Fowey: pirates and policemen

Another parish, another port. Well before Falmouth was anything more than a profitable dream in the minds of the Killigrews, Fowey, 71 nautical miles up the coast, was Cornwall’s major port. Even in the ‘age of the saints’ in post-Roman times, Fowey was well-placed. It was at the southern end of the route across Cornwall from the Camel estuary. This was supposedly trod by hordes of holy men and women, or at least their acolytes, on their way to and from Wales and Brittany.

The blockhouse on the Fowey side of the harbour entrance. Leland claimed this was built in 1457.

Just before the Black Death struck in 1349 Fowey had become not only the major port in Cornwall but one of the largest in Britain, supplying 47 ships for an assault on Calais. Fowey’s ‘gallants’ took little notice whether it was war or peacetime, happily seizing French, Breton and sometimes English ships and carrying off their goods. This could not last. In 1478 the king, Edward IV, cracked down and Fowey’s reputation as a haven for piracy was ended.

Four hundred years later the town was a lot quieter, a fitting location for the gentle short stories of the novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch, or Q, who lived in the town. Its sons and daughters also seemed a lot less adventurous than their rumbustious ancestors. Of the 11 Fowey children in the Victorian Lives database, nine have been traced, the majority still in Fowey or places not far away and none of them overseas.

By Victorian times, at least one Fowey man was still involved in law and order, but this time on the other side from those townsfolk of the 1400s. Joseph and Elizabeth Hancock lived in 1851 at Vicarage Lane in Fowey. Joseph was a gentleman’s servant and his son Peter was already employed as a groom in 1861.

However, Peter did not remain in the service of the local gentry. By 1871 he had moved to London to join the metropolitan police, lodging at the High Street in Highgate, north London. In 1878 Peter married Elizabeth Ann Symons, who had grown up at Par, near Fowey. Peter did not get promoted during his career with the police, remaining a constable until his resignation and discharge in 1895, when he received an annual pension of £51, 11 shillings (equal to almost £7,000 these days). He and his family then lived on that, supplemented by some work as a self-employed gardener, until his death in 1912 in the growing north London suburb of Edmonton.

Peter Hancock’s discharge record

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