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

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’.