Cornish rugby football finds its feet

Last weekend saw the Rugby World Cup final. Nowadays rugby and association football are viewed as entirely separate games. In fact they share a common ancestor, which we should just call ‘football’. In the middle of the 1800s football was played at the public schools as well as by more working-class communities up and down the British Isles. The schools had evolved rules, but each was different.

The earliest organised football clubs were formed by ex-pupils of these schools. This was so even in Cornwall. For example, Redruth R.F.C. was founded in 1875 by men from Clifton School and from Marlborough. Incidentally, the oldest club in Cornwall is claimed to be Penryn, formed in 1872 by a return migrant who had come across the Rugby version of the game when he played for Blackheath in London.

The Rugby school code dominated in the 1860s with most clubs playing by its rules. Association football, an amalgam of various other sets of rules, only challenged the Rugby code in the mid-1870s when its FA Cup became a popular spectator sport.

Penzance RFC 1887-88. The public school influence is clear

In those early days the rules of the game were still remarkably fluid. In 1873 at a match between St Austell and Bodmin, ‘St Austell generously altered several of their rules for the benefit of Bodmin, or the result might not have been quite the same.’ In November 1872 teams from Truro and St Austell fought out a draw. It was reported that there were two touchdowns each but ‘the tries were unsuccessful’.

As touchdowns were abolished under association rules in 1867 the teams were clearly playing rugby. However, at that time the word ‘try’ referred to an attempted shot at goal, or a conversion in modern terms. A try (or conversion) required a touchdown first, but games were decided on the tries or goals, not the touchdowns. Thus, the return match between the same two clubs at St Austell was described as a draw as no tries were scored. This was despite St Austell scoring three touchdowns and Truro none. The earlier formation of permanent football clubs in the west probably explains why rugby became the dominant code in the district between Truro and Penzance. East of this there was a gradual drift from Rugby to Association rules. In 1877 at a meeting at Liskeard for example, it was decided to start a football club, to play ‘by association rules’.

How our great-great grandparents celebrated the 5th November

In 1876 Helston Town Council took the precaution of putting up placards in the town and sent the town crier around to warn that those letting off fireworks in the street would be fined £5. Things had apparently got out of hand. The West Briton stated that:

This action was highly necessary, inasmuch as the night of November 5th is usually a time of riot and license at Helston. On previous occasions balls, dipped in petroleum and ignited, have been thrown at passers-by, and sometimes through windows.

As the same paper had reported, the pyromaniacs of Helston had been active a year earlier in 1875 – ‘a few fireworks were let off, and crackers exploded in every direction. The principal streets were filled with the odour and smother of burning paraffin’.

Nonetheless, not wishing to be seen as a bunch of miserable killjoys out to ruin the people’s fun, the town’s elite raised a subscription in 1876 for a grand fireworks display on the 5th. However, to their dismay, this had to be postponed due to the non-arrival of the fireworks. ‘A great disappointment’, the newspaper laconically noted.

Interviewing young mine surface workers in 1841

Samuel Tippet was ten years old and worked at the dressing floors of Trethellan Mine near Lanner. His work for the previous fortnight had been ‘washing up’, cleaning the stones in wooden troughs prior to their dressing. Before, he was at the slimes but gave that up ‘because the slimes was knacked’. After this brief glimpse of Samuel’s Cornu-English dialect the account becomes more impersonal:

He lives with his grandfather about a mile off. He pays his wages to his grandfather. Had seven shillings a month on his first ‘spurs’ and now gets ten. He sometimes feels tired when he leaves work; chiefly in the back and legs. He brings potato ‘hobban’ with him for dinner. For breakfast he gets milk and water and bread, barley and wheat mixed. For supper baked potatoes, with pork sometimes. Goes to bed at eight; likes to stay up longer. He goes to school in the New Church (Lanner); has gone to Sunday-school two years. Learns to read and spell. Heard him read the Testament; he reads pretty well.

40 years after Samuel was interviewed Trethellan mine was disused

Other interviews were more revealing of the thoughts and feelings of the workers themselves. Fanny Francis, a 17 year old bal maiden at United Mines, Gwennap, had suffered from fits after a fall when carrying ore three months earlier. She attended the Bible Christian chapel and had been at day school before starting to labour at the mines at 11 years old. Her mother was a widow left with five children, all of whom had some schooling before being ‘put’ to the mines. Yet, according to Fanny, ‘they did not complain of the work’, although one can glimpse a sense of regret at lost opportunities in her final words – ‘but poor people cannot do all they could’.

This is an extract from my From a Cornish Study, page 109.

What to see in Cornish churches: 1

My religious correspondent has sent me this description of two Cornish churches which both have medieval art worth taking a look at.

Breage

The most striking thing about Breage church is its wall paintings. The two largest are opposite the main door. On the left is St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, greeting you as you arrive and looking after you as you leave.  He is shown knee-deep in water, carrying Jesus safely on his shoulder. On the right is the figure of Jesus surrounded by various tools. Opinion is divided as to whether he is blessing the trades for which these tools were used or whether it is a warning to those who worked with them on a Sunday: working on a Sunday was forbidden. These figures would have been painted around the same time as the church was built, about 1470-1500. They give a good idea of just how colourful our churches were and, in an era when few people could read, they are powerful messages.

The wall paintings at Breage

In addition, in the north-west corner of this church is a tall stone, found near the church in 1924. It has a Latin inscription which translates as ‘To the Emperor Caesar Marcus Cassianus Postumus’ who reigned from about 260-268 AD. The stone is often referred to as a Roman milestone, but it is really a road marker, showing visiting troops that they were on the right road.

St Kew

If you like old, beautiful interesting things, head for St. Kew. At the end of the north aisle is a stained glass window depicting the last few days of Jesus’ life. It is at least 550 years old and was brought here from Bodmin in 1469. When you think how fragile stained glass is, how far it had to travel and by what means, it’s a real miracle that it’s in such great condition.

The scenes begin with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and end with a scene of him being laid in his tomb. There are a couple of sections filled with broken glass, but the other scenes are vivid. The scene of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and the disciples are all asleep, shows a group of Roman soldiers creeping up, hiding behind their shields. A few panels later we see Jesus before Pontius Pilate, who is literally washing his hands of the responsibility of sentencing Jesus to death. Take a pair of binoculars with you and you’ll be able to see details like the fur on the donkey, the drops of water when Jesus washes Peter’s feet and so on.

Lizzie Lander

The Levant mine disaster

A hundred years ago today the man engine collapsed at Levant mine, Pendeen, near St Just. This was the second worse mine disaster in Cornwall’s history. Thirty-one miners lost their lives and many others were badly injured. The man engine was a device that conveyed miners to and from the surface, allowing them to avoid the former, laborious climb up the ladders at the end of their core (shift). It was invented in 1841 by Michael Loam of Liskeard, although his design owed much to similar contraptions at work in Germany. The first man engine was installed at Tresavean Mine, Lanner and it was then adopted in several of the larger and deeper Cornish mines.

A report in The Times on the disaster explained how the man engine operated.

Section of the man engine at Dolcaoth

‘It consists of a ponderous wooden beam [in fact several sections of beam bolted together] which extends from the top to the bottom of the shaft, which is 600 yards deep. At intervals of 12 feet are steps on the beam, each of which affords foothold for one person, while on the side of the shaft are stationary platforms at intervals of 12 feet. At every stroke of the engine the beam is raised and lowered, and the men step on and off the platforms and are carried up or down by the movement of the beam. It is a rather slow process, but has been carried on for years without serious accident’

That was not the case on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20th however. The Times went on to describe what happened.

‘From 100 to 150 men were on it when the change of shift was taking place. When the connecting rod broke the engine was at the top of its stroke, and the gigantic beam with its load fell 12 feet. Many of the platforms on the side of the shaft were smashed, and the men on them were knocked off and crushed. Some were unhurt and managed to reach the surface. Rescue parties brought out others, but a number of miners at different levels could not be reached …’

The engine rod had only dropped 12 feet but in doing so had taken away much of the timber work on which men were standing. The local paper, the Cornishman, carried an eyewitness account from a young miner, Robert Penaluna, who was riding on the engine at the time of the collapse …

‘When the engine broke it was a tremendous crash for in dropping she knocked away timber and everything else in her path. The engine rod on which we were travelling shook violently. The smash gave a terrible shock to us all … the screams of some of the men were awful, as they gripped the rod like grim death … I wouldn’t go through an experience like that again for the world.’

Three golden ages and six turning points: a history of Cornwall in 500 words

Yesterday, I was asked to give a short talk on the history of Cornwall. How do you sum up 2,000 years of history in 45 minutes? Tricky. This was my attempt.

A golden age is a period of victory or defeat (or both) which later becomes mythologised and looked back on with pride. A turning point is a time when the flow of history seems to change course.

Cornwall’s first golden age was between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the arrival of the English in the 800s. This was when Cornwall had an independent existence. At first it was the centre of a larger kingdom of Dumnonia, with an elite trading post at Tintagel and colonies in Brittany. When the Mediterranean trade dried up it became a decentralised collection of communities bound together by early Christianity rather than by kings and administrators.

Three turning points then occurred over the next half millennium. The Normans arrived in 1070 and gradually extended their overlordship from their early base in the far east at Launceston. Population, trade and towns grew until the shock of the Black Death in 1349. Cornwall recovered rather better than other places. It was during the late 1300s and 1400s that the Cornish language held its own after an earlier retreat, backed by the patronage of Church and Crown. The third turning point arrived with the religious reformation of the 1530s.

This heralded Cornwall’s second golden age, one viewed by some as a romantic period of struggle against the encroaching English state. Risings in 1497 and 1549 both failed, their leaders executed for treason. Yet in 1642 the Cornish avenged themselves. They became the spearhead of the royalist army of the west, thus unfortunately backing the wrong side in the British civil wars. The following century was more subdued, at least politically.

Another turning point followed in the 1730s, when steam technology began to be applied to the long-established business of mining. Deep copper mining drove the precociously early industrialisation of Cornwall, its third golden age. This created a distinctive rural-industrial society, where elements of the new and the traditional were stitched together. Population growth and new settlements laid the ground for the enthusiastic reception of John Wesley and the wholesale transfer of allegiance to a vigorous, revivalist Methodism. Meanwhile, Cornish engineers were raising the efficiency of steam engines to hitherto undreamt-of heights in the generation after 1810.

The fifth turning point brought this to a juddering halt in the 1870s when a calamitous fall in the price of copper made its mining uneconomic. Tin mining survived but underwent periodic crises, as in the 1890s or 1920s. Population fell as emigrants fled to the mining frontiers of the New World. The first wave in the 1840s and 1850s had sought a better life on the basis of the demand for their mining expertise. The second wave had little choice but to go as opportunities closed down at home.

A century of de-industrialisation was ended by the final turning point – the counter-urbanisation that set in from the 1960s onwards. This began half a century of mass migration to Cornwall, when it became a preferred site for holidaying and second homes. Demographic change accompanied a social transformation that we are still living through and struggling to cope with.

Did the mass migration after the 1960s threaten the Cornish identity or stimulate its renaissance?

A miner on the move

In 1862 a Parliamentary enquiry into the condition of metal miners interviewed several miners in Cornwall. Their life histories provide a fascinating insight into their moves from mine to mine. They indicate that miners moved frequently.

One of the most extreme examples was an anonymous miner at St Cleer. Aged 36 in 1862, he had not worked for 16 weeks, complaining of ‘weakness in the body and pains in the chest’. This man had first gone underground at the age of 12 but recalled 17 separate spells of employment involving 13 different mines over the course of 24 years.

He had begun working at Wheal Providence in Lelant, operating an ‘air machine’ (bellows). After working on the surface for the next four or five years he went underground again on tutwork contracts at nearby St Ives Consols. A short spell was spent working in east Cornwall at the booming West Caradon mine before returning to mines in the Lelant and Breage districts. He then upped sticks and moved east for a second time, spending time at mines in St Ive, between Liskeard and Callington, and across the border at East Crowndale mine in Tavistock. A few weeks back in the west at St Ives Consols was followed by spells at mines in the Caradon district, including Gonamena, Caradon Consols and West Caradon before his peripatetic career was cut short by illness.

Difficult now to imagine the Caradon mines as a hive of activity in the 186os

This example was exceptional in its mobility. Nonetheless, most of the other miners interviewed moved around regularly. It’s likely that such high levels of migration within Cornwall made the decision to move even further – to mines in North America, Australia and South Africa – an easier one.