Interviewing young mine surface workers in 1841

Samuel Tippet was ten years old and worked at the dressing floors of Trethellan Mine near Lanner. His work for the previous fortnight had been ‘washing up’, cleaning the stones in wooden troughs prior to their dressing. Before, he was at the slimes but gave that up ‘because the slimes was knacked’. After this brief glimpse of Samuel’s Cornu-English dialect the account becomes more impersonal:

He lives with his grandfather about a mile off. He pays his wages to his grandfather. Had seven shillings a month on his first ‘spurs’ and now gets ten. He sometimes feels tired when he leaves work; chiefly in the back and legs. He brings potato ‘hobban’ with him for dinner. For breakfast he gets milk and water and bread, barley and wheat mixed. For supper baked potatoes, with pork sometimes. Goes to bed at eight; likes to stay up longer. He goes to school in the New Church (Lanner); has gone to Sunday-school two years. Learns to read and spell. Heard him read the Testament; he reads pretty well.

40 years after Samuel was interviewed Trethellan mine was disused

Other interviews were more revealing of the thoughts and feelings of the workers themselves. Fanny Francis, a 17 year old bal maiden at United Mines, Gwennap, had suffered from fits after a fall when carrying ore three months earlier. She attended the Bible Christian chapel and had been at day school before starting to labour at the mines at 11 years old. Her mother was a widow left with five children, all of whom had some schooling before being ‘put’ to the mines. Yet, according to Fanny, ‘they did not complain of the work’, although one can glimpse a sense of regret at lost opportunities in her final words – ‘but poor people cannot do all they could’.

This is an extract from my From a Cornish Study, page 109.

What to see in Cornish churches: 1

My religious correspondent has sent me this description of two Cornish churches which both have medieval art worth taking a look at.


The most striking thing about Breage church is its wall paintings. The two largest are opposite the main door. On the left is St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, greeting you as you arrive and looking after you as you leave.  He is shown knee-deep in water, carrying Jesus safely on his shoulder. On the right is the figure of Jesus surrounded by various tools. Opinion is divided as to whether he is blessing the trades for which these tools were used or whether it is a warning to those who worked with them on a Sunday: working on a Sunday was forbidden. These figures would have been painted around the same time as the church was built, about 1470-1500. They give a good idea of just how colourful our churches were and, in an era when few people could read, they are powerful messages.

The wall paintings at Breage

In addition, in the north-west corner of this church is a tall stone, found near the church in 1924. It has a Latin inscription which translates as ‘To the Emperor Caesar Marcus Cassianus Postumus’ who reigned from about 260-268 AD. The stone is often referred to as a Roman milestone, but it is really a road marker, showing visiting troops that they were on the right road.

St Kew

If you like old, beautiful interesting things, head for St. Kew. At the end of the north aisle is a stained glass window depicting the last few days of Jesus’ life. It is at least 550 years old and was brought here from Bodmin in 1469. When you think how fragile stained glass is, how far it had to travel and by what means, it’s a real miracle that it’s in such great condition.

The scenes begin with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and end with a scene of him being laid in his tomb. There are a couple of sections filled with broken glass, but the other scenes are vivid. The scene of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and the disciples are all asleep, shows a group of Roman soldiers creeping up, hiding behind their shields. A few panels later we see Jesus before Pontius Pilate, who is literally washing his hands of the responsibility of sentencing Jesus to death. Take a pair of binoculars with you and you’ll be able to see details like the fur on the donkey, the drops of water when Jesus washes Peter’s feet and so on.

Lizzie Lander

Three surname puzzles: Badge, Bersey and Cheffers

These three surnames were all a lot more common in Cornwall in the later 1800s than anywhere else, but their origin is unclear or open to debate. If any reader has anything which will help clarify these particular puzzles do leave a comment.

Badge might be a short version of Badger, which could apply to a hawker or a beggar in the medieval period. On the other hand it’s suggested to be a variant of Bagg or Bagger (a maker of bags). Or it may have come from a personal name of some kind. It was found as Bage in the early 1500s but scattered randomly around the countryside – at Penryn, Perranzabuloe, St Austell and St Stephen by Launceston. By 1641 the name was occurring in the west at Camborne and in east Cornwall at Whitstone, St Cleer and Maker. This distribution suggests it wasn’t from a placename and had multiple origins.

Badge – a dispersed surname

Bersey. In the 1520s John Bersey was a tailor at Tywardreath, while there were three other Bersys in the parish and others later at St Mewan, not far away. Its distribution in 1641 was still mainly centred on mid-Cornwall, where it seems to have emerged around St Austell at an early point. But what does it mean? Also spelt Barsey in early records it looks like a pet form of a personal name (think Eddy or Jory). Yet, its concentrated early geography might also suggest an origin in a placename.

Cheffers. In 1524 a Thomas Chefer was listed at Ruan Major on the Lizard. Nineteen years later there’s a Thomas Cheffer in neighbouring St Keverne, most probably the same man. He may have been the ancestor of a growing band of folk with the name Cheffer. They remained entirely confined to the parish of St Keverne until the 1690s, when they began to venture as far as Falmouth, in the process starting to add an -s to the surname. It’s fairly obvious that this name has a single point of origin on the Lizard, but was it from a lost placename, or possibly an unknown Cornish language occupational name of some kind?

Deprivation in Cornwall: new data

Recently a new Index of Multiple Deprivation was published by the Government. This index measures deprivation in several dimensions, including income, health, educational qualifications and crime among others. In the press reports of this, no comparison was made with earlier indices. Although the methodology has changed somewhat, which makes the exercise a little difficult, it’s still interesting to compare the new data with that of 2010.

In 2010 eight of Cornwall’s 328 Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs – census areas with around 1,500 residents) were among the 10% most deprived in England and Cornwall. Here’s a map of their location.

Now, in 2019, 17 of Cornwall and Scilly’s 323 LSOAs are in the 10% most deprived.

Here’s a map of the current situation.

Meanwhile, the numbers at the top show little change. In 2010 three of Cornwall’s LSOAs were in the 20% least deprived. Now there are five. The least deprived is Carlyon Bay near St Austell, followed by LSOAs at Latchbrook near Saltash, one at Helston and two at Truro.

Calf, Cogar and Creeper

Here are three less common surnames, this time from nicknames or occupations.

Calf was supposedly a nickname in English for a calf-like person (skittish maybe?), or perhaps for someone whose job was tending calves. Mary Calffe was buried at Bodmin in 1563 and the name was present from that point on in the Bodmin-Fowey district, spreading west as far as Probus and east to St Mellion by 1641.

Cogar was either a name for a builder of, or for a sailor of, cogs or cock-boats. It seems to have arisen on the Roseland and close enough to the coast for this meaning to be entirely credible. In 1545 John Coger was listed at St Michael Caerhays paying a benevolence (a land tax) and in 1588 Hugh Coga was buried in the same parish. In the mid-1600s the name was still largely confined to the Roseland, although by this time it was also found at St Ives and Gwithian in the west and on the Lizard. That could have been the result of migration from mid-Cornwall or perhaps denotes other, separate origins in the west.

The early coastal distribution of the name Cogar

Creeper is claimed to be a nickname, possibly from the English word cripple or from the word creep, as in crawl. It arrived late in Cornwall, not being recorded until Honor Creeper was buried at Tresmeer, to the west of Launceston, in 1689. The surname remained restricted almost entirely to the Launceston district in the early 1700s. Its late arrival combined with its geographical distribution make it unlikely that there was any connection with the Cornish name Creba/Crebo, found at Crantock, as I proposed in The Surnames of Cornwall.

The Levant mine disaster

A hundred years ago today the man engine collapsed at Levant mine, Pendeen, near St Just. This was the second worse mine disaster in Cornwall’s history. Thirty-one miners lost their lives and many others were badly injured. The man engine was a device that conveyed miners to and from the surface, allowing them to avoid the former, laborious climb up the ladders at the end of their core (shift). It was invented in 1841 by Michael Loam of Liskeard, although his design owed much to similar contraptions at work in Germany. The first man engine was installed at Tresavean Mine, Lanner and it was then adopted in several of the larger and deeper Cornish mines.

A report in The Times on the disaster explained how the man engine operated.

Section of the man engine at Dolcaoth

‘It consists of a ponderous wooden beam [in fact several sections of beam bolted together] which extends from the top to the bottom of the shaft, which is 600 yards deep. At intervals of 12 feet are steps on the beam, each of which affords foothold for one person, while on the side of the shaft are stationary platforms at intervals of 12 feet. At every stroke of the engine the beam is raised and lowered, and the men step on and off the platforms and are carried up or down by the movement of the beam. It is a rather slow process, but has been carried on for years without serious accident’

That was not the case on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20th however. The Times went on to describe what happened.

‘From 100 to 150 men were on it when the change of shift was taking place. When the connecting rod broke the engine was at the top of its stroke, and the gigantic beam with its load fell 12 feet. Many of the platforms on the side of the shaft were smashed, and the men on them were knocked off and crushed. Some were unhurt and managed to reach the surface. Rescue parties brought out others, but a number of miners at different levels could not be reached …’

The engine rod had only dropped 12 feet but in doing so had taken away much of the timber work on which men were standing. The local paper, the Cornishman, carried an eyewitness account from a young miner, Robert Penaluna, who was riding on the engine at the time of the collapse …

‘When the engine broke it was a tremendous crash for in dropping she knocked away timber and everything else in her path. The engine rod on which we were travelling shook violently. The smash gave a terrible shock to us all … the screams of some of the men were awful, as they gripped the rod like grim death … I wouldn’t go through an experience like that again for the world.’

Aunger, Betties and Cattran

Here are three more family names that were largely confined to Cornwall in the 1881 census. These three have their origins in first names.

Aunger is supposedly from a Norman-French first name Aunger or Anger. It was found in Cornwall at an early period, appearing close to the border with Devon in the 1530s and 40s. It had ramified by the mid-1600s and spread as far west as St Minver on the Camel estuary in the north and Fowey in the south, while remaining confined to east Cornwall. That geography makes the expected confusion with the name Angear less likely as the latter was found principally in the west.

Betties. From the 1500s onwards there was a general tendency to add an -s to a personal name to denote ‘son of’, as in Williams or Hicks. The name Betty was found in Cornwall as early as the 1520s. This was either a pet form of Beton or Bett, which would themselves have been short for Beatrice or Bartholomew. Rather oddly, the fashion of adding an -s to Betty didn’t appear in the records until the late 1700s when the name Bettys first crops up in north Cornwall – at Blisland and further east at Trewen. Earlier in the 1600s the preference was for Bettinson.

The early distribution of the name Betty

Cattran. Although an earlier Anne Cattran is found in the baptismal register at Sancreed, this name was specific to nearby Paul parish in Penwith. There, a Thomas Cattern was married in 1694, the spelling reflecting the local pronunciation. Earlier in Paul parish and elsewhere we find the name Catharine and Cattran was no doubt a variant of that name.

Three golden ages and six turning points: a history of Cornwall in 500 words

Yesterday, I was asked to give a short talk on the history of Cornwall. How do you sum up 2,000 years of history in 45 minutes? Tricky. This was my attempt.

A golden age is a period of victory or defeat (or both) which later becomes mythologised and looked back on with pride. A turning point is a time when the flow of history seems to change course.

Cornwall’s first golden age was between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the arrival of the English in the 800s. This was when Cornwall had an independent existence. At first it was the centre of a larger kingdom of Dumnonia, with an elite trading post at Tintagel and colonies in Brittany. When the Mediterranean trade dried up it became a decentralised collection of communities bound together by early Christianity rather than by kings and administrators.

Three turning points then occurred over the next half millennium. The Normans arrived in 1070 and gradually extended their overlordship from their early base in the far east at Launceston. Population, trade and towns grew until the shock of the Black Death in 1349. Cornwall recovered rather better than other places. It was during the late 1300s and 1400s that the Cornish language held its own after an earlier retreat, backed by the patronage of Church and Crown. The third turning point arrived with the religious reformation of the 1530s.

This heralded Cornwall’s second golden age, one viewed by some as a romantic period of struggle against the encroaching English state. Risings in 1497 and 1549 both failed, their leaders executed for treason. Yet in 1642 the Cornish avenged themselves. They became the spearhead of the royalist army of the west, thus unfortunately backing the wrong side in the British civil wars. The following century was more subdued, at least politically.

Another turning point followed in the 1730s, when steam technology began to be applied to the long-established business of mining. Deep copper mining drove the precociously early industrialisation of Cornwall, its third golden age. This created a distinctive rural-industrial society, where elements of the new and the traditional were stitched together. Population growth and new settlements laid the ground for the enthusiastic reception of John Wesley and the wholesale transfer of allegiance to a vigorous, revivalist Methodism. Meanwhile, Cornish engineers were raising the efficiency of steam engines to hitherto undreamt-of heights in the generation after 1810.

The fifth turning point brought this to a juddering halt in the 1870s when a calamitous fall in the price of copper made its mining uneconomic. Tin mining survived but underwent periodic crises, as in the 1890s or 1920s. Population fell as emigrants fled to the mining frontiers of the New World. The first wave in the 1840s and 1850s had sought a better life on the basis of the demand for their mining expertise. The second wave had little choice but to go as opportunities closed down at home.

A century of de-industrialisation was ended by the final turning point – the counter-urbanisation that set in from the 1960s onwards. This began half a century of mass migration to Cornwall, when it became a preferred site for holidaying and second homes. Demographic change accompanied a social transformation that we are still living through and struggling to cope with.

Did the mass migration after the 1960s threaten the Cornish identity or stimulate its renaissance?

A miner on the move

In 1862 a Parliamentary enquiry into the condition of metal miners interviewed several miners in Cornwall. Their life histories provide a fascinating insight into their moves from mine to mine. They indicate that miners moved frequently.

One of the most extreme examples was an anonymous miner at St Cleer. Aged 36 in 1862, he had not worked for 16 weeks, complaining of ‘weakness in the body and pains in the chest’. This man had first gone underground at the age of 12 but recalled 17 separate spells of employment involving 13 different mines over the course of 24 years.

He had begun working at Wheal Providence in Lelant, operating an ‘air machine’ (bellows). After working on the surface for the next four or five years he went underground again on tutwork contracts at nearby St Ives Consols. A short spell was spent working in east Cornwall at the booming West Caradon mine before returning to mines in the Lelant and Breage districts. He then upped sticks and moved east for a second time, spending time at mines in St Ive, between Liskeard and Callington, and across the border at East Crowndale mine in Tavistock. A few weeks back in the west at St Ives Consols was followed by spells at mines in the Caradon district, including Gonamena, Caradon Consols and West Caradon before his peripatetic career was cut short by illness.

Difficult now to imagine the Caradon mines as a hive of activity in the 186os

This example was exceptional in its mobility. Nonetheless, most of the other miners interviewed moved around regularly. It’s likely that such high levels of migration within Cornwall made the decision to move even further – to mines in North America, Australia and South Africa – an easier one.

From Tripcony to Tripp

The other day a correspondent kindly supplied me with an intriguing hypothesis. The surname Tripp emerged in Cornwall very late, by my reckoning no earlier than the first half of the nineteenth century. Some, perhaps most, of those Tripps had changed their name from Tripcony. That name probably had its origin in the place now called Trekenning, in St Columb Major (and incidentally has nothing to do with rabbits). It moved westwards at an early point however, being present on the Lizard by the 1500s.

My correspondent suggested that the name Tripcony may have ‘fallen into disrepute’ after 1855 when a Constantine Tripcony, a shoemaker, was charged, along with Matilda Gay, of the crime of stealing 10 sovereigns from a dead body at St Keverne. The body in question, that of a woman, had been washed ashore from the wreck of the emigrant ship ‘John’, which went aground on the Manacles rocks. She was one of the 75 washed ashore, while another 121 lives were lost at sea. (A full newspaper report of this disaster can be found here.) The two offenders had apparently torn a hole in the pocket of the dead woman and made off with some money. Tripcony and Gay were identified by witnesses. The two were found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison. Tripcony was however spared hard labour because of his advanced age – 62.

The John went aground on a spring tide but conditions were not especially rough

This grisly episode could indeed have caused some disgust in the neighbourhood. However, unfortunately for the hypothesis, the nefarious activities of Constantine Tripcony did not cause a mass revulsion by Tripconys on the Lizard at their own surname and the subsequent adoption of the name Tripp. Six years later at the 1861 census there were at least 26 households in the St Keverne district headed by Tripconys, with only four Tripps. It looks as if the preference of some for Tripp rather than Tripcony resulted from a more mundane factor – the general tendency to shorten names, especially in the days before mass literacy.