St Michael Caerhays: mock-Gothic brings money problems

The next three parishes in the list share several characteristics in addition to their names. All three were small and owned virtually by a single family, examples of the ‘closed’ parish type, also seen in Cornwall at Boconnoc. All three hosted an impressive great house, home to members of the upper echelons of Cornwall’s landed gentry.

St Michael Caerhays had been in the hands of the Trevanions since before 1600. In 1801 John Bettesworth inherited the estate and added the Trevanion name to his own. Bettesworth-Trevanion then embarked on a total rebuild of the old medieval family home at Caerhays. He engaged the architect John Nash, who oversaw the completion of the work by 1810.

Unfortunately for Bettesworth-Trevanion, the cost of the rebuild had saddled him with large debts. Although this was by no means uncommon among the nineteenth century aristocracy, problems were compounded by an extravagant lifestyle. In the 1830s, things had got so dicey that Trevanion had to flee his debtors and the possibility of debtors’ prison, moving to the Continent where he died at Brussels in 1840.

Eventually, the mock-Gothic pile at Caerhays was bought by the Williams family from Gwennap. Just three generations had witnessed the meteoric rise of the Williamses, borne up by the rising tide of copper mining. By the early 1800s they had moved into smelting and banking and by mid-century had become Cornwall’s wealthiest family. Purchasing Caerhays sealed the Williamses’ ascent into the ranks of the Victorian gentry and symbolised the entry of commerce and industry into traditional landed circles.

St Michael Caerhays provides just one child for the Victorian Lives database and he died in 1874 at the relatively young age of 24 or 25. Alfred Hill’s father Thomas was renting the small 50-acre farm of Little Polgrain in the parish in 1861. Like the Williams family Thomas was clearly ambitious and was going up in the world, having been a farm labourer at neighbouring Gorran in 1851. Unfortunately, however, Alfred’s untimely death means we will never know whether he could have built on this and emulated in a minor way his new landlords.

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