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.

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

Cornish towns in 1698

Celia Fiennes journeyed through Cornwall on horseback in 1698. In her journal she provided brief accounts of some of the towns she saw.

Having endured an hour-long crossing of the Tamar on the Cremyll ferry, she took the southern route to the west. She seems to have been most impressed, and a little scared, by the ‘very steep, stony hills’. Descending one she came to Looe, ‘a pretty big seaport, a great many houses all of stone’.

Fowey turned out to be a ‘narrow stony town, the streets very close’, while St Austell was a ‘little market town’ with ‘houses … like barns up to the top of the house’. The town had ‘very neat country women’, one of whom introduced Celia to clotted cream. She wasn’t so pleased however by the ‘universal smoking, both men, women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and so sit around the fire smoking.’

Staying at the Boscawens’ house at Tregothnan, Celia decided to turn back ‘for fear of the rains that fell in the night’. However, at St Columb she changed her mind as the weather improved and headed back west on the main road. This was ‘mostly over heath and downs which was very bleak and full of mines’. She found Redruth to be ‘a little market town where on market day ‘you see a great number of horses little of size which they call Cornish Goonhillies’.

Celia continued to Penzance, noting on the way that ‘the people here are very ill guides, and know but little from home, only to some market town they frequent’. Marazion was a ‘little market town’. Penzance looked ‘snug and warm’ with a ‘good quay and a good harbour’. A visit to Land’s End followed, where she met with ‘very good bottled ale’. She commented that the cottages were ‘clean and plastered’ inside, despite looking like barns from the outside, as in Scotland.

Returning eastwards, Celia went via Truro – ‘a pretty little town and seaport … built of stone, a good pretty church’. But Truro had seen better days and was in parts ‘a ruinated disregarded place’. Leaving Truro, she travelled east via St Columb and Camelford, ‘a little market town [with] very indifferent accommodation’.

Launceston’s Southgate in the 1960s

The final town on her itinerary was Launceston, ‘the chief town in Cornwall, ‘encompassed with walls and gates ‘and ‘pretty large’, although most of the place was ‘old houses of timber work’.

Interestingly, despite travelling as far as the Land’s End, she made no mention of the Cornish language.

Humphry Davy

The statue of Penzance’s most famous son looks east down Market Jew Street, where he was born on this day in 1778. But it also looks further east, past St Michael’s Mount, across the Tamar and upcountry, where he made his name, and then across the sea to where he ended his days.

His parents were not particularly well-off, although they could afford to send Humphry to Penzance Grammar School and then to finish at Truro Grammar School. By all accounts Davy was an indifferent scholar and made little impression on his teachers. When his father died he was apprenticed to a Penzance surgeon in 1795. There, he taught himself the rudiments of chemistry, as well as learning French, the language of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. More importantly, he made useful contacts, such as Davies Gilbert.

It was through Gilbert that he came to the attention of Thomas Beddoes at Bristol. Beddoes invited him to join his Pneumatic Institute, which was investigating the use of gases in medicine. While at Bristol Davy experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and identified its possible use as an anaesthetic. He also almost killed himself by deliberately inhaling carbon monoxide to test its effects.

As well as lacking much concern for health and safety, science in those days was less specialised and Davy counted among his friends at Bristol the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while writing some romantic poetry himself.

In 1801, aged just 23, he was offered a post as assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, established two years previously. It was Davy’s public lectures that brought him to wider attention. It secured invitations to all the best dinner parties, as well a full lectureship within a year.

A flood of discoveries followed thick and fast. Davy used electrolysis to isolate calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, proved that chlorine was an element and re-assessed the nature of heat. In 1804 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the main scientific institution of the time. In 1812 he was knighted and became a baronet in 1818. During the war with France in 1813 Davy, accompanied by his wife and his assistant, Michael Faraday, even journeyed to France, invited by the French Government to receive a medal for his electro-chemical work. This accolade crowned a career largely spent demolishing French theories on heat.

Back from the continent Davy found time for his most well-known invention, the safety lamp. This ultimately saved many lives in coal mines, preventing the recurrence of disasters such as that at Felling Colliery near Newcastle in 1812, when 92 men lost their lives in a massive explosion.

Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, but he never managed to reconcile the jealousies and feuds within it between the old gentleman-amateurs and the new professional academic scientists. His own manner, sometimes irritable while careless of etiquette, didn’t help.

Ultimately, he was felled by two strokes in 1826 and 1829, the second eventually ending his life. One of Cornwall’s most famous sons, he spent most of his life beyond its borders. Interestingly, his voluminous writings display little explicit reference to his Cornish identity, apart from some whimsical and over-romanticised poetry about the landscape.

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.