Who were the richest families of late Victorian Cornwall?

In 1885 a letter appeared in the West Briton listing what were claimed to be the 27 richest men in Cornwall with their reputed incomes. Here’s the richest nine. (For a rough modern equivalent of the income multiply the figures by 120).

NameHouseAnnual income
Thomas Charles Agar-RobartesLanhydrock£75,000
John Charles WilliamsCaerhayes£60,000
Evelyn BoscawenTregothnan£50,000
Duke of Cornwall£40,000
Gustavus BassetTehidy£32,000
William Henry EdgcumbeMount Edgcumbe£30,000
Thomas Simon BolithoTrengwainton£30,000
Edward BolithoTrewidden£30,000
Sir John St AubynSt Michael’s Mount£25,000

Interesting to note that three of these families could trace their position back to the medieval period, three had become wealthy in the 1500s and 1600s and the other three were products of Cornwall’s industrial period.

One wing of Lanhydrock House was destroyed by a fire in 1881. Rebuilding was completed in 1885.

The letter appeared at a time when criticism of the landed class was growing. The correspondent, writing under the pseudonym ‘A Cornishman’, asked if it was not ‘a fact that some [on his list] are almost totally unknown in the county – unknown even by sight – absentees in fact, drawing large incomes .. but giving scarcely anything in return?’ He continued: ‘do we see them , as was the custom formerly, taking an active part in the management of our Quarter Sessions our infirmaries, our hospitals, our savings banks, and other benevolent institutions? Alas! I fear the answer must be in the negative.’

The fall of the Arundells of Lanherne

By the end of the fifteenth century the Arundell family of Lanherne at St Mawgan had climbed to the top of Cornwall’s pecking order. Yet, by the 1600s the family was declining fast. The reason was simple enough. Their stubborn commitment to Roman Catholicism after the Reformation of the 1540s made them suspect in the eyes of the Government. But the details of their fall can be confusing, not least because in the 1500s four heads of the family in a row were all called John.

The Arundells first emerged in the early 1200s, holding a single manor at Treloy, near present-day Newquay. Their rise came over the following two centuries, mainly as a result of a succession of lucrative marriages which added a score or so manors to their estate. During these years, the family seat was transferred from Treloy, via Trembleath in St Ervan to Lanherne, where the family was based by the 1370s.

The Arundells were Lancastrian supporters in the 1400s and remained loyal to Henry VII during the Cornish risings of 1497, being rewarded with yet another manor. By 1501 John Arundell was the wealthiest man in Cornwall and as receiver-general of the Duchy when Henry VIII became king, the most important as well.

Sir John #1

Sir John Arundell #1 (1475-1545) was content to administer the Duchy and remain in Cornwall. His eldest son Sir John #2 determined to keep his head down as his fellow landowners embraced Protestantism. Meanwhile, the Arundells clung to their traditional faith. The rising of 1549 brought the first problems, when Sir John failed to answer a call to serve against the ‘rebels’, who were led by his cousin. He was kept in custody in London and examined, pleading sickness had prevented his attendance. This didn’t wash and John was confined to the Tower from 1550 to 1552, before dying in 1557.

Nonetheless, the family’s position was restored during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-58). Sir John #3 retained a powerful position in Cornish society as late as 1570. As A.L.Rowse wrote, in what is still the best account of these years, the Arundells ‘gave as little offence as possible’, although they were ‘aloof (and) increasingly isolated from the rest of (Cornwall)’.

Sir John #3

The breach finally occurred in 1577 when Cuthbert Mayne, a Roman Catholic missionary priest, was discovered at Golden, the house of Francis Tregian, another Catholic who had married an Arundell. Mayne was executed and Tregian imprisoned. John Arundell #3 was indicted for not attending church and restricted to London, spending periods of time in the Tower. His final stay there came with the Anglo-Spanish crisis of 1587 and the Armada invasion scare. He died shortly after.

It wasn’t the extended period away from Cornwall after 1577 or spells in prison that proved the final straw for the family but the financial pressures for being declared ‘recusants’, or non-attenders of the Church of England. John Arundell #4 was paying a fine of £260 a year by 1599 and the Crown had confiscated some of the family lands under a law of 1586.

Although John #4 was allowed to return to Cornwall in 1604, the family’s continuing refusal to recant and give up their Catholicism ate away at their wealth. The last male Arundell, another Sir John, died in1701, although the family line continued via marriage into a (by now much wealthier) cadet line of the Arundell family in Wiltshire. In the late 1700s most of the Cornish lands were sold and in 1794 Lanherne itself was given to Carmelite nuns fleeing the Low Countries. It remains a nunnery, offering few hints of its former status as the power-base of Cornwall’s leading family.

Lanherne in 1973

Cornish towns in 1698

Celia Fiennes journeyed through Cornwall on horseback in 1698. In her journal she provided brief accounts of some of the towns she saw.

Having endured an hour-long crossing of the Tamar on the Cremyll ferry, she took the southern route to the west. She seems to have been most impressed, and a little scared, by the ‘very steep, stony hills’. Descending one she came to Looe, ‘a pretty big seaport, a great many houses all of stone’.

Fowey turned out to be a ‘narrow stony town, the streets very close’, while St Austell was a ‘little market town’ with ‘houses … like barns up to the top of the house’. The town had ‘very neat country women’, one of whom introduced Celia to clotted cream. She wasn’t so pleased however by the ‘universal smoking, both men, women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and so sit around the fire smoking.’

Staying at the Boscawens’ house at Tregothnan, Celia decided to turn back ‘for fear of the rains that fell in the night’. However, at St Columb she changed her mind as the weather improved and headed back west on the main road. This was ‘mostly over heath and downs which was very bleak and full of mines’. She found Redruth to be ‘a little market town where on market day ‘you see a great number of horses little of size which they call Cornish Goonhillies’.

Celia continued to Penzance, noting on the way that ‘the people here are very ill guides, and know but little from home, only to some market town they frequent’. Marazion was a ‘little market town’. Penzance looked ‘snug and warm’ with a ‘good quay and a good harbour’. A visit to Land’s End followed, where she met with ‘very good bottled ale’. She commented that the cottages were ‘clean and plastered’ inside, despite looking like barns from the outside, as in Scotland.

Returning eastwards, Celia went via Truro – ‘a pretty little town and seaport … built of stone, a good pretty church’. But Truro had seen better days and was in parts ‘a ruinated disregarded place’. Leaving Truro, she travelled east via St Columb and Camelford, ‘a little market town [with] very indifferent accommodation’.

Launceston’s Southgate in the 1960s

The final town on her itinerary was Launceston, ‘the chief town in Cornwall, ‘encompassed with walls and gates ‘and ‘pretty large’, although most of the place was ‘old houses of timber work’.

Interestingly, despite travelling as far as the Land’s End, she made no mention of the Cornish language.

Trouble at mine

On New Year’s Day in 1872 the miners at Wheal Basset near Redruth decided to take a day’s holiday. The following day the mine captain – Abraham James – fined them 2/6 each, the equivalent of around 10% of their weekly wage. All hands at the mine then struck work in protest. The West Briton reported that ‘this has caused a great sensation in the district, and the feeling is that the men rather than pay the fine, will leave the mine.’

all quiet at Basset Mine now

In fact the miners returned to work on the 4th, ‘the committee having decided that the spall should not be enforced … It seems that for some years New Year’s Day has been considered a holiday in most mines, and if the men have worked on that day they have been paid extra.’

This was also a time of labour shortage and booming tin prices, one of the all too few periods after the mid-1860s when the balance of power leaned towards the working miner rather than the mine management and adventurers.

Who was Tom Bawcock?

Today at Mousehole people celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Children parade, paper lanterns aloft. Traditional songs such as ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ are sung, starry-gazy pie will be eaten. This age-old festival has its roots extending deep into the past. But how deep?

The event is said to commemorate the actions of Tom Bawcock, a fisherman who set out during a severe storm just before Christmas. This storm was the latest in a series so bad that Mousehole’s fishing fleet had not ventured to sea for weeks. In consequence the folk of Mousehole faced starvation.

But Tom was their saviour. Braving the gale and, in the latest iteration of the tale (The Mousehole Cat of 1990) with the help of his cat who soothed the tempest, Tom brought home a boatload of ‘seven sorts of fish’. These were promptly baked into a giant starry-gazy pie and the community saved from a hungry Christmas.

As Alan Kent points out in the most comprehensive account of this festival (The Festivals of Cornwall, 2018, pp.323-325), Tom Bawcock’s Eve underwent several revivals or revisions during the twentieth century. The first reference to it was from Robert Morton Nance, the Cornish Celtic revivalist, in 1927. Nance wrote that ‘at Mousehole this is the eve before Christmas Eve, which was formerly kept as a feast among the fisher-folk there’. This has been widely taken to mean that the festivity was still being kept up in the early 1900s. But the word ‘formerly’ would seem to add some ambiguity to that conclusion.

Mousehole harbour in the 1890s

It’s not clear whether Nance observed such a festivity or not. He was not averse to reconstructing or re-inventing aspects of Cornish culture, as he did with the Cornish language. It was in fact Nance who wrote the song ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ around 1910, a song he himself described as a ‘conjectural description’ of what might have been sung in possible earlier feasts.

Various theories swirl around the origins of the tale. Some assert that it was a product of the staunch Methodism of Mousehole, with Tom Bawcock acting as the shining exemplar of selfless commitment to community values. This would date it to the later 1700s or 1800s. Others, including Nance, suggest an older origin in pre-Christian times.

Anyone seeking an actual person called Tom Bawcock will be disappointed. Bawcock is not a local surname. The word was used by Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and Henry V, and was a generic term for a fine fellow, an anglicised version of the French beau coq. Tom Bawcock was the perfect moniker for this local hero. Based on the Shakespearian provenance of bawcock some claim that the tale therefore dates from the 1600s. However, as the word was used by another playwright as late as the 1850s, it could imply a date anywhere between 1600 and the late 1800s.

While the precise origins of the tale, one that no doubt shifted in its telling, remains obscure, it’s likely that Tom Bawcock’s Eve emerged as a local variant of widespread pre-modern mid-winter celebrations, of which Christmas is of course one. In mid-Cornwall there was Picrous day, held by the tinners of the Blackmore Stannary on the second Thursday before Christmas. Other miners took a holiday on Chiwidden Thursday, the last Thursday before Christmas.

It may also be significant, certainly interesting, to read that there’s a traditional Christmas eve feast among Italian-American households called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Were there seven sorts of fish traditionally, or did Nance, aware of the significance of the number seven in the Bible as a sign of completion or fulfilment, add this element as well as the song?

But at the end of the day who cares? As Alan Kent writes, ‘origins do not matter, only the event matters.’

The Penlee lifeboat disaster

The 19th of December will be remembered by any Cornish person in their 50s or above as the day when, 38 years ago, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat at Mousehole lost their lives. They had put to sea to go to the aid of the bulk carrier, the Union Star, which was in difficulties and drifting in the teeth of a furious gale.

The Union Star was actually on its maiden voyage. Launched in Denmark a few weeks earlier, it had picked up a cargo of fertiliser in the Netherlands and was heading for Dublin, where it was registered. En route the boat had also collected the captain’s family, who added three to its crew complement of five, as it sailed westwards into an oncoming storm.

Eight miles east of Wolf Rock its engines failed, contaminated by sea water. In winds gusting up to 100 mph and waves reputedly 60 feet high, it was blown back towards the cliffs of West Penwith.

The coastguard called up a helicopter, but the wind was too violent for the helicopter to winch anyone off. So they then requested the lifeboat at Penlee to launch. The Penlee boat, the Solomon Browne, then set off at 8.12 in the evening. In raging seas it located the Union Star and managed to manoeuvre alongside, successfully taking four people off the stricken ship. It then radioed that it was trying to rescue the remainder. And then there was radio silence.

wreckage from the Union Star

The 46-foot wooden lifeboat had presumably been smashed against the side of the carrier, pummelled by the horrific waves. Other lifeboats were launched: the Sennen boat was unable to make it around Land’s End while a search by the Lizard boat found nothing.

Sixteen people, the eight-man crew of the Solomon Browne and the eight on board the Union Star, lost their lives in this tragedy. A public appeal afterwards raised £3 million in recognition of the incredible bravery of those who volunteer to risk their lives in such conditions to save the lives of others. Following the disaster, the old lifeboat house was closed, a memorial garden planted nearby and a new lifeboat station established at nearby Newlyn.

Humphry Davy

The statue of Penzance’s most famous son looks east down Market Jew Street, where he was born on this day in 1778. But it also looks further east, past St Michael’s Mount, across the Tamar and upcountry, where he made his name, and then across the sea to where he ended his days.

His parents were not particularly well-off, although they could afford to send Humphry to Penzance Grammar School and then to finish at Truro Grammar School. By all accounts Davy was an indifferent scholar and made little impression on his teachers. When his father died he was apprenticed to a Penzance surgeon in 1795. There, he taught himself the rudiments of chemistry, as well as learning French, the language of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. More importantly, he made useful contacts, such as Davies Gilbert.

It was through Gilbert that he came to the attention of Thomas Beddoes at Bristol. Beddoes invited him to join his Pneumatic Institute, which was investigating the use of gases in medicine. While at Bristol Davy experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and identified its possible use as an anaesthetic. He also almost killed himself by deliberately inhaling carbon monoxide to test its effects.

As well as lacking much concern for health and safety, science in those days was less specialised and Davy counted among his friends at Bristol the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while writing some romantic poetry himself.

In 1801, aged just 23, he was offered a post as assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, established two years previously. It was Davy’s public lectures that brought him to wider attention. It secured invitations to all the best dinner parties, as well a full lectureship within a year.

A flood of discoveries followed thick and fast. Davy used electrolysis to isolate calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, proved that chlorine was an element and re-assessed the nature of heat. In 1804 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the main scientific institution of the time. In 1812 he was knighted and became a baronet in 1818. During the war with France in 1813 Davy, accompanied by his wife and his assistant, Michael Faraday, even journeyed to France, invited by the French Government to receive a medal for his electro-chemical work. This accolade crowned a career largely spent demolishing French theories on heat.

Back from the continent Davy found time for his most well-known invention, the safety lamp. This ultimately saved many lives in coal mines, preventing the recurrence of disasters such as that at Felling Colliery near Newcastle in 1812, when 92 men lost their lives in a massive explosion.

Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, but he never managed to reconcile the jealousies and feuds within it between the old gentleman-amateurs and the new professional academic scientists. His own manner, sometimes irritable while careless of etiquette, didn’t help.

Ultimately, he was felled by two strokes in 1826 and 1829, the second eventually ending his life. One of Cornwall’s most famous sons, he spent most of his life beyond its borders. Interestingly, his voluminous writings display little explicit reference to his Cornish identity, apart from some whimsical and over-romanticised poetry about the landscape.