All work and no play? A Bible Christian hymn for children

Below are some verses from the Child’s Hymn Book, circulating in the early 1830s in Cornwall. It urges the reader to work and study, holding out an unattractive alternative if little noses weren’t kept close to the grindstone. The book was published at Shebbear, in north Devon. It may have originated in the Bible Christians’ Prospect College, established in 1829 and later known as Shebbear College. The Bible Christians had been founded in 1815 and were a revivalist Methodist sect that gained its main following in rural areas in Cornwall and north Devon previously untouched by Wesleyan Methodism.

Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain
You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again,
As the door on its hinges, so he, on his bed
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.
A little more sleep and a little more slumber,
Thus he wastes half his days, and hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.
I passed by his garden, and saw the wild briar,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher,
The clothes that hung on him are turning to rags,
And his money still wastes, till he starves or he begs.
I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind,
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart “Here’s a lesson for me
This man’s put a picture of what I might be
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.
William O’Bryan, founder of the Bible Christians

Tre- surnames: an overview

There are around 1,300 places in Cornwall whose names contain the element tre, meaning a farmstead, hamlet or more generally a settlement. It is no surprise therefore, to find many surnames derived from those placenames. In 1861 there were around 125 separate Tre- surnames, amounting to 2.9% of the Cornish population. Over the centuries no doubt, some Tre- surnames have become extinct, others fallen together with more numerous similar names, while a proportion of places beginning with the element tre did not give rise to a surname.

Sometimes one place could give rise to more than one surname. This is so in the case of Trewern, the final surname on my list of rarer Cornish tre- names. There is a place of this name in Cornwall, a farm at Madron, near present-day Penzance. This was originally Treyouran, or Uren’s farm, Uren or Urien being a common Brittonic Celtic first name. It was still a three-syllable name in the early sixteenth century when a Thomas Treowran was living in the neighbouring parish of Sancreed.

Over time, the three-syllable Treuren became the two-syllable name Truran and moved eastwards (see my The Surnames of Cornwall and the map here). However, some Treurens became, like the placename, Trewern, a Gabriel Trewern being baptised at Sancreed in 1634. Unlike Truran, five of the six Trewern families were still living in West Penwith in 1861, with one to the east at Stithians.

This westerly orientation of the name Trewern reflects the more general geography of Tre- surnames. All those areas with a higher than average proportion of Tre-surnames in 1861 were found west of Bodmin. This repeats the earlier pattern found in 1641. Then, a very similar 2.7% of adult men bore Tre- surnames. If anything, industrialisation and population growth in the west had reinforced this earlier pattern. The migration of miners to the Liskeard and Callington districts in the early 1800s did not fundamentally change the pattern.

It remains to be explained, given that Tre- placenames were scattered fairly evenly across Cornwall, why the surnames derived from them more likely to be found in west than east Cornwall. This must be related to the timing of surname formation and the cultural differences between English-speaking and Cornish-speaking communities. In the latter, there was a greater tendency to retain or coin surnames based on places. But was this just a result of the different, later timing of surname formation in the west, or something more basic?

Helston’s Furry Day and Hal-an-Tow

Another iconic Cornish festival day. Another sad silence. Although traditional furry dances were held in several places across Cornwall within living memory – I remember participating at Liskeard – Helston is now regarded as the home of the furry.

The event shares some aspects with Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss – the celebration of spring, traditional songs, decorating the town with greenery and spring flowers. However, Helston’s Furry Day seems more divided by social class than Padstow’s May Day. In the nineteenth century, newspaper accounts recorded the formal midday dance and a ball in the evening to which the ‘beauty and fashion of the surrounding towns and neighbourhood’ flocked. At the same time there were country dances elsewhere for ‘tradespeople’, while in the morning more boisterous and unruly elements indulged in the hal-an-tow.

From an early point the day pulled in onlookers from a wide area. ‘The town was crowded with strangers’ in 1825. In 1832 a constant succession of arrivals from Truro, Falmouth, Penzance, Penryn and Redruth was noted, the town being ‘filled with visitors’ by 1 pm, while the beds at all the inns had been booked solid for two weeks prior to the day in 1843.

As at Padstow the day also attracted some criticism from evangelical reformers. In 1837 this surfaced in a letter condemning ‘this heathenish festival’ which ‘every reflecting and serious-minded person must unhesitatingly condemn’. Although by 1882 it was felt that ’there are some symptoms of the ancient institution being on the wane’, the hopes of this correspondent that ‘the increasing influence of the Christian principle and feeling, will cause the entire abandonment ‘ of the festival were to be dashed.

As usual it was the more plebeian and unruly custom of the hal-an-tow that was almost stamped out, before being resuscitated in a bowdlerised version by the Old Cornwall Society in the 1930s. In its original form, this involved an early morning excursion into the countryside, a mobile mummers’ play, demands for cash, plus lots of noise and drinking. References in the first line of the hal-an-tow song to Robin Hood and Little John reinforced the inversion and opposition to authority that it symbolised. In 1857 for example the procession of a mock mayor ‘caused much amusement’, while being frowned on by the real mayor.

The post-modern Cornishised version of the Hal-an-tow

We are told that the hal-an-tow fell into disrepute and decay around 1865 but the accounts in the West Briton paint a more complex and drawn-out picture of its decline. We must also allow for that paper’s somewhat condescending and occasionally condemnatory tone in its reports of this aspect of Furry Day.

At first the hal-an-tow was ignored, although in 1850 it was reported that there was no 5 am party ‘as heretofore to go into the country a-maying’. In 1855 the paper noted with some satisfaction that there had been no hal-an-tow, which ‘time out of mind has been continued, but from the manner in which it has lately been conducted it was little other than a prescriptive nuisance’. The same thing was said a year later in 1856. ‘The greater number of the old men who formed the ‘Hal-an-tow’ are dead, and for the first time within the memory of man, this curious part of the morning’s proceedings were dispensed with; it was certainly no ornament to the innocent amusements of the latter part of the day’.

Yet attempts to revive it were reported in 1861 and 1865 and in 1870 it was mentioned without comment. By 1872 the paper was noting ‘the usual hal-an-tow party’. The condemnation of the 1850s had not apparently led to its demise but It was clearly on life support. In 1874 it was stated that it had fallen ‘into great disrepute and had been discontinued almost entirely’. Note the ‘almost’ however. Four years later, while the day in general ‘has latterly been losing much of its ancient glories and showing signs of the effects of the advanced civilisation of the times … 40 boys, three men and a caparisoned pony formed the hal-an-tow and proceeded through the town in the usual fashion’.

Despite the competing attractions by this time of a bazaar and a dog and poultry show the hal-an-tow was refusing to die gracefully, periodically and stubbornly emerging out of the grave to which it was regularly consigned by ‘respectable’ society.

West Wheal Seton: a working mine of the 1870s

West Wheal Seton mine in 1877

West Wheal Seton was one of a number of mines around Camborne that were struggling to survive the mining depression of the 1870s. One after another, neighbouring mines were falling victim to low metal prices and their engines ceasing to pump. As a result, West Wheal Seton had almost closed in 1875, as it battled to keep its workings from flooding. However, it survived and the four-monthly account of December 1875 to March 1876 showed a recovering position. Sales of copper ore (from which metal the mine had made considerable profits in the 1840s and 50s), brought in £6,811 while tin ore sales amounted to £1,778. Meanwhile the outgoings included labour costs of £5,065, lord’s dues to Gustavus Basset of £487 and £2,571 in merchants’ bills.

Here are the details of those bills which provide a picture of a mine’s outlay at this time.

Williams, Portreath and Co.                                     £755      (coal)

William H.Rule, Camborne                                      £516     (coal, powder, grease, oil, tallow)

Camborne Trading Co.                                              £412     (coal, tallow, wood)

Williams, Perran Co.                                                 £134     (wood)

C.R.Gatley                                                                     £109     (candles)

J.C.Lanyon & Sons                                                      £107     (iron and steel)

Cornwall Candle Co.                                                    £90      (candles)

Harveys of Hayle                                                         £63      (pitwork, stamps, coal)

Cornwall Blasting Co.                                                  £50      (gunpowder)

John Mayne, Pool                                                         £28      (leather and tallow)

The mine relied on local capital even at this relatively late date. Of the 600 shares, 41% were held by individuals and companies in the Camborne-Redruth district and another 23% by investors in the rest of Cornwall. Just over a third of the shares – 36% – were held by non-Cornish based shareholders.

The largest shareholder was William Rule of Camborne, owning almost 20% of the shares in West Wheal Seton. As long as he could profit from his sales of merchandise to the mine he would presumably resist the mine’s closure. West Wheal Seton staggered on for another 15 years as a losing venture before the inevitable closure came in 1891 when its shareholders finally panicked and deserted the sinking ship.

The same area today

Slavery in Cornwall: the Bodmin manumissions

No-one likes to think their ancestors were slaves. These days, it’s probably much worse to imagine that our ancestors may have been slaveholders. Yet at the time of Domesday Book, in 1080, Cornwall had more than its fair share of slaves. These not only worked their lord’s land, like later serfs, but were owned outright by someone. Their owner could buy and sell them, although they had the responsibility of feeding and housing their slaves. And they could also free them.

A page with the freeing of a slave
recorded in the margin

At Bodmin, some acts of manumission, the freeing of slaves, were recorded from 939 to 1100, written in the blank pages of a gospel book originally produced in Brittany. This source lists a total of 129 freed slaves. Fully 84% of those slaves had Cornish-language names. In contrast around two thirds of the 34 slave owners had English names. This, plus the evidence of Domesday Book, was taken by Henry Jenner and other Cornish patriots to show that the English had enslaved some of the Cornish.

However, slaves, whether born into slavery, captured or made a slave as an act of punishment, were far from unknown in the other Celtic countries at that time. There is evidence for slaves in Wales and in Ireland. In the latter place female slaves and cattle were units of currency before the economy became monetized. In Brittany even peasants in the 800s were recorded as owning some slaves so it’s very likely the same occurred in its sister society in Cornwall.

Moreover, the names may not mean what they appear to mean. As early as the late 800s some Cornish landowners were adopting English language names in addition to or instead of their Cornish ones. This may have just been a fashion or it could have been a wise tactical move in view of the growing English grip on Cornwall.

Therefore, we can’t be sure that those slaveowners with English names were actually English or ethnic Cornish who had changed their names. What the manumissions do show us is that ordinary Cornish people (witnesses to the manumissions) and the slaves themselves were much more likely to retain their Cornish names as late as the Normans’ arrival. Meanwhile, landowners and the upper clergy were conversely quicker to adopt the cultural practices of their new colonial masters.

Three Cornish surname puzzles

The following three surnames are all a little puzzling.

Trevan looks like a classic trev- name, but it isn’t. There’s a place called Trevan at Probus. However, this was originally Tolvan (from tal and ban, meaning brow of a hill). That placename also occurred at Constantine, Illogan and St Hilary in west Cornwall. In those places the name remained Tolvan or Tolvaddon (a later pronunciation).

Yet, while the surname Tolvan was present at Constantine in the 1500s and 1600s it then disappeared. The spelling Trevan or Trevane eventually popped up, although not until the eighteenth century, in south-east Cornwall, between Liskeard and Saltash. It then dispersed fairly widely across east Cornwall and into Devon. It’s more likely therefore that the origin of the surname is the place called Talvans, spelt Tolvan in 1748, at Landrake near Saltash.

Trevellick is a surname associated with the isles of Scilly since at least the 1700s. But did it origjnate there? Unfortunately, early records for Scilly are sparse. But there is no placename Trevellick there. In contrast there are several Trevillicks or Trevallacks, most first spelt as Trevelek, in Cornwall, from St Keverne in the west to Tintagel in the east. The meaning is probably Eleck’s farmstead. The surname was found in mid-Cornwall and on the Lizard in the 1500s but it then vanished. Had it been taken from the Roseland or the Lizard to Scilly in the period before the mid-1600s, where, in contrast, it flourished?

The origin and meaning of Trewavas is more certain. The surname arose from placenames at Breage and Wendron in west Cornwall that mean farm of the winter-dwelling, or winter farm. The surname stayed in that district in the 1500s and early 1600s but then migrated to West Penwith. Dying out in the Carnmenellis district, it established itself mainly at Mousehole, where it grew as the fishing industry expanded in the 1700s and 1800s.

Let us all unite: May Day at Padstow

Unite and unite and let us all unite 
For summer is acome unto day

The words of the ‘Obby ‘Oss songs will not be heard this year. The ‘osses will remain in their stables and Padstow will be eerily quiet as this iconic Cornish festival comes to a temporary halt, brought low by a virus. Cheer up though! We can still remember May Day virtually, by viewing the scores of video clips and old newsreel footage available on Youtube going back to the 1930s.

The first newsreel with sound

As with similar events, it’s comforting to think that the origins of this festival lie in pagan fertility rituals lost in the mists of time, although in reality the ‘Obby ‘Oss is only securely documented from the early 1800s. However, there are strong continuities from that time – the familiar prancing ‘oss, the teasers, the parades through the town, the trance-like hypnotic rhythm of the songs. All these seem to echo through the centuries.

But look and listen closely to the video clips and you’ll notice that even Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival has changed over time. The words of the songs, the times they are sung, the clothing, masks and paraphernalia of the participants, the flags flown, the flowers picked, have all undergone subtle change.

Nonetheless, the core festivity is intact. Moreover, it survived the attentions of nineteenth century moralists and reformers committed to ‘rational recreation’. In 1844 Thomas Trevaskis, a temperance leader and Bible Christian in the district, described May Day in Padstow as ‘a scene of riot, debauchery and general licentiousness – a perfect nuisance to all the respectable inhabitants of the place’. He decided to buy off the roistering inhabitants by offering a fat bullock to be roasted annually if only they gave up their foolish ways.

The response was not exactly what Trevaskis had hoped. ‘He himself drove the bullock, the best beast in his possession, but the people refused the offer and drove him out of the town, bullock and all, while certain of them pelted him with divers missiles into the bargain!’

Concerns about the ‘unusual amount of drunkenness’ re-surfaced late in the century. At that time, some locals began a temperance ‘oss (the blue ‘oss) as a rival to the old ‘oss (or red ‘oss). Transformed after World War One into a ‘peace ‘oss’, this joined its older mate to become an accepted part of the festivities.

The crowds have also changed over time, from comprising mainly Padstonians who own the ceremony to massive hordes of gaping sightseers. Among them stroll scores of sociologists and anthropologists eager to ‘explain’ the festival. Alan Kent, in the best extended account of Cornwall’s festival culture, remarks that the ‘Obby ‘Oss is a ‘reaction to modernity’. But it was more significant as a survival of pre-modernity. As the rough and ready festivities of pre-industrial times succumbed to the reformers and religious evangelicals in the 1800s, Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss was one of the few survivors.

Its survival is due to Padstonians’ fierce commitment to their local culture in the face of condemnation from outsiders. This was helped by the town’s location on the margins of Cornwall’s industrialisation. Here, the pressures of change were less keenly felt. By the twentieth century the place of Padstow’s May Day in wider Cornish culture meant that it had become ‘too big to fail’.

Since the 1960s however, there has been a more recognisably reactive aspect. For, remarkably, Padstow is now at the cutting edge of change, of modernity, or post-modernity, in Cornwall. Some of the highest levels of second homes in Cornwall are found in the immediate vicinity, while gentrification picked up pace when it became the first centre of up-market gastro-tourism in Cornwall. In that sense, the ‘Obby ‘Oss is all about ownership, identity and belonging. It serves as a powerful remembrance of former times and a former Cornwall, reassuring us of our place in the two Cornwalls we nowadays see around us.