John Passmore Edwards: the Cornish philanthropist

Anyone who walks around Cornish towns with half an eye open cannot fail to spot the buildings adorned with the name ‘Passmore Edwards’. But who was Passmore Edwards?

John Passmore Edwards was born on 24th March 1823 in a nondescript cottage in Blackwater, a mining village a mile or two east of Redruth on the main road through Cornwall. John’s father wasn’t a miner but made his living from a variety of useful skills, including market gardening and carpentry. This allowed the family to pay to school their four children. John read avidly and became a solicitor’s clerk in Truro before giving this up for the lure of journalism.

After spending a few years in Manchester working on a radical newspaper, John moved to London. He survived on freelance journalism before entering the publishing business and buying his first magazine in 1851. This turned out to be a disaster and he became bankrupt. Nonetheless, by 1861 by dint of unremitting work he’d recovered his losses and was even able to pay off his creditors.

The Passmore Edwards Library at Redruth

After that hiccup John Passmore Edwards’ fortunes began to change. He settled down, married and began buying a variety of publications. In 1874 these included an evening paper, the Echo, at just the time the market for cheap daily newspapers was beginning to expand rapidly. This made his fortune and from 1890 he turned to philanthropy, using his resources to fund buildings across the south of England and in Cornwall. Many of these were libraries but there were Science and Art schools, an art gallery and even a convalescent home.

While not exactly a story of rags to riches, John Passmore Edwards’ life was the stereotype of the Victorian self-made man. Yet throughout his life. Passmore Edwards stuck to his radical principles. He had been involved in agitation against the Corn Laws even before leaving Cornwall. In later life, he continued to speak truth to power, using his titles to stand up for the poor, for peace overseas and for reform at home, and using his money to support ‘useful knowledge’ and educational facilities.

Newlyn Art Gallery

True to his convictions, he declined a knighthood and died at home in Hampstead in 1911, aged 88. John Passmore Edwards would now presumably be spinning in his grave if he could see the sorry state to which the press in the UK has descended.

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.