Liskeard’s great church bells controversy

In the mid-1860s a new vicar – the Reverend F.S.Cook – took up residence at Liskeard in east Cornwall. He was disturbed to find that it was a custom in the town to ring the church bells to announce any interesting event, such as local election victories or successful law suits. The vicar did not take kindly to such indiscriminate secular bell ringing.

In November 1866 therefore, when town councillors made their usual approach requesting that the bells be rung during the annual mayor-choosing, they were firmly rebuffed. The Reverend Cook, annoyed that it was ‘only necessary that a man should have a sovereign to spare to be able to gratify his inclination to have the bells rung’, told the council that in future the church bells would be reserved for marking religious occasions and church services only.

Some councillors were outraged by what they perceived as an attack on their customs and independence. None more so than William Murray, an irascible fifty-year old auctioneer and spokesman for the drink interest, who had seen off a slate of pro-temperance candidates in the recent borough elections. His reply to the vicar was blunt: ‘I think that for a gentleman who is a stranger to come into our town … and do as he would in a small fishing village, ought not to be allowed’.

‘Excited men burst open the belfry door’

Citizens were encouraged to take direct action to defend the hallowed rights and privileges of the borough. The Cornish Times reported that ‘excited men burst open the belfry door, jingled the bells to their hearts’ content and their arms aching, in spite of priest and police. Since then effigies of the vicar have been repeatedly paraded in the streets and publicly burnt, he has been ridiculed in squibs, abused in letters and hissed as he passed along; some of the malcontents have absented themselves from church’.

Once roused, popular excitement was less easy to control. Things got out of hand and two nights of ‘indecent and lawless outrage’ followed. The Cornish Times hastily reversed its initial broadly sympathetic stance. Protests were now ‘participated in only by the scum of the place, or by thoughtless youths, encouraged by a few intolerant men, whose motives are as questionable as their conduct is censorable’.

Supporters of the vicar pointed the finger at the operators ‘of the ropes and pulleys … that set Liskeard mobocracy in action … audacious conduct based upon the too well grounded belief that the town was given up to their base will and pleasure’. There was clearly more to this episode than meets the eye.

Alarmed at the mayhem that had erupted, ‘respectable’ opinion in the town quickly let the matter drop. No one was brought to court for the disturbances and discretion was exercised. It’s not clear whether the bells were indeed reserved solely for religious occasions or not thereafter. But Liskeard’s Great Church Bells Question soon faded into the mists of history.

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.

Mock mayors in Cornwall

Parish feasts in the 1700s were often accompanied by the choosing of mock mayors. These were parodies of real mayor-choosing events, an inversion of the real thing accompanied by copious drinking. The custom was not restricted to those boroughs that had real mayors but took place even in rural parishes without mayors.

For example, at Polperro:

’generally some half-witted or drunken fellow, tricked out in tinsel finery, elected his staff of constables, and these armed with staves, accompanied his chariot (some fish-jowster’s cart, dressed with green boughs) through the town, stopping at each inn, where he made a speech full of promises of full work, better wages and a liberal allowance of beer during his term of office. He then demanded a quart of the landlord’s ale, which was gauged with mock ceremony’.

Like many of these events it ended with the mock mayor, by now too drunk to know the difference, being thrown into the sea. If the sea wasn’t available a handy river or rubbish tip served as an alternative. At Penryn the wittiest journeyman tailor was chosen as mayor; at Budock it was the one who ‘could drink the most beer and tell the tallest yarn’.

(Post)-modern revival of mock mayor ceremony at Penryn

In the 1820s St Austell was not yet a borough and had no real mayor, but it still had its mock mayor. Samuel Drew described it in his History of Cornwall of 1824:

‘it is the custom among the rabble to seize him who appears to be most intoxicated, and to carry or draw him through the streets in the character of a mock mayor. In the afternoon either he or another is carried on a chair decorated with shrubs or laurels, to the public houses, at each of which he gives some ridiculous orders, surrounded by a mob, and the beat of drums.’

By the 1820s Methodists such as Drew were bewailing the drunkenness and disorder that accompanied mock mayor ceremonies, and parish feasts more generally, which Drew felt had ‘degenerated into public revels’.

Condemnation from evangelical reformers was joined by growing disapproval from the respectable middle classes. Wealthier inhabitants and the local gentry, who in the 1700s had often acted as patrons of these customs, began to withdraw their support. In consequence, events such as mock mayors were left to the ‘conduct and management of the illiterate and vulgar’, as Drew described them.

Pressure to put a stop to mock mayor ceremonies, with their inversion of the normal order and their subversive undertones, was felt first in the larger towns where the authorities, increasingly conscious of their own dignity, looked askance at the tradition of mock mayors. At Liskeard in 1856 John Allen recounted the mock mayor ceremony in the town:

‘a couple of rough, reckless fellows, one clad as a female and armed with a ladle, and the other with a broom, designated John and Joan, led the procession and belaboured those within their reach, exhibiting disgusting grimaces and gesticulations. These scenes always ended with cases of gross intemperance’.

Allen made it clear that this custom had disappeared by the 1850s, ‘a faint attempt’ to revive it ‘on a recent occasion’ failing.

The last survival in a Cornish town was perhaps Penzance where a mock mayor ceremony was recorded around 1890. It lingered longest in the mining villages around Camborne and Redruth, places like Lanner, Chacewater and Four Lanes, where it was occasionally noted in the press in the Edwardian years down to 1914.

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?

When Cornwall had 44 MPs

Before 1821 Cornwall was properly represented, with 44 MPs, only one fewer than Scotland. All but two of them represented boroughs, each returning two members. The franchise in those days was ambiguous, being based on vaguely worded medieval or sixteenth-century charters. Basically, the vote was restricted to the householders of certain properties or the mayor and corporation, who selected any other ‘freemen’ entitled to vote.

From the 1600s onwards the larger gentry, families such as the Boscawens of Tregothnan, the Eliots at Port Eliot, the Edgcumbes of Mount Edgcumbe, had bought up most property entitled to a vote and become patrons of the boroughs. They would install tenants with a precarious tenancy or a willingness to vote for the patron’s nominees. This could easily be checked as the ballot was not secret.

In this system, open bribery of voters was rarely required, although extra payments were common, as at Grampound and Mitchell. The Cornish seat with the worst reputation for bribery was Penryn, which had one of the largest number of voters and was difficult to control by other means. Elections were therefore very welcome at Penryn, as it meant an influx of money for the town.

Grampound was the first borough in the UK to be disfranchised

The costs of this meant it was in the patrons’ interests to reduce the number of voters. The 84 at Mitchell in 1784 had become 18 by 1816; the 60 or 70 at Launceston in 1700 were just 15 in 1816. Taken to its logical conclusion in small boroughs this process could sometimes result in just one voter electing the MPs. That happened at Bossiney in 1784. In any case, in practice usually one man – the patron – effectively decided who would get elected.

Patrons would either install members of their own family or relations as MPs or sell the seat to aspiring MPs. The going price in the early 1800s was from £1,000 to £5,000, or around £100,000 to half a million in today’s money. In return patrons were expected to provide benefits for the boroughs. They might pay the local poor and church rates for example, as at Helston, or give liberally to charities – the Eliots paid for schools at Liskeard – or put on lavish entertainments.

Occasionally, bitter disputes broke out between patrons struggling to wrest control of boroughs away from each other. In 1810 the two most notorious Cornish boroughmongers of the time, Francis Basset (Lord de Dunstanville) of Tehidy and Sir Christopher Hawkins of Trewithen – fought out a duel near London. ‘The parties exchanged two shots each, neither of which took effect’ … ‘the Boroughs were the cause’, a contemporary reported.

Before 1832 Looe had four MPs, two for West Looe and two for East Looe

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.