Feasting and fasting: eating and drinking habits of miners in the 1860s

In 1862 Philip Vincent, a surgeon to several mines in the Camborne district, gave evidence to the Commission enquiring into the condition of mines. Here’s two of his answers …

Qu 10455: Who lives best; the miner or the agriculturist? – The miner is rather improvident about it; it is rather a feast and a fast with him, one day he will have his beefsteak or his good living, and the next day he will have his porridge, and then live upon broth, as they call it, for some days afterwards, and they only throw in a bone or perhaps a little bit of pork to make the porridge; but the agriculturist generally gets his regular allowance from the farmer, and so it is regulated much better than it is with the miner.

Qu 10459: Whenever he can enjoy it and has some, he will live well, even though at the expense of living badly for the rest of the week? – Yes, I have known many a miner who has gone and sat down and drank his gallon or two of beer in the evening, and then they will not touch it again for the next month perhaps. I have said to them over and over again, ‘If you will only just take your pint of beer a day for your dinner, and be content with that, instead of taking so much on your pay day, you will be a very much better man at the end of ten years than you will if you live as at present.’

The Cornish mining landscape at the end of the 1800s. View from Wheal Grenville east towards Carnkie

John Passmore Edwards: the Cornish philanthropist

Anyone who walks around Cornish towns with half an eye open cannot fail to spot the buildings adorned with the name ‘Passmore Edwards’. But who was Passmore Edwards?

John Passmore Edwards was born on 24th March 1823 in a nondescript cottage in Blackwater, a mining village a mile or two east of Redruth on the main road through Cornwall. John’s father wasn’t a miner but made his living from a variety of useful skills, including market gardening and carpentry. This allowed the family to pay to school their four children. John read avidly and became a solicitor’s clerk in Truro before giving this up for the lure of journalism.

After spending a few years in Manchester working on a radical newspaper, John moved to London. He survived on freelance journalism before entering the publishing business and buying his first magazine in 1851. This turned out to be a disaster and he became bankrupt. Nonetheless, by 1861 by dint of unremitting work he’d recovered his losses and was even able to pay off his creditors.

The Passmore Edwards Library at Redruth

After that hiccup John Passmore Edwards’ fortunes began to change. He settled down, married and began buying a variety of publications. In 1874 these included an evening paper, the Echo, at just the time the market for cheap daily newspapers was beginning to expand rapidly. This made his fortune and from 1890 he turned to philanthropy, using his resources to fund buildings across the south of England and in Cornwall. Many of these were libraries but there were Science and Art schools, an art gallery and even a convalescent home.

While not exactly a story of rags to riches, John Passmore Edwards’ life was the stereotype of the Victorian self-made man. Yet throughout his life. Passmore Edwards stuck to his radical principles. He had been involved in agitation against the Corn Laws even before leaving Cornwall. In later life, he continued to speak truth to power, using his titles to stand up for the poor, for peace overseas and for reform at home, and using his money to support ‘useful knowledge’ and educational facilities.

Newlyn Art Gallery

True to his convictions, he declined a knighthood and died at home in Hampstead in 1911, aged 88. John Passmore Edwards would now presumably be spinning in his grave if he could see the sorry state to which the press in the UK has descended.

Why religious dissent didn't take off in 17th century Cornwall

On the 15th of March 1675, Hugh Acland of Truro reported ‘a great meeting of Quakers in a parish adjoining this town about seven last Friday evening where there were a great many others of young people that were not of their opinion but went out of curiosity. The room being full, one of the most eminent among them began to speak and told them that God’s children were quiet and peacable and advise all to walk in the ways of God, for they should all come to judgement before Him, and, as soon as he had spoken these words, before he could proceed any further, the planchion fell under them, and they all fell one on another, only some few, who were by the windows escaped the fall. In this fall divers children and others were much bruised but no other hurt’.

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, were clearly stirring up some interest in the area and Acland went on to state that they were planning to open a meeting house ’about a musket shot’ from Truro. Quakers were one of the dissenting churches that had broken away from the Church of England earlier in the century. These included Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians, all of whom received a boost during the civil wars of the 1640s and in the period of the Republic.

Although reliable data is scarce, it looks as if in 1676 the number of dissenters in Cornwall was not obviously much lower than in neighbouring Devon …

Yet, by the early 1700s it was being reported that there were very few dissenters in Cornwall. Numbers had fallen steeply and this has been cited as one of the reasons Wesleyan Methodism could take hold so quickly in Cornwall.

Why was this? Dissenters were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Government and its supporters on the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and as threats to the newly re-established order. Legislation was passed in the 1660s and 1670s excluding dissenters from positions of authority while dissenting congregations were subjected to persecution and harassment by local justices of the peace. It is likely that Cornwall’s Royalist and Tory landowning establishment was more hostile to dissent than their counterparts elsewhere, enthusiastically and successfully using the law to stamp it out in the later 1600s and early 1700s.

The 1960s: when everything in Cornwall began to change

The Torrey Canyon begins to break up

On March 18th 1967 the Liberian registered oil tanker, the Torrey Canyon, struck the Seven Stones reef west of Land’s End. Attempts to refloat the ship failed and it began to break up, releasing the 100,000 tons or so of crude oil on board.

Attempts by the RAF to bomb the ship and burn the oil were less than successful. Several of the bombs missed and much of the oil ended up on the coasts of Cornwall and Brittany. Meanwhile, heavy-handed use of chemical dispersants did as much damage as the oil. The Government and their ‘experts’ refused to listen to local advice and thus failed to tap into local knowledge and expertise. As a result, thousands of sea birds perished and miles of coastline were polluted.

The plume of smoke from the blazing oil was clearly visible fom West Penwith

Images of bombed oil tankers, dying sea birds and beaches clogged with oil are iconic reminders of the 1960s in Cornwall. But they aren’t the only or the most important ones. This was the decade of counter-culture. The ‘summer of love’ in California had its echo at St Ives as hippies from the English suburbs descended on the town in an attempt to recreate their own version. Locals gazed bemusedly at the hippies, who were blissfully unaware they were recreating the earlier painterly westwards migration. The local business community fumed. Hordes of fish and chip gobbling tourists were one thing; scruffy hippies with little to spend quite another.

Moreover, it wasn’t just a matter of culture. The 1960s was the decade when population turnaround occurred, with the beginning of mass in-migration, itself triggered by mass car-borne tourism. Demographic change was followed by social change. In the words of the late Ron Perry, this was a ‘bourgeois invasion’, Cornwall being ‘swamped by a flood of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-browed city-dwellers who effectively imposed their standards upon local society’.

Housing at Bodmin for its overspill population

As that was happening, a ferocious campaign had been waged to prevent planned ‘overspill’ from London to Cornish towns. With the exception of Bodmin this was largely successful in the short term, although it did little to stem the unplanned migration in search of the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. But it did bring Cornish nationalism to public attention, as Cornish Celts started to ape their big brothers and sisters in Wales and Scotland.

Whether their preference was the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, Cornish people of a certain age will remember the 60s as the decade when everything began to change and nothing was ever the same.

The lifestyle of the Celtic saints

Around 140 separate Celtic saints were venerated in Cornwall. Later, it was assumed most of them came from elsewhere, from Wales, Brittany or Ireland, even though many were in fact probably native to Cornwall. As time passed, saints became the object of local folklore. In imagining the histories of their saints, the Cornish revealed how they saw themselves. Nicholas Orme (in his Cornwall and the Cross, p.18) has written that ‘between about AD 900 and 1500 … people in Cornwall … saw their past as linked with Ireland and Wales, not with England or Rome’.

Various miraculous events were associated with Cornwall’s saints. Cuby and Piran could carry fire without being burnt. Petroc lived on an island in the Indian Ocean for seven years sustained by a single fish, while Carantoc possessed a magic perambulating altar. This sailed of its own volition across the Severn from Wales with the saint hot in pursuit. Once across the Severn Carantoc had to tame a serpent that was annoying the locals. The same district near Bristol seems to have been particularly infested with serpents as Keyne turned them to stone by her praying. Not all serpents and dragons were being slain by the score in what was becoming England. Samson had to deal with one on his way through Cornwall for example.

Arthur figured in relation to several saints. Carantoc was assisted by Arthur when taming his dragon, while Kea returned to Cornwall from Brittany to broker a peace deal between Arthur and Modred. Endelient was the god daughter of Arthur, who had helped her when a local lord killed her cow. When she died, Endelient’s body was dragged in an ox-cart and the church built at the place the oxen stopped, something that also happened to Mylor.

Some saints were incredibly strong. Morwenna carried a stone for the font of her church on her head from the shore up the cliffs to the spot she chose. Selevan cracked a stone with a single blow of his fist. Menfre or Minver could fight off the devil merely by throwing her comb at him.

Saints seem to have had more than their fair share of bad luck. When a child, Mylor, son of a duke of Cornwall, had his hand and foot chopped off by an evil uncle. He received silver replacements that miraculously grew with him. Blaise was tortured with woolcombs but then very forgivingly became the patron saint of woolcombers. Selevan caught two fish with a single hook to feed the two children of his sister Breage. Unfortunately, the children choked on the bones. Gwinear was beheaded at the site of his church, massacred by the Cornish pagan King Teudar along with the rest of the company of 777 that he had brought with him from Ireland.

Sancred killed his father by accident and had to live as a swineherd in penance, later being revered for his ability to cure pigs. According to Nicholas Orme, in 1677 the too-clever vicar of Sancreed was prosecuted by his parishioners for unwisely saying that he was ‘the unhappiest of ministers, for that other ministers were patrons of their flocks but that he was but the herdsman of a company of swine’.

And finally, saints could make what look like quite odd decisions. God offered Sithney the chance to be the patron of young women, No, replied the misogynist, for they’ll always be pestering me asking for husbands and fine clothes. Instead he chose to be the patron of mad dogs. Much less trouble.

Cornish saints were sometimes replaced by international or English saints. At Redruth by 1960 Euny was sharing his church with St George

It’s Celtic saints’ month

With St David’s Day tomorrow, St Piran’s on Thursday and St Patrick’s in a couple of weeks’ time, this has to be the month of the Celtic saints. To the greater glory of St Euny, my local saint, I shall be forced to devote the next three blogs to the subject.

Stauined glass modern representation of
St Uny at Lelant church

Who were the Celtic saints? Saints were supposed to have been roaming around in the early middle ages causing all sorts of mayhem while confronting pagans and serpents alike. They were men and sometimes women, Christian missionaries, suffering for their faith, performing miracles and founding churches during their hectic voyaging up and down the seaways of Celtic Britain.

What truth can be gleaned from the scanty historical record is more prosaic. Some saints may well have taken to their boats (or millstones or leaves). The life of Samson, written in the late 600s, suggests he crossed Cornwall on his way from Wales to Brittany. However, most saints’ lives were written up much later, from the ninth century onwards, centuries after their subjects had died, and are much less credible. Although people liked to think that ‘their’ saint personally founded ‘their’ church, it’s more likely that the saint’s cult migrated, not the saints themselves.

The great age of the Celtic saints was the period between 500 and 700, a time when Christianity was spreading across the Celtic world. This was probably also the time cults began to spread, transferred from monasteries to daughter churches. Maybe a relic or two, the supposed teeth or a fragment of a saint’s bone for example, would accompany the cult, to be proudly displayed in a shrine in the church.

St Euny’s Well, at Sancreed

Saints often had their holy wells, to which people would head to seek healing. Certain saints had particular specialisms; for example, St Cadoc was good for intestinal worms. Meanwhile, if you had a sick pig, St Sancred was the chap to pray to. They would also have had their special days when services were held, feasts were prepared, relics were proudly paraded around the parish and sometimes the saint’s play was performed at the local plain an gwarry.

Stormy weather: past, present and future

It’s been henting down recently, with a succession of weather fronts, heavy rain and consistently strong winds reaching gale force at times. On the one hand there’s nothing new in this, as the hundreds of wrecks around Cornwall’s coast testify. These brought welcome temporary relief to coastal communities if they could succeed in snaffling away the wrecked goods before the authorities. But they also brought problems inland.

Carew wrote in the late 1500s that “the country is much subject to storms, which fetching a large course in the open sea, do from these violently assault the dwellers on land, and leave them uncovered houses [most roofs were thatched], pared hedges and dwarf-grown trees as witnesses of their force and fury … ”

Penzance seafront in January

Later, John Wesley had obviously had enough of the rain. During an early trip to Cornwall he commented: “I saw a strange sight, the sun shining in Cornwall”, a view that could be echoed this month.

Train derailed in the blizzard of 1891

Backalong, we used to get more snow. In the Breage parish registers there’s an entry in 1692: “great snow fell at the end of January and the beginning of February”. This heralded a series of cold winters. In 1814, the snow on January 14th was so bad that the mail coach overturned at Mitchell Common.” “The snow in many places was as high as the horses’ shoulders”. Further east, it was impossible to make out the road at Goss Moor. Travellers had to stop trying to cross the moor as stream works excavated very close to the road made it too dangerous.

Snowstorms are less likely now. Instead the climate scientists predict up to 30% more winter rain over the next half-century and an increase in ‘extremely wet days’ as we continue to be strangely unable to stop increasing our carbon emissions, let alone cut them.

Get ready for the next storm. It’s on its way.