John Spargo; a forgotten Cornishman

John Spargo was born at Longdowns, a few miles north-west of Penryn, in 1876. He became a stonecutter, working at one of the quarries that had made the district the centre of the Cornish granite industry from the 1840s. He also became a Wesleyan Methodist lay preacher.

So far, so typical. But the young John came across England for All, a socialist polemic penned by Henry Hyndman, founder in 1881 of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). John was converted, although his socialism combined a distinctively Christian humanitarianism with an intellectual commitment to ‘scientific’ marxism.

In 1895 he moved to Barry in South Wales. There, he became active in the local branch of the SDF and the Barry Trades and Labour Council. In spring 1898 the South Wales valleys were convulsed by a bitter coal miners’ strike for higher pay. This dragged on for six months and was ultimately unsuccessful. During it, John threw himself into writing and speaking in support of the miners, though remaining sceptical about their prospects of winning, preferring ‘political action’ to strikes.

In 1900 he helped Keir Hardie in his victorious campaign to get elected as a Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and participated in the meetings that led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. Soon he was invited to lecture in the States, where he arrived with his wife Prudence in February 1901. Later that same year, John became a founder member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its National Committee from 1909.

His early days in New York proved difficult. The lecture invitations failed to materialise, forcing John to earn his dollars by, at one stage, shovelling snow. Following the death of his first wife and a child from tuberculosis, he eventually made his name as a lecturer and a ‘muckraking’ writer. Although largely self-taught, he wrote books condemning child factory labour and calling for action on behalf of underprivileged children. He also produced an acclaimed biography of Karl Marx in 1908.

John Spargo in 1919

Around 1912 John moved with his second wife, Amelia, and their daughter to Vermont. At odds with the syndicalism and direct action associated with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, John was by now firmly linked to the right wing of the Socialist Party. However, he broke with the party in 1917 when it opposed American entry into the War.

In 1924 he became a Republican and in the 1930s denounced Roosevelt’s New Deal as a threat to constitutional government and an attack on individual liberty. By 1964 a supporter of Goldwater’s Presidential bid, he ended up politically far distant from his earlier socialist days. Nonetheless, a streak of stubborn individualism might be traced as a constant from his Cornish roots.

He died in 1966, having also become an expert on the local history of Vermont and on ceramics. He even wrote a booklet on his family name – Spargo – which comes from an apposite placename meaning a thorn hedge.

Billy Bray: Methodist folk hero

On this day in 1794 William Trewartha Bray was born in the hamlet of Twelveheads, tucked away at the bottom of the Poldice valley between Redruth and Penryn. His father died when he was young and the family then moved in with a grandfather. On his death in turn in 1811, William, by now known as Billy and a miner as his father had been, journeyed to the Tavistock district of Devon. There he worked for seven years, but in that time, according to his contemporary and biographer F.W.Bourne, Billy became a drunkard with a reputation as a bit of a tearaway.

On his return Billy, now married, became increasingly dissatisfied with life. Eventually, in 1823, he underwent the experience of conversion familiar by this time to the majority of Cornish Methodists. But this was no ordinary conversion – a few months of pious living followed by the inevitable backsliding and the relegation of religion in the everyday struggle to make ends meet.

Billy became an enthusiastic lay preacher for the Bible Christians, quickly appearing on their Local Plan (the programme of preaching) in 1824. Until his death in 1868, he then kept up an unremitting evangelical enthusiasm. When Billy was in the pulpit, the chapels rang with spontaneous shouts while he danced with joy. His was an exuberant religion, verging on what to our eyes might seem close to hysteria.

For all the excitement, Billy’s sermons were laced with practical metaphors and a sharp wit. All this, delivered in a Cornish accent, added to his growing popularity with the mining population in which he was firmly rooted.

Extrovert religion was accompanied by incredible energy. Juggling his work as a miner with tending his smallholding and regular preaching, Billy still found time to organise the building of three chapels. The first was at Cross Lanes, near Twelveheads, the second (and only survivor) at Kerley Downs, while the third was at Carharrack.

Perhaps his approach to life was best summed up by Reverend William Haslam, Vicar at Baldhu Church, describing the day, sometime in the 1850s, when he first met Billy. Hearing someone ‘praising the Lord’

I rose from the breakfast table and opened the door to see who my happy, unceremonious visitor could be; and then for the first time beheld this queer looking man. I asked him who he was. He replied, with a face beaming with joy –

“I am Billy Bray – be you the passon?

“Yes,” I answered.

Converted, be ye?”

“Yes, thank God” ….

After a time, Billy joined us again in the dining room, to take, by invitation, some breakfast; but before he sat down he approached me and suddenly put his arm around me, and took me up, and carried me around the table, and then, setting me down at my chair, rolled on the floor for joy, and said he was as “happy as he could live”.

Billy Bray’s chapel at Kerley Downs

Bob Fitzsimmons: Cornwall’s world boxing champion

Cornwall can claim a world boxing champion. And not just a champion but someone who won three world championships at different weights – middle, heavy and light heavy.

The house in Wendron Street where Bob was born

In actual fact, Bob Fitzsimmons’ connection to Cornwall was rather tangential. Born in Helston on this day in 1863, his father was an Ulsterman employed as one of Helston’s two borough policemen, although his mother was the aptly named Jane Strongman from Truro. The family upped sticks and migrated to New Zealand in 1872 when Bob was just nine, along with other Cornish emigrants attracted to South Island. His father set up there as a blacksmith and eventually Bob followed him into that trade, a useful calling for a boxer.

Bob Fitzsimmons began boxing around 1878 and in 1883 did what many Cornish people in the 1880s and 1890s did and began travelling, hopping from country to country across the English-speaking world. A few years as a semi-professional boxer in Australia ended with a disputed middleweight championship contest, which Bob’s fans contended was rigged. In 1890 he moved on to San Francisco and began fighting in the States. Within a year he had fought and beaten Jack Dempsey to become the middleweight world champion.

Bob in pugilistic pose

From 1897 to 1899 Fitzsimmons held the heavyweight championship after knocking out James J. Corbett in the fourteenth round of a bruising battle in Carson City, Nevada. When the light heavyweight title was established in 1903 Bob took that too, holding it for two years, into his early 40s.

Boxing wasn’t his only business, however. He also wrote a book on self-defence, acted, and managed to get married four times and divorced twice during this time.

Sadly, Bob also went on to prove the old adage that the higher you rise the further you fall. He carried on boxing too long, losing in his later career to a string of nonentities before finally giving up in 1914. A US citizen since 1893, he died in 1917 of pneumonia in Chicago, his childhood days in Helston by then no doubt a dim memory.

Sir William Molesworth: an enigmatic Victorian

Sir William Molesworth is a character from the past who deserves more than the footnote usually devoted to him in histories of Cornwall. Born in May 1810, he was the eighth in a line of baronets and heir to Pencarrow, near Wadebridge. But he was an anomaly: patrician in appearance and manner but democratic in philosophy and politics; rebel by inclination but a member of the landed gentry.

Molesworth later claimed a ‘hatred of all instituted authorities’, an attitude that stemmed from some ill-treatment as a child and a series of clashes with college authorities when at Cambridge. There he first fell out with St John’s College – ‘they are not gentlemen’ he wrote, ‘nor do they possess the manners of gentlemen’. Then at Trinity in 1828 he got embroiled in a dispute over the gambling of a friend. This resulted in him challenging a college tutor to a duel. The pair were bound over to keep the peace, but met at Calais a year later, where they fortunately both missed their targets.

The year or so at Cambridge was preceded by a spell at Edinburgh and followed by tours in central Europe. In the former place Molesworth was inspired by the ideas of the Scottish philosophical radicals; in the latter his interest in horticulture was piqued by the gardens he visited in Italy.

A late portrait of Molesworth – a strange
resemblance to Stephen Fry

In 1832 in the first election after the Reform Act he was elected to Parliament for East Cornwall. Molesworth soon proved to be one of the most radical voices in the Commons, favouring later Chartist demands such as the secret ballot and triennial parliaments, as well as education for all, Irish Home Rule and the abolition of the House of Lords. These ideas, plus his opposition to the Corn Laws and support for free trade, alarmed fellow reformers in east Cornwall, and the farmers who had voted for him. In 1836 Molesworth abruptly resigned his Cornish seat, although being returned to parliament as MP for the more radical constituency of Leeds.

In the Whig Government of the later 1830s he served as Colonial Secretary, helping to phase out transportation, while consistently supporting colonial reform. But his frustration with his parliamentary colleagues – ‘timid and irresolute’ – and a lack of the political stamina needed to push through reform in Britain led him to give up his parliamentary career in 1841.

He then turned to writing an eleven-volume tome on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and improving his gardens at Pencarrow, where he introduced several new species of tree, including the monkey-puzzle. In 1841, in a diary entry that might well ring bells now, he wrote ‘I am living a life of the most tranquil repose … delighted at being free of the turmoil of politics; day succeeds day without other change than is marked by the successive pages in the books I am reading’.

Pencarrow House, largely rebuilt in the 18th century and the 1840s

His nine or ten hours a day spent reading and writing came to an abrupt end in 1844 when he married a professional singer, Andalusia Grant. Andalusia persuaded him to re-enter politics. He duly became MP for Southwark in 1845, this serving as a base for a hectic London social life. His radicalism by now somewhat diluted, he did however, as Commissioner of Works (and as an agnostic willing to face down religious prejudice) open Kew Gardens to the public on Sundays. This was regarded as a great boon for working people unable to visit during the week.

Sadly, a congenitally delicate constitution meant William Molesworth died in 1855 in London, aged just 45. Early death ran in the family. None of the seven previous baronets had survived to see their 50s either.

An idiot’s guide to the life and death of Richard Trevithick

Books have been written about him, poems dedicated to him, statues erected in his honour, plaques affixed to significant buildings and locations in his life, university libraries named after him. He even has his own festival. It’s time this blog offered its own stripped-down guide to the life of Richard Trevithick as this month sees the anniversary of both his birth in 1771 in the heart of Cornwall’s central mining district and his death far away to the east in 1833.

A portrait of Trevithick painted in 1816

Known affectionately as ‘Cap’n Dick’ or ‘the Cornish giant’, Trevithick has always had a special fascination and place in Cornish memory. His reliance on practical experiment rather than theory, his physical strength, his prickly independence and his financial hopelessness somehow resonated with the Cornish psyche.

He was an inattentive schoolchild but taught himself engineering and mechanics to an advanced level for his times. By his twenties he was advising mine owners on their steam engines. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the founder of Harvey’s Foundry at Hayle, a connection from which he curiously gained little advantage. Meanwhile, his achievements can be summarised under three headings – the steam engine, steam locomotion and adventures in foreign parts.

Trevithick’s career with steam power began at a time when Cornish mines adventurers were looking to reduce their fuel costs and escape the payments they were making under Boulton and Watt’s steam engine patent. Various engineers came up with designs that improved on Watt’s engine, although they were hamstrung by legal actions until the patent ran out in 1800. However, it was Trevithick who was particularly associated with ‘high-pressure steam’. His engines eliminated the need for a separate condenser and allowed for a smaller cylinder. This generally reduced the weight and size of engines. Eventually, it led to the ‘Cornish engine’ of 1812. Thereafter, Cornish steam engines achieved levels of efficiency that were deemed impossible by the scientific theory of the time.

It was a logical step to take this more efficient, lighter engine and mount it on wheels. From 1801 to 1808 Trevithick came up with at least five versions of a steam locomotive. The first trial run at Camborne gave rise to the song ‘Going up Camborne hill’. Unfortunately, this vehicle met a sorry end on the road to Tehidy, where Sir Francis Basset was eagerly waiting to see it. After overturning, its attendants had retired to a convenient hostelry. Unwisely they left the fire burning. The boiler ran dry, overheated and everything flammable was consumed in flames.

Other attempts followed – in London, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, at Penydarren ironworks in south Wales and again in London. In the last three of these the engine ran on rails. The device worked although the rails still buckled under the weight.

Replica of the 1804 Penydarren locomotive

Trevithick spent many years adventuring and inventing in foreign parts. From 1808 to 1810 he was in London, involved in various schemes mainly connected to the river and the sea – a tunnel under the Thames, floating docks, a ship propelled by water jets, iron cargo containers, screw propellers and an early version of a turbine for example. None of these could be turned into lucrative money-spinners however and, after suffering from a bout of typhus and being declared bankrupt, he returned to Cornwall and to the steam engine.

In 1816 he left his seemingly incredibly patient wife and six children to sail to South America and Peru’s silver mines. As was his tendency he soon fell out with associates. Moreover, mining in South America was at this time severely disrupted by the wars of independence from Spanish rule. At one stage Trevithick served with the army of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. By 1822 he had left Peru and travelled through Central America to Costa Rica. On the journey he had almost been drowned and narrowly escaped being bitten by an alligator. This Central American venture also proved to be a disappointment and Trevithick found himself in 1827 penniless in Cartagena, Columbia. By an odd coincidence the railway engineer and inventor, and Trevithick’s rival, Robert Stephenson, was also in that port. Stephenson lent Trevithick £50 for his voyage home. Late that year Trevithick finally re-joined his family after an absence of 11 years.

Trevithick ended his days at a foundry in Dartford in Kent, experimenting with jet propulsion and designing stronger boilers. But in his later years he began to be plagued by breathing problems. In 1833 he contracted pneumonia and died at his lodgings. Outside Cornwall Trevithick’s achievements have tended to be overshadowed by the success of the Stephensons in developing the early railway. However, now we are nearing the end of the fossil fuel era, one of its early heroes is more widely receiving the proper respect he deserves.

A poem in the Cornish language

And now for something completely different. In the current circumstances a small dose of poetry might lift our spirits a bit and remind us of another reality. But not just any old poetry; let’s sample something written in the Cornish language.

Tim Saunders is the most accomplished poet writing in Cornish. Tim’s most recent publication is Virgil’s Fountain/Fenten Feryl, published by Francis Boutle and described as ‘a poem of love and loss in which myth strives to give shape to unbearable memory’. To give a flavour of Tim’s poetry here’s one from his collection The High Tide: Collected Poems in Cornish 1974-1999. It first appears in Tim’s spelling, then with his literal translation and finally in the traditional, colloquial Cornish spelling that I use.

Vodya

Monez yn-kerdh pan dheu gworthewer,
meyn ow’kwska yn fosow isel,
edreg ow’chwystra’n-kosel, kosel,
avowa kÿvrin dhown dhÿ’nn gewer.

Kerdhez war fordh a-hyz ann morreb,
meyn ow’kwska dhÿ woelez avon,
lanwez gov ow’puthi peub bystyon,
gwovynn heb gwaityanz kavoz gwortheb.
Gwortos ha’ miraz worth ann mordan,
meyn ow’kwska yn mysk ann tyweuz,
gevyanz nowneug ow’c’hwilaz pec’heuz,
gwolsowez worth ann nos polz byc’han.
Kilya a’nn traeth, a’nn tir, a’nn Noarvyz,
meyn ow’kwska yn kylc’how’nn ebrenn,
kov ow’fellyl, kÿvrenn ha kÿvrenn,
c’hwilaz korfow’nn lavarow kÿllyz.

Departing

Setting out when evening comes, stones sleeping in low walls, regret whispering quietly, quietly, admitting a deep secret to the weather.

Walking on a road along by the sea, stones sleeping at the bottom of a river, memory’s tide swamping all dirty water, asking without hoping to get an answer.

Waiting and looking at the fluorescence on the sea, stones sleeping amongst the sand, hungry forgiveness looking for sin, listening to the night for a little moment.

Retreating from the beach, from the land, from the earth, stones sleeping in the circles of the sky, memory failing, link by link, looking for the bodies of the lost words.

Voydia

Moaz e-ker pa thea gothewar,  
mein a cuska en fozow ezal,  
edrak a whistra’n cuzal, cuzal,  
avowa kevrin down tha’n gewar. 
Kerraz war vor a-hez an morreb, 
mein a cuska tha wolez awan, 
lanez cov a perthi pub bistian, 
goofen heb gwaitianz cavaz gorreb. 
Gurtaz ha miraz ort an mordan, 
mein a cuska amesk an tewez, 
gevianz naoneg a whilaz pehez, 
gasowaz ort an nôz pols bian. 
Kilia a’n treath, a’n tîr, a’n Nôarvez, 
mein a cuska en kelghow’n ebarn, 
cov a fillal, kevran ha kevran, 
whilaz corfow’n lavarow kellez.

John Passmore Edwards: the Cornish philanthropist

Anyone who walks around Cornish towns with half an eye open cannot fail to spot the buildings adorned with the name ‘Passmore Edwards’. But who was Passmore Edwards?

John Passmore Edwards was born on 24th March 1823 in a nondescript cottage in Blackwater, a mining village a mile or two east of Redruth on the main road through Cornwall. John’s father wasn’t a miner but made his living from a variety of useful skills, including market gardening and carpentry. This allowed the family to pay to school their four children. John read avidly and became a solicitor’s clerk in Truro before giving this up for the lure of journalism.

After spending a few years in Manchester working on a radical newspaper, John moved to London. He survived on freelance journalism before entering the publishing business and buying his first magazine in 1851. This turned out to be a disaster and he became bankrupt. Nonetheless, by 1861 by dint of unremitting work he’d recovered his losses and was even able to pay off his creditors.

The Passmore Edwards Library at Redruth

After that hiccup John Passmore Edwards’ fortunes began to change. He settled down, married and began buying a variety of publications. In 1874 these included an evening paper, the Echo, at just the time the market for cheap daily newspapers was beginning to expand rapidly. This made his fortune and from 1890 he turned to philanthropy, using his resources to fund buildings across the south of England and in Cornwall. Many of these were libraries but there were Science and Art schools, an art gallery and even a convalescent home.

While not exactly a story of rags to riches, John Passmore Edwards’ life was the stereotype of the Victorian self-made man. Yet throughout his life. Passmore Edwards stuck to his radical principles. He had been involved in agitation against the Corn Laws even before leaving Cornwall. In later life, he continued to speak truth to power, using his titles to stand up for the poor, for peace overseas and for reform at home, and using his money to support ‘useful knowledge’ and educational facilities.

Newlyn Art Gallery

True to his convictions, he declined a knighthood and died at home in Hampstead in 1911, aged 88. John Passmore Edwards would now presumably be spinning in his grave if he could see the sorry state to which the press in the UK has descended.

The mystery of mid-Cornwall’s literati

The cottage in which Clemo grew up.

On this day in 1916 one of Cornwall’s foremost writers was born at Goonamarris, in Cornwall’s clay country. This was Jack Clemo, writer of dialect tales, autobiographies, novels and theological works, but best remembered for his poetry. Clemo’s works – stark, harsh, unforgiving – and his opinions – from Calvinism to obscure mysticism – do not make him an easy or comfortable read in our shallow post-modern times. However, his achievement was immense, even without taking into account the physical disabilities which left him virtually blind from an early age and then deaf.

More widely, Clemo was one of a band of writers who hailed from the St Austell district of mid-Cornwall. These include the academics A.L.Rowse and Quiller-Couch, Rowse also being a poet and Q a novelist. Ann Treneer was the daughter of a teacher at Gorran, on the other side of St Austell Bay from Q, and wrote Schoolhouse in the Wind and Cornish Years. Then there were the Hocking siblings, Joseph, Salome and Silas, who wrote hundreds of novels between them and came from the same parish as Clemo – St Stephen in Brannel. In the contemporary period we have the prolific output of Alan Kent, poet, dramatist and novelist, who is also from the clay country.

What is it about the St Austell district that makes it a hot spot for literature, with more than its fair share of writers? Is it just luck? Or is there a deeper factor involved? The question is particularly intriguing when we note the reputation the clay businessmen had for cultural philistinism, although this was probably exaggerated by snobbery, Rowse being particularly adept at this. Nonetheless, when Passmore Edwards offered to finance the building of a library as long as the local council paid for its upkeep out of the rates, St Austell Urban District Council was one of the few to turn down the offer.

For more on Clemo see Luke Thompson, Clay Phoenix: a biography of Jack Clemo, London, 2016.

For the Hockings see Alan Kent, Pulp Methodism: The Lives and Literature of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking, St Austell, 2002.

The Black Prince. ‘Our’ first Duke of Cornwall

In 1337 King Edward III upgraded the existing earldom of Cornwall and made it into a duchy. He also established the convention that it would henceforth belong to the eldest son of the monarch. The recipient in 1337 and first Duke of Cornwall was the seven-year old Edward of Woodstock.

A romanticised image from the 19th century

On coming of age young Edward ensured that Duchy offices were packed with his own men. Very few Cornish in the years before the 1460s held Duchy posts. The Duke was keen to make more money from his estate. In addition, unlike the immediately preceding earls, he was also prepared to order action against local gentry who overstepped the mark and took the law too frequently into their own hands. He curbed local hard men such as John Trevarthian and Sir John l’Ercedekne, while imprisoning his own Duchy steward in Launceston Castle in 1357 for misdemeanours.

But despite this oversight, Edward remained an absentee lord, only visiting Cornwall twice, for a couple of weeks in 1354 and over Christmas and the New Year in 1362-63. Each time he ventured only as far west as Restormel. His main interest became squeezing the surplus from the Duchy to pay for the wars he was busy fighting in France.

Here you are, son. Here’s
Aquitaine. Forget Cornwall” Edward III rewards the Black Prince

At the age of 16 Edward had played a prominent part in the victory at Crecy. Later, in 1356, he captured the French King at Poitiers and took him back to England. Becoming Prince of Aquitaine in 1362 Edward never returned to Cornwall after his visit late that year. In his absence over the Channel, oversight inevitably became looser and even more remote. Cornishmen began to pick up more Duchy offices, while endemic lawlessness and family feuding returned.

Meanwhile, the Duke was getting involved in the Castilian civil war. More battles were won there until he contracted dysentery in 1367. Recurrent bouts of illness pursued him through his final decade and he eventually died of dysentery at Canterbury in 1376, aged 46.

And why was he ‘black’? This may be a later designation as the first reference did not appear until the 1530s. It’s been suggested that it came from the colour of his shield or armour. Others insist it stems from his brutal reputation in Aquitaine, where he was not slow to put the French to the sword. However he obtained his sobriquet, this martial Duke seems to have treated his Duchy as a convenient cash cow rather than any more meaningful constitutional possession.

Richard Lander: Cornwall’s own superhero

On this day in 1834 Richard Lander died on the island then known to Europeans as Fernando Po and now called Bioko, off the coast of Cameroon. Lander had gained fame as an explorer in the 1830s, his accounts of his west African adventures appealing to the public appetite for stories of gripping derring-do. In fact, he was an early nineteenth century Cornish superhero. At least in the eyes of popular culture.

He was born the son of an innkeeper, in a pub which was located in the row of buildings opposite the present bus station in Truro. But placid Truro was never going to be enough for the young Richard, who had a wanderlust.

In 1815, at the age of 11, he became a merchant’s servant, accompanying his master to the Caribbean. There he stayed for three years, contracting and surviving malaria in the process before returning to Truro. Not for long though. Five years were then spent in service to various well-to-do but itinerant families. Trips to Europe were followed by a year in Cape Colony, where Richard’s fascination with Africa was sparked. At that time Africa was largely unmapped and its interior terra incognito to westerners.

Richard was involved in three expeditions to west Africa, exploring the River Niger and its environs. The first, in 1825-28 ended in unmitigated disaster. All the party became ill with fever in the north-west of present-day Nigeria and they all died. All except Richard that is. He bravely trekked south east alone to the coast, surviving capture, a trial for witchcraft and drinking poison to prove his innocence on the way. This was all great boys’ own material and Richard’s account of these events, published in several books, made him famous.

The second expedition in 1830-31 was more successful. Accompanied by his younger brother John, the party explored 160 kilometres of the River Niger. Again captured, ransomed, their possessions plundered, the riveting events captured the public imagination.

Richard’s final trip to west Africa was in 1833-34. This was funded by Liverpool merchants looking to set up a trading settlement. Elements of the native population were clearly not overjoyed to see European explorers as Lander’s party was again ambushed on the Niger in January 1834. This time Richard was wounded, a musketball having penetrated his thigh. Returning to Bioko, his wound turned gangrenous and he died within hours, aged only 30.

In his hometown, a subscription was quickly raised for a memorial to this son of Cornwall. In 1835 construction began at the top of Lemon Street. Unfortunately it collapsed during the building in 1836 but was eventually completed. Several years later in 1852, Cornish sculptor Neville Northey Burnard added the statue of Richard Lander, which now stands imperiously on the top of monument.