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.

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.

Tintagel: reminder of Cornwall’s golden age

Now that most of the hordes of sightseers who flock to Tintagel to commune with King Arthur have better things to do, it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the proper significance of this iconic site. While it has no significance at all for English heritage, it has major, if still not fully understood, significance for Cornish heritage.

Marketing of Tintagel sells the myth
rather than the reality

We have to forget its present marketing as a commercial tourist honeypot and home of Arthurian fantasy. The castle remains point to the earlier role of Tintagel, as a symbolic centre of great importance. When Earl Richard planted his castle there in the 1200s it had no military point, but was instead a massive folly, built to symbolise the earldom’s control over Cornwall, squatting on a revered site for the Cornish.

The real importance of Tintagel lies in a period 800 years earlier, and 250-350 years before the English arrived at the Tamar. Even before then it had some sort of special meaning for the Romans, who took the trouble of constructing some way-markers on the route to the place.

The astounding fact is that this inhospitable spot has provided archaeologists with more sherds of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean pottery than any other site in the British Isles. Far more. More goods passed through it than any other place between around 450 and 550. Tintagel was at that time the primary site of a trading system that stretched far up the Atlantic coast and back to the eastern Mediterranean. It was the gateway through which the remnants of the Roman Empire maintained contact with the Christian parts of Britain.

It doesn’t end there. Tintagel was some sort of royal citadel, the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribute centres. It may well have been the geographical centre of the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, or Greater Cornubia, one that in the 500s organised the colonisation of parts of what was to become Brittany.

Bridge built to maximise
tourist revenue

Look beyond its present condition and the twaddle peddled to tourists. Tintagel speaks to us down the centuries of a time when Cornwall was at the centre of the Atlantic world, not a marginalised periphery of England. It deserves to be remembered as such.