Goldsworthy Gurney, the inventor of limelight

With the recent success of the Cornish film Bait, it’s an appropriate time to remember an unwarrantably obscure Cornishman. Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney was born on February 14th, 1793 at Padstow and died at Bude as Sir Goldsworthy Gurney on February 28th, 1875. Gurney’s connection with the dramatic arts is via his improvement of stage lighting.

Gurney was one of that glittering band of Cornish scientists and inventors that included Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick. At first training as a doctor and taking over a medical practice at Wadebridge at the age of 20, Gurney uprooted himself and left for London in 1820. There, he became a lecturer in chemistry and a prolific inventor, including things such as high-pressure steam jets and early telegraphy.

Bude Castle

In 1825 he had copied Trevithick and built a steam carriage. This was more successful than Trevithick’s earlier effort, proving itself between Gloucester and Cheltenham. Unfortunately for Gurney, it came to nothing in the face of opposition from horse-drawn transport interests and prohibitive tolls on steam road vehicles. From the early 1830s Gurney divided his time between London and Cornwall, settling at the small maritime and resort town of Bude. There he built Bude Castle near the beach, close to the canal that had been cut in 1823 to take sand and lime to inland farmers.

It was in the 1820s that Gurney improved on the oil lamps and candles previously used to light theatres. He directed an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime, producing a brilliant light. These lights were called ‘limes’, hence ‘limelight’. This was followed up by ‘Bude light’, introducing oxygen to an oil-lamp flame to give a more intense light, which was then ingeniously transmitted around his house by a number of mirrors.

Gurney used a similar technique when re-designing the lighting, heating and ventilation system of the Houses of Parliament, where the members were complaining of the smoke emitted by the candles that lit the place and the fetid stench that permeated the chamber. The latter was caused by a lack of ventilation and the close proximity to the Thames, rancid with sewage. Gurney installed a new furnace and a system that circulated the air more efficiently, adding his lighting to illuminate the darker corners of the place.

He was knighted for this in 1863 but soon afterwards suffered a stroke. He survived for a number of years however, and was buried at the peaceful church of Launcells, home of his first wife and close to the upper reaches of the Tamar.

Who were the richest families of late Victorian Cornwall?

In 1885 a letter appeared in the West Briton listing what were claimed to be the 27 richest men in Cornwall with their reputed incomes. Here’s the richest nine. (For a rough modern equivalent of the income multiply the figures by 120).

NameHouseAnnual income
Thomas Charles Agar-RobartesLanhydrock£75,000
John Charles WilliamsCaerhayes£60,000
Evelyn BoscawenTregothnan£50,000
Duke of Cornwall£40,000
Gustavus BassetTehidy£32,000
William Henry EdgcumbeMount Edgcumbe£30,000
Thomas Simon BolithoTrengwainton£30,000
Edward BolithoTrewidden£30,000
Sir John St AubynSt Michael’s Mount£25,000

Interesting to note that three of these families could trace their position back to the medieval period, three had become wealthy in the 1500s and 1600s and the other three were products of Cornwall’s industrial period.

One wing of Lanhydrock House was destroyed by a fire in 1881. Rebuilding was completed in 1885.

The letter appeared at a time when criticism of the landed class was growing. The correspondent, writing under the pseudonym ‘A Cornishman’, asked if it was not ‘a fact that some [on his list] are almost totally unknown in the county – unknown even by sight – absentees in fact, drawing large incomes .. but giving scarcely anything in return?’ He continued: ‘do we see them , as was the custom formerly, taking an active part in the management of our Quarter Sessions our infirmaries, our hospitals, our savings banks, and other benevolent institutions? Alas! I fear the answer must be in the negative.’

Agricultural depression in Cornwall

In the 1870s, farmers across Britain began to suffer from falling grain prices as imports started to flood in from the prairies of North America. As farmers struggled, demands for rent reductions mounted.

Cornwall was actually one of the places where rents declined far less than average. This can be explained by the extra competition for land from returning migrants and by the fact that Cornish farmers could switch more easily from arable to pastoral farming. For beef and dairy farmers lower process of grain (for fodder) was good news rather than bad. Nonetheless, some farmers were still in difficulty, as the following letter from Silvanus Jenkin, the Lanhydrock estate land agent, to Lord Robartes in December 1884 suggests.

I mentioned to you some time since that Mr Lean who occupies [Tregoid Farm at St Kew] had asked for a reduction of his rent and it was arranged that Mr Bate of Cardinham should go there and value. This he has done and practically values it in £100 a year. His present rent is £115. The courts begin tomorrow and I should be glad of your decision before the St Kew court which will be next week. Mr Lean also asked for an allowance for sheep which he lost in 1879 and for a horse that fell into a quarry. He is pretty much in arrears with his rent and I would suggest that you should give him £25 towards his losses and as it is a corn farm, I think it will be necessary to reduce the rent to £100 a year as recommended by Mr Bate. There is a very general feeling amongst the farmers that some general reduction of rent will have to be made but as far as I can judge in this county the necessity for it will not arise except as to corn farms at present


The Levant mine disaster

A hundred years ago today the man engine collapsed at Levant mine, Pendeen, near St Just. This was the second worse mine disaster in Cornwall’s history. Thirty-one miners lost their lives and many others were badly injured. The man engine was a device that conveyed miners to and from the surface, allowing them to avoid the former, laborious climb up the ladders at the end of their core (shift). It was invented in 1841 by Michael Loam of Liskeard, although his design owed much to similar contraptions at work in Germany. The first man engine was installed at Tresavean Mine, Lanner and it was then adopted in several of the larger and deeper Cornish mines.

A report in The Times on the disaster explained how the man engine operated.

Section of the man engine at Dolcaoth

‘It consists of a ponderous wooden beam [in fact several sections of beam bolted together] which extends from the top to the bottom of the shaft, which is 600 yards deep. At intervals of 12 feet are steps on the beam, each of which affords foothold for one person, while on the side of the shaft are stationary platforms at intervals of 12 feet. At every stroke of the engine the beam is raised and lowered, and the men step on and off the platforms and are carried up or down by the movement of the beam. It is a rather slow process, but has been carried on for years without serious accident’

That was not the case on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20th however. The Times went on to describe what happened.

‘From 100 to 150 men were on it when the change of shift was taking place. When the connecting rod broke the engine was at the top of its stroke, and the gigantic beam with its load fell 12 feet. Many of the platforms on the side of the shaft were smashed, and the men on them were knocked off and crushed. Some were unhurt and managed to reach the surface. Rescue parties brought out others, but a number of miners at different levels could not be reached …’

The engine rod had only dropped 12 feet but in doing so had taken away much of the timber work on which men were standing. The local paper, the Cornishman, carried an eyewitness account from a young miner, Robert Penaluna, who was riding on the engine at the time of the collapse …

‘When the engine broke it was a tremendous crash for in dropping she knocked away timber and everything else in her path. The engine rod on which we were travelling shook violently. The smash gave a terrible shock to us all … the screams of some of the men were awful, as they gripped the rod like grim death … I wouldn’t go through an experience like that again for the world.’

Three golden ages and six turning points: a history of Cornwall in 500 words

Yesterday, I was asked to give a short talk on the history of Cornwall. How do you sum up 2,000 years of history in 45 minutes? Tricky. This was my attempt.

A golden age is a period of victory or defeat (or both) which later becomes mythologised and looked back on with pride. A turning point is a time when the flow of history seems to change course.

Cornwall’s first golden age was between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the arrival of the English in the 800s. This was when Cornwall had an independent existence. At first it was the centre of a larger kingdom of Dumnonia, with an elite trading post at Tintagel and colonies in Brittany. When the Mediterranean trade dried up it became a decentralised collection of communities bound together by early Christianity rather than by kings and administrators.

Three turning points then occurred over the next half millennium. The Normans arrived in 1070 and gradually extended their overlordship from their early base in the far east at Launceston. Population, trade and towns grew until the shock of the Black Death in 1349. Cornwall recovered rather better than other places. It was during the late 1300s and 1400s that the Cornish language held its own after an earlier retreat, backed by the patronage of Church and Crown. The third turning point arrived with the religious reformation of the 1530s.

This heralded Cornwall’s second golden age, one viewed by some as a romantic period of struggle against the encroaching English state. Risings in 1497 and 1549 both failed, their leaders executed for treason. Yet in 1642 the Cornish avenged themselves. They became the spearhead of the royalist army of the west, thus unfortunately backing the wrong side in the British civil wars. The following century was more subdued, at least politically.

Another turning point followed in the 1730s, when steam technology began to be applied to the long-established business of mining. Deep copper mining drove the precociously early industrialisation of Cornwall, its third golden age. This created a distinctive rural-industrial society, where elements of the new and the traditional were stitched together. Population growth and new settlements laid the ground for the enthusiastic reception of John Wesley and the wholesale transfer of allegiance to a vigorous, revivalist Methodism. Meanwhile, Cornish engineers were raising the efficiency of steam engines to hitherto undreamt-of heights in the generation after 1810.

The fifth turning point brought this to a juddering halt in the 1870s when a calamitous fall in the price of copper made its mining uneconomic. Tin mining survived but underwent periodic crises, as in the 1890s or 1920s. Population fell as emigrants fled to the mining frontiers of the New World. The first wave in the 1840s and 1850s had sought a better life on the basis of the demand for their mining expertise. The second wave had little choice but to go as opportunities closed down at home.

A century of de-industrialisation was ended by the final turning point – the counter-urbanisation that set in from the 1960s onwards. This began half a century of mass migration to Cornwall, when it became a preferred site for holidaying and second homes. Demographic change accompanied a social transformation that we are still living through and struggling to cope with.

Did the mass migration after the 1960s threaten the Cornish identity or stimulate its renaissance?

Pondering on potatoes

There’s some potato harvesting going on nearby. A bit different from the 18th century however. Now heavily mechanised, then it would have been labour intensive, the fields full of people rather than a few lumbering tractors and their associated gizmos.

Potato cultivation was widespread in Cornwall by the 1750s. An observer in the early 1800s wrote that it was the ‘blessing of the poor … cheap, wholesome and nutritious’. As in Ireland, it helped to feed a rapidly growing population. Unlike Ireland, in Cornwall the labouring poor also had resort to salted pilchards. So the effect of the potato blight in 1845, although helping to trigger the last occasion of widespread food rioting in 1847, was not disastrous.

The 1790s and war with France made grain imports difficult and resulted in high prices. The period saw an extension of potato production as a result. This was mainly by small farmers for the market and smallholders in the mining districts for their own consumption. According to the Cornish historian Samuel Drew, writing in the early 1820s, farmers in west Cornwall were planting two crops of potatoes a year. Kidney potatoes were planted in December and taken up in May. The second crop of potatoes went in at the end of April or beginning of May and might be harvested as late as December.

The spring crop was the forerunner of the early potato trade. Farmers in the Penzance district began to grow potatoes with an eye on upcountry markets. As early as 1808 it was reported that Cornish farmers were supplying potatoes to Plymouth, Portsmouth and London. That early potato trade really began to get under way with the introduction of steamers in 1837 when boats from Hayle and Falmouth began to pick up potatoes from Mounts Bay and deliver to the London market. After the 1850s of course, the railway took over.

Potato harvesting at Gulval, early 20th century