Why are there so many Williamses in Cornwall?

Williams was (and probably still is) the most frequently occurring surname in Cornwall. The last blog looked at an exceptional family with this name. This one reviews the more common Williamses. Williams, like Thomas, Richards, Harris and others, is relatively common in Cornwall (as in Wales) because hereditary surnames were sometimes adopted later, when the norm was to base them on a first name, eventually adding an -s. The surname Williams did NOT come from Wales; the frequency of the surname in Cornwall is the result of a similar process as in Wales.

In the Protestation returns of 1641 we find the name Williams or William in most parishes across Cornwall. But, as the Cornish-speaking communities often adopted hereditary surnames up to 200 years after English-speaking east Cornwall, we should expect to find that the proportions of Williamses were far higher in the west. And they were. The highest incidence was at St Buryan, as far west as you can go. There, almost seven per cent of adult men had the surname William or Williams. In most of Cornwall east of Bodmin it was just one per cent and usually far lower.

From merchanting to gardening: the Williams dynasty of Caerhays

The history of the Williams family of Caerhays in mid-Cornwall and Scorrier, Burncoose and Tregullow near Redruth is the story of Cornwall writ small. Emerging from obscurity in the later 1600s in the country between Redruth and Penryn, the family became Cornwall’s most successful mine managers and investors during the 1700s. It was John Williams (1685-1761) who settled at Burncoose, a few miles south of Redruth, around 1715. From that base ‘with untiring industry and judgment … he realised no inconsiderable fortune’, managing many of the booming copper mines of the Gwennap district and being the initiator of the ‘County Adit’, the great drainage system of the district, commenced in the 1740s.

John’s managerial talents were shared by his grandson, another John (1753-1841), who was known as ‘Old John’ to differentiate him from his eldest son, who was of course called John. Old John and his son expanded into banking. They were accepted, after some hesitation, into the circles of Cornwall’s traditional landed class who had founded Cornwall’s first banks in the late 1700s. ‘In the year 1778, with the view to being in the immediate vicinity of the several important mines he was then superintending, he enclosed and planted Scorrier, and erected the house in which he subsequently resided’. As many as a quarter of Cornwall’s copper mines, including the majority of its most productive ones, were managed at some point by one or other of the Williamses.

In 1822 the partnership of Williams, Foster and Company was set up as the family moved into copper smelting in south Wales. By this time their commercial interests stretched to London and Liverpool and overseas to Ireland. The move into smelting proved a lucrative one. Old John’s grandson was John Michael Williams (1813-80), who succeeded to the majority of the sprawling family enterprise in 1858 on the death of his father. John Michael was described towards the end of the 1800s as having been ‘probably the most wealthy man in Cornwall’.

The source of wealth: the central mining district looking east from Dolcoath at the end of the 1800s

In 1854 the Williamses had bought Caerhays ‘Castle’ near St Austell and made the transition away from the original source of their wealth. In the meantime, in the 1830s, Old John had already left Scorrier for an estate he owned at Calstock in east Cornwall. This followed his secret marriage, at the age of 79, to a young woman of 25, following the death of his wife of 56 years. The ensuing scandal and family squabble led to his hurried retirement. Caerhays had been redesigned in 1805-07 but the building work had dragged on for decades and eventually bankrupted the owners, the Trevanions. They sold out to Michael Williams. Old lineage had been ousted by new money, which soon displayed its power over the landscape by cutting down an inconvenient hill in order to provide an uninterrupted sea view from their new property.

It was John Charles Williams (1861-1939) in the next generation who made the final move from mining to gardening. He funded the cost of plant-hunting forays into central Asia and built up a huge collection of rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. These now make Caerhays an unmissable tourist attraction in spring. From mining and entrepreneurship to garden tourism and holiday homes – Cornwall’s history in miniature.

Cuthbert Mayne

The trial of Cuthbert Mayne began on September 23rd 1577. Mayne had trained as a Catholic priest and came to Cornwall in 1575. At Golden, near Probus, he found a place in the house of Francis Tregian. The Tregians were originally tin merchants and shipowners in Truro and had acquired the estate at Golden through marriage. Marriage links also forged an alliance with the influential Arundell family of Lanherne.

Both the Arundells and the Tregians were prominent Catholic families. The Arundells had kept their heads down during the 1549 rising and afterwards. On Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, the laws against those refusing to attend the Church of England, taking mass and generally being Catholics were re-imposed. But leniency was the name of the game and the Arundells and Tregians prospered. For a time.

However, in 1570 Pope Pius V decided to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. Cornish families like the Arundells and Tregians now faced a dilemma. Did they support their monarch and give up their religion or stick with their religion and follow the pope? The authorities began to monitor their activities more closely as tensions rose between England and Catholic Spain. Religious differences also provided an opportunity for their opponents. A.L. Rowse argued that Richard Grenville in particular, ‘hot-tempered, determined, energetic, harsh’, was out for revenge against Tregian for the latter’s role in curbing privateering and because of personal jealousy. In the summer of 1577 Grenville, now Sheriff, descended on Golden with other magistrates and up to 100 men. Cuthbert Mayne and Francis Tregian were taken.

Mayne was accused and found guilty of high treason for his loyalty to the pope. In November of 1577 he was executed at the marketplace in the centre of Launceston. As a traitor he was hanged, before being drawn and quartered. Some claimed that he was cut down from the gibbet before he was unconscious, his head striking the scaffold and losing an eye on the way down. The butchery complete, his head was stuck on the castle gate at Launceston. His quarters were dispatched to decorate the towns of Barnstaple, where he had been born, Bodmin, Wadebridge and Tregony, the town nearest to Tregian’s house at Golden.

Meanwhile, Tregian stubbornly refused to renounce his religious views and come into line. For his pains he was imprisoned at first in Launceston Castle in deplorable conditions with other criminals but then in relatively comfortable lodgings in London. It was 28 years before he was released.

Do the surnames Warren, Warne and Wearne have a shared origin?

It’s generally assumed the surnames Warren and Warne have different origins. The surname dictionaries state that Warren is either from a placename in Normandy or a name for someone living near or working in a game park. Warne is supposed to be from a placename in Devon. The same sources tell us Wearne is a spelling variant of Warne, although some Cornish language enthusiasts claim it (and even Warne) comes from the Cornish word gwern, for alder trees or an alder swamp.

In my The Surnames of Cornwall I plumped for another possibility, suggesting that all of these surnames may originally have stemmed from the first name Waryn. There’s only one problem with this, however. Waren/Waryn/Warin only appeared as a first name in ten parishes in Cornwall in the tax lists of the 1520s/40s, with half of those in just one parish -Wendron – and most of the rest in neighbouring parishes. Undaunted, I note that David Postles in The Surnames of Devon states that Waren was a ‘less usual’ first name in the 1300s, but one that nonetheless gave rise to one of the more common surnames of early sixteenth century Devon – Waren or Warren. Others have claimed that the first name Waren/Waryn may have been transferred from the surname, although this seems unlikely given its early incidence in Devon.

What does the early geography of these names in Cornwall tell us, if anything? In the tax lists of the 1520s/40s we find three parishes with Warne, six with Waren, two with Waryn and three others with both Waren and Waryn. There were no examples of either Warren or Wearne in these lists. Here are the maps for all incidences of each spelling in the parish registers of the 1500s. Do they help us unravel these names? What do you think?

The Dolcoath mine disaster of 1893

On September 20th 1893 a party of timbermen were working more than 900 yards (or 800 metres) below the surface in one of the deepest parts of Dolcoath Mine strengthening a stull at the 412 fathom level. A stull was a framework of large timbers set up above and/or across a stope, a worked -out area. This was done either to support the rock, in this case granite, or to hold waste rocks or ‘deads’. This particular stull was found in a massive stope, resulting in a cavity reported as being 35 to 40 yards by 10 yards and extending in height for up to 20 yards. Above this were tons of waste rock in the worked out tin lode, one of the richest in Cornwall.

The stull at the 412 level

The Barrier Miner, a newspaper at Broken Hill, New South Wales, carried the story.

About one o’ clock a mass of rock many tons in weight fell away at one of the deepest levels of the mine, known as the 412 New East, so that the men buried alive there are only just short of half a mile from the surface. It is stated that the piece of rock in question looked only suspiciously stable and that it was deemed it advisable to replace it. [In fact, what was being renewed or strengthened were the stull timbers as one was bent and concerns had been raised. New timbers, about 24 feet long and 18 inches square, were being added to the existing stull.] Steps were taken to secure this end … A pare of men, nine in number, went down to see to the matter, and while they were performing the duty allotted to them the ground gave way, the rock fell and they were buried, being shut off from  all communciation with their fellows, as it afterwards transpired, by many fathoms of debris. Their names are Thomas Pollard, Charles White, Richard James, J.H. Jennings, W.J. Osborne, Fred Harvey, J. Davies, J. Adams.

It took rescuers almost three weeks before they could retrieve the last of the bodies.

Challenging negative stereotypes of Cornwall and its people

Believe it or not, the Cornish can occasionally be the butt of stereotypes. We’re ‘slow’, ‘backward’ or ‘living in the past’. Sometimes we collude with these, for example through the use of dreckly, turning the stereotype back onto its users in an ironic and postmodernist way. This is good for a laugh but some of the stories told about Cornwall have a more seriously negative effect. They help lock us into a peripheral and marginal status in relation to a centre that‘s perceived as more ‘dynamic’ and ‘innovative’.

How can we best challenge such negative discourses? A recent academic article by Joanie Willett offers one possibility. She argues that if the general public were made more aware of how the Cornish economy was actually performing and the skills gaps that exist, they could generate a new more positive and exciting narrative that might challenge older, demeaning myths (and newer ones).

As it is, according to this article, we’re stuck in a time warp where fishing, farming and mining are the only things ‘Cornish boys [sic] can do’. Blissfully unaware of the Cornish digital technology firms, creative industries and niche food producers who are blazing a path to post-industrial and post-carbon fuelled prosperity, the Cornish public persists in comforting and nostalgic memories of days long past. This helps reproduce the delusion that the only activity in Cornwall is tourism. If only we were more aware of the skills gaps.

This argument is interesting but is it too cynical to wonder if reversing negative stereotypes of Cornwall and the Cornish demands a little more than an informed knowledge of the local economy? Moreover, digital technologies, Cornish Camembert and the like aside, to some the Cornish economy looks more like a Ponzi scheme, driven by speculative housebuilding aided and abetted by central and local government. Estate agents then flog the extra houses as holiday homes or entice a new population duped into thinking Cornwall is a ‘lifestyle’.

To increase knowledge of the Cornish economy we first have to come to some sort of consensus as to what that economy involves. Is it zero hours contracts, low pay and a growing precariat? Or is it the gleaming new sectors breathlessly flourished and drooled over in planning documents? And what about the major employment sectors, which are actually healthcare and education? Or it might just possibly be all of these.

For a more detailed summary of this article see here.

Silas Hocking: a Cornish record-breaker

This week sees the anniversary of the death of Silas Hocking in 1935. Largely forgotten now, Silas was the first writer in the world to sell over a million copies of a novel. This was his second book, Her Benny, published in 1879. It was a sentimental tale of child poverty and rags to riches in Liverpool, an example of evangelical fiction aimed primarily at children. Silas, a United Methodist Free Church Minister, based this work on his experiences in the 1870s in Liverpool, where he had arrived from Cornwall, via south Wales and Lincolnshire.

Born in 1850 in the parish of St Stephen in Brannel, Silas went on to publish another 99 novels after Her Benny. This prodigious output was matched by his younger brother Joseph, who wrote an equal number of books, while his sister Salome added another nine to the family’s total.

Forget Jane Austen, Dickens or Hardy. In working class homes, the Hockings were the popular novelists of the Edwardian years. It was their books that were most likely to be found in Cornish homes in the early 1900s. Too overtly moralistic and sermonising for modern tastes, the siblings’ books rapidly fell out of fashion after the 1930s. While millions were printed, millions were later pulped.

For more on the lives of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking the book to read is Alan Kent’s Pulp Methodism (2002).

Legend, history and selfies at Tintagel

In its marketing strategy for Tintagel English Heritage decided to emphasise its legendary aspects and links to the Arthurian myth. The only problem with this was that there were actually no physical objects at the site on which they could anchor the legends. So they installed some in the shape of the statue of the anonymous knight and the carving of Merlin’s face.

Merlin returns

A recent academic article by Laura Hodson has evaluated what expectations people bring with them to Tintagel and how they react to the place in the light of those. It did this by subjecting to analysis just under 400 reviews on TripAdvisor in 2018. Of course, this might well tell us more about the kind of person who completes a TripAdvisor review rather than be representative of visitors to Tintagel.

Around a half of the reviews made no reference to legend or history. They either had no expectations at all or came for the scenery or for personal and family reasons. Reviews focused on the extortionate price charged by English Heritage for entry and the difficulty of climbing up the steps to castle and island. This has now been solved by English Heritage’s post-modern bridge. All we need now is a lift.

Reactions of those reviewers who made some reference to legendary or historical expectations was more polarised. Contrary to what might be expected however, it was some of the reviews with historical references where imaginations were sparked, not those attracted by legend. For the latter (around a fifth of the total) did not lose themselves in the swirling mists of legend as they stalked dreamily around the Island at Tintagel. Instead they were largely content to take a quick selfie next to the knight, usually assumed wrongly to be Arthur himself. The statue has apparently done nothing to change a shallow and superficial visitor experience.

Given this, maybe English Heritage should focus on the fascinating early history and archaeology of the site rather than play around with elusive legendary connections. Having failed to provide any perceived educational benefits its continued (mis-)management of this site must surely come into question. Perhaps the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the place, should now do the decent thing and transfer its management from English Heritage to a Cornish-run body aware of its proper significance.

An extended critical review of this article can be found here.