St Stephen in Brannel: a million-selling author

In earlier times, inland parishes such as St Stephen in Brannel in mid-Cornwall were places where the fiercely independent tinner-farmers of Cornwall flourished. This class had energetically enclosed the downs, carved out their smallholdings and built their cottages. However, from the early nineteenth century their way of life was being progressively undermined by the expansion of more capitalised mining concerns as well as commercial farming, which competed for the land. In St Stephen the burgeoning clay works in the eastern part of the parish brought with them greater dependence on wage labour as well as physical obliteration of the former smallholdings.

However, in the lower part of the parish the old ways clung on and families could still be found who combined mine work with small-scale farming. In the hamlet of Terras one of these was the household of James and Eliza Hocking and their seven children. The bald census entries in 1851 and 1861 merely enumerated James as a ‘miner’. But in addition to mining, where he advanced to become a mine captain, he had built his cottage, cleared away the gorse and rocks and planted an orchard. When the lease on his holding expired James moved a few hundred yards south and started over again. Here he built another cottage and farm buildings and took in land, only to see all his hard work go to waste yet again as the landlord evicted him when his three-life lease ran out.

James and his eldest son spent some time in California in the 1860s. James soon returned to his smallholding although his two eldest boys both ended up in North America (along with a quarter of the 25 St Stephen survivors in our database). While later visiting the US, James’ third son Silas, who features in the database, did not emigrate. Instead, he became one of Victorian Britain’s most popular novelists, selling over a million copies of his book Her Benny, published in 1879.

Silas Hocking around 60 years of age

Coming from a staunchly Bible Christian background, Silas had shown an early aptitude for reading, and not merely religious texts. His autobiography lists an impressive number of authors read, including Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Dickens, Fennimore Cooper, Goldsmith, Byron and Milton – and all before he was 16. Although he began training as a mining surveyor, a local Methodist minister persuaded him to become a minister for the United Methodist Free Church, a somewhat more democratic offshoot from Wesleyan Methodism.

Benny mourns for Nelly. An illustration from the 1879 edition of Her Benny

Silas then served in circuits around England and Wales – first at Pontypool, then Lincolnshire, followed by Liverpool, Burnley, Manchester and Southport. After giving up his preaching career in the 1890s Silas moved with his wife and family to London, where he concentrated on his writing. His novel Her Benny was based on his experiences in inner-city Liverpool. The ten-year old Benny of the title is a waif from the Liverpool slums. His mother dead and father a vicious drunk, Benny and his sickly and frail sister Nelly survive by running errands and making matches. When Nelly dies Benny is distraught and threatens to go off the rails. But after many disasters offset by fortunate coincidences and help from kindly characters, Benny succeeds in leading a morally upright life and gets rich, or at least comfortably off, into the bargain.

The novel may well be too full of timely coincidences and chance meetings to be convincing and too explicitly religious for modern tastes. Yet its sentimental sympathy for the poor and rags to riches message was perfect for the respectable Victorian readers who devoured it in their droves. Silas followed up the success of Her Benny with an astonishing output of 100 other published novels before his death in 1935. Even more remarkably his younger brother Joseph also had 100 novels published between 1887 and 1936 while his sister Salome wrote nine published novels.

For more on this talented Cornish family see Pulp Methodism (2002) by the late Alan Kent, who himself grew up in the same small district of mid-Cornwall as did the talented Hockings.

1911 census entry for Silas Hocking and family

3 thoughts on “St Stephen in Brannel: a million-selling author

  1. My Crowle family were associated with this Parish during the 18th century but in the 19th century, my great-great grandfather, born in 1806, moved to Devon and later to Australia in 1849. There are also Hockings in my family.


  2. As ever what a thrilling account, and I cannot imagine writing 100 novels! No writer’s block there. And what a talented family. It must have been so incredibly exciting to be among the first literate generation – and to sense that power, too.


  3. My Nicholls family lived in St Stephen’s. My great grandfather died leaving his wife with many children and pregnant. He and some of the boys worked in the mines. Two boys went to the USA. Then the rest moved around England to work. Great grandmother moved to Plymouth with a daughter and died in 1945.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.