Warleggan: eccentrics and escapees

At first glance Warleggan looks to be a run of the mill farming parish in east Cornwall running up onto the south west edge of Bodmin Moor. It was spiced up in the mid-1800s by the presence of miners, who accounted for around one in five of the workforce. But the parish is a little odd. The first thing to strike a casual observer is its shape, never more than a mile in width, accompanying the Warleggan River, also known as the Bedalder, eight miles from the high moors in the north to its junction with the River Fowey. With an obscure name, Warleggan is invariably dubbed as ‘uneasy’, ‘brooding’, ‘isolated’ or ‘lonely’ and just generally weird.

This reputation has been enhanced by the presence here of the somewhat eccentric Reverend Frederick Densham, the Rector of Warleggan from 1931 to 1953. Densham was not keen on organs, Sunday schools or whist drives, which did not endear him to many, while he once unsuccessfully attempted to paint the interior of his church in medieval colours. Various stories, usually concocted or exaggerated, accrued around the reclusive rector, although local opinion seems not to have been entirely negative. Densham even became the subject of a film, A Congregation of Ghosts (2009). In this production his spirit haunts a parish which is, inevitably, ‘sleepy’, with inhabitants who are, of course, ‘insular’. All of which says a lot more about the simple stereotypes resorted to by the film-makers than it does about Warleggan.

Back in the realms of reality, among our database of children born around 1850, three were found living in Warleggan in 1861. But for whatever reason none of them stayed there very long. The first was William Henry Oliver. Even as an infant William was already on the move. Born at St Winnow, east of Lostwithiel, he was actually found in the 1851 census staying with his widowed grandmother who was getting by on poor relief in St Wenn parish, to the west of Bodmin. Coincidentally, their address there was Demelza Hill. The connection with Winston Graham’s Poldark was sealed when William Henry moved in the late 1850s to another of the names Graham chose for his characters – Warleggan – to take up a job as a carter on a farm near the churchtown.

Ten years later he was on the move again, recorded as a farm servant in neighbouring St Neot. But not for long. Within a year William had exercised his charms and married his employer – the widowed Elizabeth Rowe, ten years his senior. William and Elizabeth went on to have at least six children of their own while in the 1890s moving to another farm at Trenay, two miles west of their former home at Hale.

Jane Polmear’s family moved to Warleggan around 1853 from neighbouring Cardinham. Her father was a farm labourer and the family was living near the village of Mount in 1861. Like William Oliver, Jane didn’t stay in Warleggan long. By 1871 she was back in Cardinham working as a servant on a farm. Soon after that she must have moved to the bright lights of Plymouth where she married William Vanstone, a stableman, in 1875. The couple moved in the 1880s to Torquay where William became the foreman horsekeeper for the town council.

The Bible Christian chapel at Mount, built in 1882

The final Warleggan resident of 1861- John Hancock – was a Warleggan man born and bred. His father was a shoemaker in the village of Mount but, presumably lured by higher wages, had changed direction during the 1850s and become a miner. However, he too took his family away from Warleggan to the parish of Menheniot where both he and his son John worked as lead miners. It’s not clear what happened to John Hancock when the local mines shut down in the depressed 1870s and 80s. He may have been the widowed John Hancock who was working as a gas stoker in Cramlington, Northumberland in 1891, lodging with a William Hancock (born in Menheniot) and his family and possibly a relative. Wherever he was, he was well away from Warleggan.

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