The Battle of Stamford Hill: May 1643

Just over 367 years ago the second major Cornish battle of the British Wars took place. After their victory at Braddock Down in January the Royalists had unsuccessfully besieged Plymouth before being driven off, while one of their leaders – Sidney Godolphin – had in the meantime been shot dead in an ambush near Chagford in Devon.

A local truce was brokered in late February and this lasted until late April. During this period both sides took the opportunity to prepare for renewed conflict. On the expiry of the truce on April 23rd a Parliamentarian force crossed the Tamar at Polson Bridge before being beaten off and retiring back into Devon. Two days later, the Cornish militia, although reluctant to advance across the Tamar, were persuaded to do so by the commander Sir Ralph Hopton. Their sally towards Okehampton ended in confused chaos. An ambush at Sourton Down caught the Cornish force by surprise and was followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. The Cornish militia fled in panic back to Launceston, leaving 60 of their number dead on the downs behind them.

Location of the clashes of 1643

Taking heart from the Royalist collapse at Sourton Down the Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Stamford, crossed into Cornwall from Holsworthy towards Stratton on the 15th of May. He took with him an army of 5,400 infantry and 200 cavalry. Unwisely however, he had dispatched the majority of the Parliamentarian cavalry – another 1,200 horsemen – on a surprise lighting raid on Bodmin.

Stamford was opposed by a Royalist army of around 3,000 men. It was, moreover, short of food and gunpowder. Confident of success, the Parliamentarians dug in at the top of a hill north of Stratton. Undeterred and no doubt worried about his supply problems (plus the Parliamentarian cavalry to his rear) Hopton ordered an attack up the hill on the morning of 16th May.

Site of the battle

By the afternoon a series of attacks had failed and the Royalists were beginning to run short of powder. Concealing this from his men Hopton ordered a final desperate attack – spearheaded by the contingent under local man Sir Bevill Grenville. This began to make headway onto the top of the hill.  In the words of Hopton, the Parliamentarians, on seeing their ‘men recoil from less numbers, and the enemy gaining the hill … advanced with a good stand of pikes’. Sir Bevill was ‘borne to the ground’ in this counter-attack. But being ‘quickly relieved … [he] so reinforced the charge, that having killed most of the assailants and dispersed the rest, they took Major General Chudleigh (the Parliamentarian second in command) prisoner’.

Sir Bevill Grenville

In the Royalist victory 300 Parliamentarian soldiers were killed and 1,700 captured, along with 13 cannons and all the baggage, which included £5,000. Cornwall was made safe for the Crown, Sir Bevill Grenville had become the local hero, the Parliamentarians were demoralised and the road into south west England was now open.

Two unexpected Cornish surnames and a relic of the old language

Sometimes surnames prove to be more common in Cornwall than elsewhere, even though they look to be anything but Cornish. Waddleton is one. This was probably a local spelling for the surname Waddington, named after a number of places in northern England and in Surrey. The first Waddleton appears in 1744 in the Antony marriage registers. This location, across the river from Devonport, suggests a maritime route into Cornwall. By 1861 the name had ramified and dispersed as far west as Bodmin although most Waddletons remained in south-east Cornwall.

Walkam is no doubt a spelling variant of Wakeham or Wakem, which has its source in a place in south-west Devon. Present in mid-Cornwall from at least the 1540s, Wakehams dispersed widely across the territory. Around 1600, the variant Walkham began to make an appearance in east Cornwall and at Padstow. This surname in the main confined itself thereafter to a belt of country in mid-Cornwall to the north and east of St Austell.

Distribution of these surnames in 1861

Like Waddleton and Walkam, Watty is a rare surname these days. But unlike the others, it was very common in sixteenth-century Cornwall. Its numbers then gradually diminished over time. By the 1700s there were just relics of its former ubiquity – at St Ives and in mid-Cornwall around St Austell Bay.

Parishes with the surname or second name Watty present

The clue to the history of this surname, presumably a pet form of Watt, short for Walter, lies in its early geography. In the 1500s and 1600s it was entirely confined to the western, Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall. It was also present on several occasions as one part of the three-part names that were a distinctive element of the Cornish language community’s naming culture. However, with the erosion of the Cornish language, the name lost popularity and probably fell together with Watts or Watt.

Covid-19. How is Cornwall faring?

It seems a good time to present some facts on the progress of the current coronavirus pandemic in Cornwall, with numbers of new cases overall now hopefully declining.

Accurate mortality figures (including deaths in the community as well as in hospitals) are produced by the Office for National Statistics after a lag of two weeks. The most recent release, two days ago, relates to deaths from the virus recorded up to May 1st. At that date there had been 145 deaths from the virus in Cornwall, 11% of the total in March and April. The map below shows how Cornwall compares with counties in England and in Wales in terms of its crude death rate. While the number of deaths in Cornwall have thankfully been lower than in most places and especially in the big cities, it does not have the lowest death rate.

As of yesterday there have been 553 cases in Cornwall, or less than 10 for every 10,000 residents. This is one of the lowest rates in the UK. The main worry of residents revolves around timing the re-opening of Cornwall to tourists or allowing the owners of thousands of second homes to travel to their properties in Cornwall. If this happens too quickly it could reintroduce the virus into Cornwall from regions where it remains more prevalent.

All work and no play? A Bible Christian hymn for children

Below are some verses from the Child’s Hymn Book, circulating in the early 1830s in Cornwall. It urges the reader to work and study, holding out an unattractive alternative if little noses weren’t kept close to the grindstone. The book was published at Shebbear, in north Devon. It may have originated in the Bible Christians’ Prospect College, established in 1829 and later known as Shebbear College. The Bible Christians had been founded in 1815 and were a revivalist Methodist sect that gained its main following in rural areas in Cornwall and north Devon previously untouched by Wesleyan Methodism.

Tis the voice of the sluggard, I heard him complain
You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again,
As the door on its hinges, so he, on his bed
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.
A little more sleep and a little more slumber,
Thus he wastes half his days, and hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.
I passed by his garden, and saw the wild briar,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher,
The clothes that hung on him are turning to rags,
And his money still wastes, till he starves or he begs.
I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind,
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking
But he scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart “Here’s a lesson for me
This man’s put a picture of what I might be
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.
William O’Bryan, founder of the Bible Christians

Tre- surnames: an overview

There are around 1,300 places in Cornwall whose names contain the element tre, meaning a farmstead, hamlet or more generally a settlement. It is no surprise therefore, to find many surnames derived from those placenames. In 1861 there were around 125 separate Tre- surnames, amounting to 2.9% of the Cornish population. Over the centuries no doubt, some Tre- surnames have become extinct, others fallen together with more numerous similar names, while a proportion of places beginning with the element tre did not give rise to a surname.

Sometimes one place could give rise to more than one surname. This is so in the case of Trewern, the final surname on my list of rarer Cornish tre- names. There is a place of this name in Cornwall, a farm at Madron, near present-day Penzance. This was originally Treyouran, or Uren’s farm, Uren or Urien being a common Brittonic Celtic first name. It was still a three-syllable name in the early sixteenth century when a Thomas Treowran was living in the neighbouring parish of Sancreed.

Over time, the three-syllable Treuren became the two-syllable name Truran and moved eastwards (see my The Surnames of Cornwall and the map here). However, some Treurens became, like the placename, Trewern, a Gabriel Trewern being baptised at Sancreed in 1634. Unlike Truran, five of the six Trewern families were still living in West Penwith in 1861, with one to the east at Stithians.

This westerly orientation of the name Trewern reflects the more general geography of Tre- surnames. All those areas with a higher than average proportion of Tre-surnames in 1861 were found west of Bodmin. This repeats the earlier pattern found in 1641. Then, a very similar 2.7% of adult men bore Tre- surnames. If anything, industrialisation and population growth in the west had reinforced this earlier pattern. The migration of miners to the Liskeard and Callington districts in the early 1800s did not fundamentally change the pattern.

It remains to be explained, given that Tre- placenames were scattered fairly evenly across Cornwall, why the surnames derived from them more likely to be found in west than east Cornwall. This must be related to the timing of surname formation and the cultural differences between English-speaking and Cornish-speaking communities. In the latter, there was a greater tendency to retain or coin surnames based on places. But was this just a result of the different, later timing of surname formation in the west, or something more basic?

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.

West Wheal Seton: a working mine of the 1870s

West Wheal Seton mine in 1877

West Wheal Seton was one of a number of mines around Camborne that were struggling to survive the mining depression of the 1870s. One after another, neighbouring mines were falling victim to low metal prices and their engines ceasing to pump. As a result, West Wheal Seton had almost closed in 1875, as it battled to keep its workings from flooding. However, it survived and the four-monthly account of December 1875 to March 1876 showed a recovering position. Sales of copper ore (from which metal the mine had made considerable profits in the 1840s and 50s), brought in £6,811 while tin ore sales amounted to £1,778. Meanwhile the outgoings included labour costs of £5,065, lord’s dues to Gustavus Basset of £487 and £2,571 in merchants’ bills.

Here are the details of those bills which provide a picture of a mine’s outlay at this time.

Williams, Portreath and Co.                                     £755      (coal)

William H.Rule, Camborne                                      £516     (coal, powder, grease, oil, tallow)

Camborne Trading Co.                                              £412     (coal, tallow, wood)

Williams, Perran Co.                                                 £134     (wood)

C.R.Gatley                                                                     £109     (candles)

J.C.Lanyon & Sons                                                      £107     (iron and steel)

Cornwall Candle Co.                                                    £90      (candles)

Harveys of Hayle                                                         £63      (pitwork, stamps, coal)

Cornwall Blasting Co.                                                  £50      (gunpowder)

John Mayne, Pool                                                         £28      (leather and tallow)

The mine relied on local capital even at this relatively late date. Of the 600 shares, 41% were held by individuals and companies in the Camborne-Redruth district and another 23% by investors in the rest of Cornwall. Just over a third of the shares – 36% – were held by non-Cornish based shareholders.

The largest shareholder was William Rule of Camborne, owning almost 20% of the shares in West Wheal Seton. As long as he could profit from his sales of merchandise to the mine he would presumably resist the mine’s closure. West Wheal Seton staggered on for another 15 years as a losing venture before the inevitable closure came in 1891 when its shareholders finally panicked and deserted the sinking ship.

The same area today