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.

Cornish rugby football finds its feet

Last weekend saw the Rugby World Cup final. Nowadays rugby and association football are viewed as entirely separate games. In fact they share a common ancestor, which we should just call ‘football’. In the middle of the 1800s football was played at the public schools as well as by more working-class communities up and down the British Isles. The schools had evolved rules, but each was different.

The earliest organised football clubs were formed by ex-pupils of these schools. This was so even in Cornwall. For example, Redruth R.F.C. was founded in 1875 by men from Clifton School and from Marlborough. Incidentally, the oldest club in Cornwall is claimed to be Penryn, formed in 1872 by a return migrant who had come across the Rugby version of the game when he played for Blackheath in London.

The Rugby school code dominated in the 1860s with most clubs playing by its rules. Association football, an amalgam of various other sets of rules, only challenged the Rugby code in the mid-1870s when its FA Cup became a popular spectator sport.

Penzance RFC 1887-88. The public school influence is clear

In those early days the rules of the game were still remarkably fluid. In 1873 at a match between St Austell and Bodmin, ‘St Austell generously altered several of their rules for the benefit of Bodmin, or the result might not have been quite the same.’ In November 1872 teams from Truro and St Austell fought out a draw. It was reported that there were two touchdowns each but ‘the tries were unsuccessful’.

As touchdowns were abolished under association rules in 1867 the teams were clearly playing rugby. However, at that time the word ‘try’ referred to an attempted shot at goal, or a conversion in modern terms. A try (or conversion) required a touchdown first, but games were decided on the tries or goals, not the touchdowns. Thus, the return match between the same two clubs at St Austell was described as a draw as no tries were scored. This was despite St Austell scoring three touchdowns and Truro none. The earlier formation of permanent football clubs in the west probably explains why rugby became the dominant code in the district between Truro and Penzance. East of this there was a gradual drift from Rugby to Association rules. In 1877 at a meeting at Liskeard for example, it was decided to start a football club, to play ‘by association rules’.

Which is more ‘Cornish’, Stevens or Stephens?

In the 1950s the surname researcher Richard Blewett asked ‘are the Stevens at present in Cornwall descendants of Breton Celtic immigrants’, citing the Cornish revivalist Robert Morton Nance. This was repeated by G.Pawley White in 1972 who claimed that Stevens was the ‘Cornish form’ of Stephens. But is this actually the case?

In 1881 both surnames were more common in Cornwall than elsewhere in the UK. Almost 4% of all the Stevenses in the UK lived in Cornwall. On the other hand, Cornwall was home to an even higher proportion of Stephenses – 6%.

If we look at a map of these two names in 1861 we can see where Morton Nance’s claim came from. While the name Stephens was scattered across mid and south-east Cornwall, Stevens was concentrated in West Penwith. One in five of all Stevenses were living in the single parish of St Ives, the home of Nance it should be noted. Yet the simultaneous presence of the name Stevens in east Cornwall might cause some hesitation.

Go back a century to the marriage registers of the 1700s and we find a similar, though less pronounced pattern.

However, if we turn the clock back another 100 years, instead of a presence of Stevens in the far west and an absence elsewhere we find the two spellings intermixed in most parts of Cornwall.

And what do the very earliest records tell us? The tax lists of the 1520s and 1540s do not indicate any concentration of the name Stevens (actually it was Steven at that time, the -s being added in the 1600s). Instead the spelling Steven was focused on mid-Cornwall, with Stephen being the norm in west and east.

In fact, these are just two spelling variants of the same name. Whether Stephen was spelt with a <ph> or a <v> was down to luck or fashion. This can be illustrated by the case of Richard and John Stevyn at Luxulyan in 1525. The same men re-appear in the 1543 lists, but this time spelt Stephyn.

The later concentration at St Ives is nothing to do with Breton immigrants. The name Stevens was multiplying there just as spellings were becoming more fixed in the 1800s. There is nothing more ‘Celtic’ or indeed more ‘Cornish’ about the surname Stevens as compared with Stephens. Both are good Cornish names and both more likely to be encountered here than in England.

How our great-great grandparents celebrated the 5th November

In 1876 Helston Town Council took the precaution of putting up placards in the town and sent the town crier around to warn that those letting off fireworks in the street would be fined £5. Things had apparently got out of hand. The West Briton stated that:

This action was highly necessary, inasmuch as the night of November 5th is usually a time of riot and license at Helston. On previous occasions balls, dipped in petroleum and ignited, have been thrown at passers-by, and sometimes through windows.

As the same paper had reported, the pyromaniacs of Helston had been active a year earlier in 1875 – ‘a few fireworks were let off, and crackers exploded in every direction. The principal streets were filled with the odour and smother of burning paraffin’.

Nonetheless, not wishing to be seen as a bunch of miserable killjoys out to ruin the people’s fun, the town’s elite raised a subscription in 1876 for a grand fireworks display on the 5th. However, to their dismay, this had to be postponed due to the non-arrival of the fireworks. ‘A great disappointment’, the newspaper laconically noted.

What’s the point of the Cornish language?

Do languages have a life after death? The answer from Stuart Dunmore is a resounding yes. Stuart has an article forthcoming with the rather forbidding title of ‘A Cornish revival? The nascent iconization of a post-obsolescent language’.

The Cornish language as a traditional, vernacular means of communication died somewhere around 1800, possibly living out its last days at sea on board fishing boats, or hidden away in out of the way farms or cottages deep inland in West Penwith or the Lizard peninsula. Not long after its demise however, efforts were being made to revive it, eventually producing the revived Cornish of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, one based on the written Cornish of the late medieval period.

Stuart’s argument in his article is that the importance of this lies not in the language as a means of communication but as a symbol for something else. The ‘something else’ in this instance is the Cornish identity. Apparently dead languages can still fulfil a role in shoring up feelings of difference and identity. In this respect the precise nature of the revived language is less important than its presence as a reference point for those who wish to claim and proclaim their Cornish identity.

A fuller summary of Stuart’s article can be found here.