Silas Hocking: a Cornish record-breaker

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

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

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

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

Charles Causley

The Cornish poet Charles Causley was born in Launceston on August 24th, 1917.

The Seasons in North Cornwall

O Spring has set off her green fuses
Down by the Tamar today,
And careless, like tide-marks, the hedges
Are bursting with almond and may.

Here lie I waiting for old summer,
A red face and straw-coloured hair has he:
I shall meet him on the road from Marazion
And the Mediterranean Sea.

September has flung a spray of rooks
On the sea-chart of the sky,
The tall shipmasts crack in the forest
And the banners of autumn fly.

My room is a bright glass cabin,
All Cornwall thunders at my door,
And the white ships of winter lie
In the sea-roads of the moor.

Admiral Boscawen

There used to be a pub in Truro called the Admiral Boscawen. But who was Admiral Boscawen? Born this week in 1711, Edward Boscawen was the third son of the first Viscount Falmouth of nearby Tregothnan. He went on to become one of the leading naval officers of the day and a British war hero. In the 1600s the Cornish had been known for their martial prowess on land during the civil wars of mid-century. By the 1700s their exploits were more likely to happen at sea. Because of Cornwall’s maritime location and the activities of press gangs in its ports, the Cornish-born component of the Royal Navy – at three per cent of its complement – was around three times what its population might suggest. With quantity also came quality.

Edward Boscawen entered the Navy at the age of 15. It wasn’t too long before he displayed the appropriate aggressive instincts. In 1741 he led a near-suicidal night attack on Spanish shore batteries at Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and as a result was appointed captain. He followed this up by taking a leading role in attacking a French fleet off Cape Finisterre in 1746. Leading his ship in full sail towards the French and trusting the rest of the fleet would follow him, Boscawen was shot in the shoulder. He became a rear-admiral soon afterwards.

Sometimes bravery shaded into a willingness to go to the limits of orders and beyond. In 1755, on a mission in the north Atlantic to prevent the French reinforcing their colony at Quebec, Boscawen attacked three French ships, sinking two. Although relations with the French were at a low ebb, Britain was not actually at war with them. It soon was.

Admiral Boscawen

On that expedition Boscawen reported that half of his ship’s crew was on the sick list and overall his fleet lost 2,000 men to fever on that mission. However, he seems to have taken more than the usual effort to look after the health of his men, installing ventilators for example to circulate air below decks and ensuring supplies of fresh vegetables and fish if at all possible. Sometimes, this could backfire, as when several of his men died after eating a poisonous fish caught in the Indian Ocean. Although a strict disciplinarian typical of his times, he seems to have been popular and was given the nickname ‘Old Dreadnought’ by the men, after a ship he had commanded early in his career.

An MP for Truro from 1742, Boscawen managed to survive the changing government ministries of the time and retain his position at the Admiralty. He became best known for his exploits in 1758 when his capture of Louisburg and Cape Breton in Canada helped to turn the tide of the Seven Years’ War against France. A year later, he also destroyed some French ships of the line at the battle of Lagos off southern Portugal. Showing little respect for Portuguese neutrality, he scuppered the French plans to link up with their fleet at Brest.

Two years later however, Boscawen died of fever, probably typhus, at his newly built house at Hatchlands in Surrey, an estate bought in 1749.

His biographer calls him ‘determined and confident’, someone who combined ‘resolution with compassion, single mindedness with understanding’ and who was ‘thoroughly professional’. He was also the first among several Cornish naval heroes of the 1700s and early 1800s.

Henry Jenner

On this day in 1848 Henry Jenner was born at St Columb. Jenner played a key role in the Cornish ‘revival’ that began in the 1870s and has long been regarded as the patriarch of Cornish revivalism. However, he wasn’t brought up in Cornwall, having been taken with his family to Essex and then Kent at the tender age of three. He didn’t return even for a visit until he was 19. Nevertheless, the young Henry nurtured an intense emotional yearning for Cornwall. This was possibly exacerbated by his unwordly education at an Anglo-Catholic boarding school. Both the school and his clergyman father’s High Church perspective bequeathed young Henry his world-view, one that he loyally took with him to his grave in 1934.

Discovering the Cornish language as a teenager, Jenner found a romantic surrogate, a consolation for his lost homeland and one moreover that gelled with his general attachment to all things old, preferably from before the Reformation. His work as a keeper at the British Museum from 1870 to his retirement in 1909 was an appropriate base for his interests. In the mid-1870s, he published articles on the Cornish language and toured West Penwith in a largely disappointing quest to find some fragments of the traditional spoken language.

Jenner as Grand Bard in what became required regalia for any self-respecting Cornish Celt

After an interlude, Jenner was drawn back to the Cornish language at the turn of the century. He wrote his Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904. This has been widely seen as kick-starting the re-invention of the language, while Jenner also played a vital role in getting Cornwall accepted as a Celtic nation. Returning to Cornwall on his retirement in 1909 he became a central and unmistakeable figure in the ‘revival’. Among other posts, he was President of the first Old Cornwall Society at St Ives in 1920 and inevitably the first Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorseth in 1928. He had written a draft ceremony for this body as early as 1907.

In recent years Jenner’s wider affiliations have come in for more scrutiny. For instance, for Jenner language was a less important factor in Cornish nationality than race. As Tim Saunders has shown – in his chapter in Henry and Katharine Jenner (2004) – he viewed the Celts (and the Anglo-Saxons come to that) as superior to the ‘aboriginal’ inhabitants of Britain, who he thought made up the bulk of the English working class. Politically Jenner was no Cornish nationalist; instead he was a unionist with views that were pretty far off the scale. While ‘opposing every radical cause from Italian unity onward’ he also looked forward to the restoration of legitimist monarchies, whether Stuarts in Britain or Carlists in Spain. In fact, any monarch at all was preferable to democracy, which he described as ‘hateful’. This wasn’t just an academic affectation. Sharon Lowenna (in Cornish Studies Twelve) showed how Jenner was involved in preparing secret codes for the Firefly plot in 1899. This was a plan cooked up to smuggle firearms to Carlists in Spain. It was eventually scuppered by the Spanish navy.

Jenner’s commitment was to faith (in the Anglo-Catholic church), throne (as long as Stuarts sat on it), and fatherland (both Cornwall and Empire). This dreamworld ideology was unlikely to appeal readily to the practical, down-to-earth and dour Methodist modernism of the average Cornish person of the Edwardian period. It was also a context for a view that learning Cornish was essentially a sacramental act, a personal commitment to land and ancestry. Nonetheless, his Handbook was based on the living Cornish of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Paradoxically, it was his less ethereal successors who took it further back in time, grounding it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and making it even more ‘classical’ and sacramental in the process.

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.