Central or southern? Cornwall’s contested railway route

These days we tend to take the route of the current railway mainline in Cornwall from Penzance to Plymouth for granted. But from 1844 to 1846 a heated debate raged about which direction the railway in Cornwall should take. There were already two passenger railways in Cornwall. A short line from Bodmin to Wadebridge had opened in 1834 and the longer ten-mile Hayle railway linked that town with Redruth in 1838. The question remained. How should these railways link up with lines radiating out from London?

Travelling in style: third class carriage on Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway

In 1842 the Government announced that Falmouth would lose the packet service that brought mail from overseas. The packets were to move to Southampton, which the railway had reached in 1840. It was now a lot quicker for packets to land there and the mail be taken by rail to London. It was claimed in Cornwall that the packets brought £80-100,000 a year to the local economy (equal to £8-10 million nowadays). This was enough to concentrate minds on linking Falmouth to the emerging railway system as quickly as possible to get the packets back. As was stated at an earlier meeting in 1839: ‘if they had a railroad from Falmouth to Exeter nothing on earth could induce the government to change the [packet] station; but if not, Plymouth or Southampton must take it from us’.

By 1844 two separate schemes were in contention. The first – the Cornwall Railway – proposed a southern or coastal route, close to the current line, joining Falmouth and Plymouth. This was opposed by the Cornwall and Devon Railway, proposing a line from Falmouth to Bodmin and then north of Bodmin Moor via Launceston to Exeter. The advantage of a central line was argued to be its slightly shorter length and less need for tight curves and viaducts, the possibility of ‘improving’ the land and avoidance of the ‘dangers’ of crossing the Tamar at Devonport (it wasn’t clear at this stage if this was to be by bridge or ferry). Its proponents also questioned the wisdom of building a railway line right by the sea between Dawlish and Teignmouth. The supporters of the southern line pointed to the lack of traffic in the ‘desolate’ country served by the central line and the way the southern route communicated with Cornwall’s main harbours as well as joined its three main mining districts at Camborne-Redruth, St Austell and the then booming Liskeard district in the east.

The proposed central line ran from Bodmin to Launceston

Although the central line mounted the more effective public relations exercise, with support from several MPs, a majority of Cornwall’s landed gentry and enthusiastic meetings up and down Cornwall, the southern route had the backing of influential figures such as Lord Falmouth, Joseph Treffry, the mid-Cornwall industrialist, and the Tweedy banking family, plus the Royal Cornwall Gazette newspaper. Crucially, it was also backed by the Great Western Railway, which had already got permission for its South Devon line from Exeter to Plymouth in 1844 and was beginning to build that line, which was to reach Plymouth by 1848. In contrast, the alliance of the central line with the South Western Railway was more fitful and the South Western had still to reach Exeter.

In 1845 the two schemes were scrutinised in London. The Board of Trade declared in favour of the southern route. It would have more traffic, its gradients were less severe and a line was already being built to Plymouth. In addition, it preferred it for national security reasons, lying closer to the coast in case of invasion! The central railway looked doomed and its shareholders merged with the Cornwall Railway.

But then the Cornwall Railway Bill was held up in the House of Lords. Sensing a second chance, and in the midst of the ‘railway mania’ gripping the UK, supporters of a central route renewed their efforts and launched another Cornwall and Devon Central Railway Company. However, their hastily drawn-up scheme was rejected by Parliament in 1846 because of technical errors. The Act for a Cornwall Railway was then passed and by 1859 Brunel had built his bridge across the Tamar. The rest is history.

Brunel’s bridge under construction

In hindsight, the choice of the southern route looks inevitable. The sparse population north of the moors and the difficulties experienced later by the Southern Railway’s north Cornwall branch would seem to support this. Yet consider the ongoing problems of the line at Dawlish, something the climate crisis and rising sea levels will hardly lessen. And note the warning of Sir William Hussey Vivian MP in 1839: ‘if Plymouth got a line before Falmouth, the former will supersede the latter’, which is exactly what happened.

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 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.

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

Of blowing houses and tin smelters

If you wander through the highways and byways of Cornwall you may well come across the name Blowing House. Where does this come from? In former times ‘houses’ were built to smelt tin, transforming tin ore, or ‘black tin’, containing other chemical elements such as oxygen or sulphur, into purer ‘white tin’. Stannary law stated that all Cornish tin had to be smelted in Cornwall. The result was a rash of small blowing houses. In these, a charge of black tin and charcoal was kept to a temperature sufficiently hot by bellows, operated by a water-wheel.

A reverberatory furnace

From 1700 to the 1850s blowing houses were gradually superseded by reverberatory furnaces. These used coal rather than charcoal but, more importantly, kept the heat source separate from the tin ore, resulting in less loss and contamination of the smelted tin. The first reverberatory furnace in Cornwall was established at Newham, just outside Truro. Tin smelting houses needed to be close to a coinage town (before 1838 when coinage was abolished), near to estuaries or the coast for the import of coal and bricks, and near a source of water-power to run the stamps used to break up slag for re-smelting.

Because of the need for large amounts of coal – at least a ton was required to reduce a ton of black tin – tin smelting was dominated by those with capital – merchants and landowners who could afford the cost of importing fuel. Sometimes they also advanced money to the mines, on the security of the tin ore that would result, thus becoming bankers. The clearest example was the Bolitho family of the Penzance district. Their control of Chyandour smelting house from the 1760s eventually led to the foundation of the Mount’s Bay Commercial Bank in 1807 which ultimately became part of Barclays.

Workers in tin smelting houses were less fortunate. The average wage of the 15 men employed at Chyandour in 1883 was 19 shillings a week, around the same or maybe slightly higher than the average Cornish labourer’s weekly earnings of the time.

Seleggan works in operation

With the extension of the railway after the 1830s, a location near the ports became less critical. Seleggan tin smelting works at Carnkie near Redruth began to smelt tin in 1887 and became the largest such works in Cornwall. By 1923 it was the only Cornish tin smelter left operating. In the late 1920s it was employing around 200 people in a continuous three shift system. The works closed in 1931 in the midst of the economic depression.

The area of the works in 1907

Geevor tin mine: its rise and fall

It’s almost thirty years since the pumps were turned off at Geevor at Pendeen and the mine was allowed to flood. Now the site of the one of the best museums and heritage centres in Cornwall, Geevor Tin Mines Limited came into being in 1911.

The area had been mined for centuries prior to this. North Levant Mine worked the area from 1851 and that had brought together older and smaller ventures such as Wheal Mexico and Wheal Stennack. However, production of tin before 1911 was relatively small, peaking at 199 tons in 1876 and dwarfed by neighbouring Levant to the south.

Production next peaked in 1918 at 439 tons of black tin and grew further during the 1920s to 811 tons in 1929. This was despite Geevor, like other Cornish mines, closing temporarily in the slump years of 1921 and 1930, when it remained shut for a year until late 1931.

Yet production resumed and by the late 1930s exceeded 900 tons. The mine remained in operation after the Second World War, despite a labour shortage that led to the migration of Italian and Polish miners to Cornwall. After the 1960s the mine extended its operations to include Levant, Pendeen Consols and Boscaswell Downs Mines, eventually including more than three square miles of underground workings.

Geevor viewed from the west

Interestingly, employment actually peaked at the mine in 1943, when there were 436 workers. Productivity at Geevor barely grew from 1914 to 1943, although it was around 50% higher than in the 1880s. By 1980, in contrast, each of the 376 employees at the mine was producing around two and a half to three times more tin than in the inter-war period.

Production hit 1,110 tons in 1973. A fall back in the later 1970s was followed by a final surge to peak at 1,344 tons in 1981. Four years later however, in 1985, the International Tin Council, a cartel of producers that combined to maintain tin prices, collapsed and the price of tin plummeted.

It had become unprofitable to extract tin from deep mines like Geevor. Struggling on for a few years, Geevor failed to receive government support and in 1988 closed, although pumping continued for another three years. Its closure was soon followed by Wheal Jane and Mount Wellington, leaving only South Crofty to fight the inevitable until it too succumbed in 1998.

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