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

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?

The 1960s: when everything in Cornwall began to change

The Torrey Canyon begins to break up

On March 18th 1967 the Liberian registered oil tanker, the Torrey Canyon, struck the Seven Stones reef west of Land’s End. Attempts to refloat the ship failed and it began to break up, releasing the 100,000 tons or so of crude oil on board.

Attempts by the RAF to bomb the ship and burn the oil were less than successful. Several of the bombs missed and much of the oil ended up on the coasts of Cornwall and Brittany. Meanwhile, heavy-handed use of chemical dispersants did as much damage as the oil. The Government and their ‘experts’ refused to listen to local advice and thus failed to tap into local knowledge and expertise. As a result, thousands of sea birds perished and miles of coastline were polluted.

The plume of smoke from the blazing oil was clearly visible fom West Penwith

Images of bombed oil tankers, dying sea birds and beaches clogged with oil are iconic reminders of the 1960s in Cornwall. But they aren’t the only or the most important ones. This was the decade of counter-culture. The ‘summer of love’ in California had its echo at St Ives as hippies from the English suburbs descended on the town in an attempt to recreate their own version. Locals gazed bemusedly at the hippies, who were blissfully unaware they were recreating the earlier painterly westwards migration. The local business community fumed. Hordes of fish and chip gobbling tourists were one thing; scruffy hippies with little to spend quite another.

Moreover, it wasn’t just a matter of culture. The 1960s was the decade when population turnaround occurred, with the beginning of mass in-migration, itself triggered by mass car-borne tourism. Demographic change was followed by social change. In the words of the late Ron Perry, this was a ‘bourgeois invasion’, Cornwall being ‘swamped by a flood of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-browed city-dwellers who effectively imposed their standards upon local society’.

Housing at Bodmin for its overspill population

As that was happening, a ferocious campaign had been waged to prevent planned ‘overspill’ from London to Cornish towns. With the exception of Bodmin this was largely successful in the short term, although it did little to stem the unplanned migration in search of the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. But it did bring Cornish nationalism to public attention, as Cornish Celts started to ape their big brothers and sisters in Wales and Scotland.

Whether their preference was the Beatles, the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan, Cornish people of a certain age will remember the 60s as the decade when everything began to change and nothing was ever the same.

Resisting the workhouse: poor relief in nineteenth-century Cornwall

On 17th February 1837 a riot occurred at Camelford in north Cornwall. There were also reports of disturbances at Stratton, further north. These events were caused by the establishment in that year of Poor Law Unions, following the implementation of the New Poor Law of 1834.

This reform transferred responsibility for poor relief from the local parish vestry to Boards of Guardians elected by ratepayers in groups of parishes (there were 13 in Cornwall). It also included plans to build a centralised workhouse in each union. It was this combination of centralisation and the fear of the workhouse that triggered widespread protests in 1837. Henceforth the intention was that the able-bodied poor would only receive help by entering the workhouse, which was made deliberately grim.

Camelford Workhouse in 1881:
handy for the pub!

Its critics pointed out how the new system was too inflexible to cope with short-term or temporary unemployment. It was little surprise that slate quarriers from Delabole, liable to be laid off in bad weather or during building slumps, were prominent among the rioters at Camelford. In the event, the authorities found it impossible to stick to their principles. Out-relief (cash or kind given to those living in their own homes) continued for some at least of the temporarily unemployed and at Camelford the workhouse wasn’t even built until 1858.

There were further reports of riots over the New Poor Law in the summer of 1837 at St Ives and Perranarworthal in the west. But why did the first and most active opposition arise in north Cornwall in the two smallest (in terms of population) Poor Law Unions?

The answer is simple. Before 1837 these were the districts with the highest per capita poor law expenditure in Cornwall. Poor relief was relatively high because wages for farm labourers were notoriously low. The poor justifiably suspected that the farmers who would now control the boards and paid the rates would not spurn the opportunity to reduce spending.

In fact, there were two contrasting poor relief regimes in Cornwall. In east Cornwall expenditure was close to rates in Devon. Further west expenditure was much lower. There, competition for labour from a growing mining industry into the 1860s kept wage levels up. In addition, there was more access to smallholdings and potato patches. These were in turn bolstered by Methodist teachings about self-reliance and a tradition of resolute independence and community/family support that avoided dependence on poor relief.

The imposing entrance to
Liskeard’s workhouse

The main purpose of the Victorian workhouse was to discipline the able-bodied poor. We now have universal credit which has a similar function.