Rumours of plague? Mortality crises in 16th century Cornwall

In May of 1591 deaths began to spiral at Redruth. That year saw burial numbers in the parish registers hit a figure nine times higher than the usual. Yet by Christmas the crisis was over and burials had reverted to their normal level.

Sudden short mortality crises like that at Redruth suggest an airborne infection, such as the ‘sweating sickness’ of the early 1500s. Pneumonic plague is another possibility, although plague mortality usually occurred slightly later, peaking from July to September. A third possibility is famine or poor nutrition caused by food shortages. Although burials in Redruth in 1591 were consistently higher than normal all year, there was no sign of the mortality peak of early spring that might be expected if famine were the cause.

Plague was reported in the period 1589-93, spreading out from Plymouth. Many decades ago Norman Pounds identified mortality crises in Morval, St Neot and St Columb Minor. At St Columb it was particularly severe, with a pattern that closely mirrors the classic plague mortality. That said, there is no evidence of any similar mortality crises in these years in the registers of St Erth, Gwithian and Mawgan in Meneage in the west, or at St Breward in the east.

Redruth’s neighbour Illogan experienced a similar mortality crisis in 1591, but the worst months in Camborne occurred much later, in the early winter of 1593, when deaths rose to ten times the normal level. The localised nature of these mortality crises and their dispersed timing might raise some questions about the cause. Was it simply plague or were there additional or multiple causes?

A similar mortality crisis at Camborne beginning in August 1547 more neatly fits the bubonic plague pattern. This event, when deaths that year were again over ten times the norm, is intriguing as it occurred less than two years before the rising of 1549. Unfortunately, at this date there are very few parish registers available to see whether other Cornish parishes experienced a similar crisis at the same time.

The whole issue of mortality crises in Cornwall in the 1500s and 1600s requires more research, especially as no Cornish data were used in Wrigley and Schofield’s classic The Population History of England 1541-1871.

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

An idiot’s guide to the life and death of Richard Trevithick

Books have been written about him, poems dedicated to him, statues erected in his honour, plaques affixed to significant buildings and locations in his life, university libraries named after him. He even has his own festival. It’s time this blog offered its own stripped-down guide to the life of Richard Trevithick as this month sees the anniversary of both his birth in 1771 in the heart of Cornwall’s central mining district and his death far away to the east in 1833.

A portrait of Trevithick painted in 1816

Known affectionately as ‘Cap’n Dick’ or ‘the Cornish giant’, Trevithick has always had a special fascination and place in Cornish memory. His reliance on practical experiment rather than theory, his physical strength, his prickly independence and his financial hopelessness somehow resonated with the Cornish psyche.

He was an inattentive schoolchild but taught himself engineering and mechanics to an advanced level for his times. By his twenties he was advising mine owners on their steam engines. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the founder of Harvey’s Foundry at Hayle, a connection from which he curiously gained little advantage. Meanwhile, his achievements can be summarised under three headings – the steam engine, steam locomotion and adventures in foreign parts.

Trevithick’s career with steam power began at a time when Cornish mines adventurers were looking to reduce their fuel costs and escape the payments they were making under Boulton and Watt’s steam engine patent. Various engineers came up with designs that improved on Watt’s engine, although they were hamstrung by legal actions until the patent ran out in 1800. However, it was Trevithick who was particularly associated with ‘high-pressure steam’. His engines eliminated the need for a separate condenser and allowed for a smaller cylinder. This generally reduced the weight and size of engines. Eventually, it led to the ‘Cornish engine’ of 1812. Thereafter, Cornish steam engines achieved levels of efficiency that were deemed impossible by the scientific theory of the time.

It was a logical step to take this more efficient, lighter engine and mount it on wheels. From 1801 to 1808 Trevithick came up with at least five versions of a steam locomotive. The first trial run at Camborne gave rise to the song ‘Going up Camborne hill’. Unfortunately, this vehicle met a sorry end on the road to Tehidy, where Sir Francis Basset was eagerly waiting to see it. After overturning, its attendants had retired to a convenient hostelry. Unwisely they left the fire burning. The boiler ran dry, overheated and everything flammable was consumed in flames.

Other attempts followed – in London, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, at Penydarren ironworks in south Wales and again in London. In the last three of these the engine ran on rails. The device worked although the rails still buckled under the weight.

Replica of the 1804 Penydarren locomotive

Trevithick spent many years adventuring and inventing in foreign parts. From 1808 to 1810 he was in London, involved in various schemes mainly connected to the river and the sea – a tunnel under the Thames, floating docks, a ship propelled by water jets, iron cargo containers, screw propellers and an early version of a turbine for example. None of these could be turned into lucrative money-spinners however and, after suffering from a bout of typhus and being declared bankrupt, he returned to Cornwall and to the steam engine.

In 1816 he left his seemingly incredibly patient wife and six children to sail to South America and Peru’s silver mines. As was his tendency he soon fell out with associates. Moreover, mining in South America was at this time severely disrupted by the wars of independence from Spanish rule. At one stage Trevithick served with the army of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. By 1822 he had left Peru and travelled through Central America to Costa Rica. On the journey he had almost been drowned and narrowly escaped being bitten by an alligator. This Central American venture also proved to be a disappointment and Trevithick found himself in 1827 penniless in Cartagena, Columbia. By an odd coincidence the railway engineer and inventor, and Trevithick’s rival, Robert Stephenson, was also in that port. Stephenson lent Trevithick £50 for his voyage home. Late that year Trevithick finally re-joined his family after an absence of 11 years.

Trevithick ended his days at a foundry in Dartford in Kent, experimenting with jet propulsion and designing stronger boilers. But in his later years he began to be plagued by breathing problems. In 1833 he contracted pneumonia and died at his lodgings. Outside Cornwall Trevithick’s achievements have tended to be overshadowed by the success of the Stephensons in developing the early railway. However, now we are nearing the end of the fossil fuel era, one of its early heroes is more widely receiving the proper respect he deserves.

Socialism in Edwardian Cornwall

It’s not generally well-known that Truro and Camborne were relatively early centres of socialist activism. In May 1904 W.A.Phillips, standing ‘boldly as a representative of the workers and a Social Democrat’ was elected to Truro Town Council in a by-election in Truro East. This was the first council seat won by a socialist west of Bristol.

Phillips was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This had been founded in 1881 as an avowedly Marxist party. In 1900 it joined with the Independent Labour Party and others to form the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. The SDF remained part of the Labour alliance until 1907 and it was during this period that a branch emerged at Truro.

Victoria Square. Now all consumerism and park
and ride buses. In 1904 echoing to demands to
build a better world

By September 1904 the SDF was holding open air meetings in Victoria Square, Truro and in the same month a public meeting in the Town Hall on the housing of the working class. A speaker from the Workmens’ National Housing Council was reported as saying

‘There was just one difficulty about most of the towns in Cornwall that he had seen and that was while houses were being built for the middle and better class people and the better paid artisan class, comparatively little was being done for the poorer workers, who were most in need of accommodation’

Interesting to note how things have changed.

By late 1904 an SDF branch had also been formed at Camborne and there were optimistic plans for similar branches at Redruth and St Agnes. In the general election of 1906, the Camborne branch was confident enough to put up a candidate. Perhaps unwisely, they chose an outsider, Jack Jones, a builders’ labourer from West Ham. Later, in 1918, he went on to become an MP in his home borough. But in 1906 in the Mining Division he won just 109 votes, or 1.5%, as the Liberal candidate cruised to a landslide victory in a year when all the Cornish seats went to Liberals.

Socialism in Cornwall had to wait. For a century and counting.

A disturbance at Camborne in 1874

Camborne in the 1870s, a time of economic depression, could be a rough place. Here’s one incident reported in the West Briton of March 26th, 1874.

A man named Webster, a resident of Crowan, who has not the reputation of being the quietest character in the neighbourhood, and who, on account of certain pugilistic propensities, is known by the nickname of ‘Nipper’, … having got drunk, found his way  … into the kitchen of Abraham’s Hotel, where he became so noisy that, after some trouble, he was turned into the street. He next favoured Mr Arthur of the White Hart Inn; but here he made himself singularly obnoxious, and a second time he found himself ejected … He then commenced kicking with great violence at the door, and made such a disturbance that the attention of the police was called to his conduct.

The police officers – Gill and Sobey … endeavoured to persuade the man to go quietly home and took some pains to induce his friends, who were now collecting around him, to take him away. This was not a very easy thing to do, but eventually two men led him away, and the police took no further notice, although the fellow was swearing all the way going through the street. Gill and Sobey followed slowly in the same direction as Webster was taking … when he suddenly broke away from the two men, turned back and struck Gill a severe blow on the face. The policeman drew his staff, and hitting Webster over the head, knocked him down.

Immediately, there was a cry that the police had killed him and in two or three minutes an immense mob of excited men and boys had collected around the two policemen who were endeavouring to handcuff ‘the Nipper’ … But in this they failed, for Webster was forcibly removed from their grasp, and he went off, carrying with him the handcuffs that were fastened to one of his wrists. The unfortunate policemen were then hustled and jostled through the streets until at last they found themselves within the shop of Mr Eddy, P.C.Sobey taking in with him a man who gave the name of Williams, and who, while in the street, had been beating Sobey about the head with his fist.

Stone throwing was then commenced, but this was soon discontinued and the only damage done was the breaking of a pane of glass over the door of Mr Eddy’s shop. The mob, however, found out that Williams was in custody, and they thenceforth set up a cry for his release. … Fearing that further mischief might probably be done, the police took the advice of Mr Eddy and set their prisoner at liberty, … the two policemen remained in Mr Eddy’s shop until after midnight, eventually leaving by the back door and reaching their homes by a circuitous route.

This took place five months after serious anti-police riots had convulsed Camborne in 1873.

When Camborne-Redruth was the most radical place in the UK

The general election of 1885 has one major similarity with the one we’re now enduring. Polling day was in December. But in most other respects it was quite different. And although the newly created Mining Division in 1885 had very similar boundaries to the present Camborne-Redruth constituency, nowhere was this difference starker than in the central mining district.

The election saw the Radical Liberal, the splendidly named Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare, challenge the former Liberal MP for West Cornwall and local landlord Pendarves Vivian for the new seat. Conybeare was put forward by many of the working men who had been given the vote in 1884, some of them return migrants from the States imbued with notions of democracy. Conybeare stood on the most radical platform in the UK, pledged to abolish the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, bring in a graduated income tax, return the land to the people and end the ‘gigantic system of confiscation and robbery of the poor by the rich’.

Redruth’s Radical Club: built after the election

In a closely fought election between Vivian and Conybeare (the Tories stayed out of it) Conybeare emerged victorious with 2,926 votes to Vivian’s 2,577. For a decade Camborne-Redruth was then represented by Britain’s most radical MP. How times have changed!

Conybeare’s supporters wrote a ditty called ‘The Man for the People’. Here’s an extract.

Maaster Vivian, now so thick,

Longs weth his great friends to stick;

We’ll trate’n weth all due respect,

But we ‘one and all’ object

To have a ‘limping’ reer-rank man,

When we c’n have one in the Van

The seventeen year ‘pon Committee

Have earnt a rest, I think, quite fitty;

For some reforms he edn ripe,

So we’ll lev’n touch-a-pipe.

He’ll git the voters by the thousan’;

Because we’ll go for Working Men,

And not the Lords and Upper Ten.

The men of Buller’s Row he’ll meet,

And likewise Tallywarren Street,

And though Dolcoath is very deep,

He’ll git the men all in a heap.

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.