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.

Trematon Castle

The Normans arrived in Cornwall in 1070, around four years after seeing off the English at Hastings. Once here, they threw up a handful of their trademark castles, probably at first wooden structures on top of a raised piece of ground – a motte – overlooking an enclosed courtyard – or bailey. The first two hugged the Tamar at Launceston and Trematon and were joined within a few decades by a castle at Restormel, near Lostwithiel. The location of the first castles in the far east suggest an initial uncertainty about possible insurgencies by the native Cornish.

In the 1100s these castles were rebuilt with impressive stone keeps and, along with Tintagel, which was built in the early 1200s, eventually became the visible symbols of the power of the earldom of Cornwall. Trematon is probably the least well-known of the four but stands comparison with the others. It’s described in the recent edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England as ‘more impressive than Launceston, if not as perfect as Restormel’.

The castle keep at Trematon

Situated on a hill overlooking a branch of the Tamar estuary near Saltash, Trematon castle was sold to the earl in 1270 and since then has been the property of the earldom and, from 1337, the Duchy of Cornwall. In the late 1200s a gatehouse was built, together with a hall and other buildings in the bailey. The gatehouse survives although the other buildings have long gone, being replaced in 1808-09 by a country house. In the process part of the castle wall was demolished in order to obtain a sea view.

The house built in 1808-09 in the former bailey

Handed around from favourite to favourite by a succession of earls and dukes, the castle for the most part remained untroubled by the swirls and currents of medieval and early modern history. One flurry of excitement occurred in 1400 when Geoffrey Penriche, bailiff of Trematon, led a group of armed men into Saltash in belated support of a rising to restore Richard II to the throne taken by Henry IV.  Failing miserably to garner support from the townsfolk, Penriche contented himself with stealing some cash and a few barrels of red wine before riding off eastwards into the dustbin of history.

Warbstow Bury

One of Cornwall’s most impressive hillforts is Warbstow Bury in north Cornwall. Overlooking the River Ottery around a mile to the north, it’s easy to imagine Cornish warriors using this fort to look across the valley, monitoring events there in the 810s or thereabouts. That was when the English were settling the land north of the Ottery and possibly expelling the native inhabitants in the process.

The ramparts still dominate the landscape

But this fort, with its two widely spaced ramparts and a partial third is an Iron Age fort and was built and occupied many centuries before the English arrived. As usual, according to folklore it had its resident giant, whose grave can be seen in the middle of the fort. More prosaically, this is now thought to be the remains of a medieval rabbit warren.

The views from the fort also led to its use as a Home Guard observation post in the Second World War, a continuity over millennia.

Warbstow Bury in 1882

Cornwall’s literary and philosophical societies

Currently, Cornwall’s largest museum, the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is temporarily closed to the public. This is the result of ‘continued reduction in grants and consistently low visitor numbers’. The museum’s origins date back more than 200 years. On the 5th February 1818 a number of gentlemen met together at Truro Library. From that meeting came the Cornwall Philosophical Institution, which soon added ‘literary’ to its title. It later became the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC). The RIC remains the managing body for the museum.

The building that housed the original RCM
(to the right)

Literary societies in the 1800s provided lectures and in the days before mass education were often associated with libraries and museums. The RIC was one of a triumvirate of literary societies that were established in the 1810s in Cornwall. The first had been the Cornwall Geological Society at Penzance in 1814 and the third was the Cornwall Physical Institution at Falmouth. This latter body folded but in 1833 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society took up the baton in the same town.

Falmouth, Penzance and Truro were the three Cornish towns with the largest and most confident professional and middle classes, who comprised the bulk of the membership of these societies. They were also situated on the edge of the mining districts of west Cornwall. Those districts had from the 1730s onwards created the wealth from which the urban middle classes benefited.

Three lit and phils in such a relatively confined district reflected Cornwall’s dispersed population structure but could prove a drawback in terms of collaboration and ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Some sporadic efforts in the 1840s to combine the societies came to nothing, foundering on the rocks of small town patriotism.

Unfortunately, a museum explicitly devoted to the pan-Cornish story with widespread popular support never emerged. The recent failure of the RCM to discover a viable ‘business model’ for the museum, in a Cornwall with twice the population as in 1818 and many times wealthier, presumably tells us something about the nature of modern Cornwall and its prevailing priorities.

The impressive frontage of the current RCM, opened in 1919

Carn Brea: sentiment and settlement

Like the Tamar Bridge, or the clay tips of mid-Cornwall, Carn Brea is one those iconic Cornish landmarks. It’s a reminder of home, an unmistakable landscape element standing sentinel over Cornwall’s central mining district. It was that location, at the heart of the most populous and dynamic district of Cornwall in the late 1700s and early 1800s that sealed Carn Brea’s status as a symbol of Cornwall.

Carn Brea with its 1836 monument to Sir Francis Basset, seen from the north-west

But this granite hill is more than just a symbol. Its eastern summit is the site of one of the oldest permanent settlements in Britain. Somewhere around 3900 to 3650 BC Neolithic people were settling down to do a bit of farming. They built stone ramparts enclosing a hectare of land on Carn Brea. At that time this would have been surrounded by woods, some of which they cleared for crops. This ‘tor enclosure’ then became home to an estimated 150 to 200 people for around 300 years. By 3600-3350BC the walls were collapsing. Finds of hundreds of flint arrowheads near an entrance and evidence for burnt timber buildings suggest the residents met an untimely and violent end.

Later, around 800BC, the Neolithic ramparts were rebuilt and greatly extended, to form an Iron Age hillfort. A dozen or so round houses in the saddle between the eastern summit and the monument are evidence for its occupation, as are pottery finds and coins of this period.

Near the centre of the Neolithic fort is Carn Brea ‘Castle’. This was built by the Bassets sometime before 1478, when it was first noted. It could have been a hunting lodge (the land nearby being a deer park) or may have housed a chapel. It would have been visible from the Bassets’ home several miles away at Tehidy.

What we now see is not the original, however. It was partly rebuilt and extended in the 1700s, described in 1780 as having been ‘modernised’. Even after that, in the late 1800s, a new south wing was added. In more recent times, the castle was completely renovated in the 1970s to become a restaurant, with some of the best views in Cornwall. That’s when it’s not shrouded in low cloud of course.

Any self-respecting Cornish carn has to have its giant and Carn Brea is no exception. Indeed, several of the huge stones that litter the hillside were supposed to have been the dismembered body parts of the giant who once lived there. He was destroyed by another giant – Bolster – who lived on St Agnes Beacon. Bolster was unerringly accurate when he chucked a load of rocks at his rival, with disastrous effects for the latter. The original name of the Carn Brea giant has not come down to us. The suggestion in 1887 that it was ‘old John of Gaunt’ seems extremely unlikely.

Meanwhile, when John Wesley visited the Carn, he was distinctly unimpressed. ‘Of what consequence is it either to the dead or the living, whether [the ruins] have withstood the wastes of time for 3,000 or 300 years’, he wrote in 1770. John Wesley was evidently not an archaeologist.

Cornish towns in 1698

Celia Fiennes journeyed through Cornwall on horseback in 1698. In her journal she provided brief accounts of some of the towns she saw.

Having endured an hour-long crossing of the Tamar on the Cremyll ferry, she took the southern route to the west. She seems to have been most impressed, and a little scared, by the ‘very steep, stony hills’. Descending one she came to Looe, ‘a pretty big seaport, a great many houses all of stone’.

Fowey turned out to be a ‘narrow stony town, the streets very close’, while St Austell was a ‘little market town’ with ‘houses … like barns up to the top of the house’. The town had ‘very neat country women’, one of whom introduced Celia to clotted cream. She wasn’t so pleased however by the ‘universal smoking, both men, women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and so sit around the fire smoking.’

Staying at the Boscawens’ house at Tregothnan, Celia decided to turn back ‘for fear of the rains that fell in the night’. However, at St Columb she changed her mind as the weather improved and headed back west on the main road. This was ‘mostly over heath and downs which was very bleak and full of mines’. She found Redruth to be ‘a little market town where on market day ‘you see a great number of horses little of size which they call Cornish Goonhillies’.

Celia continued to Penzance, noting on the way that ‘the people here are very ill guides, and know but little from home, only to some market town they frequent’. Marazion was a ‘little market town’. Penzance looked ‘snug and warm’ with a ‘good quay and a good harbour’. A visit to Land’s End followed, where she met with ‘very good bottled ale’. She commented that the cottages were ‘clean and plastered’ inside, despite looking like barns from the outside, as in Scotland.

Returning eastwards, Celia went via Truro – ‘a pretty little town and seaport … built of stone, a good pretty church’. But Truro had seen better days and was in parts ‘a ruinated disregarded place’. Leaving Truro, she travelled east via St Columb and Camelford, ‘a little market town [with] very indifferent accommodation’.

Launceston’s Southgate in the 1960s

The final town on her itinerary was Launceston, ‘the chief town in Cornwall, ‘encompassed with walls and gates ‘and ‘pretty large’, although most of the place was ‘old houses of timber work’.

Interestingly, despite travelling as far as the Land’s End, she made no mention of the Cornish language.

Castle an Dinas

Castle an Dinas in mid-Cornwall is one of our most impressive hillforts. The hill, around 700 feet above sea level and with commanding views, was already important for people in the neolithic period, before 2500BC. They had erected two barrows on the hilltop to house their dead. Then, in the late Bronze Age, around 1500-800BC, a single low rampart was thrown up encircling the hill. This probably did not have a military purpose but was instead for managing stock or to mark a symbolic or religious venue.

At some point in the Iron Age, suggested as between 400 and 100BC, two more ramparts were added to produce what can be seen now. These were altogether more substantial. The inner one still rises up to 7.5 metres above the ditch in front of it, while the outer rampart is about half that height. A straight entry point from the south west may have had a cobbled road. The site could have been occupied permanently as it included a spring. However, there have been disappointingly few material finds from what would presumably have been a collection of wooden buildings.

Castle an Dinas looks southwards across Goss Moor towards the church at St Dennis and the nearby site of Domelioc, or Domellick, which featured in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s stories of King Arthur. In consequence it’s often been linked to Arthurian tales. In popular tradition it’s sometimes been seen as Arthur’s hunting lodge or even his birthplace. In the 1470s William of Worcester claimed it was here that Cador, Duke of Cornwall, the husband of King Arthur’s mother, was killed.

The name Castle an Dinas (in 1504 Castel an dynas) is tautological as Dynas, the name of a nearby farm, itself means hillfort.