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.

Cornwall’s literary and philosophical societies

Currently, Cornwall’s largest museum, the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is temporarily closed to the public. This is the result of ‘continued reduction in grants and consistently low visitor numbers’. The museum’s origins date back more than 200 years. On the 5th February 1818 a number of gentlemen met together at Truro Library. From that meeting came the Cornwall Philosophical Institution, which soon added ‘literary’ to its title. It later became the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC). The RIC remains the managing body for the museum.

The building that housed the original RCM
(to the right)

Literary societies in the 1800s provided lectures and in the days before mass education were often associated with libraries and museums. The RIC was one of a triumvirate of literary societies that were established in the 1810s in Cornwall. The first had been the Cornwall Geological Society at Penzance in 1814 and the third was the Cornwall Physical Institution at Falmouth. This latter body folded but in 1833 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society took up the baton in the same town.

Falmouth, Penzance and Truro were the three Cornish towns with the largest and most confident professional and middle classes, who comprised the bulk of the membership of these societies. They were also situated on the edge of the mining districts of west Cornwall. Those districts had from the 1730s onwards created the wealth from which the urban middle classes benefited.

Three lit and phils in such a relatively confined district reflected Cornwall’s dispersed population structure but could prove a drawback in terms of collaboration and ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Some sporadic efforts in the 1840s to combine the societies came to nothing, foundering on the rocks of small town patriotism.

Unfortunately, a museum explicitly devoted to the pan-Cornish story with widespread popular support never emerged. The recent failure of the RCM to discover a viable ‘business model’ for the museum, in a Cornwall with twice the population as in 1818 and many times wealthier, presumably tells us something about the nature of modern Cornwall and its prevailing priorities.

The impressive frontage of the current RCM, opened in 1919

Cholera in Cornwall: the Victorians’ coronavirus

Not strictly Victorian perhaps, as it preceded Victoria’s reign by five years. As if the endemic typhoid, typhus and dysentery, not to mention the measles, mumps and whooping cough that every year cut a swathe through thousands of infants, were not enough, in 1832 cholera arrived in Cornwall. Outbreaks periodically panicked local authorities into the 1850s, in which decade effective measures to control its spread were finally put in place.

Rumours of a new and terrifying disease began to filter into Britain in 1830. This one began in India rather than China. However, even without the handy vector of aircraft to rapidly transform a local problem into a global pandemic, cholera inevitably made its way west, the slowness of its approach possibly adding to the trepidation.

Cholera is a bacterial disease which causes copious diarrhoea and severe vomiting, with subsequent dehydration, cramps from loss of salt, and shock, leading in some cases to death. It was spread mainly through water supplies infected by poor sanitation. The authorities in the 1830s were aware of this, the general public less so. Even without social media to spread misinformation, many useless remedies were touted (and sold), such as mercury, opium, ginger and rhubarb or the application of leeches. None of these had any effect on the disease, although (in the case of opium in particular) they may have made the consumer less worried.

Cholera arrived in Britain on a ship that brought it to Sunderland in October 1831. From there it gradually spread south and west, reaching Plymouth in June 1832. Summer was the worst time for cholera and in one week in August there were 141 deaths from the disease in Plymouth.

The Tamar proved no barrier. The first case in Cornwall was a woman who died at Bodmin on her way from Devonport to Port Isaac on 28th July. A mob tried to prevent her burial in the town and was only dispersed when more special constables were rapidly sworn in.

The outbreaks in Cornwall began in villages near Plymouth and at Newlyn in the west, presumably brought by boat. Padstow was also badly hit, with 107 cases and 19 deaths. So was Hayle, where 14 of the 26 victims in late August/early September lived in one area – Bodriggy Lane. Altogether 308 people died of cholera in Cornwall in 1832.

Nonetheless, the arrival of the disease had triggered the establishment of boards of health in the towns. These set about issuing orders for removing pigsties, privies and cess pits. But, as always, once the immediate threat was over and it was obvious that it was the poorest rather than the better off who carried the brunt of the suffering, action became less vigorous.

While sporadic outbreaks occurred thereafter, as at Falmouth and Helston in 1833, it wasn’t until 1849 that another major cholera scare hit Cornwall. In that year it was centred on Mevagissey, where 125 died out of a population of 1,800. According to the newspaper, almost half the residents fled the town. The paper commented that ‘sanitation [was] a word which had probably never been heard in Mevagissey where the effluvia of decaying fish made the atmosphere intolerable to the delicate nostrils of all those who were not natives of the place’.

Mevagissey – a sink of cholera in 1849

That year saw an even higher mortality rate at Kingsand in the far east, where 93 died out of a population of 790. Other areas affected were Looe, Truro, the Redruth district and again Hayle. It’s noticeable that the deaths tended to cluster either in crowded towns or in fishing ports.

Finally, in the 1850s action began to be taken to rid towns of pigsties, stables, open cesspits and mounds of unsavoury ‘rubbish’, while new drainage and sewerage systems were built. In Truro in 1853, 641 out of 691 ‘public nuisances’ were removed, which indicates the scale of the problem. Even then the supply of clean drinking water had to wait. Mid-century Truro was supplied from 29 wells, the water from several of these being declared unfit for consumption as late as 1884.

You can read more about Cornwall’s cholera outbreaks in Rowe and Andrews’ article in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 7 (1974), pp.153-64 on which this piece is mainly based.