Love it or hate it? Attitudes towards the revived Cornish language

A research article by Siarl Ferdinand published online last year provides some intriguing results of a survey into attitudes towards the revived Cornish language. The good news for the revivalists is that there was a broadly positive view of Cornish, with a majority of respondents declaring it was either ‘interesting’ or not being bothered either way. Meanwhile, a sizeable minority – around one in four – of non-learners expressed an interest in learning some Cornish.

The bad news is that a considerable minority – between a third and a half of the respondents – thought that supporting Cornish is a waste of resources. This group does not want it to be supported by the authorities or to appear on street signs (other than in placenames).

Welcome sign in traditional Cornish and revived medieval Cornish

The survey also found that only one in five of the Cornish ‘speakers’ who completed the survey defined themselves as ‘fluent’. As many as 60% of the learners admitted that they couldn’t even hold a simple conversation in Cornish. With approximately 50 fluent speakers in Cornwall, there’s a fairly long way to go to achieve the Cornish Language Strategy’s rather ambitious aim of making Cornish a ‘community language’.

Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the research also discovered quite a stark contrast in attitudes between those non-learners who identified as Cornish and those who did not. The latter group was much more hostile to official support for the language or its introduction into schools and expressed far less desire to learn it. Given the current high level of population growth and in-migration being encouraged by local and central government, the attitudes of in-migrants is set to be the key for the future of the Cornish language.

For an extended critical review of this article see here.

Royalist victories but Cornish disaster: July 1643

In the war of the five nations in the 1640s we last saw the Cornish army triumphant at the Battle of Stamford Hill at Stratton. Filled with enthusiasm, the army of 3,000 foot soldiers and 800 horsemen, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, advanced across the Tamar. They made contact with the Royalist army of Prince Maurice at Chard in early June, adding another 1,000 troops but a greater number – 1,500 – of cavalry.

By early July, the Royalist army had reached Bath, where it confronted Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarian force. The Parliamentarians established themselves at Lansdown, a high plateau north of the city and dug in. Though outnumbered by the Royalists, they held the commanding position, defended by earthworks and cannon.

A contemporary illustration of the battle

On July 5th the two armies were glowering at each other across an intervening valley. Waller rather impetuously decided to send half his cavalry to attack. They were repulsed by the Cornish army, which then began to advance cautiously across the lower ground towards the Parliamentarian positions on the hill. ‘Believing no man their equal’, the Cornish force, led by Bevil Grenville, repeated the feat of Stratton, fighting their way up the hill in the face of considerable resistance. Around 200 foot soldiers were killed and another 300 wounded before they finally gained the crest.

The memorial to Bevil Grenville at Lansdown

Once there they held, with pikemen fighting off five separate charges of Parliamentarian cavalry determined to dislodge them. Finally, Waller’s army abandoned the field to the Royalists. However, in the Parliamentarian counter-attacks, Bevil Grenville was mortally wounded. While technically a victory, the losses sustained by the Cornish army, the death of their inspired leader and an unfortunate accident the following day when an ammunition cart blew up, blinding Hopton, made this victory a hollow one.

Pursuing the Royalists to Devizes in Wiltshire, Waller and his Parliamentarians were eventually soundly beaten at Roundway Down just outside the town on July 13th. The Royalist cavalry won the day, with the Cornish, penned up in Devizes, only involved later, when the Parliamentarians were already routed.

The Cornish army then advanced to Bristol, where they joined a far bigger force led by Prince Rupert. Well outnumbering the city’s defenders, the Royalist leaders debated whether to invest it and starve it into submission or storm the city walls. The decision was made not to wait. This reckless choice has been blamed on the impatience of Prince Rupert. However, the Cornish foot soldiers were equally eager to attack, pre-empting the assault on July 26th by going into action before the signal came.

Exposed to heavy gunfire from the defenders, they were unable to cross the ditch and reach the walls at Temple Gate to the south of Bristol. Terrible losses ensued during the three hours during which repeated futile assaults were made. Another 300 Cornish soldiers were killed, including two of their leaders, Sir Nicholas Slanning and Colonel John Trevanion.

While Bristol eventually fell to the Royalists that same day, for the Cornish enough was enough. Having sustained major losses at Lansdown and Bristol the Cornish became mutinous and refused to advance further east. They were detached and sent back west to deal with the isolated Parliamentarian towns holding out in Devon and Dorset. Effectively, this was the end of the Cornish army as a coherent fighting unit.

Gone the four wheels of Charles’ wain,
Grenville, Godolphin, Trevanion, Slanning slain’

The East Wheal Rose mine disaster

On this day in 1846 39 lives were lost in one of Cornwall’s worst mining disasters. This occurred at East Wheal Rose, a silver-lead mine near the village of Newlyn East. At the time it was one of Cornwall’s most productive mines, employing 1,266 men, women and children. The account in the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that between 1 and 2pm on Thursday, July 9th, ‘one of the most awful thunderstorms ever known’ had broken near the mine. ‘Dense, heavy, purple-black clouds … poured down floods of rain’. The surface of the mine was awash within minutes and the water rushed northwards, the land sloping that way. As it did so it broke into the shafts and ‘rushing down into the levels … loosened and broke the timbers beneath, the consequence of which was the falling in of some other parts of the mine northwards.’

The site of the disaster in 1879. By this time the mine had closed.

Those in the more productive southern part of the mine fortunately had time to escape. Samuel Bastian, who was working there, explained at an inquest that ‘at about 1 o’clock, the candles … were all blown out by a rush of wind, which alarmed the men … they proceeded to grass as fast as they could’. Once there they discovered the water rushing into the shafts to the north. At Michell’s engine shaft 18 men came up but then no more as the flood continued to cascade into the depths.

Another witness, Ralph Richards, stated that the men who had rushed out tried frantically to divert the water from the shafts by makeshift dams and other means, but they were unsuccessful. Around 200 men eventually escaped from the flood by climbing up the ladders or by clinging on to the chains of the whim (winding) engines that had been set to work. At the time Richards was giving his evidence 43 men were unaccounted for, but four came to surface early the following morning, the last at 7am.

One miner – Frederick Sanders – was killed at the neighbouring North Wheal Rose mine. It was stated at his inquest that, after their candles had been blown out by the rush of wind, ten miners had gathered at the engine shaft. However, ‘the water was pouring down the shaft’. ‘Deceased attempted to get up the engine shaft against the stream’. He tried to convince the others to go with him but they wisely refused. ‘He was never seen alive after that’. After ten minutes the whim engine was set to work and six of the group got to the surface by holding on to the chain, while three others managed to escape via another shaft.

The ages given in the papers of the men who were killed provide a picture of the structure of the underground labour force at this time. The median age was 23, the youngest 15 and the oldest 58.

For those interested in surnames, the names of those reported missing were Bailey, Bartle, Bennett, Bice, Bishop, Clift, Eastlake, Ellery, Hosking, Jeffery, Kevern, Lampshire, Lanyon, May, Merifield, Michell, Pearce, Pengelly, Phillips, Pollard, Rowe, Stevens, Tippet, Tonkin, Trebilcock, Waters, White, Wilkins, Williams.

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.

Cornwall’s population: the latest estimates

The latest population estimates for mid-2019 were produced last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These show that net migration into Cornwall from the rest of the UK is still running at a historically high level. The estimated figure of 5,527 net migrants in 2018-19 was the highest since 2003, with the one exception of 2016-17.

Population overall did not rise as much, partly because there were 1,238 more deaths than births among the resident population and partly because of a net international exodus of 553, presumably the brexit effect.

Cornwall’s population was estimated to be nearly 566,000 in the middle of last year, an increase of around 200,000 over the past 50 years, the size of a fair-sized city. In 1976 Cornwall’s planners estimated that to ‘maintain the physical character of Cornwall’ its ideal population should be 430,000. We waved that number goodbye many years ago in 1981. The planners now assure us that there is no capacity problem. Indeed, Cornwall Council stresses there is ‘no upper ceiling’ to the number of houses that are going to be built. Somewhat ironically, this appeared in a document on its plans to tackle climate change.

Cornwall’s population has been rising faster than most other places since the 1960s

Meanwhile, the ONS is now also projecting a 20% growth in the number of households in Cornwall by 2040. This is a hefty increase from the 14% over the next 20 years in their last forecast just two years ago. A 20% growth in households presumably means a 20% increase in the size of the built environment. In just 20 years!

A high population growth rate has now been sustained for the past 60 years. Meanwhile, there is little sign of any breathing space that might allow Cornwall and its communities to accommodate such growth rather than to be overwhelmed by it. Quite the opposite in fact, as thousands of planning permissions have been handed out to build houses and most of them are still waiting to be built.

Extending the definition of Cornish surnames

Here are two surnames that haven’t appeared in either book or blogs. The reason they didn’t feature is because they are more common in places outside Cornwall and neither reached the number of 1861 household heads required for inclusion. Yet both were present by the middle of the 1600s and have a long history in Cornwall.

The first record I can find of the name Yeats is the burial of Arthur Yates at Boscastle in north Cornwall in 1627. From there this surname, more likely to be spelt Yeats in Cornwall than Yates, had by the mid-1700s dispersed to mid and west Cornwall. Over half the Yeats households were then found in the Wadebridge district of mid-Cornwall. By 1861 however, it had ramified in Camborne, a reflection of the population expansion there caused by the mining boom. As a result, the centre of gravity of the name in Cornwall shifted even further west.

Our second name – Watts – was present in large numbers at an earlier point, as early as the 1520s. It was then usually just Watt, with just a handful of parishes in east Cornwall showing the additional -s. By 1641 that had completely turned around, with only two Watt men listed (at Feock), the other 44 being Watts. The name was quite widely dispersed in Cornwall by the 1800s. However, it’s clear that it was most concentrated on the Isles of Scilly. It was present there in numbers in the 1730s. Lack of early records prevents us from deciding whether it was taken to Scilly from Cornwall, or arrived from somewhere else, or emerged independently.

Both names have generally accepted origins. Yeats is from the word gate, given to someone living by a gate or possibly to someone who was a gatekeeper. Watts is from the popular medieval first name Wat, a short form of Walter.

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.

The martyrs of ’97 and the Cornish rising

That’s 1497 of course. On this day in that year the two leaders of the Cornish rising met their grisly end. Michael Angove, a blacksmith from St Keverne and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London. They suffered this fate for what they had considered was the perfectly reasonable act of marching to London to complain to the king about their grievances. Unfortunately, the Government viewed it otherwise, as a treasonable act of rebellion against Henry VII’s rule. The king had intended to send their body parts back to Cornwall to be put on public display in the main towns. But Cornwall in the summer of 1497 was reported to be ‘unquiet and boiling’ so he decided this wasn’t exactly the wisest course of action.

The rising had been triggered by anger at government demands for taxes to fight a far-off war with the Scots. This was compounded by popular disaffection over the suspension of stannary rights in 1496. All that may have been coupled with residual, lingering Yorkist resentment at the Tudor takeover in 1485. The insurgents struck out across southern England, heading for London to put the complaints of the commons in front of the monarch. They aimed for Kent, hoping to gain support there.

They were disappointed in that, finding the Kentishmen not half as rebellious as they were made out to be. Nonetheless, the complainants had received considerable sympathy on their long march east. The contemporary account, the Great Chronicle of London, reported that the Cornishmen were ‘favoured’ by the people of the lands they passed through, and paid well for their supplies. This source also reported the rebel force was 15,000 strong. Given that the Cornish population at this time was no more than 50-60,000, this either means well over half of all able-bodied Cornishmen were involved or that the host had picked up support in its trek across southern England.

Some proportion of the support that had adhered to the Cornish cause on its march east clearly melted away when it approached London and Henry’s hastily gathered royal army. It was reported that desertions had reduced it to 10,000 or fewer by the time it camped on Blackheath to the south-east of the city. There Angove and Flamank’s force was quickly defeated, with the loss of some 200 lives. Although ‘it seems odd that no peer was able to block their march – or even try to do so – before they got to London’, the rising had failed ultimately because the nobility had belatedly rallied to the king. Of course the Cornish army might have done better had they possessed better weaponry, cavalry and trained soldiers.

As he was being drawn through the streets of London Angove is supposed to have boasted that he would have ‘a fame perpetual and a name immortal’. However, by the nineteenth century the events of 1497 were largely forgotten. It was only the Cornish Revival of the twentieth century and the rise of a national consciousness that restored the place of the 1497 rising in Cornish history.

This reached its climax in 1997 with the Keskerdh Kernow – a hike to London that revisited the route taken by the insurgents of 1497. By this time the actual events of 500 years earlier had been reimagined as the rising took its place as a romanticised icon of national rebellion. A brave Cornish-speaking army was crossing the border into England, St Piran flags fluttering furiously in the breeze.