Cholera in Cornwall: the Victorians’ coronavirus

Not strictly Victorian perhaps, as it preceded Victoria’s reign by five years. As if the endemic typhoid, typhus and dysentery, not to mention the measles, mumps and whooping cough that every year cut a swathe through thousands of infants, were not enough, in 1832 cholera arrived in Cornwall. Outbreaks periodically panicked local authorities into the 1850s, in which decade effective measures to control its spread were finally put in place.

Rumours of a new and terrifying disease began to filter into Britain in 1830. This one began in India rather than China. However, even without the handy vector of aircraft to rapidly transform a local problem into a global pandemic, cholera inevitably made its way west, the slowness of its approach possibly adding to the trepidation.

Cholera is a bacterial disease which causes copious diarrhoea and severe vomiting, with subsequent dehydration, cramps from loss of salt, and shock, leading in some cases to death. It was spread mainly through water supplies infected by poor sanitation. The authorities in the 1830s were aware of this, the general public less so. Even without social media to spread misinformation, many useless remedies were touted (and sold), such as mercury, opium, ginger and rhubarb or the application of leeches. None of these had any effect on the disease, although (in the case of opium in particular) they may have made the consumer less worried.

Cholera arrived in Britain on a ship that brought it to Sunderland in October 1831. From there it gradually spread south and west, reaching Plymouth in June 1832. Summer was the worst time for cholera and in one week in August there were 141 deaths from the disease in Plymouth.

The Tamar proved no barrier. The first case in Cornwall was a woman who died at Bodmin on her way from Devonport to Port Isaac on 28th July. A mob tried to prevent her burial in the town and was only dispersed when more special constables were rapidly sworn in.

The outbreaks in Cornwall began in villages near Plymouth and at Newlyn in the west, presumably brought by boat. Padstow was also badly hit, with 107 cases and 19 deaths. So was Hayle, where 14 of the 26 victims in late August/early September lived in one area – Bodriggy Lane. Altogether 308 people died of cholera in Cornwall in 1832.

Nonetheless, the arrival of the disease had triggered the establishment of boards of health in the towns. These set about issuing orders for removing pigsties, privies and cess pits. But, as always, once the immediate threat was over and it was obvious that it was the poorest rather than the better off who carried the brunt of the suffering, action became less vigorous.

While sporadic outbreaks occurred thereafter, as at Falmouth and Helston in 1833, it wasn’t until 1849 that another major cholera scare hit Cornwall. In that year it was centred on Mevagissey, where 125 died out of a population of 1,800. According to the newspaper, almost half the residents fled the town. The paper commented that ‘sanitation [was] a word which had probably never been heard in Mevagissey where the effluvia of decaying fish made the atmosphere intolerable to the delicate nostrils of all those who were not natives of the place’.

Mevagissey – a sink of cholera in 1849

That year saw an even higher mortality rate at Kingsand in the far east, where 93 died out of a population of 790. Other areas affected were Looe, Truro, the Redruth district and again Hayle. It’s noticeable that the deaths tended to cluster either in crowded towns or in fishing ports.

Finally, in the 1850s action began to be taken to rid towns of pigsties, stables, open cesspits and mounds of unsavoury ‘rubbish’, while new drainage and sewerage systems were built. In Truro in 1853, 641 out of 691 ‘public nuisances’ were removed, which indicates the scale of the problem. Even then the supply of clean drinking water had to wait. Mid-century Truro was supplied from 29 wells, the water from several of these being declared unfit for consumption as late as 1884.

You can read more about Cornwall’s cholera outbreaks in Rowe and Andrews’ article in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 7 (1974), pp.153-64 on which this piece is mainly based.

Who was Bishop Colenso?

Christian missionaries don’t get such a good press these days, often viewed as merely an arm of western colonialism, accompanying the trader and the soldier. But some missionaries broke the mould. One was John Colenso, born at St Austell on January 24th, 1814. The Colensos were actually a Penzance family. John’s father was a mine agent, a notoriously peripatetic calling. This seems to have left its mark on his children as John‘s brother, William, also became a well-known missionary in New Zealand.

After his father lost his tin stream in a flood, John was forced to scrimp to save enough money to take up a place at Cambridge University. There he excelled at maths, later in the early 1840s writing textbooks on algebra and arithmetic. After graduating, John followed a familiar route of teaching before being offered the rectorship of a parish in Norfolk in 1846. In the year he became a rector, John married and the prospect of a comfortable middle age bringing up his children, of whom there were five, lay in prospect. But it was not to be. At the end of 1853 he was invited to take up the post of Bishop of Natal, in the eastern part of present-day South Africa.

John Colenso

Once there, with his customary energy he threw himself into organising the infrastructure of a self-respecting Anglican diocese overseas – churches, schools and mission stations duly springing up. Yet by the 1860s John was harbouring growing doubts about the literal truth of the Old Testament. Perhaps his mathematical inclination convinced him that the earth could not have been created in 4004 BC and Noah wasn’t 600 years old when he built the ark.

John was unwilling to teach this nonsense to the local Zulu people and in fact went further by publicly criticising the authenticity of the first five books of the Bible. Panicking at a time when Darwin’s theories were being widely circulated, in 1863 the church hierarchy in southern Africa attempted to haul him before them on charges of heresy. However, they were over-ruled from London and John kept his post.

He was hardly the typical colonialist of the time. Although believing in the separate origin of races, he was very sympathetic towards the native Africans, learning isiZulu, their language. He was perhaps fortunate in that the stress in isiZulu is on the penultimate syllable, something that would come naturally to any Cornish person. In 1855 he argued for the toleration of polygamy and in the 1870s championed Zulu leaders who were being persecuted and wrongly imprisoned. At a time of mounting tension, he defended Zulus against the Boer oppression and then British aggression that marked the years preceding the Zulu wars of 1879. In return in Natal he became known as Sobantu, or father of the people.

John Colenso died in 1883. A memorial window to him can be found in the south aisle of St Austell Church.

The role of luck in the history of surnames

While giving a talk on surnames last week at Madron, just outside Penzance, I was reminded of the role of chance in the history of family names.

One unpredictable aspect was the relative proportion of male children born. If several boys were born into a family and they all survived, then the family name was likely to multiply. If on the other hand the children were mainly girls or the boys didn’t survive infancy, a rare family name might be put in jeopardy even though the bloodline continued. In this way, some surnames prospered while others died out.

Another chance effect lay in the way that different families responded to the constraints and opportunities posed by economic change. Why did some family names disperse widely while others remained attached to particular locations? The answer has to be chance.

Take two names that both arose in the parish of Madron. Here are distribution maps for Maddern, from the parish name, and Truran, from a place in the early 1500s called Treuren and now Trewern, in the same parish.

Trurans had already in the 1500s and 1600s shown a greater propensity to move. By 1861 the distribution of the two surnames was very different.  Why had Trurans dispersed whereas Madderns hadn’t? Has the role of pure chance been underestimated?

The Cornish language: polemics and plans

Two booklets have appeared recently on the subject of the Cornish language and here I provide a review and summary of them.

Rod Lyon’s Colloquial doesn’t mean Corrupt: Observations on contemporary revived Cornish is a searing indictment of the stilted and unconvincing spoken Cornish of many Cornish users. This is something Rod argues is the result of an excessive search for purism on the part of revivalists since the 1920s. For a lively, fluent and more idiomatic spoken Cornish he calls for a re-focusing of the language away from its conservative, medieval base and towards its later days.

Ken MacKinnon’s ‘Papers on Cornwall and the Cornish Language’ on the other hand focuses not on what revived Cornish should be, although Ken has his own views on that, but how revived Cornish of whatever kind might be planned. This collection of papers was mostly written in the short-lived period of optimism about the language’s prospects in the 2000s when the standard written form, official status and government funding appeared to herald a rosy future. It is perhaps more valuable now as a historical record of that period than as an achievable template for action.

In addition, his collection also includes papers on placenames, which Ken argues need to be appreciated in terms of their change over time and their meaning for us nowadays, rather than merely in terms of etymology and derivation. Both Ken’s papers and Rod’s book make convincing use of placenames, previously a sadly under-utilised source for language revivalists.

The battle of Braddock Down

This week sees the anniversary of the first battle of the Cornish army in the seventeenth century civil wars – the battle of Braddock Down.

In the autumn of 1642 when the wars began it wasn’t at all certain who would rally Cornwall behind them. Would it be Royalists or Parliamentarians? The greater gentry in Cornwall were fairly evenly split. Eastern gentry such as the Bullers, Carews, Corytons, Eliots and Robartes made up a puritan ‘godly network’ supporting Parliament. Others, especially in the west, the Bassets, Godolphins and Vyvyans, together with Lord Mohun at Boconnoc and Bevil Grenville in the north, declared for King Charles.  In the meantime, Somerset and most of Dorset, along with Plymouth, Exeter and other Devon towns, had already sided with Parliament.

The scales were decisively tipped in Cornwall in favour of the King by the call to arms to the trained bands in October 1642. According to Mark Stoyle, a ‘vast and somewhat unruly Royalist mob’ of up to 10,000 men had volunteered to defend Cornwall against a small Parliamentarian force that had lodged itself at Launceston. Moving east, they forced the outnumbered Parliamentarians to seek the safer sanctuary of Plymouth.

By November 1642 the two forces were glaring at each other across the Tamar. The Cornish army was encouraged by their military commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, to sally towards Exeter. This they did – twice. But each time the city proved to be too well defended. After the second attempt, at the end of December, the Cornish army fell back in some disarray towards the Tamar, a serious mutiny breaking out on the way back.

While the demoralised Royalists scurried westwards, a reinforced Parliamentarian force led by Colonel Ruthin re-entered south east Cornwall, retaking Saltash and occupying Liskeard. It was on January 18th that Hopton was able to persuade his army to confront these Parliamentarians. This was made easier by the fortuitous capture of three Parliamentarian ships, driven into Falmouth by gales and carrying arms and money. Some of the latter was used to encourage the reluctant foot soldiers.

Thus fortified, Hopton’s force met the Parliamentarians a day later at Braddock Down, a few miles east of Lostwithiel. Ruthin had advanced from Liskeard, not waiting either for his handful of cannon to be brought up, nor for a second Parliamentarian force that was on its way. He was confident after the poor showing of the Cornish Royalists in Devon at the end of 1642. The two armies faced off for a couple of hours while musketeers fired the occasional round at each other. Ruthin occupied rising ground and could afford to wait. Hopton wasn’t so sure of his somewhat more unpredictable and fractious men and knew Parliamentary reinforcements were only a day or two away.

Possible site of the battle. Ruthin’s troops would have occupied the hill to the right.

The Cornish foot soldiers, mainly pikemen, were ordered to attack. Led by Bevil Grenville, they charged down a slope and up towards the Parliamentarians. The sight of an advancing horde of screaming Cornishmen apparently ‘struck a terror’ into the raw Parliamentary foot soldiers who, simultaneously assailed on their flanks by Royalist cavalry, panicked and broke. A Parliamentarian officer wrote: ‘both our horse and foot were suddenly routed, and every man divided and dispersed, ran and rode as fast as fear could carry them towards Saltash’.

Two hundred Parliamentarians had been killed for very little loss on the Royalist side. Over 1,000 prisoners were taken, as well as five guns and ammunition. Another 140 prisoners and 20 guns fell into Royalist hands when Saltash was re-taken three days later.

The morale of the Cornish army was lifted by the victory, Hopton’s reputation as a commander enhanced and Cornwall made safe for the king.

Three surnames from the Fal district

The nineteenth century distribution of a surname is sometimes a good guide to its point of origin, sometimes less so. Take the following three names, which are all likely to have begun life in the district around the Fal estuary in south Cornwall.

Mankee was a name associated entirely with west Cornwall in 1861, with four of the six families of this name living on the Lizard, or at Helston and Falmouth. The surname had not moved far. It comes from the place called Mankea near Penryn (meaning hedge stones). For 250 years after 1524 when John Mynke was found at St Gluvias, it remained around Budock and immediately to the south across the Helford estuary, before venturing (a little) further afield.

Matta is probably a pet form of Matthew. In the 1520s there were lots of men called Mathy but only one named Mata – John Mata at St Just in Roseland. Earlier, in 1460, we find a Walter Mata at St Keverne. It’s quite likely that one or both of these was the ancestor of all later Mattas (the additional t appeared in the early 1600s). Most were found at St Just in Roseland until the 1700s when Mattas seem to have headed east along the coast towards St Austell Bay.

Mewton is a little more problematic. In 1861, although there were only eight households headed by someone called Mewton, the family name was scattered over a wide area of mid and west Cornwall, from Bodmin to the Lizard. In the 1540s it was found as Mewdon or Meudyn but restricted to Probus and the Roseland district. This was across the Fal from Mawnan, where there is a place called Meudon (unidentified element+ fort). This was spelt Meuthyn in the 1500s and we find a Jane Muthon living there in 1543.

The name Mewden then drifted east in the 1500s and 1600s, to St Columb Major by the 1700s, by which time it also began to be spelt -ton rather than -don. The only question mark about all this is the relatively early appearance of the name Mewton at St Mabyn in 1597, well to the east of Mawnan. Does this indicate a separate, additional origin for the modern name?

Who were the richest families of late Victorian Cornwall?

In 1885 a letter appeared in the West Briton listing what were claimed to be the 27 richest men in Cornwall with their reputed incomes. Here’s the richest nine. (For a rough modern equivalent of the income multiply the figures by 120).

NameHouseAnnual income
Thomas Charles Agar-RobartesLanhydrock£75,000
John Charles WilliamsCaerhayes£60,000
Evelyn BoscawenTregothnan£50,000
Duke of Cornwall£40,000
Gustavus BassetTehidy£32,000
William Henry EdgcumbeMount Edgcumbe£30,000
Thomas Simon BolithoTrengwainton£30,000
Edward BolithoTrewidden£30,000
Sir John St AubynSt Michael’s Mount£25,000

Interesting to note that three of these families could trace their position back to the medieval period, three had become wealthy in the 1500s and 1600s and the other three were products of Cornwall’s industrial period.

One wing of Lanhydrock House was destroyed by a fire in 1881. Rebuilding was completed in 1885.

The letter appeared at a time when criticism of the landed class was growing. The correspondent, writing under the pseudonym ‘A Cornishman’, asked if it was not ‘a fact that some [on his list] are almost totally unknown in the county – unknown even by sight – absentees in fact, drawing large incomes .. but giving scarcely anything in return?’ He continued: ‘do we see them , as was the custom formerly, taking an active part in the management of our Quarter Sessions our infirmaries, our hospitals, our savings banks, and other benevolent institutions? Alas! I fear the answer must be in the negative.’