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.

Charles Rashleigh and Charlestown

Next weekend sees the anniversary of the birth of Charles Rashleigh in 1747. He was the tenth child of Jonathan and Mary Rashleigh of Menabilly near Fowey. With six older brothers and unlikely ever to succeed to the family estate, he became a property developer.

His best known purchase was on the coast south east of St Austell, a place called Porthmear. In Cornish, Porthmear means a great cove or landing place. However, landing on the open beach was neither easy nor safe. Therefore, in 1790 John Smeaton, builder of the third Eddystone lighthouse, was commissioned to design a harbour, which was constructed in the early 1790s.

Charlestown

Behind this, inner harbours were dug. At first these would have sheltered vessels engaged in importing timber and supplies for the mines and lime for the farmers and then exporting copper when mining boomed in the locality in the 1810s. When the mines faltered Charlestown, as it quickly became known, was perfectly placed to become a china clay port, until eclipsed by Par and Fowey in the early 1900s.

When the harbour was built, Charlestown was home to a farm, a hotel which had been built in 1782 and a few cottages. Within a generation it had grown to more than 100 houses. Its decline in the twentieth century left it intact as an unspoilt example of a nineteenth century working port. It now has a new role as the picturesque backdrop to films and TV series set in that period.

Unknown man ponders his future
at Charlestown

Charles himself made little from his venture, being swindled not only once but twice and bankrupted in the process. He died in 1823, a tenant at the home he’d formerly owned at Duporth.