Sepia-toned photos of quiet nineteenth century Cornish towns and villages make us conjure up imagined memories of those peaceful days of our great-grandparents. But records of the police courts at two Cornish towns serve to qualify this nostalgic glow somewhat. The towns were St Austell in mid-Cornwall and Helston in the west. The time was November 1869. Their problems were very similar to each other and relevant to our own times, mostly revolving around the excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. These two places were not exceptional; the same or worse would be found at the other Cornish towns.
At St Austell William Tredinnick of the New Inn was fined ten shillings for permitting drunkenness in his house. This followed a case when ‘two very rough characters’ described as ‘china menders’ from Exeter, were given seven days in the local lock-up for being drunk and riotous at Tredinnick’s inn. Meanwhile, Thomas Keam of Carthew was also drunk and riotous in the town and got 14 days, while Thomas Watts, a seaman from South Wales, was found guilty of being drunk and annoying respectable people at 11 at night in the nearby village of St Stephen.
Not all the petty crime at St Austell revolved around drink. William Williams was given seven days for begging. Mary Carr was accused of stealing £12.50 (equivalent nowadays to the considerable sum of £1,500) from a farmer from St Enoder, who was in town for a fair. She was discharged and given a Bible to read by the magistrate.
Prudence Hill, a former teacher from Falmouth, was found guilty of disorderly conduct in the workhouse. A boy who had thrown stones at a train was given 12 lashes with a cane by Constable Opie at the Town Hall. This was carried out in front of a number of other boys who had been charged with stealing chestnuts from Sir C.B.G. Sawle’s property at Penrice. It was hoped it would serve as a warning to them.
Downalong at Helston two ‘most notorious’ women – Susan Pascoe and Louisa Thomas – were fighting in the streets at 1 in the morning. They then went to a brothel in Lower Road: the woman who kept it sent for the constable. It was claimed that the constable had already been called to this brothel six times that year to quell trouble. The incident was claimed to be one of a series of ‘disgraceful disturbances between drunken men and prostitutes’ in the town.
A few days earlier, Francis Basset and John Rodda, two butchers, together with Basset’s four sons and Henry Barnicoat, a miner, were fined eight shillings each for ‘unlawfully making an affray in the market house’.