Covid-19 and Cornwall: an update

As the number of cases of Covid-19 in the UK creep up again as preventive measures gradually ease, nerves have started to jangle. It’s time therefore for an update on the situation in Cornwall. (For the first blog on this in June see here.) The most recent release of data on the number of detected cases has shown an ominous jump in the number in Cornwall from nine in the week ending August 2nd to 16 in that ending on August 9th.

However, let’s put that in context. The rate of Covid-19 cases in Cornwall is still relatively low, although now higher than many local authorities in southern England, including Devon and Dorset. The rate of new cases actually seems to be fluctuating, some days up, some down, as the chart below shows, with a very slight upwards trend since July.

Unfortunately, the data don’t give a full picture of where the recent rise in cases is occurring. At the lowest level (census areas called middle super output areas or MSOAs) all we know is that no MSOA in Cornwall has recently seen more than two cases in any one week. This was not the case back in April and May when incidents of three or more cases in MSOAs in Cornwall were not unknown, as the following map indicates.

Furthermore, the good news is that the number of deaths in Cornwall from Covid-19 has not increased significantly since June. This is despite the fact that the UK has the highest number of deaths per capita anywhere in the world, a fact which the media seem strangely reluctant to dwell on. Even after this week’s revision of death data and the loss of almost 5,000 Covid-related deaths, the number of deaths in the UK stands at 61 per million people, compared with rates of 42 to 49 per million in those countries usually cited as suffering the most – the USA, Brazil and Mexico. Moreover, deaths from covid-19 in the UK are still running at up to ten times the rate in comparable west European countries.

There is no reason for complacency, therefore. The virus has not gone away but is still quietly and efficiently circulating. For example, in Truro this week I was surprised to find the place was largely a mask-free zone. Meanwhile, social distancing appears to be a novel concept for many tourists. No surprise then that a lot of natives are playing safe and staying well away from the coast this summer.

That said, the widely feared surge of the pandemic triggered by the holidaymaking hordes has not transpired. For that we can be grateful. But, as we have seen from other places which are better prepared to cope than us, outbreaks can flare up unpredictably. So be careful out there.

Cornwall’s population: the latest estimates

The latest population estimates for mid-2019 were produced last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These show that net migration into Cornwall from the rest of the UK is still running at a historically high level. The estimated figure of 5,527 net migrants in 2018-19 was the highest since 2003, with the one exception of 2016-17.

Population overall did not rise as much, partly because there were 1,238 more deaths than births among the resident population and partly because of a net international exodus of 553, presumably the brexit effect.

Cornwall’s population was estimated to be nearly 566,000 in the middle of last year, an increase of around 200,000 over the past 50 years, the size of a fair-sized city. In 1976 Cornwall’s planners estimated that to ‘maintain the physical character of Cornwall’ its ideal population should be 430,000. We waved that number goodbye many years ago in 1981. The planners now assure us that there is no capacity problem. Indeed, Cornwall Council stresses there is ‘no upper ceiling’ to the number of houses that are going to be built. Somewhat ironically, this appeared in a document on its plans to tackle climate change.

Cornwall’s population has been rising faster than most other places since the 1960s

Meanwhile, the ONS is now also projecting a 20% growth in the number of households in Cornwall by 2040. This is a hefty increase from the 14% over the next 20 years in their last forecast just two years ago. A 20% growth in households presumably means a 20% increase in the size of the built environment. In just 20 years!

A high population growth rate has now been sustained for the past 60 years. Meanwhile, there is little sign of any breathing space that might allow Cornwall and its communities to accommodate such growth rather than to be overwhelmed by it. Quite the opposite in fact, as thousands of planning permissions have been handed out to build houses and most of them are still waiting to be built.

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.

The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 2

As Richard Carew turned his attention westwards, his accounts of Cornish towns became noticeably briefer, probably reflecting his lack of acquaintance with places increasingly distant from his home at Antony, close to the Tamar.

St Columb was merely ‘a mean market town’, while St Austell was still too insignificant to get a mention. Despite being equally unimportant at this time ‘New Kaye’ did appear in Carew’s account. It was ‘so called, because in former times their neighbours attempted to supply the defect of nature by art, in making there a quay (for trade) … though want of means in themselves, or the place, have … only left them the benefit of … fisherboats.’

Grampound around 1900 after achieving fame by being the first parliamentary borough disenfranchised for bribery in 1820.

Grampound had its own corporation but was only ‘half replenished with inhabitants, who may better vaunt of their town’s antiquity, than the town of their ability’. Passing quickly over Tregony, which was ‘not generally memorable’, Carew found something more worth writing about at Truro. Although only consisting of ‘three streets’, it benefitted from courts, coinages and markets and ‘got the start in wealth of any other Cornish towns, and to come behind none in buildings, Launceston only excepted.’ Carew felt however that the residents of Truro needed to show a bit more entrepreneurial energy. ‘I wish that they would likewise deserve praise for getting and employing their riches in some industrious trade … as the harbours invite them.’

Down the Fal, Penryn was ‘rather passable than notable for wealth, buildings and inhabitants, in all of which … it giveth Truro the prominence’. Nevertheless, Penryn could claim the prominence over Falmouth, where there was just the manor house of Arwenack and a collection of cottages up the estuary, ignored by Carew. Another place not mentioned by Carew was Redruth, although it was a market town by this time. A relatively underpopulated hinterland with much land still unenclosed did not provide many hints of the mineral riches yet to be exploited.

Helston was ‘well seated and peopled’ but Carew had little to say about West Penwith. St Ives was ‘of mean plight’. Even a new pier had failed to have an impact, ‘Either want or slackness, or impossibility, hitherto withhold the effect’, although fish was ‘very cheap’. Across the peninsula Marazion was  ‘a town of petty fortune’, while Penzance, then a new settlement, was described as ‘a market town, not so regardable for its substance, as memorable for the late accident of the Spaniards firing’ a reference to the Spanish raid on Mount’s Bay in 1595.

A 19th century view of the raid in 1595

The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 1

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall gives an insight into the state of Cornish towns at the end of the 1500s, when he was compiling his book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it gives an insight into Carew’s opinion of Cornish towns at this time. Beginning in the east, Carew wrote that Saltash ‘consists of three streets, which every shower washes clean, comprises between 80 and 100 households [around 400-500 people]’. It was ‘of late years much increased and adorned with buildings and the townsmen addict themselves to the honest trade of merchandise, which endows them with a competent wealth’. Carew’s positive view of Saltash had of course nothing to do with the fact that this was the town closest to his home.

Going north, Launceston ‘by the Cornishmen called Lesteevan’ was a place where ‘a new increase of wealth expresses itself in the inhabitants’ late repaired and enlarged buildings’. The town was recovering well from the long depopulation of the post Black Death years, one that only ended in the early 1500s.

Launceston Castle

On the other hand, at Stratton, apart from its status as the ‘only market town of this hundred’, Carew could find no ‘other memorable matter to report’. He was similarly unimpressed by Camelford – ‘a market and fair (but not fair) town’ which ‘steps little before the meanest sort of boroughs, for store of inhabitants, or the inhabitants’ store’.

To the south-east the two Looes were doing better. East Looe, though of ‘less antiquity’ than West Looe, ‘vaunts greater wealth … their profit accrues from their industrious fishing’. Even West Looe was ‘of late years somewhat relieved of its former poverty’. Upriver, Liskeard wasn’t doing so well. Carew found the castle ‘worm-eaten, out of date and use. Coinages, fairs and markets (as vital spirits in a decayed body), keep the inner parts of the town alive; while the ruined skirts accuse the injury of time, and the neglect of industry’.

Bodmin was one of Cornwall’s largest towns of the time, along with Launceston and Truro, with what Carew admitted was ‘the greatest’ weekly market in Cornwall. But he was distinctly uninspired by Cornwall’s oldest town. ‘Of all the towns in Cornwall I find none … more contagiously (seated) than this. It consists wholly of one street … whose south side is hidden from the sun by a high hill … neither can light have entrance to their stairs nor open air to their other rooms. Their back houses … kitchens, stables etc. are climbed up into by steps, and their filth by every great shower washed down through their houses into the streets … Every general infection is here first admitted, and last excluded, yet the many decayed houses prove the town to have been once very populous’.

Duchy Palace, Lostwithiel

At Lostwithiel, even the presence of the Duchy offices and county courts could ‘hardly raise it to a tolerable condition of wealth and inhabitance’. Padstow, on the other hand was ‘a town and haven of suitable quality … the best that the north Cornish coast possesses’. Padstow was prospering ‘by trafficking with Ireland, for which it commodiously lies’.

The second part of this blog will report Carew’s views of the more westerly towns.

Rumours of plague? Mortality crises in 16th century Cornwall

In May of 1591 deaths began to spiral at Redruth. That year saw burial numbers in the parish registers hit a figure nine times higher than the usual. Yet by Christmas the crisis was over and burials had reverted to their normal level.

Sudden short mortality crises like that at Redruth suggest an airborne infection, such as the ‘sweating sickness’ of the early 1500s. Pneumonic plague is another possibility, although plague mortality usually occurred slightly later, peaking from July to September. A third possibility is famine or poor nutrition caused by food shortages. Although burials in Redruth in 1591 were consistently higher than normal all year, there was no sign of the mortality peak of early spring that might be expected if famine were the cause.

Plague was reported in the period 1589-93, spreading out from Plymouth. Many decades ago Norman Pounds identified mortality crises in Morval, St Neot and St Columb Minor. At St Columb it was particularly severe, with a pattern that closely mirrors the classic plague mortality. That said, there is no evidence of any similar mortality crises in these years in the registers of St Erth, Gwithian and Mawgan in Meneage in the west, or at St Breward in the east.

Redruth’s neighbour Illogan experienced a similar mortality crisis in 1591, but the worst months in Camborne occurred much later, in the early winter of 1593, when deaths rose to ten times the normal level. The localised nature of these mortality crises and their dispersed timing might raise some questions about the cause. Was it simply plague or were there additional or multiple causes?

A similar mortality crisis at Camborne beginning in August 1547 more neatly fits the bubonic plague pattern. This event, when deaths that year were again over ten times the norm, is intriguing as it occurred less than two years before the rising of 1549. Unfortunately, at this date there are very few parish registers available to see whether other Cornish parishes experienced a similar crisis at the same time.

The whole issue of mortality crises in Cornwall in the 1500s and 1600s requires more research, especially as no Cornish data were used in Wrigley and Schofield’s classic The Population History of England 1541-1871.

The Black Death in Cornwall

In these uncertain times we need a topic that can take our minds off our current problems. It’s always a good idea to put things in perspective by considering those who are in a more unfortunate position than we are. That was exactly the position for people in Cornwall 671 years ago to the day.

In 1348 a ship from the Continent had brought the bubonic plague, later known as the Black Death, to Dorset. In the absence of handy vectors such as mass rapid transport facilities, it took several months for the plague to spread along the south coast of the British Isles. But spread it did. Those who claim that Cornwall’s ‘remoteness’ can somehow reduce the effects of Covid-19 are sadly mistaken. Even in 1349 its peripheral location could not prevent the arrival of the plague, probably by boat, by March 1349. The worst wasn’t over until November of that same year.

Reliable data on the spread of the disease was even worse then than now. One measure of its impact was the institution of new clergy to replace those who had died. In the decade prior to 1349 the average annual number of replacements in Cornwall was 4.2. In the year from March 1349, 85 new clergymen were required. This implies a clerical death rate of around 40%, which is quite close to general estimates of the mortality of the Black Death. Cornwall’s population fell from around 90-100,000 in the 1330s to between 50 and 60,000 by 1377. Although not all in one go. The bad news for the current ’herd immunity’ advocates is that there was a second, almost equally bad, outbreak in 1360-62, after which plague became endemic for two to three centuries.

Scourging was a popular remedy for the Black Death. Its effectiveness against the coronavirus is not yet known.

In Cornwall mortality is thought to have been highest around river estuaries on the south coast and in towns, probably reflecting trade links and population densities. Truro in 1378 was described as ‘almost entirely desolated and waste’, while in 1410 it was still ‘much impoverished by pestilence and death’.

Many farms and smallholdings suddenly became vacant. In Moresk manor around Truro in the early 1350s around half had no tenant, while on the poorer, upland soils of Wendron around two thirds of holdings were unoccupied. In the long-term depopulation became the norm for a century and a half. The 45 inhabited sites in Wendron in the early 1330s contracted to just 31 by the late 1400s. Arable land reverted to waste or became pasture, prices plummeted, and tin production collapsed to 20% of its early fourteenth century peak in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.

Yet the economy bounced back surprisingly quickly. Vacant landholdings were snapped up by formerly landless families, tin production had recovered by the 1380s, onerous feudal services tended to disappear, wages rose. For those who survived, the late 1300s and 1400s was a time of opportunity as Cornwall’s economy diversified and grew faster than elsewhere.

On the other hand the plague periodically returned. This period also saw frequent wars and occasional periods of food shortage and famine. Horsemen of the apocalypse tend to travel in groups.

Cholera in Cornwall: the Victorians’ coronavirus

Not strictly Victorian perhaps, as it preceded Victoria’s reign by five years. As if the endemic typhoid, typhus and dysentery, not to mention the measles, mumps and whooping cough that every year cut a swathe through thousands of infants, were not enough, in 1832 cholera arrived in Cornwall. Outbreaks periodically panicked local authorities into the 1850s, in which decade effective measures to control its spread were finally put in place.

Rumours of a new and terrifying disease began to filter into Britain in 1830. This one began in India rather than China. However, even without the handy vector of aircraft to rapidly transform a local problem into a global pandemic, cholera inevitably made its way west, the slowness of its approach possibly adding to the trepidation.

Cholera is a bacterial disease which causes copious diarrhoea and severe vomiting, with subsequent dehydration, cramps from loss of salt, and shock, leading in some cases to death. It was spread mainly through water supplies infected by poor sanitation. The authorities in the 1830s were aware of this, the general public less so. Even without social media to spread misinformation, many useless remedies were touted (and sold), such as mercury, opium, ginger and rhubarb or the application of leeches. None of these had any effect on the disease, although (in the case of opium in particular) they may have made the consumer less worried.

Cholera arrived in Britain on a ship that brought it to Sunderland in October 1831. From there it gradually spread south and west, reaching Plymouth in June 1832. Summer was the worst time for cholera and in one week in August there were 141 deaths from the disease in Plymouth.

The Tamar proved no barrier. The first case in Cornwall was a woman who died at Bodmin on her way from Devonport to Port Isaac on 28th July. A mob tried to prevent her burial in the town and was only dispersed when more special constables were rapidly sworn in.

The outbreaks in Cornwall began in villages near Plymouth and at Newlyn in the west, presumably brought by boat. Padstow was also badly hit, with 107 cases and 19 deaths. So was Hayle, where 14 of the 26 victims in late August/early September lived in one area – Bodriggy Lane. Altogether 308 people died of cholera in Cornwall in 1832.

Nonetheless, the arrival of the disease had triggered the establishment of boards of health in the towns. These set about issuing orders for removing pigsties, privies and cess pits. But, as always, once the immediate threat was over and it was obvious that it was the poorest rather than the better off who carried the brunt of the suffering, action became less vigorous.

While sporadic outbreaks occurred thereafter, as at Falmouth and Helston in 1833, it wasn’t until 1849 that another major cholera scare hit Cornwall. In that year it was centred on Mevagissey, where 125 died out of a population of 1,800. According to the newspaper, almost half the residents fled the town. The paper commented that ‘sanitation [was] a word which had probably never been heard in Mevagissey where the effluvia of decaying fish made the atmosphere intolerable to the delicate nostrils of all those who were not natives of the place’.

Mevagissey – a sink of cholera in 1849

That year saw an even higher mortality rate at Kingsand in the far east, where 93 died out of a population of 790. Other areas affected were Looe, Truro, the Redruth district and again Hayle. It’s noticeable that the deaths tended to cluster either in crowded towns or in fishing ports.

Finally, in the 1850s action began to be taken to rid towns of pigsties, stables, open cesspits and mounds of unsavoury ‘rubbish’, while new drainage and sewerage systems were built. In Truro in 1853, 641 out of 691 ‘public nuisances’ were removed, which indicates the scale of the problem. Even then the supply of clean drinking water had to wait. Mid-century Truro was supplied from 29 wells, the water from several of these being declared unfit for consumption as late as 1884.

You can read more about Cornwall’s cholera outbreaks in Rowe and Andrews’ article in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 7 (1974), pp.153-64 on which this piece is mainly based.