royalists had unsuccessfully besieged Plymouth before being driven off, while one of their leaders – Sidney Godolphin – had in the meantime been shot dead in an ambush near Chagford in Devon.

A local truce was brokered in late February and this lasted until late April. During this period both sides took the opportunity to prepare for renewed conflict. On the expiry of the truce on April 23rd a Parliamentarian force crossed the Tamar at Polson Bridge before being beaten off and retiring back into Devon. Two days later, the Cornish militia, although reluctant to advance across the Tamar, were persuaded to do so by the commander Sir Ralph Hopton. Their sally towards Okehampton ended in confused chaos. An ambush at Sourton Down caught the Cornish force by surprise and was followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. The Cornish militia fled in panic back to Launceston, leaving 60 of their number dead on the downs behind them.

Location of the clashes of 1643

Taking heart from the Royalist collapse at Sourton Down the Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Stamford, crossed into Cornwall from Holsworthy towards Stratton on the 15th of May. He took with him an army of 5,400 infantry and 200 cavalry. Unwisely however, he had dispatched the majority of the Parliamentarian cavalry – another 1,200 horsemen – on a surprise lighting raid on Bodmin.

Stamford was opposed by a Royalist army of around 3,000 men. It was, moreover, short of food and gunpowder. Confident of success, the Parliamentarians dug in at the top of a hill north of Stratton. Undeterred and no doubt worried about his supply problems (plus the Parliamentarian cavalry to his rear) Hopton ordered an attack up the hill on the morning of 16th May.

Site of the battle

By the afternoon a series of attacks had failed and the Royalists were beginning to run short of powder. Concealing this from his men Hopton ordered a final desperate attack – spearheaded by the contingent under local man Sir Bevill Grenville. This began to make headway onto the top of the hill.  In the words of Hopton, the Parliamentarians, on seeing their ‘men recoil from less numbers, and the enemy gaining the hill … advanced with a good stand of pikes’. Sir Bevill was ‘borne to the ground’ in this counter-attack. But being ‘quickly relieved … [he] so reinforced the charge, that having killed most of the assailants and dispersed the rest, they took Major General Chudleigh (the Parliamentarian second in command) prisoner’.

Sir Bevill Grenville

In the Royalist victory 300 Parliamentarian soldiers were killed and 1,700 captured, along with 13 cannons and all the baggage, which included £5,000. Cornwall was made safe for the Crown, Sir Bevill Grenville had become the local hero, the Parliamentarians were demoralised and the road into south west England was now open.

Two unexpected Cornish surnames and a relic of the old language

Sometimes surnames prove to be more common in Cornwall than elsewhere, even though they look to be anything but Cornish. Waddleton is one. This was probably a local spelling for the surname Waddington, named after a number of places in northern England and in Surrey. The first Waddleton appears in 1744 in the Antony marriage registers. This location, across the river from Devonport, suggests a maritime route into Cornwall. By 1861 the name had ramified and dispersed as far west as Bodmin although most Waddletons remained in south-east Cornwall.

Walkam is no doubt a spelling variant of Wakeham or Wakem, which has its source in a place in south-west Devon. Present in mid-Cornwall from at least the 1540s, Wakehams dispersed widely across the territory. Around 1600, the variant Walkham began to make an appearance in east Cornwall and at Padstow. This surname in the main confined itself thereafter to a belt of country in mid-Cornwall to the north and east of St Austell.

Distribution of these surnames in 1861

Like Waddleton and Walkam, Watty is a rare surname these days. But unlike the others, it was very common in sixteenth-century Cornwall. Its numbers then gradually diminished over time. By the 1700s there were just relics of its former ubiquity – at St Ives and in mid-Cornwall around St Austell Bay.

Parishes with the surname or second name Watty present

The clue to the history of this surname, presumably a pet form of Watt, short for Walter, lies in its early geography. In the 1500s and 1600s it was entirely confined to the western, Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall. It was also present on several occasions as one part of the three-part names that were a distinctive element of the Cornish language community’s naming culture. However, with the erosion of the Cornish language, the name lost popularity and probably fell together with Watts or Watt.

Covid-19. How is Cornwall faring?

It seems a good time to present some facts on the progress of the current coronavirus pandemic in Cornwall, with numbers of new cases overall now hopefully declining.

Accurate mortality figures (including deaths in the community as well as in hospitals) are produced by the Office for National Statistics after a lag of two weeks. The most recent release, two days ago, relates to deaths from the virus recorded up to May 1st. At that date there had been 145 deaths from the virus in Cornwall, 11% of the total in March and April. The map below shows how Cornwall compares with counties in England and in Wales in terms of its crude death rate. While the number of deaths in Cornwall have thankfully been lower than in most places and especially in the big cities, it does not have the lowest death rate.

As of yesterday there have been 553 cases in Cornwall, or less than 10 for every 10,000 residents. This is one of the lowest rates in the UK. The main worry of residents revolves around timing the re-opening of Cornwall to tourists or allowing the owners of thousands of second homes to travel to their properties in Cornwall. If this happens too quickly it could reintroduce the virus into Cornwall from regions where it remains more prevalent.