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.

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.

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.

Let us all unite: May Day at Padstow

Unite and unite and let us all unite 
For summer is acome unto day

The words of the ‘Obby ‘Oss songs will not be heard this year. The ‘osses will remain in their stables and Padstow will be eerily quiet as this iconic Cornish festival comes to a temporary halt, brought low by a virus. Cheer up though! We can still remember May Day virtually, by viewing the scores of video clips and old newsreel footage available on Youtube going back to the 1930s.

The first newsreel with sound

As with similar events, it’s comforting to think that the origins of this festival lie in pagan fertility rituals lost in the mists of time, although in reality the ‘Obby ‘Oss is only securely documented from the early 1800s. However, there are strong continuities from that time – the familiar prancing ‘oss, the teasers, the parades through the town, the trance-like hypnotic rhythm of the songs. All these seem to echo through the centuries.

But look and listen closely to the video clips and you’ll notice that even Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival has changed over time. The words of the songs, the times they are sung, the clothing, masks and paraphernalia of the participants, the flags flown, the flowers picked, have all undergone subtle change.

Nonetheless, the core festivity is intact. Moreover, it survived the attentions of nineteenth century moralists and reformers committed to ‘rational recreation’. In 1844 Thomas Trevaskis, a temperance leader and Bible Christian in the district, described May Day in Padstow as ‘a scene of riot, debauchery and general licentiousness – a perfect nuisance to all the respectable inhabitants of the place’. He decided to buy off the roistering inhabitants by offering a fat bullock to be roasted annually if only they gave up their foolish ways.

The response was not exactly what Trevaskis had hoped. ‘He himself drove the bullock, the best beast in his possession, but the people refused the offer and drove him out of the town, bullock and all, while certain of them pelted him with divers missiles into the bargain!’

Concerns about the ‘unusual amount of drunkenness’ re-surfaced late in the century. At that time, some locals began a temperance ‘oss (the blue ‘oss) as a rival to the old ‘oss (or red ‘oss). Transformed after World War One into a ‘peace ‘oss’, this joined its older mate to become an accepted part of the festivities.

The crowds have also changed over time, from comprising mainly Padstonians who own the ceremony to massive hordes of gaping sightseers. Among them stroll scores of sociologists and anthropologists eager to ‘explain’ the festival. Alan Kent, in the best extended account of Cornwall’s festival culture, remarks that the ‘Obby ‘Oss is a ‘reaction to modernity’. But it was more significant as a survival of pre-modernity. As the rough and ready festivities of pre-industrial times succumbed to the reformers and religious evangelicals in the 1800s, Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss was one of the few survivors.

Its survival is due to Padstonians’ fierce commitment to their local culture in the face of condemnation from outsiders. This was helped by the town’s location on the margins of Cornwall’s industrialisation. Here, the pressures of change were less keenly felt. By the twentieth century the place of Padstow’s May Day in wider Cornish culture meant that it had become ‘too big to fail’.

Since the 1960s however, there has been a more recognisably reactive aspect. For, remarkably, Padstow is now at the cutting edge of change, of modernity, or post-modernity, in Cornwall. Some of the highest levels of second homes in Cornwall are found in the immediate vicinity, while gentrification picked up pace when it became the first centre of up-market gastro-tourism in Cornwall. In that sense, the ‘Obby ‘Oss is all about ownership, identity and belonging. It serves as a powerful remembrance of former times and a former Cornwall, reassuring us of our place in the two Cornwalls we nowadays see around us.

Joseph Emidy

In this week in 1835 the man who was possibly one of the most talented Cornwall-based classical music composers of all time passed away and was buried in Kenwyn churchyard, to be forgotten about for many years. But Joseph Antonio Emidy was no native to Cornwall. Instead, he had been born in Guinea in west Africa at some time between 1770 and 1775.

As a child Emidy was sold to Portuguese slavers who, after baptising and converting their captives to Christianity, sold them on to a slave master in Brazil. By the later 1780s Emidy had been moved to Lisbon in Portugal. There, his master recognised his precocious musical talents and paid for a violin and music lessons. In the more racially relaxed atmosphere of Portugal Emidy flourished and by his 20s he had gained an established place as a violinist with the prestigious Lisbon Opera.

A promising musical career in Lisbon was cut short by the brutal interruption of the British navy. Sir Edward Pellew was the Cornish captain of HMS Indefatigable and hero of the naval squadron that was harrying French vessels up and down the Channel and Western Approaches. Pellew had put in at Lisbon and attended a concert of the opera. Lacking a fiddler to play the jigs and reels to which his sailors would dance in their time off, Pellew pressed, effectively kidnapped, the young musician.

Emidy then spent five years as a fiddler on Pellew’s ship. In that time he must have witnessed ferocious sea battles and endured howling gales. His views of his situation are perhaps hinted at by the fact Pellew did not allow him ashore, no doubt fearing he would run away. Emidy had exchanged a theoretical but comfortable slavery in Lisbon for a practical slavery as a ‘free man’ in the Royal Navy. Eventually, Pellew moved on to another command and in 1799 Emidy was discharged at Falmouth, where he took up residence.

In Cornwall he made his living from teaching the violin and guitar, while playing in the concerts of local amateur harmonic societies. His prowess as a very skilled musician rapidly became apparent. Not only did he play but also compose, the first of his compositions being noted in 1802. Unfortunately however, none of his work has survived.

A drawing of a meeeting of a musical club at Truro, 1808. Emidy plays violin at right.

In the same year of 1802 Joseph married local girl Jenefer Hutchins. The next decade was spent teaching and performing to support his young family. Six children were born, of whom five survived into adulthood. At some point around 1812 the family moved from Falmouth, where the harmonic society was fading fast, to Truro, where he became leader of the Truro Philharmonic Society.

While at Falmouth, Emidy’s patron, James Silk Buckingham, had taken examples of his compositions to London. There they were ‘highly approved’ by a meeting of professional musicians. However, the consensus was that ‘his colour would be so much against him, that there would be a great risk of failure’. The narrow attitudes towards racial difference that prevailed in London scuppered Joseph Emidy’s chance to achieve fame on a wider stage. Nonetheless, his background hadn’t hindered his acceptance or the ‘high reputation’ he enjoyed in Cornwall.

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.