One of the greatest displays of mining defiance in Cornish history…
Reading time: 5 minutes
Practically everything ever written – and there’s not much – about the riots in Camborne of October 1873 starts with The Red Jackets pub, and this post is no exception. This is because The Red Jackets, now a closed-down eyesore,
is called the “Red Jackets” because the militia, called in to quell the mob back in 1873, were billeted there. It’s the only visual reminder in Camborne that the riots ever took place. There’s no annual “Riot Day” to rival Trevithick Day, which celebrates Camborne’s most famous son and inventor of the steam locomotive, Richard Trevithick.
My post starts with The Red Jackets because I was pissed there one night in the mid-1990s after playing a rugby match. I recall hazily noting a faux-Victorian newspaper report, or poster, commemorating the events of 1873 on one of that hostelry’s yellowing walls. Though I remember little else about the evening, the thought of there being a riot in Camborne must have captured my imagination. Years later, I decided to find out more about it.
Initially, there wasn’t much to find out. In 1976 Clive Carter produced a brief article for The Old Cornwall Society, which of course mentions the nugget about The Red Jackets. A Grim Almanac of Cornwall, by John Van der Kiste (History Press, 2009), grants the Riots two paragraphs (p146-7). Camborne & Around Through Time, by Ivor Corkell and David Thomas (Amberley, 2013) mentions the Riots obliquely in its introduction, and, of course, that a pub changed its name to The Red Jackets (p4).
David Wilson’s Cornish History blog post from 2014 conflates various newspaper reports of the riots but lacks any analysis. Lee Trewhela’s article on the Riots in March 2021 for Cornwall Live is based largely on the contemporary reports available on Wilson’s blog. While a thorough account, his article omits certain details, and is more a local interest piece giving background on how The Red Jackets pub came to be called such.
If you only went by the sources above, the riots could be summarised thus: two miners, brothers, assaulted some policemen and resisted arrest. They allegedly suffered a good going-over in the cells. On the day of their trial, a mob thousands strong fought a brief battle against the police, smashed the courthouse windows, vandalised the station, and basically ran amok for a few hours. The authorities, in a panic, telegraphed for the army to occupy the town, but by the time they arrived, the streets were quiet.
After all, the tumult only lasted a few hours, no shots were fired, nobody was killed, and no rioters were convicted. Big deal! It might be argued that, in historical terms, the riots are a mere footnote.
I got hold of all of the original newspaper reports, hoping to glean the full story. But historical research has a way of taking on a life of its own. One source leads to another, another figure leads to another, and so on. From the ‘papers I found myself investigating census returns, the register of births, marriages and deaths for Cornwall (happily mostly now online), prison records, old maps and photos of Camborne, brief biographies of policemen, the history of policing, the history of Cornwall, and the social history of rioting. I contacted and pestered various organisations and people. If there was a stone, I looked underneath it. And I discovered much of interest…
Hindsight has given the Camborne Riots of 1873 a very minor role in Cornish history and the history of social unrest. But at the time, the riots were a major concern. In their aftermath, prominent townspeople presented a petition to the town magistrates and Colonel Gilbert, the Chief Constable of Cornwall.
This petition slammed Camborne’s police force on counts of brutality and dereliction of duty: in short, the town’s well-to-do sided with the mob. As a result, Gilbert either forced the policemen in question to resign, or moved them to another district.
And that’s not all…
The Home Secretary of the day, Robert Lowe,
asked to be kept informed of events. Sir Colman Rashleigh (1819-1896), JP for Cornwall, had to address the Grand Jury regarding the riot, and the whole narrative of the insurrection was followed in the national press. It even made the news in Australia, being reported in the South Australian Observer on Boxing Day, 1873.
The more I read and researched, I realised that, not only were no rioters ever brought to book, but a certain level of collusion between citizens and the mob could be detected. No witness to the ruck ever gave a name up, nobody pointed the finger, everybody acted dumb, blind, or both. It became obvious to me that The Camborne Riots of 1873 were rather more than the tale of how a local boozer got its name.
They’re also one of the greatest displays of mining defiance in Cornish history.
Which is what my website, dedicated to the events, seeks to prove.
And it seems to have done so! Lee Trewhela, having himself written on the riots, had to concede in private correspondence that my site was “great”. The Camborne Old Cornwall Society, who posted my site on their Facebook page in April, described it as “meticulously researched” and “fascinating”.
So, if you haven’t seen it before, or would like to read the whole grubby tale, please, take a look.
Do you think there might be an equally interesting – and violent! – story from your town or village’s past? Contact me if you would like the Cornish Historian to investigate, and check my other posts!