Reading time: 30 minutes
1. The St Austell bombing
(Unless otherwise stated, the main text here is from the West Briton Argus, December 8, 1980, p1, and the West Briton, December 11, 1980, p1.)
An Gof or, more precisely, The An Gof 1980 Movement, made its appearance at around 9:35pm on Sunday, December 7, 1980. A telephone rang in the offices of The West Briton newspaper, and a journalist answered. A man was at the other end, “quietly spoken and unhurried”. In his unflustered manner this man claimed to be a spokesman for his group, The An Gof 1980 Movement, and that said group was responsible for the explosion in the St. Austell courthouse, on Carlyon Road, that had taken place in the early hours of Sunday morning. Making sure the reporter would talk to the police after his call, The An Gof 1980 Movement then described how the bomb had been detonated by hand, and contained “conventional” high explosive with a safety fuse ignition. In conversation with the investigating officers, The West Briton concluded that the caller had “some knowledge which only the perpetrator or an accomplice would know”: a window had indeed been smashed and the bomb dropped through it. An Gof also made the following statements:
i) the movement had been in existence for over a year;
ii) there would be other attacks against “English councillors and Communist infiltrators in the Cornish nationalist movement”, that they will “really need to sweat”;
iii) more attacks should be expected; and, just before An Gof’s change ran out on his payphone,
iv) “St Austell has been instrumental in purging the Stannary…”, and the line went dead.
If, in the digital age, anonymous phonecallers issuing threats yet forgetting to have enough change to deliver their message seems rather quaint, The An Gof 1980 Movement were taken seriously enough at the time. After all, a call from a payphone to a local newsroom was the method of claiming responsibility for a terror bombing by the IRA on at least one occasion (as reported in the Belfast Telegraph, July 28, 1970, p3). And the bombing of St Austell courthouse was a serious act. “Considerable” structural damage was caused by the blast in Number 2 court and the magistrates’ retiring room, with cracked walls, broken windows and skylights, and doors busted off their hinges.
Serious enough for an incident room to be set up in St Austell. Serious enough for an investigation involving over forty policemen to be mounted, run by Devon and Cornwall CID. Serious enough for the Special Branch to be kept informed. Serious enough for analysis of the device and explosive used to be carried out by Chepstow police forensic laboratory, with assistance by Home Office scientists. Serious enough for the search for the perpetrators to be conducted county-wide. In St Austell itself, the police were reported to be seeking a man seen standing near the courthouse in a carpark at 1am Sunday morning, the owners of any vehicle parked in the carpark that night, and two cars seen speeding down Carlyon Road within minutes of the explosion.
They also took An Gof’s call seriously, as did the various, more mainstream and democratically-minded Cornish nationalist groups, whom the police questioned about An Gof 1980. The police had never heard of this group, and nor had the Cornish nationalists they spoke to – understandably, they sought to distance themselves from the bombing and the suggestion it was the work of a nationalist terror cell, or more likely (or hopefully), “some crank”.
Mebyon Kernow stated that, yes, their secretariat had been called “An Gof” at one time, but this department was disbanded. It had been headed by Len Truran, one of the people heavily influential in turning Mebyon Kernow into a fully fledged political party in the early 1970s. Truran himself stated that he was “horrified” that violence should be happening in Cornwall, and “felt sure” none of the nationalist groups were responsible for what was hopefully an isolated incident.
(According to Truran’s biography, Following An Gof by Derek Williams (2014), in September 1980 Truran had been made a bard of Gorsedh Kernow and took the name Holyer An Gof, or Follower of An Gof (p1). Truran must have found it deeply uncomfortable to have the name of a man he so obviously revered, and adopted, presented in such a lurid light. The biography doesn’t mention the bombing, An Gof 1980, or Truran’s reaction.)
And the condemnations continued. The use of the name “An Gof” was “deplored”, a “slur” on the memory of a Cornish patriot, as was the use of violence. The Mebyon Kernow secretary at the time, Peter Prior, said the explosion was
…in no way the reflection of a vast national feeling in Cornwall…it is not our way at all. In An Gof’s day, you used the musket. Now we use the ballot box.
(Incidentally, the musket as a weapon was not developed until the 1520s.)
A spokesman for the Cornish Nationalist Party thought the anonymous caller to be a man with a “private grudge” and was trying to link the attack with the nationalist movement for some reason.
Brian Hambley, Lord Protector of the Revived Cornish Stannary Parliament, said the people of his organisation were strongly against the use of violence. Such activities were liable to alienate support for his cause, especially when we recall that the man purportedly speaking for An Gof 1980 stated that St Austell was “responsible” for “purging” the Stannary cause. The implication here was that anyone connected with the Stannary revival (a movement begun in the 1970s to resurrect the ancient rights and independence of Cornish miners and tinners) would perhaps have good reason to attack St Austell’s symbol of loyalty to the English government: its courthouse.
Hambley, who was a St Austell man, omitted to mention his own recent visit to the courthouse. The ‘papers noted that the court, as it had dealt with a “number of nationalists” over the years in cases of non-payment of road taxes, may have been a target for extremists. In 1978 Hambley had been in the dock for refusing to pay his road tax, claiming in defence that as a “privileged tinner” he was exempt from duties owed to the crown and, furthermore, could only be tried in a Stannary court. To cut a rather complex tale of ancient documents and Latin language short, St Austell court first found in his favour, with the prosecution ordered to pay his costs. Hambley was quoted in the West Briton of June 22, 1978 as his victory being “the dawning of a day when Cornwall comes into its own”. More sceptically, as the West Briton noted the implications of thousands of Cornish people observing the precedent set by Hambley’s case and refusing to pay taxes themselves, it commented that “the fabric of local law enforcement could be in tatters”, and that the case “is no longer a comedy” (p11).
Perhaps inevitably, the verdict on Hambley’s case was overturned on appeal, and he was fined and had to pay costs. The tale can be followed in the West Briton of 19 June, 1978 (p9), 22 June, 1978 (p11), 14 December, 1978 (p4), and 8 March, 1979 (p9).
Hambley wasn’t the only Stannary man to be fined by St Austell court. Frederick Trull, the original reviver of Stannary Parliament after a two-hundred year lapse, was caught speeding in 1975, flooring his motor down Stannary Road in Stenalees, St Austell. (You get the impression this may have been an ill-advised publicity stunt.) Trull was suspended from the Stannary and, at his hearing, attempted to arrest the magistrates, clerk, and prosecuting solicitor, it being his belief that, in trying a member of Stannary Parliament, they were breaking the law. He was found guilty and fined whilst being held in custody. Trull’s conscience, he was quoted as saying, was “quite clear”. (From the West Briton, March 6, 1975, p11.)
One person I interviewed, let’s call them Geoff, remembers the bombing in St Austell, the connection with An Gof, and the reactions of people at the time. They had sympathy for what An Gof were trying to achieve, which was an assertion of Cornishness in the face of outside interests and agendas exploiting the county and its people. The Cornish, Geoff told me, “were seen by An Gof as an oppressed people, who had no representation”. Hence An Gof 1980’s criticism of the Cornish nationalist movement at the time. However, Geoff recalled that, at the time, few people in Cornwall – and elsewhere – supported their methods. Another person I spoke to, we’ll name them Kirsty, recollects that most “mature Cornish people thought they were a bunch of cranks and didn’t support their methods.” It seems that, even at the inception of An Gof’s activities, Cornish politicians and the majority of Cornish people alike were dimissive of their acts.
But the caller from An Gof 1980 said more attacks should be expected…
2. Season’s greetings
On December 29, 1980, Peter Prior of Mebyon Kernow received a phonecall “purporting to be from An Gof”, calling for him to resign. Prior’s response in the West Briton of January 15, 1981, was emphatic:
I am not resigning, certainly not. I don’t believe in giving in to this sort of intimidation (p2).
Why an alleged extreme nationalist group would want a fellow Cornish nationalist to throw in the towel is unclear.
3. The Penzance arson
The early hours of New Year’s Day 1981 was a busy one for 25 firefighters from Penzance, St Keverne, St Ives, and Camborne. The Victoria and Albert hair salon, on Causewayhead, Penzance, was ablaze, the inferno eventually causing a reported £15,000 of damage, or around £58,000 today. Obviously a “considerable” amount of wreckage was caused by the fire, and not just to the Victoria and Albert. The fire caused smoke damage to the offices of the Bristol and West Building Society, whose building it was. The police, reported the West Briton of January 8, 1981, were “treating the outbreak as one of arson”, that the fire was started intentionally (p3).
In the week after the above article was published, the police incident room at Truro dealing with the St Austell bombing had to extend their inquiries to include the arson in Penzance. The An Gof 1980 Movement had made two phonecalls to separate newspaper offices, claiming responsbility for the fire. Det. Sup. Geoffrey Warren, commander of the incident squad, stated
We have a strong belief the calls could be coming from one source. There is a similarity between them.
The An Gof on the line this time, besides admitting to the arson, said in a call to the West Briton that his movement were seeking national status for Cornwall, and that “more attacks will follow” if this was not achieved. On the same day (January 8), the offices of the Cornishman newspaper in Penzance received a call from an An Gof, who stated that the next attack would also be of an incendiary nature, but not in Penzance. He said that
We are a guerilla movement and we take as much terrorist action as we need. (From the West Briton, January 15, 1981, p2.)
The “similarities” between the caller, or the An Gof, from St Austell and the Penzance An Gof were superficial: a man from an extreme nationalist group claiming responsibility for an attack in the name of Cornish independence and promising further outrages. In St Austell, the call was made before the bombing was public knowledge, by a man with definite inside knowledge of how the device was made and detonated. There was also a clear reason or motive for the attack, in the connection with the court and the Stannary trials. In contrast, the Penzance An Gof made his calls on precisely the same day as details of the alleged arson were made public: the West Briton of January 8. They provided no information as to how the fire was started, or why a hair salon in a property owned by a building society would be a genuine target for a group of Cornish terrorists.
Maybe the An Gof of St Austell and Penzance were one and the same man, and were behind both attacks, whether or on their own or as part of an organisation. Or the St Austell An Gof, when reading of the Penzance arson in the ‘paper, thought it might be just the kind of event he, or they, could embellish with some nationalist statements. Or yet again, there may have been two An Gof cells, one in St Austell and one in Penzance. Or a Cornish nationalist may have taken it upon themselves to put on the An Gof cloak and stake a claim on the Penzance arson in the cause of independence. Or the calls in Penzance were simply the work of a mischevious hoaxer, or hoaxers. More cynically, my contact Kirsty thinks of the arson “as an insurance job”, and unlikely to be the work of a genuine An Gof.
It’s largely forgotten, now, that 1981 was a bad year for cases of suspected arson in Penzance. A health food store and a warehouse on Old Brewery Yard were completely gutted in October, causing £200,000 of damage – or £784,000 today. £50,000 (£196,000 in 2021) of fire-damage was caused in December to another shop on Causewayhead. In these instances, no An Gof stepped forward to claim this handiwork as their own. We might conclude, then, that anonymous arson was the most likely cause of the salon fire. (From the West Briton, October 22, p11, and December 17, p11.)
The police could make no inroads into the identity of An Gof, and over the weeks the dual investigation ran down. No arrests were made, and in the West Briton of February 12, 1981, Det. Sup. Warren was quoted as saying that
…whether there was a nationalist movement called An Gof or whether the explosion had been the work of an individual with a grudge had not been established (p27).
The main similarities between the St Austell bombing and the Penzance arson was the condemnation of the alleged An Gof involvement by the democratic Cornish nationalists. Richard Jenkins, chair of Mebyon Kernow, declared in the West Briton of January 15, 1981 that
The bombers are a hindrance to the cause of Cornwall’s nationality and are anti-Cornish vandals, not nationalists. We do not believe they care for Cornwall and we condemn them utterly (p2).
It is with some irony, then, that the alleged desire of these “anti-Cornish” vandals – independence for Cornwall – were the same hopes and dreams of the members of Mebyon Kernow. Obviously it was the method, not the message, that the politicians didn’t care for.
Nothing much was heard from An Gof for the next few years.
4. 1984. The “glass on the beach” legend, a councillor silenced, other stunts, and, finally, an arrest
Enraged by the fact that “outsiders” were smarter than them…An Gof decided to act. They met in a telephone box to discuss tactics…Their average age was 17…Having hatched a deadly plan they drove to the popular beach at Portreath and lined the sands with hundreds of broken bottles…They went home…and drank copious amounts of cider in celebration…Many a Cornish foot needed treatment and many of those feet belonged to local children…a display of incredible ineptitude.
The above is taken from the entry for Camborne on the ilivehere.co.uk website. I don’t know who wrote it, and I could care less. Most of it, for want of a better phrase, is bullshit. However, the urban legend of An Gof putting glass on the beaches to deter tourists is a somewhat persistent one. It’s treated as fact in a blog of 2012, and this blog is one of the sources for the Wikipedia entry for An Gof when it mentions the group placing broken glass on the beach. The other Wikipedia source is from the Falmouth Packet of 2007: An Gof “claimed reponsibility…for placing broken glass in the sand at Portreath…”.
Most legends, or myths, have some basis in historical fact, however. So what’s actually the truth behind this one?
Wednesday, January 11, 1984. A phone rings in the offices of the West Briton, Redruth. Coincidentally, the journalist picking up was the same reporter who had taken the call from An Gof 1980 in connection with the St Austell bombing, but the caller was someone else. This time the reporter had to ask the man at the other end whom he represented. The answer he got was: An Gof. And the warnings and statements of this An Gof were as follows:
i) They had “the intention to take the Cornish nationalist cause to the beaches”;
ii) An Gof would be “planting anti-personnel devices” on the beaches over the summer;
iii) these devices would consist of nails driven through timber, tool knives, and broken bottles. “Horrific injuries could be caused”, warned An Gof;
iv) this was An Gof’s way of hitting at “English” administration and Cornwall’s Tourist Board, and it was up to them, the press and media to warn holidaymakers that these devices were being “indiscriminately placed…throughout the summer”.
As a demonstration of their sincerity, An Gof instructed the reporter to go to Portreath beach, where a sample of a “non-explosive device” had been placed. The reporter did as he was told, and found, in front of a yellow drum placed as a marker, two broken bottles with their “jagged ends” facing up out of the sand. Police were said to be treating it as an isolated incident. (From the West Briton, January 12, 1984, p1.)
This is the only recorded factual instance of glass or broken bottles being deliberately placed on any Cornish beach, by An Gof or anybody else. So, yes, technically speaking, An Gof did place glass on the beach to deter tourists. But only with two bottles, on one beach, once, in January (Portreath beach in January is as barren as it looks in November, if not more so – see the above photos), and they marked the spot with a drum so that, presumably, people would walk around the area anyway. And who knows how long it was there, before the reporter discovered it? Hours, at best? If An Gof had wanted to cause some real damage, would it not have been better – or worse – for this to have been carried out in, say, July? Perhaps An Gof’s timing is as bad as mine supposedly is.
But the myth took on a life of its own, almost immediately. One person I spoke to, “Dave”, was a lifeguard back in 1984. Dave remembered “plenty of people” being concerned and asking about the glass, though Dave believes the attacks never “took place”. Dave would have reassured these people – locals, visitors – but how many were put off holidaymaking on the Cornish coast back in 1984? All I know is, I was almost definitely running round on Portreath beach that summer, and all I got on my feet was tar off the rocks.
(On Thursday January 19, a piece of card was found in the post room of the West Briton’s Redruth office, stating there was a booby trap on Falmouth beach, near the cafe. Nothing was found. It’s unclear if An Gof sent the message. From the West Briton, January 26, p1.)
1984 was perhaps An Gof’s most prolific year, at least in terms of telephone calls, claiming to be the unseen hand behind various unsavoury activities. On Sunday, January 22, 1984, the Zodiac Bingo Hall on Penryn Street, Redruth, burnt to the ground, causing £250,000 of damage – that’s £821,000 today. The phonecall from An Gof went to a local newspaper on the Monday, stating that “One of our active service units caused the fire at Redruth last night”. The cause, in fact, was a defect in the heating system. (From the West Briton, January 26, p1&6.)
An Gof also claimed, in one of their calls on Monday January 23, to be responsible for the attempt to blow up the village hall in Beacon. This amateurish attempt at arson (a lit candle placed under a cut gas main) had been foiled by the caretaker of the hall opening the main door, and all the gas rushing out. This happened on January 15; An Gof made their claim eight days later. Why, asked a police officer, “didn’t they make their claim before?” Why, we might add, would the arson of the Zodiac and a village hall further the cause of Cornish independence? Like a “Monty Python sketch”, thought Kirsty, when asked about these events.
If not before, we begin to get the impression at this point that the activities of An Gof were beginning to verge on the juvenile. However, the police thought the threat serious enough to set up an incident room in Truro, and collate all known information about the group – if group it was. (From the West Briton, January 26, p1.)
They soon had some more paperwork for their burgeoning file, with another call from An Gof to a newspaper in February. This was another warning, which resulted in the police visiting Wendron Forge (which of course later became the Poldark Mine attraction), to examine a suspicious package. They discovered a biscuit tin from which protruded a short length of singed rope. Exercising caution, they summoned the Navy bomb disposal unit from Plymouth, who discovered a substance inside which “may or may not have been inflammable”. Treating the incident as a “malicious hoax”, nevertheless the public were warned by the police not to handle suspicious letters or packages. After all, it was not known how malevolent the An Gof movement was. Their inflammatory rhetoric in a press release to the West Briton which threatened a “new wave of military action” against “the self-styled tourist industry – the few who make profits out of Cornish people”, with anti-personnel devices targeting “non-Cornish owned holiday concerns of all kinds”, certainly sounded ominous enough. More suspicious – yet harmless – packages arrived at the offices of The South West Water Board. (From the West Briton, February 23, p1.)
Again, condemnation by Cornwall’s nationalist politicians was immediate. Mebyon Kernow’s deputy chairman, Richard Jenkin, said that An Gof had no real policies, that their actions were
…completely ridiculous, the action of idiots. I do not think there are more than two or three of them and I do not expect there is any sort of organisation at all. They spur one another on to do these stupid things.
His comments were echoed by the MK’s chairman, who bluntly dismissed the activities of An Gof as “completely mad”. The Cornish Nationalist Party described the unknown perpetrators and their tactics as a “bit sad and worrying”. (West Briton, February 23, 1984, p1.)
One person found An Gof worrying enough, however, and he was Peter Young, the founder of the Wendron Forge holiday attraction (though I always remember it as Ha’penny Park). Young came to Cornwall in the 1960s, and his “holiday concern”, to paraphrase the extremists’ press release quoted in the West Briton (see above), had obviously been singled out by An Gof. As a Kerrier Councillor, Young was due to speak in a council meeting regarding whether Kerrier should support Mebyon Kernow’s petition and campaign for a separate European MP for Cornwall. The petition was to be forwarded to the European Parliament, in which it questioned the legality of the Boundary Commission’s recent decision to maintain the Euro-constituency of Cornwall and Plymouth. Would Kerrier back it?
It’s unclear what tone Young’s speech on the matter was to take: he never delivered it. The report continues:
Mr Young was about to speak…when he decided it would be against his interests to do so, in the light of a recent hoax bomb device which was found on his property at Wendron, for which the An Gof movement claimed responsibility…He also claimed his home was being watched.
In what was described as an “emotive” address, Young announced it was now impossible for him to speak openly about Cornish nationalism, that he “cannot take the risk” of anything he says on the subject being reported. His “personal well-being” had been threatened.
Kerrier Council, at the conclusion of the meeting, opted to support Mebyon Kernow’s petition. What Mebyon Kernow thought of all this is unknown; after all, An Gof was nothing to do with them. (From the West Briton, March 29, 1984, p7.)
Later that year, however, Mebyon Kernow claimed a “minor victory” when they were informed that they had “won the right” to take their campaign for a Cornwall-only Euro-constituency to the European Parliament. (From the West Briton, February 23, p1, March 29, p7, and June 21, p6.)
The incident regarding Peter Young perhaps represents An Gof at its most sinister. There was no explosion, no random publicity stunt, no false claims, no denunciations by Mebyon Kernow or the Cornish Nationalist Party. Young was targeted, or at the very least, he certainly thought so. Wikipedia and the few other sources I mention above that tend to “print the legend” of An Gof make no allusion to it. They give reference to the more noisy events, such as the bombing at St Austell, or the downright mindless and bungled, such as the glass on the beach or the “attempt” at arson in Beacon. This is, as far as I can ascertain, the only instance of where An Gof’s scare-tactics (I hesitate to use the word terror) possibly succeeded in furthering an extreme version of Cornish nationalism. Of course, we do not know what Peter Young was supposed to say in that meeting. He might have fully endorsed the petition, or he might have rejected it out of hand. But, if An Gof’s aims were indeed to target and intimidate those who made profit from the Cornish tourist industry, here, sadly, they achieved it.
You could, of course, turn the above argument on its head: An Gof, or whoever planted the hoax device, had chosen Wendron Forge at random and it was sheer coincidence that a councillor was the owner. His believing his property, and himself, to be under surveillance was the result of an overactive imagination. However, it was reported in the West Briton of February 23, 1984, that Peter Young was in fact in the process of moving to Wendron Forge (p8). Following this, An Gof, given their inclinations, would certainly not agree with Young’s enthusiasm, reported in the West Briton of January 12, 1984, for a Kerrier scheme to give American firms and businesses a toehold in the area (p3). If one thing can be certain about An Gof, it was this: they definitely made regular use of the West Briton.
Two more An Gof-related events from 1984. First, in April, there was a senseless attack of arson on a burger van in Park Bottom, Illogan. No one was hurt, but two children were asleep inside the van when the fire was started. Hours after this, An Gof phoned the West Briton to claim responsibility, but apologised for involving “innocent people”: they’d hit the wrong target. The caller said the members of their “commando unit” who’d fouled-up the attack would be punished. Who, or what, the actual target was meant to be is unclear, or indeed why they were to be targeted in the first place. A policeman stated that
This group…may or may not exist…I do not know of anyone who has admitted to being in such an organisation (the West Briton, April 19, p4.)
There was only one arrest, in August, and this person admitted to being a member of An Gof. However, he was an alcoholic schoolteacher from Mounts Bay, who had been caught making a hoax call to Devon and Cornwall Police Headquarters in Exeter, threatening to blow the place up. On his arrest, he was said to have confessed to being involved with the group. It was later satisfactorily proven that he wasn’t. He was fined £100, with costs. (From the West Briton, August 30, p1.)
5. 1990. Another public figure is threatened
After a seeming lapse in activities of six years, An Gof gave the Cornwall branch secretary of the democratic Celtic League, Ian Williams, of Redruth, an alleged “death threat” made by phone in March 1990.
Williams brushed it off. He didn’t even bother reporting it to the police, so far had An Gof’s credibility fallen (and it was probably never especially high) since the early to mid-80s. He told the press:
I have not done anything that would justify the threat…I don’t know of any instance where this threat has been carried out in Cornwall…if there is such an organisation as An Gof I don’t believe they would attack another Cornish man or woman in this way.
The Celtic League unsurprisingly condemned the issuer of the threat made against one of their members. They also took umbrage at the caller’s use of the pseudonym An Gof. They were
…bringing the name of the 1497 martyred St Keverne blacksmith into disrepute. An Gof, they [the League] say, “united the Cornish people at a time when unfair taxes, much like the present Poll Tax, were being imposed on Cornwall’s people.” (The West Briton, March 15, 1990, p3.)
And this seems like a good moment to draw this post to a close. So far, we have been discussing one version, or representation, of An Gof. There are, in fact, two.
Follow this link, The Two An Gofs, to read part three. Thanks!
3 thoughts on “In Search of An Gof, part two: Person or Persons Unknown”
Looking forward to the rest of this series. This website is an excellent addition to Cornwall’s literary landscape
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Delighted you like my posts, and my website! Many thanks
A reader remembers! This is from Merv Davey:
I was a member of a group of twenty something year olds that met at Len Trurans house of a Tuesday evening looking at Cornish issues and writing regular letters to the press on these issues. An effective way of making onse voice heard in the 1970s and 80s. Len called this the An Gof group. At that time I was working in an office adjacent to the St Austell Courthouse. On the morning after the bomb went off I arrived at the office in total ignorance and the boss asked if I knew of the An Gof group when I announced that I was a member I suddenly found myself having to do a lot of explaining around Len’s group being an essentially letter writing project.