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.

Why did Cornwall have 44 MPs?

Those were the days. Now Cornwall only has a feeble voice in the UK Parliament, represented by just six MPs. But before 1821 Cornwall enjoyed a representation more fitting its status, sending 44 MPs. With around 1.5% of the population it had 7-8% of parliamentary representatives. Why?

In the 1500s Cornwall was not that exceptional. Six boroughs (Bodmin, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Truro) had each returned two MPs since the time of Edward I in the late 1200s, with another two representing the rest of Cornwall. Things changed under the Tudors. Between 1529 and 1584 fifteen boroughs were enfranchised. Overall, this amounted to one in five of all the new boroughs granted parliamentary representation by the Tudors. The fifteen were Bossiney, Callington, Camelford, East Looe, Fowey, Grampound, Mitchell, Newport, Penryn, St Germans, St Ives, St Mawes, Saltash, Tregony and West Looe.

Several explanations have been offered for this Tudor revolution in Cornwall’s representation, none of which are entirely satisfactory. It was first suggested that Tudor monarchs used the extra MPs to pack the Commons with crown supporters. But not all the new boroughs were under royal control and several Cornish MPs either opposed Elizabethan policies or were Catholic recusants. Moreover, Parliament in this period was not continually at loggerheads with the Tudor monarchy, so such measures were unnecessary.

It’s also proposed that Cornwall’s new boroughs were a device to placate or reward its landed gentry. But why did the Cornish gentry require more cultivation than those elsewhere? The rising of 1549 is often cited. However, the first seven, or almost half, of the new boroughs had appeared by 1547, before the rising. More tellingly, the fact that up to two thirds of the MPs of the new boroughs were not Cornish suggests that any ‘accommodation’ of Cornish gentry via a seat in the Commons was indirect to say the least.

Lord John Russell

Was it the result of more short-term considerations? In his book on Tudor Cornwall, Chynoweth links the enfranchisement in 1547 of six new boroughs to the need to get support for the Duke of Somerset’s religious changes by giving the franchise to towns controlled by his new ally, Lord John Russell. Russell was a magnate in the west of England, and a man who played a key role in putting down the 1549 rising. But why Cornish boroughs? Why not boroughs further east, in Dorset and Somerset, the region where Russell exerted more direct influence?

The existence of the Duchy of Cornwall must have had a significant part to play. From 1547 to 1603 there was no duke and the Duchy was in the hands of the crown. This may have made creating the new Cornish parliamentary boroughs an easier and more logical option. Moreover, the Duchy symbolised a special relationship between Cornish gentry and the Tudor crown. This is indicated by the fact that Cornish gentry were greatly over-represented at court. In the 1510s 13% of courtiers were Cornish. Did this mean that Cornish gentry enjoyed a special influence at the heart of Tudor government and were well-placed to be favoured when parliamentary seats were being handed out?

Socialism in Edwardian Cornwall

It’s not generally well-known that Truro and Camborne were relatively early centres of socialist activism. In May 1904 W.A.Phillips, standing ‘boldly as a representative of the workers and a Social Democrat’ was elected to Truro Town Council in a by-election in Truro East. This was the first council seat won by a socialist west of Bristol.

Phillips was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This had been founded in 1881 as an avowedly Marxist party. In 1900 it joined with the Independent Labour Party and others to form the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. The SDF remained part of the Labour alliance until 1907 and it was during this period that a branch emerged at Truro.

Victoria Square. Now all consumerism and park
and ride buses. In 1904 echoing to demands to
build a better world

By September 1904 the SDF was holding open air meetings in Victoria Square, Truro and in the same month a public meeting in the Town Hall on the housing of the working class. A speaker from the Workmens’ National Housing Council was reported as saying

‘There was just one difficulty about most of the towns in Cornwall that he had seen and that was while houses were being built for the middle and better class people and the better paid artisan class, comparatively little was being done for the poorer workers, who were most in need of accommodation’

Interesting to note how things have changed.

By late 1904 an SDF branch had also been formed at Camborne and there were optimistic plans for similar branches at Redruth and St Agnes. In the general election of 1906, the Camborne branch was confident enough to put up a candidate. Perhaps unwisely, they chose an outsider, Jack Jones, a builders’ labourer from West Ham. Later, in 1918, he went on to become an MP in his home borough. But in 1906 in the Mining Division he won just 109 votes, or 1.5%, as the Liberal candidate cruised to a landslide victory in a year when all the Cornish seats went to Liberals.

Socialism in Cornwall had to wait. For a century and counting.

When Camborne-Redruth was the most radical place in the UK

The general election of 1885 has one major similarity with the one we’re now enduring. Polling day was in December. But in most other respects it was quite different. And although the newly created Mining Division in 1885 had very similar boundaries to the present Camborne-Redruth constituency, nowhere was this difference starker than in the central mining district.

The election saw the Radical Liberal, the splendidly named Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare, challenge the former Liberal MP for West Cornwall and local landlord Pendarves Vivian for the new seat. Conybeare was put forward by many of the working men who had been given the vote in 1884, some of them return migrants from the States imbued with notions of democracy. Conybeare stood on the most radical platform in the UK, pledged to abolish the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, bring in a graduated income tax, return the land to the people and end the ‘gigantic system of confiscation and robbery of the poor by the rich’.

Redruth’s Radical Club: built after the election

In a closely fought election between Vivian and Conybeare (the Tories stayed out of it) Conybeare emerged victorious with 2,926 votes to Vivian’s 2,577. For a decade Camborne-Redruth was then represented by Britain’s most radical MP. How times have changed!

Conybeare’s supporters wrote a ditty called ‘The Man for the People’. Here’s an extract.

Maaster Vivian, now so thick,

Longs weth his great friends to stick;

We’ll trate’n weth all due respect,

But we ‘one and all’ object

To have a ‘limping’ reer-rank man,

When we c’n have one in the Van

The seventeen year ‘pon Committee

Have earnt a rest, I think, quite fitty;

For some reforms he edn ripe,

So we’ll lev’n touch-a-pipe.

He’ll git the voters by the thousan’;

Because we’ll go for Working Men,

And not the Lords and Upper Ten.

The men of Buller’s Row he’ll meet,

And likewise Tallywarren Street,

And though Dolcoath is very deep,

He’ll git the men all in a heap.