Poldark: an insider’s guide?

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth in 1908 of Winston Grime, who adopted the pen-name of Winston Graham when he authored the Poldark saga. The first in a series of books –  Ross Poldark – was published in 1945. That was followed by eleven more, most written in the 1970s and 80s, with the final episode appearing in 2002, a year before his death. The saga follows the fortunes of Ross Poldark, his young wife Demelza and their children through various adventures from 1783 to 1820.

Many people probably know of Poldark only from the two TV series, the first shown in the mid-1970s and the second more recently, from 2015 to 2019. It’s fair to say the recent TV series received mixed reactions from inside Cornwall. The accents, or lack of them, the constant frenetic galloping along cliff tops, the inappropriate sets that bear little resemblance to Cornwall, have all come in for some stick. However fine the acting, the final series, which diverged wildly from the books, steadily lost credibility. More generally, the shots of the coast and the sea that apparently have to be interspersed every few minutes is viewed by some as reinforcing  stock touristic stereotypes of Cornwall which encourage the process whereby Cornish Cornwall is being inextricably eroded.

Where’s that bleddy Truro turning to??

That said, the books are an intriguing blend of historical fact and fiction. Graham collected various events of the late 1700s and early 1800s and peppered his books with them. Mines did boom and then bust; wrecking did happen (although not caused deliberately); there were food riots; a failed expedition in support of Royalists in Brittany did take place; Methodist revivals periodically shook up Cornish souls.

In addition, real contemporary historical figures also make their entry in the books, notably Francis Basset of Tehidy and George Boscawen (Viscount Falmouth) of Tregothnan. These really were locked in an often bitter struggle over parliamentary seats and mineral rights. Moreover, while not real, the Warleggans are a recognisable amalgam of the ‘hard men’ of actual merchant dynasties that rode to riches on the back of the copper boom of the later 1700s.

Indeed, Cornwall between 1783 and 1820 was in the throes of three revolutions. An economic revolution saw west Cornwall pioneer steam engine technology. A political revolution was in the air as radicals began to demand reform and the end of ‘Old Corruption’. A cultural revolution was sweeping the land as Methodism became the religion of the mass of the people. In many ways this was Cornwall’s second golden age.

There are many books on this period of our past. However, a lot of them specialise in particular facets, economic or political, mining or maritime. What’s needed is an insiders’ guide to Poldark’s Cornwall to sort fact from fiction, or at least add some facts to fiction. So I’ve started to write one. It’s early days – only 6,000 words of the first draft completed and around 75,000 to go. But here’s a warning. If there are gaps in these blogs over the next few months it probably means I’m busy on the book. In the meantime, I’ll keep you informed of progress.

Liskeard’s great church bells controversy

In the mid-1860s a new vicar – the Reverend F.S.Cook – took up residence at Liskeard in east Cornwall. He was disturbed to find that it was a custom in the town to ring the church bells to announce any interesting event, such as local election victories or successful law suits. The vicar did not take kindly to such indiscriminate secular bell ringing.

In November 1866 therefore, when town councillors made their usual approach requesting that the bells be rung during the annual mayor-choosing, they were firmly rebuffed. The Reverend Cook, annoyed that it was ‘only necessary that a man should have a sovereign to spare to be able to gratify his inclination to have the bells rung’, told the council that in future the church bells would be reserved for marking religious occasions and church services only.

Some councillors were outraged by what they perceived as an attack on their customs and independence. None more so than William Murray, an irascible fifty-year old auctioneer and spokesman for the drink interest, who had seen off a slate of pro-temperance candidates in the recent borough elections. His reply to the vicar was blunt: ‘I think that for a gentleman who is a stranger to come into our town … and do as he would in a small fishing village, ought not to be allowed’.

‘Excited men burst open the belfry door’

Citizens were encouraged to take direct action to defend the hallowed rights and privileges of the borough. The Cornish Times reported that ‘excited men burst open the belfry door, jingled the bells to their hearts’ content and their arms aching, in spite of priest and police. Since then effigies of the vicar have been repeatedly paraded in the streets and publicly burnt, he has been ridiculed in squibs, abused in letters and hissed as he passed along; some of the malcontents have absented themselves from church’.

Once roused, popular excitement was less easy to control. Things got out of hand and two nights of ‘indecent and lawless outrage’ followed. The Cornish Times hastily reversed its initial broadly sympathetic stance. Protests were now ‘participated in only by the scum of the place, or by thoughtless youths, encouraged by a few intolerant men, whose motives are as questionable as their conduct is censorable’.

Supporters of the vicar pointed the finger at the operators ‘of the ropes and pulleys … that set Liskeard mobocracy in action … audacious conduct based upon the too well grounded belief that the town was given up to their base will and pleasure’. There was clearly more to this episode than meets the eye.

Alarmed at the mayhem that had erupted, ‘respectable’ opinion in the town quickly let the matter drop. No one was brought to court for the disturbances and discretion was exercised. It’s not clear whether the bells were indeed reserved solely for religious occasions or not thereafter. But Liskeard’s Great Church Bells Question soon faded into the mists of history.

The Miners’ and Womens’ Hospital

In 1863 the dominant occupational group in Cornwall obtained their own hospital. The West Cornwall Hospital for Convalescent Miners was opened at Redruth on land donated by T.C.Agar-Robartes of Lanhydrock. Robartes also provided the bulk of the cash needed to pay for its upkeep. Patients were under the care not of doctors working full-time at the hospital, but the various surgeons contracted to the individual mines. These mine doctors recommended their patients for admission and were then responsible for their treatment.

Rather strangely, given the number of accidents in the mines, there was initially no accident ward, this being added in 1871. Presumably, most long-term patients were suffering mainly from the lung complaints and pneumoconiosis that shortened miners’ lives in the nineteenth century. This was brought on by the inhalation of dust and if anything became even more of a problem with the introduction of rock drills from the 1890s. Between 150 and 200 patients were admitted annually in the 1870s, this rising to over 200 in the 1880s despite the contraction of the mining industry.

Site of the hospital in 1906

Patients were subject to a barrage of rules, including that they

shall be decent and regular in their conduct, shall not use improper language, play at cards, dice or other games of chance; they shall not make use of spirituous liquors or any provisions brought by friends or visitors; they shall not chew tobacco nor smoke without leave of their medical attendant nor ever in the wards of the hospital.

In 1890 the Womens’ Hospital opened as a separate establishment on the same site, with the two being amalgamated in 1901. A maternity ward followed in 1926 and this continued until the late 1970s, when centralisation of services on Treliske picked up pace. By the mid-1990s the hospital had been run down, with the remaining services transferred to nearby Barncoose Hospital, a former workhouse infirmary. In 2002 the hospital building was converted into flats and offices and the surrounding land became the site of a housing project.

Former hospital building, now at the centre of an ‘urban village’

Billy Bray: Methodist folk hero

On this day in 1794 William Trewartha Bray was born in the hamlet of Twelveheads, tucked away at the bottom of the Poldice valley between Redruth and Penryn. His father died when he was young and the family then moved in with a grandfather. On his death in turn in 1811, William, by now known as Billy and a miner as his father had been, journeyed to the Tavistock district of Devon. There he worked for seven years, but in that time, according to his contemporary and biographer F.W.Bourne, Billy became a drunkard with a reputation as a bit of a tearaway.

On his return Billy, now married, became increasingly dissatisfied with life. Eventually, in 1823, he underwent the experience of conversion familiar by this time to the majority of Cornish Methodists. But this was no ordinary conversion – a few months of pious living followed by the inevitable backsliding and the relegation of religion in the everyday struggle to make ends meet.

Billy became an enthusiastic lay preacher for the Bible Christians, quickly appearing on their Local Plan (the programme of preaching) in 1824. Until his death in 1868, he then kept up an unremitting evangelical enthusiasm. When Billy was in the pulpit, the chapels rang with spontaneous shouts while he danced with joy. His was an exuberant religion, verging on what to our eyes might seem close to hysteria.

For all the excitement, Billy’s sermons were laced with practical metaphors and a sharp wit. All this, delivered in a Cornish accent, added to his growing popularity with the mining population in which he was firmly rooted.

Extrovert religion was accompanied by incredible energy. Juggling his work as a miner with tending his smallholding and regular preaching, Billy still found time to organise the building of three chapels. The first was at Cross Lanes, near Twelveheads, the second (and only survivor) at Kerley Downs, while the third was at Carharrack.

Perhaps his approach to life was best summed up by Reverend William Haslam, Vicar at Baldhu Church, describing the day, sometime in the 1850s, when he first met Billy. Hearing someone ‘praising the Lord’

I rose from the breakfast table and opened the door to see who my happy, unceremonious visitor could be; and then for the first time beheld this queer looking man. I asked him who he was. He replied, with a face beaming with joy –

“I am Billy Bray – be you the passon?

“Yes,” I answered.

Converted, be ye?”

“Yes, thank God” ….

After a time, Billy joined us again in the dining room, to take, by invitation, some breakfast; but before he sat down he approached me and suddenly put his arm around me, and took me up, and carried me around the table, and then, setting me down at my chair, rolled on the floor for joy, and said he was as “happy as he could live”.

Billy Bray’s chapel at Kerley Downs

Mock mayors in Cornwall

Parish feasts in the 1700s were often accompanied by the choosing of mock mayors. These were parodies of real mayor-choosing events, an inversion of the real thing accompanied by copious drinking. The custom was not restricted to those boroughs that had real mayors but took place even in rural parishes without mayors.

For example, at Polperro:

’generally some half-witted or drunken fellow, tricked out in tinsel finery, elected his staff of constables, and these armed with staves, accompanied his chariot (some fish-jowster’s cart, dressed with green boughs) through the town, stopping at each inn, where he made a speech full of promises of full work, better wages and a liberal allowance of beer during his term of office. He then demanded a quart of the landlord’s ale, which was gauged with mock ceremony’.

Like many of these events it ended with the mock mayor, by now too drunk to know the difference, being thrown into the sea. If the sea wasn’t available a handy river or rubbish tip served as an alternative. At Penryn the wittiest journeyman tailor was chosen as mayor; at Budock it was the one who ‘could drink the most beer and tell the tallest yarn’.

(Post)-modern revival of mock mayor ceremony at Penryn

In the 1820s St Austell was not yet a borough and had no real mayor, but it still had its mock mayor. Samuel Drew described it in his History of Cornwall of 1824:

‘it is the custom among the rabble to seize him who appears to be most intoxicated, and to carry or draw him through the streets in the character of a mock mayor. In the afternoon either he or another is carried on a chair decorated with shrubs or laurels, to the public houses, at each of which he gives some ridiculous orders, surrounded by a mob, and the beat of drums.’

By the 1820s Methodists such as Drew were bewailing the drunkenness and disorder that accompanied mock mayor ceremonies, and parish feasts more generally, which Drew felt had ‘degenerated into public revels’.

Condemnation from evangelical reformers was joined by growing disapproval from the respectable middle classes. Wealthier inhabitants and the local gentry, who in the 1700s had often acted as patrons of these customs, began to withdraw their support. In consequence, events such as mock mayors were left to the ‘conduct and management of the illiterate and vulgar’, as Drew described them.

Pressure to put a stop to mock mayor ceremonies, with their inversion of the normal order and their subversive undertones, was felt first in the larger towns where the authorities, increasingly conscious of their own dignity, looked askance at the tradition of mock mayors. At Liskeard in 1856 John Allen recounted the mock mayor ceremony in the town:

‘a couple of rough, reckless fellows, one clad as a female and armed with a ladle, and the other with a broom, designated John and Joan, led the procession and belaboured those within their reach, exhibiting disgusting grimaces and gesticulations. These scenes always ended with cases of gross intemperance’.

Allen made it clear that this custom had disappeared by the 1850s, ‘a faint attempt’ to revive it ‘on a recent occasion’ failing.

The last survival in a Cornish town was perhaps Penzance where a mock mayor ceremony was recorded around 1890. It lingered longest in the mining villages around Camborne and Redruth, places like Lanner, Chacewater and Four Lanes, where it was occasionally noted in the press in the Edwardian years down to 1914.

Bob Fitzsimmons: Cornwall’s world boxing champion

Cornwall can claim a world boxing champion. And not just a champion but someone who won three world championships at different weights – middle, heavy and light heavy.

The house in Wendron Street where Bob was born

In actual fact, Bob Fitzsimmons’ connection to Cornwall was rather tangential. Born in Helston on this day in 1863, his father was an Ulsterman employed as one of Helston’s two borough policemen, although his mother was the aptly named Jane Strongman from Truro. The family upped sticks and migrated to New Zealand in 1872 when Bob was just nine, along with other Cornish emigrants attracted to South Island. His father set up there as a blacksmith and eventually Bob followed him into that trade, a useful calling for a boxer.

Bob Fitzsimmons began boxing around 1878 and in 1883 did what many Cornish people in the 1880s and 1890s did and began travelling, hopping from country to country across the English-speaking world. A few years as a semi-professional boxer in Australia ended with a disputed middleweight championship contest, which Bob’s fans contended was rigged. In 1890 he moved on to San Francisco and began fighting in the States. Within a year he had fought and beaten Jack Dempsey to become the middleweight world champion.

Bob in pugilistic pose

From 1897 to 1899 Fitzsimmons held the heavyweight championship after knocking out James J. Corbett in the fourteenth round of a bruising battle in Carson City, Nevada. When the light heavyweight title was established in 1903 Bob took that too, holding it for two years, into his early 40s.

Boxing wasn’t his only business, however. He also wrote a book on self-defence, acted, and managed to get married four times and divorced twice during this time.

Sadly, Bob also went on to prove the old adage that the higher you rise the further you fall. He carried on boxing too long, losing in his later career to a string of nonentities before finally giving up in 1914. A US citizen since 1893, he died in 1917 of pneumonia in Chicago, his childhood days in Helston by then no doubt a dim memory.

Observations on the Cornish dialect in 1836

In 1836 the Penny Magazine published a long article on Cornwall, its occupations, housing and diet. Here’s an extract which includes some comments on the local dialect.

It is still usual to call elderly persons ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, and the ‘good night’ is commonly given in passing. The use of nicknames is very prevalent. These are not only personal but hereditary, and many families are distinguished by them.

Many French words, as well as terms from the extinct Cornish language, are in common use; the latter especially in terms of art among the miners. A sort of recitative or sing-song pronunciation is characteristic and amuses the stranger much. Agriculturists, miners and fishermen pronounce very differently from each other in some districts; and within ten miles all these varieties of sound may be sometimes met with. The people generally are much inclined to use the points of the compass, and the eastward, the westward, the south country, etc. are frequently heard.

Rumours of plague? Mortality crises in 16th century Cornwall

In May of 1591 deaths began to spiral at Redruth. That year saw burial numbers in the parish registers hit a figure nine times higher than the usual. Yet by Christmas the crisis was over and burials had reverted to their normal level.

Sudden short mortality crises like that at Redruth suggest an airborne infection, such as the ‘sweating sickness’ of the early 1500s. Pneumonic plague is another possibility, although plague mortality usually occurred slightly later, peaking from July to September. A third possibility is famine or poor nutrition caused by food shortages. Although burials in Redruth in 1591 were consistently higher than normal all year, there was no sign of the mortality peak of early spring that might be expected if famine were the cause.

Plague was reported in the period 1589-93, spreading out from Plymouth. Many decades ago Norman Pounds identified mortality crises in Morval, St Neot and St Columb Minor. At St Columb it was particularly severe, with a pattern that closely mirrors the classic plague mortality. That said, there is no evidence of any similar mortality crises in these years in the registers of St Erth, Gwithian and Mawgan in Meneage in the west, or at St Breward in the east.

Redruth’s neighbour Illogan experienced a similar mortality crisis in 1591, but the worst months in Camborne occurred much later, in the early winter of 1593, when deaths rose to ten times the normal level. The localised nature of these mortality crises and their dispersed timing might raise some questions about the cause. Was it simply plague or were there additional or multiple causes?

A similar mortality crisis at Camborne beginning in August 1547 more neatly fits the bubonic plague pattern. This event, when deaths that year were again over ten times the norm, is intriguing as it occurred less than two years before the rising of 1549. Unfortunately, at this date there are very few parish registers available to see whether other Cornish parishes experienced a similar crisis at the same time.

The whole issue of mortality crises in Cornwall in the 1500s and 1600s requires more research, especially as no Cornish data were used in Wrigley and Schofield’s classic The Population History of England 1541-1871.

All work and no play? A Bible Christian hymn for children

Below are some verses from the Child’s Hymn Book, circulating in the early 1830s in Cornwall. It urges the reader to work and study, holding out an unattractive alternative if little noses weren’t kept close to the grindstone. The book was published at Shebbear, in north Devon. It may have originated in the Bible Christians’ Prospect College, established in 1829 and later known as Shebbear College. The Bible Christians had been founded in 1815 and were a revivalist Methodist sect that gained its main following in rural areas in Cornwall and north Devon previously untouched by Wesleyan Methodism.

Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain
You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again,
As the door on its hinges, so he, on his bed
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.
A little more sleep and a little more slumber,
Thus he wastes half his days, and hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.
I passed by his garden, and saw the wild briar,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher,
The clothes that hung on him are turning to rags,
And his money still wastes, till he starves or he begs.
I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind,
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart “Here’s a lesson for me
This man’s put a picture of what I might be
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.
William O’Bryan, founder of the Bible Christians

Helston’s Furry Day and Hal-an-Tow

Another iconic Cornish festival day. Another sad silence. Although traditional furry dances were held in several places across Cornwall within living memory – I remember participating at Liskeard – Helston is now regarded as the home of the furry.

The event shares some aspects with Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss – the celebration of spring, traditional songs, decorating the town with greenery and spring flowers. However, Helston’s Furry Day seems more divided by social class than Padstow’s May Day. In the nineteenth century, newspaper accounts recorded the formal midday dance and a ball in the evening to which the ‘beauty and fashion of the surrounding towns and neighbourhood’ flocked. At the same time there were country dances elsewhere for ‘tradespeople’, while in the morning more boisterous and unruly elements indulged in the hal-an-tow.

From an early point the day pulled in onlookers from a wide area. ‘The town was crowded with strangers’ in 1825. In 1832 a constant succession of arrivals from Truro, Falmouth, Penzance, Penryn and Redruth was noted, the town being ‘filled with visitors’ by 1 pm, while the beds at all the inns had been booked solid for two weeks prior to the day in 1843.

As at Padstow the day also attracted some criticism from evangelical reformers. In 1837 this surfaced in a letter condemning ‘this heathenish festival’ which ‘every reflecting and serious-minded person must unhesitatingly condemn’. Although by 1882 it was felt that ’there are some symptoms of the ancient institution being on the wane’, the hopes of this correspondent that ‘the increasing influence of the Christian principle and feeling, will cause the entire abandonment ‘ of the festival were to be dashed.

As usual it was the more plebeian and unruly custom of the hal-an-tow that was almost stamped out, before being resuscitated in a bowdlerised version by the Old Cornwall Society in the 1930s. In its original form, this involved an early morning excursion into the countryside, a mobile mummers’ play, demands for cash, plus lots of noise and drinking. References in the first line of the hal-an-tow song to Robin Hood and Little John reinforced the inversion and opposition to authority that it symbolised. In 1857 for example the procession of a mock mayor ‘caused much amusement’, while being frowned on by the real mayor.

The post-modern Cornishised version of the Hal-an-tow

We are told that the hal-an-tow fell into disrepute and decay around 1865 but the accounts in the West Briton paint a more complex and drawn-out picture of its decline. We must also allow for that paper’s somewhat condescending and occasionally condemnatory tone in its reports of this aspect of Furry Day.

At first the hal-an-tow was ignored, although in 1850 it was reported that there was no 5 am party ‘as heretofore to go into the country a-maying’. In 1855 the paper noted with some satisfaction that there had been no hal-an-tow, which ‘time out of mind has been continued, but from the manner in which it has lately been conducted it was little other than a prescriptive nuisance’. The same thing was said a year later in 1856. ‘The greater number of the old men who formed the ‘Hal-an-tow’ are dead, and for the first time within the memory of man, this curious part of the morning’s proceedings were dispensed with; it was certainly no ornament to the innocent amusements of the latter part of the day’.

Yet attempts to revive it were reported in 1861 and 1865 and in 1870 it was mentioned without comment. By 1872 the paper was noting ‘the usual hal-an-tow party’. The condemnation of the 1850s had not apparently led to its demise but It was clearly on life support. In 1874 it was stated that it had fallen ‘into great disrepute and had been discontinued almost entirely’. Note the ‘almost’ however. Four years later, while the day in general ‘has latterly been losing much of its ancient glories and showing signs of the effects of the advanced civilisation of the times … 40 boys, three men and a caparisoned pony formed the hal-an-tow and proceeded through the town in the usual fashion’.

Despite the competing attractions by this time of a bazaar and a dog and poultry show the hal-an-tow was refusing to die gracefully, periodically and stubbornly emerging out of the grave to which it was regularly consigned by ‘respectable’ society.