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

Joseph Emidy

In this week in 1835 the man who was possibly one of the most talented Cornwall-based classical music composers of all time passed away and was buried in Kenwyn churchyard, to be forgotten about for many years. But Joseph Antonio Emidy was no native to Cornwall. Instead, he had been born in Guinea in west Africa at some time between 1770 and 1775.

As a child Emidy was sold to Portuguese slavers who, after baptising and converting their captives to Christianity, sold them on to a slave master in Brazil. By the later 1780s Emidy had been moved to Lisbon in Portugal. There, his master recognised his precocious musical talents and paid for a violin and music lessons. In the more racially relaxed atmosphere of Portugal Emidy flourished and by his 20s he had gained an established place as a violinist with the prestigious Lisbon Opera.

A promising musical career in Lisbon was cut short by the brutal interruption of the British navy. Sir Edward Pellew was the Cornish captain of HMS Indefatigable and hero of the naval squadron that was harrying French vessels up and down the Channel and Western Approaches. Pellew had put in at Lisbon and attended a concert of the opera. Lacking a fiddler to play the jigs and reels to which his sailors would dance in their time off, Pellew pressed, effectively kidnapped, the young musician.

Emidy then spent five years as a fiddler on Pellew’s ship. In that time he must have witnessed ferocious sea battles and endured howling gales. His views of his situation are perhaps hinted at by the fact Pellew did not allow him ashore, no doubt fearing he would run away. Emidy had exchanged a theoretical but comfortable slavery in Lisbon for a practical slavery as a ‘free man’ in the Royal Navy. Eventually, Pellew moved on to another command and in 1799 Emidy was discharged at Falmouth, where he took up residence.

In Cornwall he made his living from teaching the violin and guitar, while playing in the concerts of local amateur harmonic societies. His prowess as a very skilled musician rapidly became apparent. Not only did he play but also compose, the first of his compositions being noted in 1802. Unfortunately however, none of his work has survived.

A drawing of a meeeting of a musical club at Truro, 1808. Emidy plays violin at right.

In the same year of 1802 Joseph married local girl Jenefer Hutchins. The next decade was spent teaching and performing to support his young family. Six children were born, of whom five survived into adulthood. At some point around 1812 the family moved from Falmouth, where the harmonic society was fading fast, to Truro, where he became leader of the Truro Philharmonic Society.

While at Falmouth, Emidy’s patron, James Silk Buckingham, had taken examples of his compositions to London. There they were ‘highly approved’ by a meeting of professional musicians. However, the consensus was that ‘his colour would be so much against him, that there would be a great risk of failure’. The narrow attitudes towards racial difference that prevailed in London scuppered Joseph Emidy’s chance to achieve fame on a wider stage. Nonetheless, his background hadn’t hindered his acceptance or the ‘high reputation’ he enjoyed in Cornwall.

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 medieval monasteries of Cornwall

It’s Easter Sunday. It seems appropriate therefore to write about something religious.

The original Cornish monasteries were part of the Celtic church, but by the Norman period these were just memories, if that. Then, from 1100 to the mid-1200s, a great wave of monastic foundations burst across the British Isles. Cornwall received its share of this, although it had no great, independent monasteries. This was because the wealthy magnates and the rich merchants who could endow monasteries with land and money were thin on the ground.

The first wave of monasteries was Benedictine. Small cells of this order were established in Cornwall, offshoots of abbeys in England and France. Between 1100 and 1150 five had been founded, the largest at Tywardreath. The others were at Tresco on Scilly, Minster near Boscastle, St Michael’s Mount and Lamanna (Looe Island), although the last two of these were closed and sold well before the Reformation.

A reconstruction of Launceston Priory

There were no examples of the reforming, more austere (at first) Cistercian order of monasteries in Cornwall. Instead, the biggest religious establishments were Augustinian priories. These were houses of priests rather than monks. Unlike the latter, they could go out into the world, although living together and without personal possessions. A small priory at Tregony had been shut as early as 1287. However, the biggest were at Bodmin and Launceston, both established in the 1120s. A third at St Germans joined them in the 1180s.

In the 1200s fashion turned from monastic institutions to the support of friaries. Unlike the residential orders, friars prioritised preaching to the people and, at least initially, the virtues of poverty, surviving on charity rather than land and endowments. Both the major orders of friars established houses in Cornwall in the mid-1200s, the Franciscans at Bodmin and the Dominicans at Truro.

Launceston Priory site now

Monastic cells, priories and friaries were then a feature of Cornish life into the 1500s. At times squabbling with the townsfolk (as at Bodmin), or arguing viciously among themselves (as at Launceston) or accused of laxity and drunkenness (as at Tywardreath), these institutions, in the pithy words of A.L.Rowse, ‘never produced anybody of importance’.  In March 1539 the final monastic institution in Cornwall – St Germans Priory – was closed down by the Government. This followed the dissolution of smaller monasteries in 1536 and friaries in 1538.

Why religious dissent didn't take off in 17th century Cornwall

On the 15th of March 1675, Hugh Acland of Truro reported ‘a great meeting of Quakers in a parish adjoining this town about seven last Friday evening where there were a great many others of young people that were not of their opinion but went out of curiosity. The room being full, one of the most eminent among them began to speak and told them that God’s children were quiet and peacable and advise all to walk in the ways of God, for they should all come to judgement before Him, and, as soon as he had spoken these words, before he could proceed any further, the planchion fell under them, and they all fell one on another, only some few, who were by the windows escaped the fall. In this fall divers children and others were much bruised but no other hurt’.

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, were clearly stirring up some interest in the area and Acland went on to state that they were planning to open a meeting house ’about a musket shot’ from Truro. Quakers were one of the dissenting churches that had broken away from the Church of England earlier in the century. These included Congregationalists, Baptists and Presbyterians, all of whom received a boost during the civil wars of the 1640s and in the period of the Republic.

Although reliable data is scarce, it looks as if in 1676 the number of dissenters in Cornwall was not obviously much lower than in neighbouring Devon …

Yet, by the early 1700s it was being reported that there were very few dissenters in Cornwall. Numbers had fallen steeply and this has been cited as one of the reasons Wesleyan Methodism could take hold so quickly in Cornwall.

Why was this? Dissenters were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Government and its supporters on the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and as threats to the newly re-established order. Legislation was passed in the 1660s and 1670s excluding dissenters from positions of authority while dissenting congregations were subjected to persecution and harassment by local justices of the peace. It is likely that Cornwall’s Royalist and Tory landowning establishment was more hostile to dissent than their counterparts elsewhere, enthusiastically and successfully using the law to stamp it out in the later 1600s and early 1700s.

The Black Death in Cornwall

In these uncertain times we need a topic that can take our minds off our current problems. It’s always a good idea to put things in perspective by considering those who are in a more unfortunate position than we are. That was exactly the position for people in Cornwall 671 years ago to the day.

In 1348 a ship from the Continent had brought the bubonic plague, later known as the Black Death, to Dorset. In the absence of handy vectors such as mass rapid transport facilities, it took several months for the plague to spread along the south coast of the British Isles. But spread it did. Those who claim that Cornwall’s ‘remoteness’ can somehow reduce the effects of Covid-19 are sadly mistaken. Even in 1349 its peripheral location could not prevent the arrival of the plague, probably by boat, by March 1349. The worst wasn’t over until November of that same year.

Reliable data on the spread of the disease was even worse then than now. One measure of its impact was the institution of new clergy to replace those who had died. In the decade prior to 1349 the average annual number of replacements in Cornwall was 4.2. In the year from March 1349, 85 new clergymen were required. This implies a clerical death rate of around 40%, which is quite close to general estimates of the mortality of the Black Death. Cornwall’s population fell from around 90-100,000 in the 1330s to between 50 and 60,000 by 1377. Although not all in one go. The bad news for the current ’herd immunity’ advocates is that there was a second, almost equally bad, outbreak in 1360-62, after which plague became endemic for two to three centuries.

Scourging was a popular remedy for the Black Death. Its effectiveness against the coronavirus is not yet known.

In Cornwall mortality is thought to have been highest around river estuaries on the south coast and in towns, probably reflecting trade links and population densities. Truro in 1378 was described as ‘almost entirely desolated and waste’, while in 1410 it was still ‘much impoverished by pestilence and death’.

Many farms and smallholdings suddenly became vacant. In Moresk manor around Truro in the early 1350s around half had no tenant, while on the poorer, upland soils of Wendron around two thirds of holdings were unoccupied. In the long-term depopulation became the norm for a century and a half. The 45 inhabited sites in Wendron in the early 1330s contracted to just 31 by the late 1400s. Arable land reverted to waste or became pasture, prices plummeted, and tin production collapsed to 20% of its early fourteenth century peak in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.

Yet the economy bounced back surprisingly quickly. Vacant landholdings were snapped up by formerly landless families, tin production had recovered by the 1380s, onerous feudal services tended to disappear, wages rose. For those who survived, the late 1300s and 1400s was a time of opportunity as Cornwall’s economy diversified and grew faster than elsewhere.

On the other hand the plague periodically returned. This period also saw frequent wars and occasional periods of food shortage and famine. Horsemen of the apocalypse tend to travel in groups.

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

Richard Lander: Cornwall’s own superhero

On this day in 1834 Richard Lander died on the island then known to Europeans as Fernando Po and now called Bioko, off the coast of Cameroon. Lander had gained fame as an explorer in the 1830s, his accounts of his west African adventures appealing to the public appetite for stories of gripping derring-do. In fact, he was an early nineteenth century Cornish superhero. At least in the eyes of popular culture.

He was born the son of an innkeeper, in a pub which was located in the row of buildings opposite the present bus station in Truro. But placid Truro was never going to be enough for the young Richard, who had a wanderlust.

In 1815, at the age of 11, he became a merchant’s servant, accompanying his master to the Caribbean. There he stayed for three years, contracting and surviving malaria in the process before returning to Truro. Not for long though. Five years were then spent in service to various well-to-do but itinerant families. Trips to Europe were followed by a year in Cape Colony, where Richard’s fascination with Africa was sparked. At that time Africa was largely unmapped and its interior terra incognito to westerners.

Richard was involved in three expeditions to west Africa, exploring the River Niger and its environs. The first, in 1825-28 ended in unmitigated disaster. All the party became ill with fever in the north-west of present-day Nigeria and they all died. All except Richard that is. He bravely trekked south east alone to the coast, surviving capture, a trial for witchcraft and drinking poison to prove his innocence on the way. This was all great boys’ own material and Richard’s account of these events, published in several books, made him famous.

The second expedition in 1830-31 was more successful. Accompanied by his younger brother John, the party explored 160 kilometres of the River Niger. Again captured, ransomed, their possessions plundered, the riveting events captured the public imagination.

Richard’s final trip to west Africa was in 1833-34. This was funded by Liverpool merchants looking to set up a trading settlement. Elements of the native population were clearly not overjoyed to see European explorers as Lander’s party was again ambushed on the Niger in January 1834. This time Richard was wounded, a musketball having penetrated his thigh. Returning to Bioko, his wound turned gangrenous and he died within hours, aged only 30.

In his hometown, a subscription was quickly raised for a memorial to this son of Cornwall. In 1835 construction began at the top of Lemon Street. Unfortunately it collapsed during the building in 1836 but was eventually completed. Several years later in 1852, Cornish sculptor Neville Northey Burnard added the statue of Richard Lander, which now stands imperiously on the top of monument.

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.

Socialism in Edwardian Cornwall

It’s not generally well-known that Truro and Camborne were relatively early centres of socialist activism. In May 1904 W.A.Phillips, standing ‘boldly as a representative of the workers and a Social Democrat’ was elected to Truro Town Council in a by-election in Truro East. This was the first council seat won by a socialist west of Bristol.

Phillips was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This had been founded in 1881 as an avowedly Marxist party. In 1900 it joined with the Independent Labour Party and others to form the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. The SDF remained part of the Labour alliance until 1907 and it was during this period that a branch emerged at Truro.

Victoria Square. Now all consumerism and park
and ride buses. In 1904 echoing to demands to
build a better world

By September 1904 the SDF was holding open air meetings in Victoria Square, Truro and in the same month a public meeting in the Town Hall on the housing of the working class. A speaker from the Workmens’ National Housing Council was reported as saying

‘There was just one difficulty about most of the towns in Cornwall that he had seen and that was while houses were being built for the middle and better class people and the better paid artisan class, comparatively little was being done for the poorer workers, who were most in need of accommodation’

Interesting to note how things have changed.

By late 1904 an SDF branch had also been formed at Camborne and there were optimistic plans for similar branches at Redruth and St Agnes. In the general election of 1906, the Camborne branch was confident enough to put up a candidate. Perhaps unwisely, they chose an outsider, Jack Jones, a builders’ labourer from West Ham. Later, in 1918, he went on to become an MP in his home borough. But in 1906 in the Mining Division he won just 109 votes, or 1.5%, as the Liberal candidate cruised to a landslide victory in a year when all the Cornish seats went to Liberals.

Socialism in Cornwall had to wait. For a century and counting.