Extending the definition of Cornish surnames

Here are two surnames that haven’t appeared in either book or blogs. The reason they didn’t feature is because they are more common in places outside Cornwall and neither reached the number of 1861 household heads required for inclusion. Yet both were present by the middle of the 1600s and have a long history in Cornwall.

The first record I can find of the name Yeats is the burial of Arthur Yates at Boscastle in north Cornwall in 1627. From there this surname, more likely to be spelt Yeats in Cornwall than Yates, had by the mid-1700s dispersed to mid and west Cornwall. Over half the Yeats households were then found in the Wadebridge district of mid-Cornwall. By 1861 however, it had ramified in Camborne, a reflection of the population expansion there caused by the mining boom. As a result, the centre of gravity of the name in Cornwall shifted even further west.

Our second name – Watts – was present in large numbers at an earlier point, as early as the 1520s. It was then usually just Watt, with just a handful of parishes in east Cornwall showing the additional -s. By 1641 that had completely turned around, with only two Watt men listed (at Feock), the other 44 being Watts. The name was quite widely dispersed in Cornwall by the 1800s. However, it’s clear that it was most concentrated on the Isles of Scilly. It was present there in numbers in the 1730s. Lack of early records prevents us from deciding whether it was taken to Scilly from Cornwall, or arrived from somewhere else, or emerged independently.

Both names have generally accepted origins. Yeats is from the word gate, given to someone living by a gate or possibly to someone who was a gatekeeper. Watts is from the popular medieval first name Wat, a short form of Walter.

Poldark: an insider’s guide?

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth in 1908 of Winston Grime, who adopted the pen-name of Winston Graham when he authored the Poldark saga. The first in a series of books –  Ross Poldark – was published in 1945. That was followed by eleven more, most written in the 1970s and 80s, with the final episode appearing in 2002, a year before his death. The saga follows the fortunes of Ross Poldark, his young wife Demelza and their children through various adventures from 1783 to 1820.

Many people probably know of Poldark only from the two TV series, the first shown in the mid-1970s and the second more recently, from 2015 to 2019. It’s fair to say the recent TV series received mixed reactions from inside Cornwall. The accents, or lack of them, the constant frenetic galloping along cliff tops, the inappropriate sets that bear little resemblance to Cornwall, have all come in for some stick. However fine the acting, the final series, which diverged wildly from the books, steadily lost credibility. More generally, the shots of the coast and the sea that apparently have to be interspersed every few minutes is viewed by some as reinforcing  stock touristic stereotypes of Cornwall which encourage the process whereby Cornish Cornwall is being inextricably eroded.

Where’s that bleddy Truro turning to??

That said, the books are an intriguing blend of historical fact and fiction. Graham collected various events of the late 1700s and early 1800s and peppered his books with them. Mines did boom and then bust; wrecking did happen (although not caused deliberately); there were food riots; a failed expedition in support of Royalists in Brittany did take place; Methodist revivals periodically shook up Cornish souls.

In addition, real contemporary historical figures also make their entry in the books, notably Francis Basset of Tehidy and George Boscawen (Viscount Falmouth) of Tregothnan. These really were locked in an often bitter struggle over parliamentary seats and mineral rights. Moreover, while not real, the Warleggans are a recognisable amalgam of the ‘hard men’ of actual merchant dynasties that rode to riches on the back of the copper boom of the later 1700s.

Indeed, Cornwall between 1783 and 1820 was in the throes of three revolutions. An economic revolution saw west Cornwall pioneer steam engine technology. A political revolution was in the air as radicals began to demand reform and the end of ‘Old Corruption’. A cultural revolution was sweeping the land as Methodism became the religion of the mass of the people. In many ways this was Cornwall’s second golden age.

There are many books on this period of our past. However, a lot of them specialise in particular facets, economic or political, mining or maritime. What’s needed is an insiders’ guide to Poldark’s Cornwall to sort fact from fiction, or at least add some facts to fiction. So I’ve started to write one. It’s early days – only 6,000 words of the first draft completed and around 75,000 to go. But here’s a warning. If there are gaps in these blogs over the next few months it probably means I’m busy on the book. In the meantime, I’ll keep you informed of progress.

The martyrs of ’97 and the Cornish rising

That’s 1497 of course. On this day in that year the two leaders of the Cornish rising met their grisly end. Michael Angove, a blacksmith from St Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London. They suffered this fate for what they had considered was the perfectly reasonable act of marching to London to complain to the king about their grievances. Unfortunately, the Government viewed it otherwise, as a treasonable act of rebellion against Henry VII’s rule. The king had intended to send their body parts back to Cornwall to be put on public display in the main towns. But Cornwall in the summer of 1497 was reported to be ‘unquiet and boiling’ so he decided this wasn’t exactly the wisest course of action.

The rising had been triggered by anger at government demands for taxes to fight a far-off war with the Scots. This was compounded by popular disaffection over the suspension of stannary rights in 1496. All that may have been coupled with residual, lingering Yorkist resentment at the Tudor takeover in 1485. The insurgents struck out across southern England, heading for London to put the complaints of the commons in front of the monarch. They aimed for Kent, hoping to gain support there.

They were disappointed in that, finding the Kentishmen not half as rebellious as they were made out to be. Nonetheless, the complainants had received considerable sympathy on their long march east. The contemporary account, the Great Chronicle of London, reported that the Cornishmen were ‘favoured’ by the people of the lands they passed through, and paid well for their supplies. This source also reported the rebel force was 15,000 strong. Given that the Cornish population at this time was no more than 50-60,000, this either means well over half of all able-bodied Cornishmen were involved or that the host had picked up support in its trek across southern England.

Some proportion of the support that had adhered to the Cornish cause on its march east clearly melted away when it approached London and Henry’s hastily gathered royal army. It was reported that desertions had reduced it to 10,000 or fewer by the time it camped on Blackheath to the south-east of the city. There Angove and Flamank’s force was quickly defeated, with the loss of some 200 lives. Although ‘it seems odd that no peer was able to block their march – or even try to do so – before they got to London’, the rising had failed ultimately because the nobility had belatedly rallied to the king. Of course the Cornish army might have done better had they possessed better weaponry, cavalry and trained soldiers.

As he was being drawn through the streets of London Angove is supposed to have boasted that he would have ‘a fame perpetual and a name immortal’. However, by the nineteenth century the events of 1497 were largely forgotten. It was only the Cornish Revival of the twentieth century and the rise of a national consciousness that restored the place of the 1497 rising in Cornish history.

This reached its climax in 1997 with the Keskerdh Kernow – a hike to London that revisited the route taken by the insurgents of 1497. By this time the actual events of 500 years earlier had been reimagined as the rising took its place as a romanticised icon of national rebellion. A brave Cornish-speaking army was crossing the border into England, St Piran flags fluttering furiously in the breeze.

Liskeard’s great church bells controversy

In the mid-1860s a new vicar – the Reverend F.S.Cook – took up residence at Liskeard in east Cornwall. He was disturbed to find that it was a custom in the town to ring the church bells to announce any interesting event, such as local election victories or successful law suits. The vicar did not take kindly to such indiscriminate secular bell ringing.

In November 1866 therefore, when town councillors made their usual approach requesting that the bells be rung during the annual mayor-choosing, they were firmly rebuffed. The Reverend Cook, annoyed that it was ‘only necessary that a man should have a sovereign to spare to be able to gratify his inclination to have the bells rung’, told the council that in future the church bells would be reserved for marking religious occasions and church services only.

Some councillors were outraged by what they perceived as an attack on their customs and independence. None more so than William Murray, an irascible fifty-year old auctioneer and spokesman for the drink interest, who had seen off a slate of pro-temperance candidates in the recent borough elections. His reply to the vicar was blunt: ‘I think that for a gentleman who is a stranger to come into our town … and do as he would in a small fishing village, ought not to be allowed’.

‘Excited men burst open the belfry door’

Citizens were encouraged to take direct action to defend the hallowed rights and privileges of the borough. The Cornish Times reported that ‘excited men burst open the belfry door, jingled the bells to their hearts’ content and their arms aching, in spite of priest and police. Since then effigies of the vicar have been repeatedly paraded in the streets and publicly burnt, he has been ridiculed in squibs, abused in letters and hissed as he passed along; some of the malcontents have absented themselves from church’.

Once roused, popular excitement was less easy to control. Things got out of hand and two nights of ‘indecent and lawless outrage’ followed. The Cornish Times hastily reversed its initial broadly sympathetic stance. Protests were now ‘participated in only by the scum of the place, or by thoughtless youths, encouraged by a few intolerant men, whose motives are as questionable as their conduct is censorable’.

Supporters of the vicar pointed the finger at the operators ‘of the ropes and pulleys … that set Liskeard mobocracy in action … audacious conduct based upon the too well grounded belief that the town was given up to their base will and pleasure’. There was clearly more to this episode than meets the eye.

Alarmed at the mayhem that had erupted, ‘respectable’ opinion in the town quickly let the matter drop. No one was brought to court for the disturbances and discretion was exercised. It’s not clear whether the bells were indeed reserved solely for religious occasions or not thereafter. But Liskeard’s Great Church Bells Question soon faded into the mists of history.

Transhumance in Cornwall

These days we often hear the word transgender in the news. But what about transhumance? And why was it important to Cornwall? The dictionary definition of transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock from one grazing ground to another.

Let’s go back around 1,300 years to the time when transhumance was widely operating in Cornwall.  The practice involved moving animals every May from the fields around the hamlet to rough grazing on the uplands. This helped to protect the crops and hay being grown and harvested over the summer close to the farms. In October the stock was rounded up and brought back down to the home settlement.

Groups of small huts discovered on Bodmin Moor provide the physical evidence for the practice. Around two metres by four, there was ‘room for a single bed, open fire and some storage’. The huts were clustered in groups of up to ten, probably reflecting a hamlet, with the individual huts used by different households.

Bodmin Moor

From May to October, these huts were occupied by the young women who watched over the animals. But that was not their only task. They milked the cows, made butter and cheese and worked with wool. Periodically, they would have been visited by others bringing supplies and taking away the dairy produce. Meanwhile, men and older women remained in the home hamlet to harvest the crops, care for the children and the vulnerable and generally maintain their households.

This system involved an estimated minimum 1,000 households on Bodmin Moor alone. It was in place by the late 600s at least from the evidence of placenames such as havos (or summer-land). It survived into the late 700s but began to disappear in the early 800s.

Peter Herring, the expert on Cornish transhumance, tells us this was not merely of interest economically. He suggests its extent ‘suggests a stable and peaceful rural society [and] a sophisticated farming practice’. The annual round-ups on the open moors and downlands ‘would have required administration and authority’ at some level above the hamlet.

Moreover, the cycle of transhumance was marked by the festivals of Beltain and Samhain, bringing communities together and marking the passage of the seasons. Meanwhile, for the young women, time spent on the uplands acted as a rite of passage and provided a spell of independence. In all, Peter Herring concludes that ‘many, maybe all, Cornish hamlets seem to have practiced transhumance in the early medieval period; it was, perhaps, a fundamental part of being Cornish’.

For the context of transhumance see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age

John Spargo; a forgotten Cornishman

John Spargo was born at Longdowns, a few miles north-west of Penryn, in 1876. He became a stonecutter, working at one of the quarries that had made the district the centre of the Cornish granite industry from the 1840s. He also became a Wesleyan Methodist lay preacher.

So far, so typical. But the young John came across England for All, a socialist polemic penned by Henry Hyndman, founder in 1881 of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). John was converted, although his socialism combined a distinctively Christian humanitarianism with an intellectual commitment to ‘scientific’ marxism.

In 1895 he moved to Barry in South Wales. There, he became active in the local branch of the SDF and the Barry Trades and Labour Council. In spring 1898 the South Wales valleys were convulsed by a bitter coal miners’ strike for higher pay. This dragged on for six months and was ultimately unsuccessful. During it, John threw himself into writing and speaking in support of the miners, though remaining sceptical about their prospects of winning, preferring ‘political action’ to strikes.

In 1900 he helped Keir Hardie in his victorious campaign to get elected as a Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and participated in the meetings that led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Soon he was invited to lecture in the States, where he arrived with his wife Prudence in February 1901. Later that same year, John became a founder member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its National Committee from 1909.

His early days in New York proved difficult. The lecture invitations failed to materialise, forcing John to earn his dollars by, at one stage, shovelling snow. Following the death of his first wife and a child from tuberculosis, he eventually made his name as a lecturer and a ‘muckraking’ writer. Although largely self-taught, he wrote books condemning child factory labour and calling for action on behalf of underprivileged children. He also produced an acclaimed biography of Karl Marx in 1908.

John Spargo in 1919

Around 1912 John moved with his second wife, Amelia, and their daughter to Vermont. At odds with the syndicalism and direct action associated with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, John was by now firmly linked to the right wing of the Socialist Party. However, he broke with the party in 1917 when it opposed American entry into the War.

In 1924 he became a Republican and in the 1930s denounced Roosevelt’s New Deal as a threat to constitutional government and an attack on individual liberty. By 1964 a supporter of Goldwater’s Presidential bid, he ended up politically far distant from his earlier socialist days. Nonetheless, a streak of stubborn individualism might be traced as a constant from his Cornish roots.

He died in 1966, having also become an expert on the local history of Vermont and on ceramics. He even wrote a booklet on his family name – Spargo – which comes from an apposite placename meaning a thorn hedge.

Covid-19 and Cornwall: the facts

A lot of often conflicting nonsense has appeared on both social media and the ‘mainstream’ media about how far this virus is present in Cornwall or the number of cases and deaths. Let’s look at what we know.

By the end of May the ONS had recorded 200 deaths in Cornwall where Covid-19 was cited as a cause of death or a contributory factor.

A map of those deaths shows a spread across the land with only a few places – Newlyn East and Grampound Road, Padstow, St Breward, Tintagel and Torpoint and the Rame peninsula – escaping with no mortalities. More generally, the more rural north of Cornwall looks to have best survived the outbreak. Other rural areas, for example the Lizard or mid-Cornwall between St Columb and Lostwithiel – have also seen relatively few victims. However, rurality has not guaranteed immunity. The rural Probus and Roseland has recorded the highest number of deaths, while the district east of the Fowey River has also suffered more than average.

That rurality is no magic bullet is confirmed by this map of detected cases per head across the UK.

Cases of Covid-19 per 100k population

Areas that are as rural, if not more so, than Cornwall such as East Anglia, North Yorkshire or Powys in Wales have seen twice as many detected cases. Meanwhile, Cumbria has had four times the Cornish number. A marginal location also seems important. Those regions with a lower number of cases per resident than Cornwall are Dorset and rural Devon in England, Ceredigion in Wales, the Highlands in Scotland and Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland.

Clearly the number of cases reported is only the tip of the iceberg. Currently the total of detected cases in Cornwall is running at 591. Given an assumed mortality rate of somewhere between 1 and 10% we should expect the real figure, based on 200 deaths, to be more like 2,000 to 20,000! Either the proportion detected is very low or we have an unusual and shockingly high mortality rate.

Overall however, Cornwall has fared relatively well. ‘Well’ in the context of the UK is of course pretty bad when compared to most of the rest of the world. Two hundred early and unexpected deaths are hardly cause for congratulation.

Moreover, before becoming too complacent we might note the final piece of evidence – the seven-day rolling average of detected cases in Cornwall.

For what it’s worth, this suggests that after a steady fall from early May, there was a small but significant jump in the number of cases in the first week of June.

The virus is still out there, so as the tourist sector eagerly gears up to resume its operations it’s best to remain vigilant and take care.

Maps for the surnames Guy and Ivey

Many thanks to the various readers who have requested information on surnames. Only four of the 18 requests received were not included in The Surnames of Cornwall. These four have now been covered in the last two surname blogs here and here.

The other requests have not been forgotten. I will place a previously unpublished distribution map for each of these, two at a time.

Here are the first two. You can find maps of these in 1861 for comparison here.

In the meantime, if you want information on a surname that hasn’t appeared in my book or been a subject of a previous blog do let me know.