The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 1

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall gives an insight into the state of Cornish towns at the end of the 1500s, when he was compiling his book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it gives an insight into Carew’s opinion of Cornish towns at this time. Beginning in the east, Carew wrote that Saltash ‘consists of three streets, which every shower washes clean, comprises between 80 and 100 households [around 400-500 people]’. It was ‘of late years much increased and adorned with buildings and the townsmen addict themselves to the honest trade of merchandise, which endows them with a competent wealth’. Carew’s positive view of Saltash had of course nothing to do with the fact that this was the town closest to his home.

Going north, Launceston ‘by the Cornishmen called Lesteevan’ was a place where ‘a new increase of wealth expresses itself in the inhabitants’ late repaired and enlarged buildings’. The town was recovering well from the long depopulation of the post Black Death years, one that only ended in the early 1500s.

Launceston Castle

On the other hand, at Stratton, apart from its status as the ‘only market town of this hundred’, Carew could find no ‘other memorable matter to report’. He was similarly unimpressed by Camelford – ‘a market and fair (but not fair) town’ which ‘steps little before the meanest sort of boroughs, for store of inhabitants, or the inhabitants’ store’.

To the south-east the two Looes were doing better. East Looe, though of ‘less antiquity’ than West Looe, ‘vaunts greater wealth … their profit accrues from their industrious fishing’. Even West Looe was ‘of late years somewhat relieved of its former poverty’. Upriver, Liskeard wasn’t doing so well. Carew found the castle ‘worm-eaten, out of date and use. Coinages, fairs and markets (as vital spirits in a decayed body), keep the inner parts of the town alive; while the ruined skirts accuse the injury of time, and the neglect of industry’.

Bodmin was one of Cornwall’s largest towns of the time, along with Launceston and Truro, with what Carew admitted was ‘the greatest’ weekly market in Cornwall. But he was distinctly uninspired by Cornwall’s oldest town. ‘Of all the towns in Cornwall I find none … more contagiously (seated) than this. It consists wholly of one street … whose south side is hidden from the sun by a high hill … neither can light have entrance to their stairs nor open air to their other rooms. Their back houses … kitchens, stables etc. are climbed up into by steps, and their filth by every great shower washed down through their houses into the streets … Every general infection is here first admitted, and last excluded, yet the many decayed houses prove the town to have been once very populous’.

Duchy Palace, Lostwithiel

At Lostwithiel, even the presence of the Duchy offices and county courts could ‘hardly raise it to a tolerable condition of wealth and inhabitance’. Padstow, on the other hand was ‘a town and haven of suitable quality … the best that the north Cornish coast possesses’. Padstow was prospering ‘by trafficking with Ireland, for which it commodiously lies’.

The second part of this blog will report Carew’s views of the more westerly towns.

Slavery in Cornwall: the Bodmin manumissions

No-one likes to think their ancestors were slaves. These days, it’s probably much worse to imagine that our ancestors may have been slaveholders. Yet at the time of Domesday Book, in 1080, Cornwall had more than its fair share of slaves. These not only worked their lord’s land, like later serfs, but were owned outright by someone. Their owner could buy and sell them, although they had the responsibility of feeding and housing their slaves. And they could also free them.

A page with the freeing of a slave
recorded in the margin

At Bodmin, some acts of manumission, the freeing of slaves, were recorded from 939 to 1100, written in the blank pages of a gospel book originally produced in Brittany. This source lists a total of 129 freed slaves. Fully 84% of those slaves had Cornish-language names. In contrast around two thirds of the 34 slave owners had English names. This, plus the evidence of Domesday Book, was taken by Henry Jenner and other Cornish patriots to show that the English had enslaved some of the Cornish.

However, slaves, whether born into slavery, captured or made a slave as an act of punishment, were far from unknown in the other Celtic countries at that time. There is evidence for slaves in Wales and in Ireland. In the latter place female slaves and cattle were units of currency before the economy became monetized. In Brittany even peasants in the 800s were recorded as owning some slaves so it’s very likely the same occurred in its sister society in Cornwall.

Moreover, the names may not mean what they appear to mean. As early as the late 800s some Cornish landowners were adopting English language names in addition to or instead of their Cornish ones. This may have just been a fashion or it could have been a wise tactical move in view of the growing English grip on Cornwall.

Therefore, we can’t be sure that those slaveowners with English names were actually English or ethnic Cornish who had changed their names. What the manumissions do show us is that ordinary Cornish people (witnesses to the manumissions) and the slaves themselves were much more likely to retain their Cornish names as late as the Normans’ arrival. Meanwhile, landowners and the upper clergy were conversely quicker to adopt the cultural practices of their new colonial masters.

Why did Cornwall have 44 MPs?

Those were the days. Now Cornwall only has a feeble voice in the UK Parliament, represented by just six MPs. But before 1821 Cornwall enjoyed a representation more fitting its status, sending 44 MPs. With around 1.5% of the population it had 7-8% of parliamentary representatives. Why?

In the 1500s Cornwall was not that exceptional. Six boroughs (Bodmin, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Truro) had each returned two MPs since the time of Edward I in the late 1200s, with another two representing the rest of Cornwall. Things changed under the Tudors. Between 1529 and 1584 fifteen boroughs were enfranchised. Overall, this amounted to one in five of all the new boroughs granted parliamentary representation by the Tudors. The fifteen were Bossiney, Callington, Camelford, East Looe, Fowey, Grampound, Mitchell, Newport, Penryn, St Germans, St Ives, St Mawes, Saltash, Tregony and West Looe.

Several explanations have been offered for this Tudor revolution in Cornwall’s representation, none of which are entirely satisfactory. It was first suggested that Tudor monarchs used the extra MPs to pack the Commons with crown supporters. But not all the new boroughs were under royal control and several Cornish MPs either opposed Elizabethan policies or were Catholic recusants. Moreover, Parliament in this period was not continually at loggerheads with the Tudor monarchy, so such measures were unnecessary.

It’s also proposed that Cornwall’s new boroughs were a device to placate or reward its landed gentry. But why did the Cornish gentry require more cultivation than those elsewhere? The rising of 1549 is often cited. However, the first seven, or almost half, of the new boroughs had appeared by 1547, before the rising. More tellingly, the fact that up to two thirds of the MPs of the new boroughs were not Cornish suggests that any ‘accommodation’ of Cornish gentry via a seat in the Commons was indirect to say the least.

Lord John Russell

Was it the result of more short-term considerations? In his book on Tudor Cornwall, Chynoweth links the enfranchisement in 1547 of six new boroughs to the need to get support for the Duke of Somerset’s religious changes by giving the franchise to towns controlled by his new ally, Lord John Russell. Russell was a magnate in the west of England, and a man who played a key role in putting down the 1549 rising. But why Cornish boroughs? Why not boroughs further east, in Dorset and Somerset, the region where Russell exerted more direct influence?

The existence of the Duchy of Cornwall must have had a significant part to play. From 1547 to 1603 there was no duke and the Duchy was in the hands of the crown. This may have made creating the new Cornish parliamentary boroughs an easier and more logical option. Moreover, the Duchy symbolised a special relationship between Cornish gentry and the Tudor crown. This is indicated by the fact that Cornish gentry were greatly over-represented at court. In the 1510s 13% of courtiers were Cornish. Did this mean that Cornish gentry enjoyed a special influence at the heart of Tudor government and were well-placed to be favoured when parliamentary seats were being handed out?

The medieval monasteries of Cornwall

It’s Easter Sunday. It seems appropriate therefore to write about something religious.

The original Cornish monasteries were part of the Celtic church, but by the Norman period these were just memories, if that. Then, from 1100 to the mid-1200s, a great wave of monastic foundations burst across the British Isles. Cornwall received its share of this, although it had no great, independent monasteries. This was because the wealthy magnates and the rich merchants who could endow monasteries with land and money were thin on the ground.

The first wave of monasteries was Benedictine. Small cells of this order were established in Cornwall, offshoots of abbeys in England and France. Between 1100 and 1150 five had been founded, the largest at Tywardreath. The others were at Tresco on Scilly, Minster near Boscastle, St Michael’s Mount and Lamanna (Looe Island), although the last two of these were closed and sold well before the Reformation.

A reconstruction of Launceston Priory

There were no examples of the reforming, more austere (at first) Cistercian order of monasteries in Cornwall. Instead, the biggest religious establishments were Augustinian priories. These were houses of priests rather than monks. Unlike the latter, they could go out into the world, although living together and without personal possessions. A small priory at Tregony had been shut as early as 1287. However, the biggest were at Bodmin and Launceston, both established in the 1120s. A third at St Germans joined them in the 1180s.

In the 1200s fashion turned from monastic institutions to the support of friaries. Unlike the residential orders, friars prioritised preaching to the people and, at least initially, the virtues of poverty, surviving on charity rather than land and endowments. Both the major orders of friars established houses in Cornwall in the mid-1200s, the Franciscans at Bodmin and the Dominicans at Truro.

Launceston Priory site now

Monastic cells, priories and friaries were then a feature of Cornish life into the 1500s. At times squabbling with the townsfolk (as at Bodmin), or arguing viciously among themselves (as at Launceston) or accused of laxity and drunkenness (as at Tywardreath), these institutions, in the pithy words of A.L.Rowse, ‘never produced anybody of importance’.  In March 1539 the final monastic institution in Cornwall – St Germans Priory – was closed down by the Government. This followed the dissolution of smaller monasteries in 1536 and friaries in 1538.

The 1960s: when everything in Cornwall began to change

The Torrey Canyon begins to break up

On March 18th 1967 the Liberian registered oil tanker, the Torrey Canyon, struck the Seven Stones reef west of Land’s End. Attempts to refloat the ship failed and it began to break up, releasing the 100,000 tons or so of crude oil on board.

Attempts by the RAF to bomb the ship and burn the oil were less than successful. Several of the bombs missed and much of the oil ended up on the coasts of Cornwall and Brittany. Meanwhile, heavy-handed use of chemical dispersants did as much damage as the oil. The Government and their ‘experts’ refused to listen to local advice and thus failed to tap into local knowledge and expertise. As a result, thousands of sea birds perished and miles of coastline were polluted.

The plume of smoke from the blazing oil was clearly visible fom West Penwith

Images of bombed oil tankers, dying sea birds and beaches clogged with oil are iconic reminders of the 1960s in Cornwall. But they aren’t the only or the most important ones. This was the decade of counter-culture. The ‘summer of love’ in California had its echo at St Ives as hippies from the English suburbs descended on the town in an attempt to recreate their own version. Locals gazed bemusedly at the hippies, who were blissfully unaware they were recreating the earlier painterly westwards migration. The local business community fumed. Hordes of fish and chip gobbling tourists were one thing; scruffy hippies with little to spend quite another.

Moreover, it wasn’t just a matter of culture. The 1960s was the decade when population turnaround occurred, with the beginning of mass in-migration, itself triggered by mass car-borne tourism. Demographic change was followed by social change. In the words of the late Ron Perry, this was a ‘bourgeois invasion’, Cornwall being ‘swamped by a flood of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-browed city-dwellers who effectively imposed their standards upon local society’.

Housing at Bodmin for its overspill population

As that was happening, a ferocious campaign had been waged to prevent planned ‘overspill’ from London to Cornish towns. With the exception of Bodmin this was largely successful in the short term, although it did little to stem the unplanned migration in search of the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. But it did bring Cornish nationalism to public attention, as Cornish Celts started to ape their big brothers and sisters in Wales and Scotland.

Whether their preference was the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, Cornish people of a certain age will remember the 60s as the decade when everything began to change and nothing was ever the same.

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’.

Deprivation in Cornwall: new data

Recently a new Index of Multiple Deprivation was published by the Government. This index measures deprivation in several dimensions, including income, health, educational qualifications and crime among others. In the press reports of this, no comparison was made with earlier indices. Although the methodology has changed somewhat, which makes the exercise a little difficult, it’s still interesting to compare the new data with that of 2010.

In 2010 eight of Cornwall’s 328 Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs – census areas with around 1,500 residents) were among the 10% most deprived in England and Cornwall. Here’s a map of their location.

Now, in 2019, 17 of Cornwall and Scilly’s 323 LSOAs are in the 10% most deprived.

Here’s a map of the current situation.

Meanwhile, the numbers at the top show little change. In 2010 three of Cornwall’s LSOAs were in the 20% least deprived. Now there are five. The least deprived is Carlyon Bay near St Austell, followed by LSOAs at Latchbrook near Saltash, one at Helston and two at Truro.