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.

A.L.Rowse

What is it about mid-Cornwall that produces such prolific authors? The Hocking siblings, from St Stephen in Brannel, wrote almost 200 novels. A century later Alan Kent, who grew up in the clay country, is giving us scores of novels, plays, poems and histories. Not to mention Jack Clemo and Anne Treneer. And then there was Arthur Leslie Rowse, born at Tregonissey, just outside St Austell, on December 4th, 1903. Rowse became Cornwall’s foremost academic of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike his predecessor Arthur Quiller- Couch, he was of more working-class background, although his clay worker father had a small shop.

Rowse in 1942

Keenly supported in his career by Q, Rowse gained a scholarship to Oxford in 1921 to study English literature. He soon switched to history and it was the combination of history with a literary bent that made his name. He became best known for his work on the sixteenth century and Elizabethan England. His Tudor Cornwall, published in 1941, is still a key text for that period of Cornish history.

After being overlooked in 1952 for the post of warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he was a research fellow, Rowse spent a considerable time in the States, especially in California. It was there that he wrote The Cornish in America (1969). Never one to take either rejection or criticism easily Rowse later admitted that losing the wardenship enabled him to concentrate on his best work.

Rowse was never backward in coming forward to assert his own greatness. But equally, he was able to laugh at himself too. Everyone who met him has their favourite Rowse anecdote. Mine is of him at a conference at Perranporth in the 1980s. He had pompously backed up some opinion by stating ‘I’ve got a first-class Oxford-trained brain’. Responding from the audience the late Pedyr Prior prefaced his question with ‘As someone with a third-class Plymouth-trained brain … ’. Collapse of audience, as well as Rowse.

Rowse’s ground-breaking work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, when he claimed he had identified Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ involved him in his best-known academic controversy. While largely ignored in the outside world, it caused some bitter academic fallings out and much harrumphing over the port. Rowse’s autobiographical books, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Cornish Childhood (1942) were the tip of his unpublished and voluminous diary writings, which are by all accounts not a little scurrilous in their acid observations on academic colleagues.

Loyalty to his background meant that in the 1920s and ‘30s Rowse was a Labour man, even standing as Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency (which included St Austell) in 1931 and 1935. The voters of that constituency were saved the fate of having Rowse as MP when he resigned as candidate in 1943, later leaving the Labour Party over its opposition to Suez.

Rowse’s attitude towards the common people was ambivalent, to say the least. His love-hate relationship with both Oxford and Cornwall are summed up in the titles of the two biographies written about him. For Richard Ollard, he was a ‘man of contradictions’. From a Cornish perspective, Philip Payton dubbed him a ‘paradoxical patriot’.

Paradoxical or not, in later life he mellowed somewhat (although never totally) and became reconciled once again to his homeland. He spent his final years at Trenarren on St Austell Bay, a house he had first leased in 1953. Rowse continued to publish extensively, even after his All Souls fellowship ended in 1974. From that time, aged 71, to his death in 1997, he turned out a phenomenal 36 books. There’s hope for us all yet!

Q

This week in 1863 saw the birth of Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cornwall’s foremost early twentieth century intellectual. While at Oxford Quiller-Couch adopted the pseudonym Q.

Born at Bodmin, his father hailed from a well-known Polperro family, Q’s grandfather being the naturalist Jonathan Couch. Yet his mother’s home was Newton Abbot and it was there, outside Cornwall, that the young Quiller-Couch received his education, before moving on to Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Oxford.

Between leaving Oxford in 1886 and returning to formal academic life at Cambridge in 1912, Q was a full-time author, at first in London and then from 1892 at his wife’s home town of Fowey. His first novel was published in 1887 and this was followed by almost 40 novels, collections of short stories and anthologies. Many of these were set in Cornwall, the most notable being The Astonishing History of Troy Town (1888) and The Delectable Duchy (1893). The latter, with its humorous yet sympathetic treatment of a fading Cornish world, did much to put Cornwall on the tourist map. This was something Q agonised about in 1899-1900 when he edited the short-lived Cornish Magazine.

Q in 1934

Having edited the Oxford Book of English Verse from 1900, the standard anthology of verse, Q was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University in 1912. He was a key figure there in the campaign that established English as a faculty separate from medieval and modern languages.

Meanwhile, outside the university terms he was more usually found back in Fowey. He served for 30 years on the Cornwall Education Committee, which oversaw the establishment of grammar schools after the Education Act of 1902. It was these that provided the route for A.L.Rowse, Q’s protégé, to become the leading light of the next generation of Cornish intellectuals.

Like many of his middle class contemporaries in Cornwall, Q was kindly disposed towards the Cornish ‘Revival’, although he remained the epitome of the English gentlemanly ideal. Nonetheless, while Conservative in cultural terms and Anglican in his religion, Q was resolutely liberal in his politics and was rewarded for his services with a knighthood from the Liberal Government in 1910.

As Alan Kent has pointed out, Q straddled the two worlds of the English establishment and Cornish particularism. Yet he remained sceptical of many of the more fanciful notions of the early twentieth century revivalists. When it was proposed that the mystery plays of the fourteenth-century should be restaged, Q remarked drily that ‘the audience would have to be play-acting even more strenuously than the actors’.