In November 1805 the Times reported that ‘the Marquis and Marchioness of Bute are arrived at Boconnoc, where they propose passing the winter; the mild air of Cornwall having been recommended by her ladyship’s physicians, as best adapted for the imperfect state of her health’. Within Cornwall, Mount’s Bay gained a reputation as the ideal place for convalescence when the familiar bolthole of the south of France was denied by the dastardly Napoleon. In 1805 the first guide to the Penzance area was published, aimed at visitors.
Once Napoleon was safely vanquished the journey to the Med once again became possible and Mount’s Bay quickly lost a lot of its allure. Cornwall was too far from the big cities to profit from the re-emergence of public holidays and half-day Saturday working that brought day-trippers to the seaside from the 1870s. Nobody had to worry about tourism and its consequences until the 1890s.
Before that Sylvanus Trevail had begun to sense the potential of catering to visitors brought by the railway. Trevail’s Great Western Hotel at Newquay, completed in 1879, was the first in a string of hotels designed to appeal to renewed interest in Cornwall as a winter resort for the middle classes. His Cornish Hotels Company was set up in 1890 to tap that market.
Things were not all smooth sailing, however. Riots broke out in Newquay in 1897 when building began on the Headland Hotel. This threatened the long-held, local customary use of the clifftop as grazing land and space to dry fishermen’s nets. Later, suffering from depression, Trevail took his gun and blew his brains out in a spectacular suicide in a lavatory of a Great Western train.
Cornwall’s elite was equally confused and uncertain about the possible costs and benefits of tourism. In 1899 Arthur Quiller-Couch launched a debate in his Cornish Magazine on ‘How to develop Cornwall as a holiday resort’. Summing it up, Q confessed to being torn. Privately he ‘hated a crowd’. However, Cornish mining had just gone through what many had feared was its terminal crisis in 1895/96 when tin prices plummeted. Q saw ‘Cornwall impoverished by the evil days on which mining and (to a lesser degree) agriculture have fallen … able-bodied sons forced to emigrate by the thousand … the ruined engine house, the roofless cottage, the cold hearthstone’. Catering seemed an inevitable alternative.
Yet he also, with considerable prescience, warned that ‘a people which lays itself out to exploit the stranger and the tourist runs an appreciable risk of deterioration in … independence’. He would ‘rather be poor myself than subservient’ but reluctantly accepted the necessity for a catering sector as long as it had ‘decent respect for our country and its past’.
By 1908, with mining looking up again, Q had changed his mind and was regretting his earlier too-hasty endorsement of tourism. By then it was too late, as the Great Western Railway had invented the Cornish Riviera in 1904. This set Cornwall onto a path towards its current status as a summer resort designed to satisfy our craving for hedonism, idleness and escapism.