Silas Hocking: a Cornish record-breaker

This week sees the anniversary of the death of Silas Hocking in 1935. Largely forgotten now, Silas was the first writer in the world to sell over a million copies of a novel. This was his second book, Her Benny, published in 1879. It was a sentimental tale of child poverty and rags to riches in Liverpool, an example of evangelical fiction aimed primarily at children. Silas, a United Methodist Free Church Minister, based this work on his experiences in the 1870s in Liverpool, where he had arrived from Cornwall, via south Wales and Lincolnshire.

Born in 1850 in the parish of St Stephen in Brannel, Silas went on to publish another 99 novels after Her Benny. This prodigious output was matched by his younger brother Joseph, who wrote an equal number of books, while his sister Salome added another nine to the family’s total.

Forget Jane Austen, Dickens or Hardy. In working class homes, the Hockings were the popular novelists of the Edwardian years. It was their books that were most likely to be found in Cornish homes in the early 1900s. Too overtly moralistic and sermonising for modern tastes, the siblings’ books rapidly fell out of fashion after the 1930s. While millions were printed, millions were later pulped.

For more on the lives of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking the book to read is Alan Kent’s Pulp Methodism (2002).

Contextualising Poldark: cottage conditions

The last TV series may have veered sharply off the rails. However, re-reading the early novels of Winston Graham’s Poldark saga is a reminder of how he wove his plot around some not inaccurate historical observations.

Cornwall was a place of major change in the Poldark years from 1783 to 1820. High pressure steam engines and deep copper mining heralded an economic revolution. Proliferating Methodist chapels and two mass revivals cemented a religious revolution. Growing dissatisfaction with ‘old corruption’ and boroughmongers hinted at a political revolution. The decline of some traditional pastimes and moralistic attacks on idle pursuits was evidence of a social revolution.

Meanwhile, an ongoing war between smuggling gangs and revenue men simmered in the background, crowds periodically erupted into food rioting, wrestling tournaments attracted large numbers, upper class men regularly drank themselves under the table.

I now have first drafts finished for six of the nine chapters of my ‘Insider’s Guide to Poldark’s Cornwall’. Since the last update at the beginning of August I’ve added chapters on The Sea and The Crowd. Here’s a flavour from Chapter 2: The Cottage.

At the end of our period Clement Carlyon, a Truro doctor, memorably described the cottages of the mining districts: ‘wretchedly built and damp and dirty in the extreme. At their doors may be seen the usual mud-pools, which in winter overflow and render the approach to these inconvenient, whilst in summer these semi-fluid accumulations of putrid slime continue to exhale offensive and deleterious miasmata from their dark green surfaces’. This wasn’t just the case in the mining districts …

Three more chapters to write and then some major revisions and additions to make.

Housing at Bude in 1880

‘A hideous and wicked country’: travellers on Cornwall

We all know Cornwall is a picturesque place. In fact, although it is viewed as such now, it wasn’t always seen in that light. The countless images of Cornwall’s cliffs and coastline that are produced and circulated by visitors and locals alike these days would have come as a surprise to the travellers of the early 1800s. They saw its landscape as ‘dreary’ and ‘deformed’. It lacked the essential attributes of fashionable picturesqueness – trees and inland water in the right proportions.

Picturesque Cornwall

Much has been written over the past couple of decades about changing attitudes to Cornish landscapes and the rise of the notion of a picturesque Cornwall. A recent article by Tim Hannigan provides another contribution to this growing academic literature. He details the familiar story of the move towards constructing a ‘different’, non-metropolitan ‘other’, an exotic place of escape and mystery. This imagery, later avidly adopted and then reinforced by twentieth century tourist marketing, is described through the analysis of texts from 1809 to 1907.

Hannigan’s article also adds a more novel reflection on the response of a native writer to outsider travel writing. Instead of seeing native attitudes and travellers’ accounts as necessarily opposites, he suggests there may be a degree of enjoyment in reading accounts of oneself and one’s place as ‘exotic’ or ‘different’. Such ‘auto-exoticization’ implies a degree of collusion between outsiders’ accounts and the reactions to those accounts by insiders, a useful insight.

(For an extended critical review of this article see here.)

Admiral Boscawen

There used to be a pub in Truro called the Admiral Boscawen. But who was Admiral Boscawen? Born this week in 1711, Edward Boscawen was the third son of the first Viscount Falmouth of nearby Tregothnan. He went on to become one of the leading naval officers of the day and a British war hero. In the 1600s the Cornish had been known for their martial prowess on land during the civil wars of mid-century. By the 1700s their exploits were more likely to happen at sea. Because of Cornwall’s maritime location and the activities of press gangs in its ports, the Cornish-born component of the Royal Navy – at three per cent of its complement – was around three times what its population might suggest. With quantity also came quality.

Edward Boscawen entered the Navy at the age of 15. It wasn’t too long before he displayed the appropriate aggressive instincts. In 1741 he led a near-suicidal night attack on Spanish shore batteries at Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and as a result was appointed captain. He followed this up by taking a leading role in attacking a French fleet off Cape Finisterre in 1746. Leading his ship in full sail towards the French and trusting the rest of the fleet would follow him, Boscawen was shot in the shoulder. He became a rear-admiral soon afterwards.

Sometimes bravery shaded into a willingness to go to the limits of orders and beyond. In 1755, on a mission in the north Atlantic to prevent the French reinforcing their colony at Quebec, Boscawen attacked three French ships, sinking two. Although relations with the French were at a low ebb, Britain was not actually at war with them. It soon was.

Admiral Boscawen

On that expedition Boscawen reported that half of his ship’s crew was on the sick list and overall his fleet lost 2,000 men to fever on that mission. However, he seems to have taken more than the usual effort to look after the health of his men, installing ventilators for example to circulate air below decks and ensuring supplies of fresh vegetables and fish if at all possible. Sometimes, this could backfire, as when several of his men died after eating a poisonous fish caught in the Indian Ocean. Although a strict disciplinarian typical of his times, he seems to have been popular and was given the nickname ‘Old Dreadnought’ by the men, after a ship he had commanded early in his career.

An MP for Truro from 1742, Boscawen managed to survive the changing government ministries of the time and retain his position at the Admiralty. He became best known for his exploits in 1758 when his capture of Louisburg and Cape Breton in Canada helped to turn the tide of the Seven Years’ War against France. A year later, he also destroyed some French ships of the line at the battle of Lagos off southern Portugal. Showing little respect for Portuguese neutrality, he scuppered the French plans to link up with their fleet at Brest.

Two years later however, Boscawen died of fever, probably typhus, at his newly built house at Hatchlands in Surrey, an estate bought in 1749.

His biographer calls him ‘determined and confident’, someone who combined ‘resolution with compassion, single mindedness with understanding’ and who was ‘thoroughly professional’. He was also the first among several Cornish naval heroes of the 1700s and early 1800s.

The pasty in the 1800s

Two reports illustrate the changing state of the pasty between 1850 and the 1890s.

In 1850 the newspaper the Morning Chronicle ran a series of articles on the condition of the poor. One of these concerned Cornwall. The report tells us that the pilchard, one of the staple dietary items in west Cornwall ‘seldom constitutes an ingredient of the pasty, so commonly met with as entering into the labourer’s diet in Cornwall. The mackerel frequently does … [but] generally speaking the pasties consist of potatoes and bits of meat, more frequently salt pork, covered with a rather tough crust made of flour and sometimes of flour and barley meal mixed together. In the absence of the potato, the turnip constitutes one of the internal ingredients of the pasty … They are generally made for the labourer himself, his family contenting themselves with lighter and more frugal fare.’

The writer encountered a labouring man who claimed his large family had only eaten potatoes and some ‘fat mutton’ over the previous week.

‘“There’s my dinner today, sir”, he continued, breaking a pasty in two, which he took from his pocket. The tough, black crust enclosed a quantity of watery-looking turnips’.

Half a century later, in 1893-94, a Parliamentary Commission into the conditions of the agricultural labourer took evidence from the vicinity of Truro. Things had improved as the report concluded:

‘Cornish pasties are excellent things. “They are mostly full of vegetables”, the men say, a turnip pasty, a leeky pasty, or a potato pasty, but they often have bacon chopped up inside, and in some places beef. At Probus, “the men won’t eat pork in their pasties. It is generally beef. They used to eat what were called hobbans, suet and flour and raisins rolled up and baked, but they have all gone.”’

Boys forced to eat pasties for a cruel photographer

The Cornish chough

The chough is a mysterious bird, in the sense that some of the information on it isn’t that reliable. The Daily Telegraph last week reported that there were now 12 breeding pairs of choughs in Cornwall, brought back by what it called ‘Operation Chough’. The chough, it went on, had been absent in Cornwall since the 1950s, a date presumably taken from a cursory look at the Cornwall Council website, which claims the chough disappeared in 1952.

It didn’t. More reliable sources confirm that the last chough seen alive in Cornwall was near Newquay in 1973. Operation Chough meanwhile was a project begun in 1987 based at Paradise Park, Hayle, to breed choughs in captivity. This had succeeded in rearing chough chicks by 2011 but was not the cause of the return of the chough. In fact, choughs returned naturally, four turning up from Ireland in 2001. Three of those liked what they saw and decided to stick around, setting up home on the Lizard. The Cornwall Chough Project is the scheme led by the RSPB to protect these birds, encourage more and ensure their survival.

A chough looking rather imperious

The chough is a member of the crow family, but with red legs and a long red beak, the latter used to dig out insects from closely cropped grassland near its nesting sites on the cliffs. In the 1800s and 1900s farmers moved their grazing animals inland. This resulted in the loss of the short grass that the choughs needed to get at the insects and the consequent decline in the numbers of the bird. However, in the 1990s the ‘National’ Trust in Cornwall had begun working with landowners on the Lizard to encourage the restoration of clifftop grazing. As it admits, this wasn’t primarily done to encourage the return of choughs but the wildflowers and rare plants that also flourish in this habitat. Anyway, it worked, and the choughs are back.

Which is a good thing as it restores a classic Cornish symbol to the land. As everyone knows, King Arthur on his death in battle was transformed into a chough, ‘talons and beaks all red with blood’. Lines in the Cornish Gorseth ceremony insist that:

Still Arthur watches our shore 
In guise of a chough there flown

So the absence of the chough from 1973 to 2001 might explain a lot.

Back in the 1600s ‘Cornish choughs’ was a common nickname for the Cornish. Shakespeare used it several times and it was also used by other playwrights. At the time the idiomatic meaning of the word ‘chough’ was ‘a rustic, a clown, a boor’ and in 1617 a Cornishman named Chough was depicted as an ‘ignorant country bumpkin’, a tiresome and unimaginative stereotype still much in use 400 years later. Mark Stoyle concludes that the English had adopted the term ‘chough’ as ‘a derogatory nickname for the Cornish people themselves.’

Richard Carew, writing in the 1590s, hadn’t helped by describing the Cornish chough as ‘ungracious, in filching and hiding of money … and somewhat dangerous in carrying sticks of fire’. This reputation for ‘filching’ money was picked up by Parliamentary pamphleteers in the civil wars and used to accuse the Cornish of being natural plunderers. In a note to Carew’s Survey, added in the 1730s, Thomas Tonkin agreed that the chough was known for ‘thievishness’ but that it was ‘much admired in other countries’ and ‘often sent as a present’, which may well have hastened its decline.

The Arthurian legend assures that one day Arthur will return. Now that the chough is back it’s just a question of time before that happens and all will be proper again.

Bert Solomon: sporting hero

Sport is slowly coming back to life. There are even tentative plans to allow limited numbers of spectators to attend events. However, one sport still missing is rugby. As a winter game we wouldn’t normally be thinking of rugby at this time of the year. But as it’s Saturday and while we’re waiting to hear if and when the next season will commence, let’s remind ourselves of someone who was arguably Cornwall’s greatest ever player of its national game.

Bert Solomon was born in 1885 in a terraced house at Redruth almost within throwing distance of Redruth Rugby Football Club’s Recreation Ground. The Solomon family had wholeheartedly embraced the rugby culture that captured west Cornwall’s working-class communities after the 1880s. Bert had brothers and cousins who, like him, not only played the game but went on to appear for Cornwall’s premier club – Redruth – and for Cornwall.

Bert Solomon emerged as a Redruth player in 1903-04, going straight into the first team of what was Cornwall’s premier club. It wasn’t long before he was picked to play for Cornwall. He was a member of that historic side that beat Durham in 1908 in front of 18,000 spectators at Redruth to become ‘county’ champions for the first time. Bert scored twice in that game and scored Cornwall’s only try when they lost to Australia at the Olympics later that same year.

Cornwall’s winning side of 1908. Bert Solomon is seated in the middle row at the far right.

His position on the rugby field was at centre, a member of the back line who run at their opponents. Centres need to be strong, agile and fast and Bert was all three. His strength was no doubt helped by hard physical labour at Redruth’s bacon factory, where he worked from the age of 14. Contemporary accounts report startling bursts of acceleration by Bert, combined with an uncanny knack of selling a dummy to his opponents, leaving them floundering as he sped past on his way to touch.

Bert in 1910 before his final game

At a match against Devon at Plymouth in 1909 Bert was said to have picked up the ball 30 yards inside his own half and then ran through the opposition to score. In that match he scored five other tries.  An England selector was present and Bert was eventually picked to play at Twickenham against Wales in 1910. He scored a try in that match too, but as he walked off he was heard to have muttered ‘I’ve finished’ and didn’t turn up at the celebratory post-match dinner. He was picked for another three England games but each time refused to play.

Bert had always been a little less than enthusiastic in his commitment to rugby. Before 1907 he’d often turn up late for Redruth’s games and sometimes claimed that he was too busy looking after his racing pigeons to play. Even when present he could spend large periods of the game standing about aimlessly before surprising his opponents with a sudden run or a spell of brilliant play.

Having to associate with the mainly public school and university-educated, self-confident and arrogant England players must have been the final straw. Always painfully shy and shunning publicity, Bert’s world of pigeon-fancying, pasty eating and beer drinking was uncomfortably far from theirs. Having reached the pinnacle of the sport he gave it all up. He spent the rest of his life in Redruth, but never played again for Redruth, Cornwall or England.

For more anecdotes on Bert Solomon see Allen Buckley’s Bert Solomon: A Rugby Phenomenon.

How literate were our Victorian ancestors?

How many of our Victorian ancestors could read or write? Assessing levels of literacy in the past is no easy task. For a start, it’s likely that while people may not have been able to write, a skill they would rarely require, they could still read. Nonetheless, the ability to sign one’s name has been taken as a primitive measure of the ability to write.

In the 1840s and 50s one third of men in Cornwall and a half of women signed the marriage register with a mark. This then declined to around one in six for both genders by the 1880s, with the gap between men and women disappearing.

While the numbers signing with a mark steadily fell, throughout these years they remained higher than the English average although the gap remained fairly constant, both for men and for women, although it was narrower for women after 1865. Yet, improvements in literacy lagged behind many places in England. In 17 of the 40 English counties in 1845 the level of illiteracy for men was higher than in Cornwall but by 1885 only six English counties were worse. Similarly, in the case of women, ten English counties had higher rates of illiteracy in the 1840s, but only three in 1885.

Within Cornwall the registration district (RD) with the highest level of illiteracy in 1856 was Redruth, with St Austell having the second highest. The lowest levels of illiteracy in 1856 were found in Falmouth RD, there being a clear relationship between the inability to sign the marriage register and the number of people employed in mining. By 1871 Redruth was still the district with the highest rate of illiteracy, although agricultural Stratton RD in the far north was the next highest. By that year St Germans RD in the east had the lowest numbers of people signing with a mark.

Tourism: cure or curse?

In November 1805 the Times reported that ‘the Marquis and Marchioness of Bute are arrived at Boconnoc, where they propose passing the winter; the mild air of Cornwall having been recommended by her ladyship’s physicians, as best adapted for the imperfect state of her health’. Within Cornwall, Mount’s Bay gained a reputation as the ideal place for convalescence when the familiar bolthole of the south of France was denied by the dastardly Napoleon. In 1805 the first guide to the Penzance area was published, aimed at visitors.

Once Napoleon was safely vanquished the journey to the Med once again became possible and Mount’s Bay quickly lost a lot of its allure. Cornwall was too far from the big cities to profit from the re-emergence of public holidays and half-day Saturday working that brought day-trippers to the seaside from the 1870s. Nobody had to worry about tourism and its consequences until the 1890s.

Before that Sylvanus Trevail had begun to sense the potential of catering to visitors brought by the railway. Trevail’s Great Western Hotel at Newquay, completed in 1879, was the first in a string of hotels designed to appeal to renewed interest in Cornwall as a winter resort for the middle classes. His Cornish Hotels Company was set up in 1890 to tap that market.

Headland Hotel: the cause of the 1897 riots

Things were not all smooth sailing, however. Riots broke out in Newquay in 1897 when building began on the Headland Hotel. This threatened the long-held, local customary use of the clifftop as grazing land and space to dry fishermen’s nets. Later, suffering from depression, Trevail took his gun and blew his brains out in a spectacular suicide in a lavatory of a Great Western train.

Cornwall’s elite was equally confused and uncertain about the possible costs and benefits of tourism. In 1899 Arthur Quiller-Couch launched a debate in his Cornish Magazine on ‘How to develop Cornwall as a holiday resort’. Summing it up, Q confessed to being torn. Privately he ‘hated a crowd’. However, Cornish mining had just gone through what many had feared was its terminal crisis in 1895/96 when tin prices plummeted. Q saw ‘Cornwall impoverished by the evil days on which mining and (to a lesser degree) agriculture have fallen … able-bodied sons forced to emigrate by the thousand … the ruined engine house, the roofless cottage, the cold hearthstone’. Catering seemed an inevitable alternative.

Yet he also, with considerable prescience, warned that ‘a people which lays itself out to exploit the stranger and the tourist runs an appreciable risk of deterioration in … independence’. He would ‘rather be poor myself than subservient’ but reluctantly accepted the necessity for a catering sector as long as it had ‘decent respect for our country and its past’.

Decent respect? Litter on the Lizard

By 1908, with mining looking up again, Q had changed his mind and was regretting his earlier too-hasty endorsement of tourism. By then it was too late, as the Great Western Railway had invented the Cornish Riviera in 1904. This set Cornwall onto a path towards its current status as a summer resort designed to satisfy our craving for hedonism, idleness and escapism.

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.