Corruption in a Cornish borough

The following is an extract from Chapter 11 (The Borough) of The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820.

The Reverend Richard Gurney, Vicar of Cuby, was at the centre of Tregony’s borough politics throughout the Poldark years. In 1792 he had been implicated in encouraging ‘mob uproar’. Three effigies representing gentlemen of Tregony who opposed the Reverend’s party were carried through the borough and back to his house. His ‘lady appeared with a brandy bottle and wine glass in her hand, and in the presence of her husband distributed the contents of it to the mob, and [the Reverend] and his lady appeared extremely pleased with what they had done’.

Later, in 1803, hot feelings between different parties at Tregony were still apparent. In that year Gurney brought a prosecution against five residents that reached the King’s Bench in London. He claimed the accused had ‘erected on a vacant piece of ground opposite to Mr Gurney’s house an effigy, meaning to represent the prosecutor, and that these people had committed several acts of violence, had broken some of Mr Gurney’s windows and had violently assaulted the peace officers.’ However, his case was dismissed by the judge because of his previous behaviour. In 1817 Gurney came to the notice of Court of King’s Bench yet again. This time the court had moved for information against Gurney, who was a magistrate, as well as a fellow magistrate, William Moorman. The two of them had been accused of refusing to licence an inn (the Queen’s Head) from corrupt motives, due to their dislike of the Earl of Darlington, who was trying to increase his influence in the borough. Insufficient grounds were found to prosecute Gurney although moves were made against Moorman.

A quieter Tregony in more recent times

There was a postscript to this a year or so later. A letter had been published in the West Briton in 1817 alleging that the vice warden of the Devon Stannary Court had been removed ‘in order to make room for Mr R.Gurney, son of the Reverend R. Gurney of electioneering notoriety’. Not content with the income from ‘two considerable benefices’, the correspondent, writing under the pseudonym ‘an enemy to corruption’, claimed the Gurneys had obtained a promise that the salary for the vice warden post would be increased eight-fold. The Gurneys then brought a prosecution for criminal libel against the author of the letter. The case was heard at the Bodmin summer assizes of 1818. What created extra interest was the revelation that the author of the letter was a woman, Mary Anne Tucker of Plymouth. Mary, the sister of a Plymouth solicitor, spurned legal representation and forcibly defended herself. ‘I could mention many anecdotes’, she said, ‘showing how Mr Richard Gurney and his son have profited in the school of corruption’. Despite the judge expressing ‘his decided opinion that the publication … was libellous in the highest degree’ the jury found Mary Tucker not guilty.

3 thoughts on “Corruption in a Cornish borough

  1. This is interesting but it is not clear what the Rev Gurney believed in, had done, wanted to do, and why he seems to have had popular support.

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    1. All good questions. I’m not sure he believed in very much other than lining his own pockets. You’ll have to read the book for some context, Cathy.

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