Novel: The Camborne Riots of 1873

Not in any tourist guide…

Reading time: 10 minutes

Several months ago I contacted the Camborne Town website, asking if a link to my own site on the Riots of 1873 could be included somewhere on their pages, maybe with their entries for The Red Jackets or the Old Market House.

I’ve heard nothing. So let’s take a brief look at what the site says about these buildings.

The Old Market House, Camborne. From the Camborne Town Heritage Trail page

The website has its entry for the Old Market House thus:

Built in 1802, John Francis Basset funded a rebuild in the 1860’s after a storm caused catastrophic damage. It housed the Town Hall, Magistrates Rooms a Public Hall and Assembly Rooms.

I’d love to add something like:

In 1873 thousands of miners besieged fifty police officers in the building after two of their own got sent to prison. All the windows were smashed and the guards on the door constantly stoned and abused. Realising their situation was untenable, the policemen charged the mob, thus sparking a brutal, bloody battle that became notorious as The Camborne Riots of 1873…

Or maybe even:

Later The Old Market House was home to the infamous Berkeley Centre nightclub, a glorified meat market dealing in gassy lager, sticky flooring and aggressive drunken teenagers. Fistfights and glassings were the main attractions…

What does the site say about The Red Jackets in relation to the Riots?

…named after the militia who were brought in to deal with the riots in 1873…

Given the chance, I’d add:

But a more apt name for the pub might be “The Rioters’ Arms”! The landlord was suspected of sheltering a policeman during the affray, and as a result he was assaulted, the pub’s windows were smashed and a barrel of ale dragged out and drunk in the street. Graffiti reading “A Camborne Mob, its Mark” was daubed on the walls…

You get my point: you’d have to search long and hard to find a mention of the Riots in any tourist guide. Maybe, considering the lack of response and/or enthusiasm for my own historical website, some believe the Riots would be better best forgotten. To be fair to the authors of the Camborne Town website, they’re fighting an uphill battle in marketing Camborne as a tourist attraction, especially when measured up against such prime spots as Newquay or St Ives. When you have to include the whereabouts of a town’s launderette on your webpages, in terms of promoting said town’s greatest assets you’re not so much scraping the barrel as flinging it over a cliff.

From the Camborne Town website. A real talking-point.

So, to my novel, which is really a kind of alternative history of Camborne. As I mentioned in my “Cornwall Writer” post on designing the Riots website, when reading the original newspaper reports of the affray, I got the odd sense that, back in 1873, some kind soul had given me the bare bones, or draft, of a great story. Question was, what to do with it?

Fact or fiction?

One section of the ‘paper reports told me I had to exaggerate the events, or, if you will, make up my own legend, then print it. To whit, one of the policemen gets beaten about the head by an old lady armed with an umbrella. Yes, it happened. Now, I asked myself, how delightful would it be if this harridan was the copper’s own mother, horrified at her son’s career path? Likewise the hints from the ‘papers that the miners and townspeople were united in their destruction of the police force: I felt compelled to develop this into a major conspiracy. I was going to write a novel, but present it as the “never before seen” truth of the events.

Perspective.

What angle was I going to take? You had two opposing forces: the miners or mob, and the police. In the middle you had the people of Camborne. I could write the story from the perspective of the forces of law and order, take the view (and sympathy) of the mob, or have a story from the townspeople caught between the two. I dismissed the idea of the townspeople immediately: they more or less sided with the miners anyway. The police approach was passed over too: I’m the grandson of miners, after all. To not write a story about how miners fought the law and won from their perspective would be tantamount to working-class treason. It’d be like a Tyneside collier having a portrait of Margaret Thatcher mounted in their scullery.

About the 1984 Miners’ Strike. Recommended.

First or third?

Maybe I could write the story in a third person narrative. Then differing views of the events could be presented more easily. Perhaps. But third-person can move the reader a step further away from the events: this was a true story, a violent, breathless story. I wanted a reporter on the scene, in the dirt, maybe flinging the odd haymaker. I wanted the reader to be in there with them. I opted for first person. It would authenticate the more fictionalised aspects of the tale as well.

Who?

If I’m on the miners’ side, my narrator had to be a miner. I also felt that, as none of the actual rioters were ever identified, this miner had to be a rioter too. Further, to give my story more verisimilitude, this miner had to have actually existed. And, if this version of the Riots were to be wryly presented as the “true but unheard-of” one, how come I’m the sole possessor of it? A family tale perhaps, passed down through the generations? My great-grandfather was a miner. He was fifteen at the time of the Riots. It dawned on me: my great grandad was there, he saw the lot, he broke a fair few heads, he was in on the plot but was sworn to secrecy, years later he told the tale to…

Okay, I admit, it’s similar to how George MacDonald Fraser claimed to be in possession of the Flashman Papers. What I also derived from this series of novels is Fraser’s technique of attributing fictional acts or characteristics to genuine historical figures. The difference here is of course that Fraser’s characters were all well known; my characters had minor fame, if any at all. I took what I could find about them from the ‘papers or elsewhere and either embellished, or turned, these facts on their head. For example, a key witness is, in the reports, a well-respected and charitable man. I present him as a shameless philanderer. Josiah Thomas, manager of Dolcoath Mine and an upright pillar of the community, here vows to do down the policemen he sees as encroaching on his power in the town.

Authenticity?

Again, another trick I picked up from reading Flashman. If you want people to believe the fiction you’re writing actually is the truth, you have to couch your work in historical or explanatory notes. I decided to do this throughout my story. So, when you read in my tale that the geriatric beating on a policeman’s skull with a brolly is actually the victim’s mother, I have a note explaining that, indeed, PC Harris was cudgelled by a hag with a brolly, but my great-grandad’s story is the first source to mention that this hag was, in fact, his own dear ma.

Was he really involved in the Indian Mutiny?!

Humour?

This was impossible to keep out. I wanted the reader to be carried along by the sheer desperation and grimness of the tale – miners fighting for their ancient customs in the face of Victorian modernity – yet at the same time enjoy a kind of gallows humour. I picked up this approach from reading Get Carter, by Ted Lewis: after something unspeakably violent has happened, crack a joke. It relaxes any tension before moving on to the next description of wanton savagery.

Get Carter By Ted Lewis (Author)
Recommended.

Dialogue?

This is from the historian John Rule‘s book Cornish Cases (Clio, 2006), page 10. For him, dialect is

…a cohesive force…dialect offers some possibilities of hearing the voices of the ordinary Cornish…Dialects like language have a history…the tinners spoke and even appeared as a different race…

Taking Rule’s observations as a starting point, and to further add a sense of reality to what I was writing, I had my narrator recount his tale in Cornish dialect, or accent. This involved me writing, or attempting to write, the story in a phonetic, nuanced Cornish, based roughly on how people in the Camborne-Redruth area speak nowadays. To “age” this tone, my narrator uses occasional Cornish words or phrases, some of which – croust, oggy, etc – are still in use today. Sometimes I actually inserted other Cornish words into his speech, not because I knew they were used back in the 1870s, but because I liked the sound. For example, the Cornish word for midnight is hanternoss, which I think is mellifluous and slightly spooky. Hence, I had to use it. Many of these arcane words and phrases I sought to explain in a glossary at the end of the story.

My narrator was a Cornish miner, a working man. The language of your bog-standard working-class individual is salty, to say the least. I should know! It followed, then, that my narrator, and many of the other characters, swear and cuss frequently. This has proved contentious. Several readers have found the profanity challenging, others have found that, after initial struggles, it no longer bothers them and the story flows. The very opening sentence of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting uses the word “cunt”, and to my knowledge he’s never compromised or apologised for the brutality of his language. I’ve resolved to do similar. After all, his books sell…

Will my book sell? Would anyone read it?

I’d have to get it published first! I’ve been to several publishers, but no bites thus far. However, the editor of Cornwall Editions, who wouldn’t publish on account of the sad fact that his house is now practically defunct, said that The Camborne Riots of 1873 is

…strong and rumbustious, so I wonder whether it would be worth offering to and independent television producer….

Which is rather encouraging.

Would you like to read and hear more? See my post where I read a sample from one of the chapters and provide a full synopsis of my novel.

For anyone out there with a further interest in The Camborne Riots of 1873: An Eyewitness Account, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Many thanks

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