Food riots, where crowds gathered to demand a supply of staple foodstuffs, reduce their price or prevent their export, became commonplace in Cornwall over the course of the 1700s. One of the most serious occurred at Truro in 1796. After this, one participant – John Hoskin, also known as ‘Wild Cat’, was hanged. Here’s an extract from Chapter 8 (The Crowd) of my The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820.
In fiction, Demelza, Verity and Andrew Blamey managed to get trapped in a riot of miners at Truro, heading for some corn warehouses. This event had its counterpart in reality in 1796 when a large crowd of miners, variously estimated as between 1,000 and 3,000, entered Truro. It’s not clear exactly what their objective was although one rioter was reported as saying he ’would as soon be killed as starved’. They were confronted by the Worcestershire Militia, then stationed in Cornwall. There had been bad blood between this militia and the miners, with a corporal of militia having been badly beaten by some miners three miles outside Truro on the road to Redruth. As the Times reported, once the Riot Act was read:
a field-piece was elevated, and fired over their (the rioters’) heads with canister shot. This at first had a good effect, and the tinners retreated; but rallied again; when Major St John addressed them with great humanity, and told them, if they did not disperse, he must be compelled to point the field-piece, and fire amongst them. The tinners not regarding his humane advice, became more riotous, when the Worcestershire Militia advanced, with great vivacity, and notwithstanding showers of brickbats and stones hurled upon them, they made a brisk charge with fixed bayonets, and put the motley group to the rout.
During this riot, ten people were arrested. Seven of them were miners, four from the nearby parishes of Kenwyn and Kea, two from Redruth and one from Crowan. There was also a shoemaker and a farmer from Redruth, whose surnames suggest they may have been brothers. The ten also included one woman – Elizabeth Bray. Although her residence was not identified, her presence among those arrested suggest the crowd was a little more diverse than the term ‘tinners’ might suggest and would have included some women as well as men who were not miners.
General support for the food rioters from the community is also indicated by a letter from the commanding officer of the Worcestershire Militia to the Home Office a month or so later. He had been asked to accompany local magistrates to arrest some ‘ringleaders’. He responded that ‘it seems that every individual in the mining area is involved in the riots and it is unsafe for any civil power to venture alone without the military. Rioters can only be taken at dead of night, as during the day they hide in the mines’. Although the riots of 1796 were not prolonged, the authorities were sufficiently alarmed to call for regular troops to be sent to Helston, Truro and Redruth.
Truro’s Boscawen Street in 1831 after Middle Row was demolished in the 1790s when the street took on its present broad aspect.