The state of Cornish towns in 1600: Part 2

As Richard Carew turned his attention westwards, his accounts of Cornish towns became noticeably briefer, probably reflecting his lack of acquaintance with places increasingly distant from his home at Antony, close to the Tamar.

St Columb was merely ‘a mean market town’, while St Austell was still too insignificant to get a mention. Despite being equally unimportant at this time ‘New Kaye’ did appear in Carew’s account. It was ‘so called, because in former times their neighbours attempted to supply the defect of nature by art, in making there a quay (for trade) … though want of means in themselves, or the place, have … only left them the benefit of … fisherboats.’

Grampound around 1900 after achieving fame by being the first parliamentary borough disenfranchised for bribery in 1820.

Grampound had its own corporation but was only ‘half replenished with inhabitants, who may better vaunt of their town’s antiquity, than the town of their ability’. Passing quickly over Tregony, which was ‘not generally memorable’, Carew found something more worth writing about at Truro. Although only consisting of ‘three streets’, it benefitted from courts, coinages and markets and ‘got the start in wealth of any other Cornish towns, and to come behind none in buildings, Launceston only excepted.’ Carew felt however that the residents of Truro needed to show a bit more entrepreneurial energy. ‘I wish that they would likewise deserve praise for getting and employing their riches in some industrious trade … as the harbours invite them.’

Down the Fal, Penryn was ‘rather passable than notable for wealth, buildings and inhabitants, in all of which … it giveth Truro the prominence’. Nevertheless, Penryn could claim the prominence over Falmouth, where there was just the manor house of Arwenack and a collection of cottages up the estuary, ignored by Carew. Another place not mentioned by Carew was Redruth, although it was a market town by this time. A relatively underpopulated hinterland with much land still unenclosed did not provide many hints of the mineral riches yet to be exploited.

Helston was ‘well seated and peopled’ but Carew had little to say about West Penwith. St Ives was ‘of mean plight’. Even a new pier had failed to have an impact, ‘Either want or slackness, or impossibility, hitherto withhold the effect’, although fish was ‘very cheap’. Across the peninsula Marazion was  ‘a town of petty fortune’, while Penzance, then a new settlement, was described as ‘a market town, not so regardable for its substance, as memorable for the late accident of the Spaniards firing’ a reference to the Spanish raid on Mount’s Bay in 1595.

A 19th century view of the raid in 1595

Bob Fitzsimmons: Cornwall’s world boxing champion

Cornwall can claim a world boxing champion. And not just a champion but someone who won three world championships at different weights – middle, heavy and light heavy.

The house in Wendron Street where Bob was born

In actual fact, Bob Fitzsimmons’ connection to Cornwall was rather tangential. Born in Helston on this day in 1863, his father was an Ulsterman employed as one of Helston’s two borough policemen, although his mother was the aptly named Jane Strongman from Truro. The family upped sticks and migrated to New Zealand in 1872 when Bob was just nine, along with other Cornish emigrants attracted to South Island. His father set up there as a blacksmith and eventually Bob followed him into that trade, a useful calling for a boxer.

Bob Fitzsimmons began boxing around 1878 and in 1883 did what many Cornish people in the 1880s and 1890s did and began travelling, hopping from country to country across the English-speaking world. A few years as a semi-professional boxer in Australia ended with a disputed middleweight championship contest, which Bob’s fans contended was rigged. In 1890 he moved on to San Francisco and began fighting in the States. Within a year he had fought and beaten Jack Dempsey to become the middleweight world champion.

Bob in pugilistic pose

From 1897 to 1899 Fitzsimmons held the heavyweight championship after knocking out James J. Corbett in the fourteenth round of a bruising battle in Carson City, Nevada. When the light heavyweight title was established in 1903 Bob took that too, holding it for two years, into his early 40s.

Boxing wasn’t his only business, however. He also wrote a book on self-defence, acted, and managed to get married four times and divorced twice during this time.

Sadly, Bob also went on to prove the old adage that the higher you rise the further you fall. He carried on boxing too long, losing in his later career to a string of nonentities before finally giving up in 1914. A US citizen since 1893, he died in 1917 of pneumonia in Chicago, his childhood days in Helston by then no doubt a dim memory.

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.

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?

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.

How our great-great grandparents celebrated the 5th November

In 1876 Helston Town Council took the precaution of putting up placards in the town and sent the town crier around to warn that those letting off fireworks in the street would be fined £5. Things had apparently got out of hand. The West Briton stated that:

This action was highly necessary, inasmuch as the night of November 5th is usually a time of riot and license at Helston. On previous occasions balls, dipped in petroleum and ignited, have been thrown at passers-by, and sometimes through windows.

As the same paper had reported, the pyromaniacs of Helston had been active a year earlier in 1875 – ‘a few fireworks were let off, and crackers exploded in every direction. The principal streets were filled with the odour and smother of burning paraffin’.

Nonetheless, not wishing to be seen as a bunch of miserable killjoys out to ruin the people’s fun, the town’s elite raised a subscription in 1876 for a grand fireworks display on the 5th. However, to their dismay, this had to be postponed due to the non-arrival of the fireworks. ‘A great disappointment’, the newspaper laconically noted.