Of blowing houses and tin smelters

If you wander through the highways and byways of Cornwall you may well come across the name Blowing House. Where does this come from? In former times ‘houses’ were built to smelt tin, transforming tin ore, or ‘black tin’, containing other chemical elements such as oxygen or sulphur, into purer ‘white tin’. Stannary law stated that all Cornish tin had to be smelted in Cornwall. The result was a rash of small blowing houses. In these, a charge of black tin and charcoal was kept to a temperature sufficiently hot by bellows, operated by a water-wheel.

A reverberatory furnace

From 1700 to the 1850s blowing houses were gradually superseded by reverberatory furnaces. These used coal rather than charcoal but, more importantly, kept the heat source separate from the tin ore, resulting in less loss and contamination of the smelted tin. The first reverberatory furnace in Cornwall was established at Newham, just outside Truro. Tin smelting houses needed to be close to a coinage town (before 1838 when coinage was abolished), near to estuaries or the coast for the import of coal and bricks, and near a source of water-power to run the stamps used to break up slag for re-smelting.

Because of the need for large amounts of coal – at least a ton was required to reduce a ton of black tin – tin smelting was dominated by those with capital – merchants and landowners who could afford the cost of importing fuel. Sometimes they also advanced money to the mines, on the security of the tin ore that would result, thus becoming bankers. The clearest example was the Bolitho family of the Penzance district. Their control of Chyandour smelting house from the 1760s eventually led to the foundation of the Mount’s Bay Commercial Bank in 1807 which ultimately became part of Barclays.

Workers in tin smelting houses were less fortunate. The average wage of the 15 men employed at Chyandour in 1883 was 19 shillings a week, around the same or maybe slightly higher than the average Cornish labourer’s weekly earnings of the time.

Seleggan works in operation

With the extension of the railway after the 1830s, a location near the ports became less critical. Seleggan tin smelting works at Carnkie near Redruth began to smelt tin in 1887 and became the largest such works in Cornwall. By 1923 it was the only Cornish tin smelter left operating. In the late 1920s it was employing around 200 people in a continuous three shift system. The works closed in 1931 in the midst of the economic depression.

The area of the works in 1907

The myth of Dumnonia

Although disagreeing on many other aspects, both kernowsceptic and kernocentric historians unite in accepting a kingdom of Dumnonia as a clear and obvious fact. Dumnonia appears as a fully functioning kingdom, replete with kings and courts and operating for some centuries after the ending of Roman rule around 410. Its existence is endlessly and uncritically repeated while it sailed serenely down the centuries until rudely scuppered by the English at some point from the late seventh century onwards.

However, a political unit called Dumnonia could well be a myth. Once the Romans had departed, explicit references to the Dumnonii are rare and those to an entity called Dumnonia rarer still. Nobody in the south-west of Britain explicitly described themselves as ‘Dumnonian’ in the period from 400 to 800; no inscribed stones are found asserting a Dumnonian origin or identity. There are no credible king lists. It looks more like a vague regional description. English sources do not mention Dumnonia or Dumnonians by name. More significantly, the terms are absent from Welsh writings. The Welsh Annals make explicit references to Welsh kingdoms from the sixth century but there is no mention of Dumnonia, just Cornwall.

The kingdom of Dumnonia is as wisp-like as Arthur. Far from glittering reality, it appears to be shimmering illusion.

Let’s adopt a more kernowcentric interpretation. Constantine in the 530s ruled over a place known to contemporaries such as Gildas as Dumnonia. Dumnonia was the name of a territory, derived from a people – the Dumnonii – and a reminder of the Roman Empire at a time when British elites were keen to don the garb of Romanitas. Constantine was a member of a shifting group of elite families that had fastened onto the power associated with the prestige goods being imported from the Mediterranean. The centre of gravity of this kingdom was found in the west, with a periodic high-status presence at Tintagel.

In the late 500s/600s British colonies were established in Armorica

Dumnonia in practice meant a Greater Cornubia. The heartland of this kingdom lay west of the Tamar, with only fragile links to the east. The archaeological evidence from the sixth to the eighth centuries, the relative absence of Mediterranean imports inland east of the Tamar, the lack of pottery production in Devon, the paucity of high status sites there, the decay of Exeter, all point to a distinction between the west and the east. Cornwall was not created out of the rump of Dumnonia, as is claimed. Quite the opposite; Devon was in practice the ‘tail-end’ of a Greater Cornubia that experienced its high point in the period from 450 to 550.

In the second half of the sixth century the power of this ruling elite collapsed. Any hold over the extensive territory east of the Tamar then became weaker and was exercised in name only. Even the possibility of a coherent, uniformly administered ‘Dumnonia’ faded. The reach of those aspiring to the title of king shrank. For all intents and purposes during the seventh century what remained of the kingdom of Dumnonia shrivelled westwards into its core or might in practice have disappeared. Yet, as Dumnonia was primarily an external categorization, outsiders still sometimes referred to the region as Dumnonia.

By Aldhelm and Gerent’s time around 700 ‘Dumnonia’ was a term usually restricted to what later became Devon. Gerent might still have claimed some sort of nominal overlordship over Dumnonia/Devon. The problem was that by this time, perhaps from the 680s, the English were beginning to nibble away at territory in the far east. Devon/Dumnonia by the end of the seventh century was effectively contested territory and continued to be so until the 820s.

(Adapted from my Cornwall’s First Golden Age, chapter 2.)

Feasting and fasting: eating and drinking habits of miners in the 1860s

In 1862 Philip Vincent, a surgeon to several mines in the Camborne district, gave evidence to the Commission enquiring into the condition of mines. Here’s two of his answers …

Qu 10455: Who lives best; the miner or the agriculturist? – The miner is rather improvident about it; it is rather a feast and a fast with him, one day he will have his beefsteak or his good living, and the next day he will have his porridge, and then live upon broth, as they call it, for some days afterwards, and they only throw in a bone or perhaps a little bit of pork to make the porridge; but the agriculturist generally gets his regular allowance from the farmer, and so it is regulated much better than it is with the miner.

Qu 10459: Whenever he can enjoy it and has some, he will live well, even though at the expense of living badly for the rest of the week? – Yes, I have known many a miner who has gone and sat down and drank his gallon or two of beer in the evening, and then they will not touch it again for the next month perhaps. I have said to them over and over again, ‘If you will only just take your pint of beer a day for your dinner, and be content with that, instead of taking so much on your pay day, you will be a very much better man at the end of ten years than you will if you live as at present.’

The Cornish mining landscape at the end of the 1800s. View from Wheal Grenville east towards Carnkie

More rare Cornish surnames

Skin is an occupational surname, short for Skinner. Its origin in Cornwall is unambiguous. Several men named Skin lived in the parishes around Saltash in 1544. Later, the surname cropped up further west, which may indicate migration or could just be independent examples of this variant. Nonetheless, south-east Cornwall remained the preferred home for this name, with the majority of the handful of Skin families in 1861 being found in the parish of Menheniot.

The other two surnames come from placenames. Sparnon or spernan is the Cornish word for a thorn tree. There are at least five places with this name. Interestingly however, the first record I have, a David Sparnon at St Clement next to Truro, was not living in one of those five places. Perhaps there is a lost place-name, but otherwise the nearest Sparnon to Truro is either Redruth or Budock. In fact Breage was the centre of this family name in the 1500s. From there it either spread east and west or there were multiple simultaneous origins. In 1641 the name was found spaced quite widely from Gwinear and Gunwalloe in the west to Lanhydrock and St Blazey in the east. However, the Sparnons of the central mining district were the most prolific and by 1861 the name was found only in the Camborne-Redruth area.

Spettigue was first found as Spetego in North Tamerton, on the border with Devon. After the mid-1500s it spread from there to other parts of north-east Cornwall, where it was still most common in 1861. Meanwhile the name had mutated from Spetego to Spettigue by the 1580s as it moved out of North Tamerton. But it has an earlier history. Despite its location it’s from a Cornish placename – Trespettigue in Altarnun. It had presumably migrated eastwards from there between the 1300s and 1500s. Trespettigue was found as Trespethegou in 1401 and Rospethigou in 1332. Ros means a moor but spethegou or pethegou is less clear. Could it be from spethas – brambles, meaning something like moor of the little bramble patches?

John Passmore Edwards: the Cornish philanthropist

Anyone who walks around Cornish towns with half an eye open cannot fail to spot the buildings adorned with the name ‘Passmore Edwards’. But who was Passmore Edwards?

John Passmore Edwards was born on 24th March 1823 in a nondescript cottage in Blackwater, a mining village a mile or two east of Redruth on the main road through Cornwall. John’s father wasn’t a miner but made his living from a variety of useful skills, including market gardening and carpentry. This allowed the family to pay to school their four children. John read avidly and became a solicitor’s clerk in Truro before giving this up for the lure of journalism.

After spending a few years in Manchester working on a radical newspaper, John moved to London. He survived on freelance journalism before entering the publishing business and buying his first magazine in 1851. This turned out to be a disaster and he became bankrupt. Nonetheless, by 1861 by dint of unremitting work he’d recovered his losses and was even able to pay off his creditors.

The Passmore Edwards Library at Redruth

After that hiccup John Passmore Edwards’ fortunes began to change. He settled down, married and began buying a variety of publications. In 1874 these included an evening paper, the Echo, at just the time the market for cheap daily newspapers was beginning to expand rapidly. This made his fortune and from 1890 he turned to philanthropy, using his resources to fund buildings across the south of England and in Cornwall. Many of these were libraries but there were Science and Art schools, an art gallery and even a convalescent home.

While not exactly a story of rags to riches, John Passmore Edwards’ life was the stereotype of the Victorian self-made man. Yet throughout his life. Passmore Edwards stuck to his radical principles. He had been involved in agitation against the Corn Laws even before leaving Cornwall. In later life, he continued to speak truth to power, using his titles to stand up for the poor, for peace overseas and for reform at home, and using his money to support ‘useful knowledge’ and educational facilities.

Newlyn Art Gallery

True to his convictions, he declined a knighthood and died at home in Hampstead in 1911, aged 88. John Passmore Edwards would now presumably be spinning in his grave if he could see the sorry state to which the press in the UK has descended.

Why religious dissent didn't take off in 17th century Cornwall

On the 15th of March 1675, Hugh Acland of Truro reported ‘a great meeting of Quakers in a parish adjoining this town about seven last Friday evening where there were a great many others of young people that were not of their opinion but went out of curiosity. The room being full, one of the most eminent among them began to speak and told them that God’s children were quiet and peacable and advise all to walk in the ways of God, for they should all come to judgement before Him, and, as soon as he had spoken these words, before he could proceed any further, the planchion fell under them, and they all fell one on another, only some few, who were by the windows escaped the fall. In this fall divers children and others were much bruised but no other hurt’.

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, were clearly stirring up some interest in the area and Acland went on to state that they were planning to open a meeting house ’about a musket shot’ from Truro. Quakers were one of the dissenting churches that had broken away from the Church of England earlier in the century. These included Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians, all of whom received a boost during the civil wars of the 1640s and in the period of the Republic.

Although reliable data is scarce, it looks as if in 1676 the number of dissenters in Cornwall was not obviously much lower than in neighbouring Devon …

Yet, by the early 1700s it was being reported that there were very few dissenters in Cornwall. Numbers had fallen steeply and this has been cited as one of the reasons Wesleyan Methodism could take hold so quickly in Cornwall.

Why was this? Dissenters were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Government and its supporters on the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and as threats to the newly re-established order. Legislation was passed in the 1660s and 1670s excluding dissenters from positions of authority while dissenting congregations were subjected to persecution and harassment by local justices of the peace. It is likely that Cornwall’s Royalist and Tory landowning establishment was more hostile to dissent than their counterparts elsewhere, enthusiastically and successfully using the law to stamp it out in the later 1600s and early 1700s.

Cornish surnames of the far west and the far east

One might be excused for assuming that the surname Sangwin must have a Cornish language derivation – gwin meaning white. However, its past geography quickly dispels such a notion. John Sangwin was found at Launcells, on the border with Devon, in 1525. The surname was recorded as early as the 1270s at Whimple in east Devon, where it was previously used as a first name. Presumably this was a nickname from the Old French/Middle English word sanguine, meaning an optimistic or cheery sort of person. If so, optimism seems to have been confined to the very margins of Cornwall. The surname flourished from the 1500s to the 1700s in just two districts, the far north east and an area to the south of Launceston. In 1861 half of the Sangwins were still living in the Stratton district.

Captain Sampson Shakerley was buried at St Just in Penwith in 1681. Before this his surname was unknown in Cornwall. The captain – it’s not clear whether he was a naval, military or a mining captain – must have brought his family with him, as Mary Shakerley was married at St Just in 1686 and the name then made a regular appearance in the St Just parish registers. It remained confined there into the 1800s. It appears that the Shakerleys arrived in St Just in the 1600s and then stayed put for over a century before tentatively venturing into the less civilised parts of Cornwall. There is a place called Shakerley in Lancashire, near Leigh. Did the Cornish Shakerleys come from there? Any information would be very welcome.

In contrast, some surnames showed very little propensity to migrate. Shearm is one. The meaning of this name is unclear – is it an occupational name with a link to shear, as in shearing sheep? But its geography is very clear. There were several Schermes in 1525, all living in the far north east of Cornwall. Where they stayed. All but one Sherme or Shearm family was still there in 1641 and even in 1861 three of the five Shearm families were found in the parishes of Stratton, Poughill and Kilkhampton.