When Cornwall had 44 MPs

Before 1821 Cornwall was properly represented, with 44 MPs, only one fewer than Scotland. All but two of them represented boroughs, each returning two members. The franchise in those days was ambiguous, being based on vaguely worded medieval or sixteenth-century charters. Basically, the vote was restricted to the householders of certain properties or the mayor and corporation, who selected any other ‘freemen’ entitled to vote.

From the 1600s onwards the larger gentry, families such as the Boscawens of Tregothnan, the Eliots at Port Eliot, the Edgcumbes of Mount Edgcumbe, had bought up most property entitled to a vote and become patrons of the boroughs. They would install tenants with a precarious tenancy or a willingness to vote for the patron’s nominees. This could easily be checked as the ballot was not secret.

In this system, open bribery of voters was rarely required, although extra payments were common, as at Grampound and Mitchell. The Cornish seat with the worst reputation for bribery was Penryn, which had one of the largest number of voters and was difficult to control by other means. Elections were therefore very welcome at Penryn, as it meant an influx of money for the town.

Grampound was the first borough in the UK to be disfranchised

The costs of this meant it was in the patrons’ interests to reduce the number of voters. The 84 at Mitchell in 1784 had become 18 by 1816; the 60 or 70 at Launceston in 1700 were just 15 in 1816. Taken to its logical conclusion in small boroughs this process could sometimes result in just one voter electing the MPs. That happened at Bossiney in 1784. In any case, in practice usually one man – the patron – effectively decided who would get elected.

Patrons would either install members of their own family or relations as MPs or sell the seat to aspiring MPs. The going price in the early 1800s was from £1,000 to £5,000, or around £100,000 to half a million in today’s money. In return patrons were expected to provide benefits for the boroughs. They might pay the local poor and church rates for example, as at Helston, or give liberally to charities – the Eliots paid for schools at Liskeard – or put on lavish entertainments.

Occasionally, bitter disputes broke out between patrons struggling to wrest control of boroughs away from each other. In 1810 the two most notorious Cornish boroughmongers of the time, Francis Basset (Lord de Dunstanville) of Tehidy and Sir Christopher Hawkins of Trewithen – fought out a duel near London. ‘The parties exchanged two shots each, neither of which took effect’ … ‘the Boroughs were the cause’, a contemporary reported.

Before 1832 Looe had four MPs, two for West Looe and two for East Looe

Castle an Dinas

Castle an Dinas in mid-Cornwall is one of our most impressive hillforts. The hill, around 700 feet above sea level and with commanding views, was already important for people in the neolithic period, before 2500BC. They had erected two barrows on the hilltop to house their dead. Then, in the late Bronze Age, around 1500-800BC, a single low rampart was thrown up encircling the hill. This probably did not have a military purpose but was instead for managing stock or to mark a symbolic or religious venue.

At some point in the Iron Age, suggested as between 400 and 100BC, two more ramparts were added to produce what can be seen now. These were altogether more substantial. The inner one still rises up to 7.5 metres above the ditch in front of it, while the outer rampart is about half that height. A straight entry point from the south west may have had a cobbled road. The site could have been occupied permanently as it included a spring. However, there have been disappointingly few material finds from what would presumably have been a collection of wooden buildings.

Castle an Dinas looks southwards across Goss Moor towards the church at St Dennis and the nearby site of Domelioc, or Domellick, which featured in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s stories of King Arthur. In consequence it’s often been linked to Arthurian tales. In popular tradition it’s sometimes been seen as Arthur’s hunting lodge or even his birthplace. In the 1470s William of Worcester claimed it was here that Cador, Duke of Cornwall, the husband of King Arthur’s mother, was killed.

The name Castle an Dinas (in 1504 Castel an dynas) is tautological as Dynas, the name of a nearby farm, itself means hillfort.

Tanners, talkers and trappers? Three Cornish nicknames.

These three rare Cornish surnames originated in nicknames or occupational names.

Croggon is usually assumed to come for the Cornish word croghen (leather or skin) and be a name for a tanner. Its connection with Grampound’s tanning industry and its concentration in Grampound and Creed until the 1800s look to prove the point. The only slight doubt is that the name didn’t appear in the records until 1700, when Jacob Croggan was buried at Creed. This implies it arose in the late 1600s, which seems quite late for a surname to be derived from the Cornish language this far east.

Flamank was a family name well established at Bodmin in the middle ages. John Flamank, who had been MP for Bodmin, was one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the collection of the subsidy of 1525. His elder and more famous brother, lawyer Thomas Flamank, had been one of the leaders of the Cornish rising in 1497. Thomas’s execution for treason didn’t seem to affect the fortunes of the family however. The surname came from the French word for Flemish speaker. In the 1500s there was some switching between Flamank and the English version Fleming, which was found in the west, at Penryn and Helston, and in mid-Cornwall around St Blazey. By the 1600s Flamank had dislodged Fleming, apart from at Penzance. The name remained concentrated in mid-Cornwall, with its core area between Padstow on the north coast and Bodmin and Lostwithiel.

Gynn could either be from the Old French word for skill and ingenuity and been given to an inventive person. Or it may have arisen from the middle English for a snare or trap and been used as a name for a trapper. It was present in Cornwall as early as 1544, when Thomas Gyn was listed at Launceston. The Launceston district remained the centre of this surname into the 1600s, although a few examples began to penetrate mid-Cornwall from the 1590s.

Agricultural depression in Cornwall

In the 1870s, farmers across Britain began to suffer from falling grain prices as imports started to flood in from the prairies of North America. As farmers struggled, demands for rent reductions mounted.

Cornwall was actually one of the places where rents declined far less than average. This can be explained by the extra competition for land from returning migrants and by the fact that Cornish farmers could switch more easily from arable to pastoral farming. For beef and dairy farmers lower process of grain (for fodder) was good news rather than bad. Nonetheless, some farmers were still in difficulty, as the following letter from Silvanus Jenkin, the Lanhydrock estate land agent, to Lord Robartes in December 1884 suggests.

I mentioned to you some time since that Mr Lean who occupies [Tregoid Farm at St Kew] had asked for a reduction of his rent and it was arranged that Mr Bate of Cardinham should go there and value. This he has done and practically values it in £100 a year. His present rent is £115. The courts begin tomorrow and I should be glad of your decision before the St Kew court which will be next week. Mr Lean also asked for an allowance for sheep which he lost in 1879 and for a horse that fell into a quarry. He is pretty much in arrears with his rent and I would suggest that you should give him £25 towards his losses and as it is a corn farm, I think it will be necessary to reduce the rent to £100 a year as recommended by Mr Bate. There is a very general feeling amongst the farmers that some general reduction of rent will have to be made but as far as I can judge in this county the necessity for it will not arise except as to corn farms at present



This week in 1863 saw the birth of Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cornwall’s foremost early twentieth century intellectual. While at Oxford Quiller-Couch adopted the pseudonym Q.

Born at Bodmin, his father hailed from a well-known Polperro family, Q’s grandfather being the naturalist Jonathan Couch. Yet his mother’s home was Newton Abbot and it was there, outside Cornwall, that the young Quiller-Couch received his education, before moving on to Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Oxford.

Between leaving Oxford in 1886 and returning to formal academic life at Cambridge in 1912, Q was a full-time author, at first in London and then from 1892 at his wife’s home town of Fowey. His first novel was published in 1887 and this was followed by almost 40 novels, collections of short stories and anthologies. Many of these were set in Cornwall, the most notable being The Astonishing History of Troy Town (1888) and The Delectable Duchy (1893). The latter, with its humorous yet sympathetic treatment of a fading Cornish world, did much to put Cornwall on the tourist map. This was something Q agonised about in 1899-1900 when he edited the short-lived Cornish Magazine.

Q in 1934

Having edited the Oxford Book of English Verse from 1900, the standard anthology of verse, Q was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University in 1912. He was a key figure there in the campaign that established English as a faculty separate from medieval and modern languages.

Meanwhile, outside the university terms he was more usually found back in Fowey. He served for 30 years on the Cornwall Education Committee, which oversaw the establishment of grammar schools after the Education Act of 1902. It was these that provided the route for A.L.Rowse, Q’s protégé, to become the leading light of the next generation of Cornish intellectuals.

Like many of his middle class contemporaries in Cornwall, Q was kindly disposed towards the Cornish ‘Revival’, although he remained the epitome of the English gentlemanly ideal. Nonetheless, while Conservative in cultural terms and Anglican in his religion, Q was resolutely liberal in his politics and was rewarded for his services with a knighthood from the Liberal Government in 1910.

As Alan Kent has pointed out, Q straddled the two worlds of the English establishment and Cornish particularism. Yet he remained sceptical of many of the more fanciful notions of the early twentieth century revivalists. When it was proposed that the mystery plays of the fourteenth-century should be restaged, Q remarked drily that ‘the audience would have to be play-acting even more strenuously than the actors’.

More rare Cornish surnames

Here are three relatively rare surnames that don’t appear in my book. All three were more likely to be met with in the 1600s in mid-Cornwall, on the north coast. Two of them definitely stem from placenames while the third is uncertain.

The place Carevick in Cubert, near present-day Newquay, gave rise to the surname Carrivick. The place was originally called Crowarthevick (hut next to the summer-land). It was spelt as such in 1529, five years after a William Crowarthelek [sic] was listed in the same parish. As local knowledge of the Cornish language faded, the name of the place was shortened to Carrevicke by 1602. The surname followed suit. It lingered in the Newquay area until the end of the 1600s, before moving south-east to Ladock in the 1710s. There it multiplied.

Carevick in 1879

Docton was a later arrival, not appearing in numbers until the 1670s, after which it ramified in the parishes of St Ervan and St Mabyn, to the west and east of the Camel estuary respectively. Yet its presence in that district from 1637 at the latest is a bit misleading. It was first recorded in Cornwall in 1603, when Jane Docton was married at Kilkhampton, in the far north. In the 1650s there were also marriages of Doctons at Launceston. This first appearance in north-east Cornwall points to an origin in the place Docton in Hartland, just across the border in Devon. Those around the Camel estuary may have arrived there by sea from north Devon in the early 1600s.

More problematic is the surname Chivell. There were early examples of the name – Richard Chevell at St Minver in 1525 and John Chyvall at Cubert in 1543. The spelling Chyvall may look reminiscent of a Cornish placename, but there is nothing similar in mid-Cornwall. Many of the earliest Chivalls and (the most frequent spelling) Chevalls were found in Padstow, across the water from St Minver. But there were also Chivells at Boyton, far away to the east and next to the Tamar.

While two thirds of Chivells in the UK lived in Cornwall in 1881, most of the other third were found in Devon. There, Kivell is a more common surname than in Cornwall and there is some evidence that the /k/ in Kivell could be pronounced /ch/. Was Chivell a version of Kivell and had the Cornish Chivells arrived in mid-Cornwall from Devon?

And what does the name mean? There is an old Celtic name Cuvel (as in Nancekivell), but there’s also a place in Wiltshire called Keevil, also spelt Chivele in Domesday Book.

Tintagel: reminder of Cornwall’s golden age

Now that most of the hordes of sightseers who flock to Tintagel to commune with King Arthur have better things to do, it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the proper significance of this iconic site. While it has no significance at all for English heritage, it has major, if still not fully understood, significance for Cornish heritage.

Marketing of Tintagel sells the myth
rather than the reality

We have to forget its present marketing as a commercial tourist honeypot and home of Arthurian fantasy. The castle remains point to the earlier role of Tintagel, as a symbolic centre of great importance. When Earl Richard planted his castle there in the 1200s it had no military point, but was instead a massive folly, built to symbolise the earldom’s control over Cornwall, squatting on a revered site for the Cornish.

The real importance of Tintagel lies in a period 800 years earlier, and 250-350 years before the English arrived at the Tamar. Even before then it had some sort of special meaning for the Romans, who took the trouble of constructing some way-markers on the route to the place.

The astounding fact is that this inhospitable spot has provided archaeologists with more sherds of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean pottery than any other site in the British Isles. Far more. More goods passed through it than any other place between around 450 and 550. Tintagel was at that time the primary site of a trading system that stretched far up the Atlantic coast and back to the eastern Mediterranean. It was the gateway through which the remnants of the Roman Empire maintained contact with the Christian parts of Britain.

It doesn’t end there. Tintagel was some sort of royal citadel, the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribute centres. It may well have been the geographical centre of the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, or Greater Cornubia, one that in the 500s organised the colonisation of parts of what was to become Brittany.

Bridge built to maximise
tourist revenue

Look beyond its present condition and the twaddle peddled to tourists. Tintagel speaks to us down the centuries of a time when Cornwall was at the centre of the Atlantic world, not a marginalised periphery of England. It deserves to be remembered as such.

When Camborne-Redruth was the most radical place in the UK

The general election of 1885 has one major similarity with the one we’re now enduring. Polling day was in December. But in most other respects it was quite different. And although the newly created Mining Division in 1885 had very similar boundaries to the present Camborne-Redruth constituency, nowhere was this difference starker than in the central mining district.

The election saw the Radical Liberal, the splendidly named Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare, challenge the former Liberal MP for West Cornwall and local landlord Pendarves Vivian for the new seat. Conybeare was put forward by many of the working men who had been given the vote in 1884, some of them return migrants from the States imbued with notions of democracy. Conybeare stood on the most radical platform in the UK, pledged to abolish the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, bring in a graduated income tax, return the land to the people and end the ‘gigantic system of confiscation and robbery of the poor by the rich’.

Redruth’s Radical Club: built after the election

In a closely fought election between Vivian and Conybeare (the Tories stayed out of it) Conybeare emerged victorious with 2,926 votes to Vivian’s 2,577. For a decade Camborne-Redruth was then represented by Britain’s most radical MP. How times have changed!

Conybeare’s supporters wrote a ditty called ‘The Man for the People’. Here’s an extract.

Maaster Vivian, now so thick,

Longs weth his great friends to stick;

We’ll trate’n weth all due respect,

But we ‘one and all’ object

To have a ‘limping’ reer-rank man,

When we c’n have one in the Van

The seventeen year ‘pon Committee

Have earnt a rest, I think, quite fitty;

For some reforms he edn ripe,

So we’ll lev’n touch-a-pipe.

He’ll git the voters by the thousan’;

Because we’ll go for Working Men,

And not the Lords and Upper Ten.

The men of Buller’s Row he’ll meet,

And likewise Tallywarren Street,

And though Dolcoath is very deep,

He’ll git the men all in a heap.

Three more Cornish surname puzzles. Or are they?


Apart from the isolated example of Alice Copling, buried at St Columb in 1632, the name Coplyn first appeared in the Falmouth district in the 1670s and 1680s with baptisms and marriages at Mabe, Budock and St Gluvias. Does this geography, near the Fal estuary, indicate that it had arrived by sea? Is it relevant that the other place in which this name was found in numbers in the late 1800s was Norfolk? Its meaning is anyone’s guess. Any suggestions?


It’s been suggested that this surname may be from a crowder, or fiddler. This is unlikely. It appeared in Cornwall very late. Christian Crothers was baptised at Redruth in 1763 and the name then spread to neighbouring Illogan and by the end of the century west to St Hilary. It’s more likely to have been a local spelling of the name Carruthers, which supposedly has a Scottish origin.


Cunnack is unlikely to be a nickname from the Cornish word for clever – connek – as is sometimes claimed. This is because it was found nowhere in the Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall in the 1500s or early 1600s. Yet it was present in Cornwall from early times.

The surname Connack or Connek was limited in the early 1500s to the Liskeard district in the east. It remained in that area until 1641 when a Nicholas Connock was buried at Truro. It then turned up further west at Madron in 1649. The first spelling of Cunnack appeared there, with Alice Cunnack, married at Madron in 1705. From that parish the surname Cunnack spread to St Ives by the 1730s. It’s more likely therefore that Cunnack is a local spelling of Connack or Connock, as the vowel /o/ often became /u/. But what’s the origin of Connock? The early concentrated distribution in south east Cornwall may imply an origin in a placename. Could it possibly be from a shortened version of Boconnoc, a few miles west of Liskeard?

Charles Rashleigh and Charlestown

Next weekend sees the anniversary of the birth of Charles Rashleigh in 1747. He was the tenth child of Jonathan and Mary Rashleigh of Menabilly near Fowey. With six older brothers and unlikely ever to succeed to the family estate, he became a property developer.

His best known purchase was on the coast south east of St Austell, a place called Porthmear. In Cornish, Porthmear means a great cove or landing place. However, landing on the open beach was neither easy nor safe. Therefore, in 1790 John Smeaton, builder of the third Eddystone lighthouse, was commissioned to design a harbour, which was constructed in the early 1790s.


Behind this, inner harbours were dug. At first these would have sheltered vessels engaged in importing timber and supplies for the mines and lime for the farmers and then exporting copper when mining boomed in the locality in the 1810s. When the mines faltered Charlestown, as it quickly became known, was perfectly placed to become a china clay port, until eclipsed by Par and Fowey in the early 1900s.

When the harbour was built, Charlestown was home to a farm, a hotel which had been built in 1782 and a few cottages. Within a generation it had grown to more than 100 houses. Its decline in the twentieth century left it intact as an unspoilt example of a nineteenth century working port. It now has a new role as the picturesque backdrop to films and TV series set in that period.

Unknown man ponders his future
at Charlestown

Charles himself made little from his venture, being swindled not only once but twice and bankrupted in the process. He died in 1823, a tenant at the home he’d formerly owned at Duporth.