Here are a couple of maps for two surnames that first appeared at a relatively late date. Goad is probably a variant spelling of Coad. It was first recorded in 1638 at Menheniot but didn’t start appearing in the registers in any number until the 1670s when it suddenly turned up in multiple locations. Gribell or Grible was found at Sancreed in West Penwith from 1584 although the first record of the name was well to the east, at Bodmin.
The chough is a mysterious bird, in the sense that some of the information on it isn’t that reliable. The Daily Telegraph last week reported that there were now 12 breeding pairs of choughs in Cornwall, brought back by what it called ‘Operation Chough’. The chough, it went on, had been absent in Cornwall since the 1950s, a date presumably taken from a cursory look at the Cornwall Council website, which claims the chough disappeared in 1952.
It didn’t. More reliable sources confirm that the last chough seen alive in Cornwall was near Newquay in 1973. Operation Chough meanwhile was a project begun in 1987 based at Paradise Park, Hayle, to breed choughs in captivity. This had succeeded in rearing chough chicks by 2011 but was not the cause of the return of the chough. In fact, choughs returned naturally, four turning up from Ireland in 2001. Three of those liked what they saw and decided to stick around, setting up home on the Lizard. The Cornwall Chough Project is the scheme led by the RSPB to protect these birds, encourage more and ensure their survival.
The chough is a member of the crow family, but with red legs and a long red beak, the latter used to dig out insects from closely cropped grassland near its nesting sites on the cliffs. In the 1800s and 1900s farmers moved their grazing animals inland. This resulted in the loss of the short grass that the choughs needed to get at the insects and the consequent decline in the numbers of the bird. However, in the 1990s the ‘National’ Trust in Cornwall had begun working with landowners on the Lizard to encourage the restoration of clifftop grazing. As it admits, this wasn’t primarily done to encourage the return of choughs but the wildflowers and rare plants that also flourish in this habitat. Anyway, it worked, and the choughs are back.
Which is a good thing as it restores a classic Cornish symbol to the land. As everyone knows, King Arthur on his death in battle was transformed into a chough, ‘talons and beaks all red with blood’. Lines in the Cornish Gorseth ceremony insist that:
Still Arthur watches our shore
In guise of a chough there flown
So the absence of the chough from 1973 to 2001 might explain a lot.
Back in the 1600s ‘Cornish choughs’ was a common nickname for the Cornish. Shakespeare used it several times and it was also used by other playwrights. At the time the idiomatic meaning of the word ‘chough’ was ‘a rustic, a clown, a boor’ and in 1617 a Cornishman named Chough was depicted as an ‘ignorant country bumpkin’, a tiresome and unimaginative stereotype still much in use 400 years later. Mark Stoyle concludes that the English had adopted the term ‘chough’ as ‘a derogatory nickname for the Cornish people themselves.’
Richard Carew, writing in the 1590s, hadn’t helped by describing the Cornish chough as ‘ungracious, in filching and hiding of money … and somewhat dangerous in carrying sticks of fire’. This reputation for ‘filching’ money was picked up by Parliamentary pamphleteers in the civil wars and used to accuse the Cornish of being natural plunderers. In a note to Carew’s Survey, added in the 1730s, Thomas Tonkin agreed that the chough was known for ‘thievishness’ but that it was ‘much admired in other countries’ and ‘often sent as a present’, which may well have hastened its decline.
The Arthurian legend assures that one day Arthur will return. Now that the chough is back it’s just a question of time before that happens and all will be proper again.
Sport is slowly coming back to life. There are even tentative plans to allow limited numbers of spectators to attend events. However, one sport still missing is rugby. As a winter game we wouldn’t normally be thinking of rugby at this time of the year. But as it’s Saturday and while we’re waiting to hear if and when the next season will commence, let’s remind ourselves of someone who was arguably Cornwall’s greatest ever player of its national game.
Bert Solomon was born in 1885 in a terraced house at Redruth almost within throwing distance of Redruth Rugby Football Club’s Recreation Ground. The Solomon family had wholeheartedly embraced the rugby culture that captured west Cornwall’s working-class communities after the 1880s. Bert had brothers and cousins who, like him, not only played the game but went on to appear for Cornwall’s premier club – Redruth – and for Cornwall.
Bert Solomon emerged as a Redruth player in 1903-04, going straight into the first team of what was Cornwall’s premier club. It wasn’t long before he was picked to play for Cornwall. He was a member of that historic side that beat Durham in 1908 in front of 18,000 spectators at Redruth to become ‘county’ champions for the first time. Bert scored twice in that game and scored Cornwall’s only try when they lost to Australia at the Olympics later that same year.
His position on the rugby field was at centre, a member of the back line who run at their opponents. Centres need to be strong, agile and fast and Bert was all three. His strength was no doubt helped by hard physical labour at Redruth’s bacon factory, where he worked from the age of 14. Contemporary accounts report startling bursts of acceleration by Bert, combined with an uncanny knack of selling a dummy to his opponents, leaving them floundering as he sped past on his way to touch.
At a match against Devon at Plymouth in 1909 Bert was said to have picked up the ball 30 yards inside his own half and then ran through the opposition to score. In that match he scored five other tries. An England selector was present and Bert was eventually picked to play at Twickenham against Wales in 1910. He scored a try in that match too, but as he walked off he was heard to have muttered ‘I’ve finished’ and didn’t turn up at the celebratory post-match dinner. He was picked for another three England games but each time refused to play.
Bert had always been a little less than enthusiastic in his commitment to rugby. Before 1907 he’d often turn up late for Redruth’s games and sometimes claimed that he was too busy looking after his racing pigeons to play. Even when present he could spend large periods of the game standing about aimlessly before surprising his opponents with a sudden run or a spell of brilliant play.
Having to associate with the mainly public school and university-educated, self-confident and arrogant England players must have been the final straw. Always painfully shy and shunning publicity, Bert’s world of pigeon-fancying, pasty eating and beer drinking was uncomfortably far from theirs. Having reached the pinnacle of the sport he gave it all up. He spent the rest of his life in Redruth, but never played again for Redruth, Cornwall or England.
For more anecdotes on Bert Solomon see Allen Buckley’s Bert Solomon: A Rugby Phenomenon.
Cornwall is known for its stones, which can conveniently be divided into three main types dating from three different periods.
The first, and most active, period of erecting stones in the landscape was the early bronze age, from around 2,500 to 1,500 BCE. Menhirs (from the Cornish for long stone) were put up, either singly or in pairs. Their purpose is not always clear but some marked burial sites. Others were boundary markers while many would have had some sort of religious significance, now lost. Some stones had been moved a considerable distance before being erected, not as far as at Stonehenge perhaps, but several miles. This was also the period of stone circles and stone rows.
Stone erecting became fashionable again a couple of thousand years later when inscribed stones appeared. These were single stones with writing on them, a memorial to someone, usually the head of a family or an eldest son. That said, the oldest stone is possibly a memorial to a woman, Cunaide, who died aged 33 some time in the mid to late 400s at Hayle.
Cunaide may have been Irish. The main wave of stone erectors, arriving slightly later in mid-Cornwall, were definitely so. The late Charles Thomas provided the classic account of this migration in his brilliant And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Between 100 and 200 high status families, originally Irish but living in south Wales for a couple of generations, arrived via the Camel estuary around 500 AD and then fanned out across east Cornwall and into south Devon. They were Christian and literate (in Latin). Their inscribed stones either marked Christian sites or were boundary markers or were placed near the homes of those memorialized.
This practice was then adopted by local elites in the 500s and spread across the rest of Cornwall. There are 39 such stones in Cornwall, one in Scilly and another 15 in Devon. This sort of memorial ended around 700 when the last stone was erected in memory of Taetura, a priest, near St Just in Penwith. It’s been suggested that placing such inscribed stones in the countryside ceased when the material presence of the church became more important than the memory of ancestral kin.
The final re-emergence of Cornwall’s stone obsession began in the late ninth century when stone crosses were placed at the margins of church land or on routes to churches. This was confined mainly to Cornwall, where there are 50 such crosses that can be dated to the pre-1066 period. Although there are 10 examples in Devon, the style has been seen as expressing a ‘distinctively Cornish identity’. Perhaps this was a defensive reaction against the imposition of foreign rule at this time, as also happened at different times in Ireland, Wales and the north of England.
4.25 pm postcript: Just heard the sad news that Cornish archaeologist and patriot Craig Weatherhill has passed away. Craig was an expert on the pre-historic stones mentioned above and his Cornovia: Ancient Sites of Cornwall & Scilly remains the most readable guide to Cornwall’s archaeological sites.
How many of our Victorian ancestors could read or write? Assessing levels of literacy in the past is no easy task. For a start, it’s likely that while people may not have been able to write, a skill they would rarely require, they could still read. Nonetheless, the ability to sign one’s name has been taken as a primitive measure of the ability to write.
In the 1840s and 50s one third of men in Cornwall and a half of women signed the marriage register with a mark. This then declined to around one in six for both genders by the 1880s, with the gap between men and women disappearing.
While the numbers signing with a mark steadily fell, throughout these years they remained higher than the English average although the gap remained fairly constant, both for men and for women, although it was narrower for women after 1865. Yet, improvements in literacy lagged behind many places in England. In 17 of the 40 English counties in 1845 the level of illiteracy for men was higher than in Cornwall but by 1885 only six English counties were worse. Similarly, in the case of women, ten English counties had higher rates of illiteracy in the 1840s, but only three in 1885.
Within Cornwall the registration district (RD) with the highest level of illiteracy in 1856 was Redruth, with St Austell having the second highest. The lowest levels of illiteracy in 1856 were found in Falmouth RD, there being a clear relationship between the inability to sign the marriage register and the number of people employed in mining. By 1871 Redruth was still the district with the highest rate of illiteracy, although agricultural Stratton RD in the far north was the next highest. By that year St Germans RD in the east had the lowest numbers of people signing with a mark.
Symons is the main spelling form of all those surnames that derive from the original Symon. This was a popular biblical name in the middle ages. The Symons group of spellings in Cornwall accounted for 62% of Symons/Simmons/Semmens in the 1950s, a proportion unchanged from the mid-1600s, when Symon and Symons comprised 66% of the total. In the early 1500s however, only a handful were not spelt Symon.
Remember, if you want information on a surname that hasn’t appeared in my book or been a subject of a previous blogdo let me know.
A research article by Siarl Ferdinand published online last year provides some intriguing results of a survey into attitudes towards the revived Cornish language. The good news for the revivalists is that there was a broadly positive view of Cornish, with a majority of respondents declaring it was either ‘interesting’ or not being bothered either way. Meanwhile, a sizeable minority – around one in four – of non-learners expressed an interest in learning some Cornish.
The bad news is that a considerable minority – between a third and a half of the respondents – thought that supporting Cornish is a waste of resources. This group does not want it to be supported by the authorities or to appear on street signs (other than in placenames).
The survey also found that only one in five of the Cornish ‘speakers’ who completed the survey defined themselves as ‘fluent’. As many as 60% of the learners admitted that they couldn’t even hold a simple conversation in Cornish. With approximately 50 fluent speakers in Cornwall, there’s a fairly long way to go to achieve the Cornish Language Strategy’s rather ambitious aim of making Cornish a ‘community language’.
Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the research also discovered quite a stark contrast in attitudes between those non-learners who identified as Cornish and those who did not. The latter group was much more hostile to official support for the language or its introduction into schools and expressed far less desire to learn it. Given the current high level of population growth and in-migration being encouraged by local and central government, the attitudes of in-migrants is set to be the key for the future of the Cornish language.
In the war of the five nations in the 1640s we last saw the Cornish army triumphant at the Battle of Stamford Hill at Stratton. Filled with enthusiasm, the army of 3,000 foot soldiers and 800 horsemen, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, advanced across the Tamar. They made contact with the Royalist army of Prince Maurice at Chard in early June, adding another 1,000 troops but a greater number – 1,500 – of cavalry.
By early July, the Royalist army had reached Bath, where it confronted Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarian force. The Parliamentarians established themselves at Lansdown, a high plateau north of the city and dug in. Though outnumbered by the Royalists, they held the commanding position, defended by earthworks and cannon.
On July 5th the two armies were glowering at each other across an intervening valley. Waller rather impetuously decided to send half his cavalry to attack. They were repulsed by the Cornish army, which then began to advance cautiously across the lower ground towards the Parliamentarian positions on the hill. ‘Believing no man their equal’, the Cornish force, led by Bevil Grenville, repeated the feat of Stratton, fighting their way up the hill in the face of considerable resistance. Around 200 foot soldiers were killed and another 300 wounded before they finally gained the crest.
Once there they held, with pikemen fighting off five separate charges of Parliamentarian cavalry determined to dislodge them. Finally, Waller’s army abandoned the field to the Royalists. However, in the Parliamentarian counter-attacks, Bevil Grenville was mortally wounded. While technically a victory, the losses sustained by the Cornish army, the death of their inspired leader and an unfortunate accident the following day when an ammunition cart blew up, blinding Hopton, made this victory a hollow one.
Pursuing the Royalists to Devizes in Wiltshire, Waller and his Parliamentarians were eventually soundly beaten at Roundway Down just outside the town on July 13th. The Royalist cavalry won the day, with the Cornish, penned up in Devizes, only involved later, when the Parliamentarians were already routed.
The Cornish army then advanced to Bristol, where they joined a far bigger force led by Prince Rupert. Well outnumbering the city’s defenders, the Royalist leaders debated whether to invest it and starve it into submission or storm the city walls. The decision was made not to wait. This reckless choice has been blamed on the impatience of Prince Rupert. However, the Cornish foot soldiers were equally eager to attack, pre-empting the assault on July 26th by going into action before the signal came.
Exposed to heavy gunfire from the defenders, they were unable to cross the ditch and reach the walls at Temple Gate to the south of Bristol. Terrible losses ensued during the three hours during which repeated futile assaults were made. Another 300 Cornish soldiers were killed, including two of their leaders, Sir Nicholas Slanning and Colonel John Trevanion.
While Bristol eventually fell to the Royalists that same day, for the Cornish enough was enough. Having sustained major losses at Lansdown and Bristol the Cornish became mutinous and refused to advance further east. They were detached and sent back west to deal with the isolated Parliamentarian towns holding out in Devon and Dorset. Effectively, this was the end of the Cornish army as a coherent fighting unit.
Gone the four wheels of Charles’ wain,
Grenville, Godolphin, Trevanion, Slanning slain’