Cornwall, May-June 1847. Locations of unrest, relief, and organisation are marked
The potato blight, and subsequent famine, that decimated the population of Ireland, hit Cornwall (and England) in the winter of 1846-7. It was also a bitterly cold winter, and many other root crops froze in the earth. Relief in the form of an early, mild spring did not materialise. Animal fodder was scarce too, and beasts starved in icy fields. The price of beef, pork and mutton correspondingly skyrocketed, along with the cost – and availability – of wheat and flour. Wheat was £2/bushel; it hadn’t been that dear since the last famine year, 1817. Everywhere in Cornwall was a “pressure of scarcity”1. Breakfast for a miner was described as
…barley gruel…about three quarts of water and a halfpenny-worth of skimmed milk thickened with barley flour…
From Philip Payton, The Cornish Overseas, Cornwall Editions, 2005, p135
There was nothing for croust, and workers could barely crawl home after coming to grass.
Various solutions were presented. In March the Queen issued a Proclamation for a “General Fast”. The famine was a visitation by God upon the “iniquities of this land”. Her loyal subjects ought to send up “prayers and supplications” to the Almighty and “avoid his wrath” through their humility2. And, if prayer and fasting would not bring relief, what would? What would happen to the hungry poor and, perhaps equally importantly, to what lengths would they go to avoid death by starvation? Would they take food by force? Surely not:
We have no fear of any formidable strike among the Cornish miners. Superior to every other class of workmen in the Kingdom…they are beyond the influence of the political agitator.
Royal Cornwall Gazette, January 22, 1847, p2
This complacency was short-lived.
In their cottages, in the barren fields, and underground, people were getting organised.
Although in terms of weight of numbers the most impressive riots took place in Pool and Redruth, disturbances were reported in many Cornish towns through the spring and summer. Localised events, perhaps, but taken as a whole one begins to get a sense of the hardships and privations faced by entire communities across Cornwall, and the several attempts at aid made by the authorities and/or the philanthropically minded.
The Merry Month of May
At first, the merchants and authorities were caught off-guard. At Callington on May 12, around 200 miners from the Stoke Climsland, Holmbush and Silver Valley workings, marched in unopposed and gathered at the Town Hall. They knew what they were about, and went straight to the market. There they forced the unprotected, and no doubt intimidated, farmers to sell their wheat and barley at prices nominated by the miners. But that wasn’t all. Any merchant or trader sniffed out in Callington that day were “roughly handled”, and their goods were closely escorted to the market and then sold for the same knockdown prices. The town was “in an uproar”, and more genteel forms of trade brought to a standstill. After this particular horse had bolted, the local magistrates resolved to take steps against such “lawless proceedings” and swore in a hundred Special Constables. The local miners, for their part, pledged to drink in no Callington pub for the next three months; the first man to break this agreement would “be carried around the town on a pole”. Seven days later, in Liskeard market, the nervous merchants stayed away, and no corn or wheat could be bought4.
That very same day, May 12, Wadebridge experienced a similar disturbance. 400 men from Luxulyan and Roche, but later swelling to an estimated 700, entered the town, parading a pasty on a pole in their front ranks, and “using threats of violence”5. But the town fathers had heard of their coming from the north: the factors had removed their corn overnight, and the local coastguard was patrolling the town. But this didn’t stop the mob from breaking open and inspecting the stores. In a panic, the local magistrate, Edward Stephens, was called upon to pacify the would-be looters. This is the response he got:
…don’t hear what the old b____r has to say, he’s only going to delude us…
Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 6, 1847, p4
Then, with a cry of “beat his brains”6, Stephens was set upon by a group armed with cudgels, and was badly beaten: only when a local constable, Daniell William Lovell, drew his pistol and threatened to shoot the next man that came on, was a shaky peace restored. Prominent among the assailants was a miner called William Tellam, 27, from Carnsmerry, in Treverbyn7. He appears again in our story. By the time the military arrived from Plymouth, early the next morning, all was “perfectly tranquil”8. Tranquil, that is, until the 19th, when 400 men from Delabole Quarry invaded the town, resulting in the Redcoats being sent for again.
May 14th. “Hundreds” of men in a “starving state” came to Camelford for wheat, but were told there was none to be had in the town. Unperturbed, they went to a local farmer, and threatened to “thrash” him if he did not thrash out his corn in time for the next market. They then purloined all the bread from the Gayers, of Trethin, robbed their hens of eggs, and even took rooks from the trees. They then slaked their thirst in the Camelford taverns, “not paying for their drink”9.
All that said, the authorities and the miners were not quite at daggers drawn – yet. When 1,500 tinners were put out of work at Polberro Consols near St Agnes, several of them came to Truro on May 17, requesting permission to beg. They were sent on their way with a loaf each. Relief committees for miners unable to afford bread were set up in St Austell and Gwennap. At Newquay and the East Wheal Rose Mine at Lappa Valley (whose inhabitants were still recovering from the disaster of 184610), corn and flour was arranged to be shipped from Liverpool and purchased by the miners. Ironically, days earlier men from Withiel parish had attempted to halt a shipment of grain from leaving Padstow. J. T. Austen Treffry, owner of both Fowey and Par Consols, established his own relief fund in conjunction with his mines’ adventurers: all his miners whose earnings were not enough to cover their, and their families’ needs, could purchase cheap flour, wheat and barley by means of a ticket system11. At Balleswidden Mine near St Just, tinners coming to grass were presented with a loaf and a bar of soap each12. Presumably, people starve with more dignity if they’re clean.
These efforts weren’t nearly enough. Indeed, “nothing could be looked for through our mining districts but want and riot”13.
The Men of Breage Get Organised
God, keep us from rocks and shifting sands,
And save us from Breage and Germoe mens’ hands.
qtd. in Philip Payton, Cornwall – A History, Cornwall Editions, 1996, p171
As the old nautical prayer above makes clear, the inhabitants of Breage had long enjoyed a certain reputation for lawless derring-do, wrecking and smuggling being their primary interests. In 1847, they turned their attentions inland. Anonymous handbills were posted around the village, calling on local miners to assemble at a certain spot on Saturday, May 22. The reasons for this meeting were unstated and, alas, no copies of the handbill survive. But we do know where the men of Breage were headed for their gathering, and there was a lot of them.
If the handbills in Breage were anonymous, then so was was the tip-off to the authorities in Helston: the miners are coming, get ready. The Mayor, Thomas Rogers, a 55 year-old solicitor residing at Coinagehall Street16, got busy. Fifty soldiers of the 5th Fusiliers were called in from Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, thirty men of the local coastguard were mobilised, and sixty townspeople were deputised as Special Constables. The militia were stationed at the bottom of Sithney Common Hill, and the Constables were covering the Guildhall in Church Street.
Rogers’ sources proved correct. By 11am, 300 miners entered the outskirts of Helston from the west – straight down Sithney Common Hill, where the Redcoats were waiting. Either they had peaceful intentions all along or, alternatively, once the miners caught sight of a well-drilled, musket-wielding platoon, they opted for diplomacy over threat. Flanked by the soldiers, Rogers and a gaggle of magistrates asked the burly incomers to state their business. The miners stated that they, and their families, were starving, many were out of work, and even those in gainful employment could not afford food, as prices were so high: they wanted to know if “something could not be done to help them”17.
The Mayor measured the sincerity of their words, and their appearance. Yes, the miners could enter the town and wait, whilst he and the magistrates discussed what relief could be provided – if any. Rogers assured them that everything possible “should be done to alleviate their distress”, with the proviso that any resolution to violence on the miners’ part to achieve their aims would be folly, as “ample means were at hand to repel any attack they might make”.
Rogers had the whip-hand, and everyone knew it. The miners trudged to Coinagehall Street to await a possible handout. The soldiers stayed where they were.
Hours passed. The men were probably bored, doubtless hungry, and still no word had been forthcoming about any relief. Even taking matters into their own hands, and fixing prices to suit their means at the market, was out of the question, what with the army in town. Frustrations must have boiled over, and a confrontation became inevitable. As if by a signal, at 5pm a huge “uproar” was heard in the street by the Coinage Hall, which brought the Special Constables running and resulted in a free-for-all ruck outside the Mayor’s place of residence. Whilst this was going on (and it lasted for thirty minutes of all-in streetfighting), Helston was rapidly put on lockdown. Shops closed and pubs were emptied. The market was rapidly cleared of stock. Unfounded rumours flew about that people had been shot and killed. Thomas Oliver, a boy in Helston at the time, recalled in 1914 that the miners, now thinned down to a total of around seventy, attacked with shovels and pickaxe handles, and that the soldiers actually refused the order to fire a volley over the rioters’ heads, and that the Mayor read the Riot Act18.
But no contemporary report mentions this, quite the contrary: “The soldiers did not quit the building in which they were stationed”, and blame for the scrap was put down to the “officiousness” of the constables. With both sides battered and bruised, it was the miners who retreated, empty-handed.
Did Rogers eventually provide bread for the miners? No; after all, he’d given them fair warning on the improprieties of rioting. He did, however, ensure the military remained in his town until the 25th, and bumped up his band of Special Constables to a round hundred. Eventually, the Great Work Mine at Breage decided to purchase corn for its workforce – to be sold on to them at a 30% discount.
As for the miners, they probably realised that, if the element of surprise was denied them, a town’s market well-defended, and they encountered a Mayor as wily as Thomas Rogers, there was little they could do. Especially with only three hundred men.
The present season of commercial difficulty ought to unite all classes of the community more firmly together – teach property that it has duties to perform…and labour that it has rights to respect…
“The Anticipated Famine”, Penzance Gazette, June 2, 1847
The above lines may have been written more in hope than expectation. The season of “commercial” difficulty (note the inference here that the problems are linked to business and trade, and that, therefore, is where the readers’ concerns ought to lie), was in fact driving an even bigger wedge between all society’s classes. “Property” was increasingly looking to protect its own interests, and “labour” looking to assert, or perform, their long-held right of marching for food and price-fixing in times of dearth. And so it was to prove in Penzance.
The Mayor of Penzance at the time was Thomas Simon Bolitho (1808-1887), of a powerful family of West Cornwall land-owners, adventurers, and tin-smelters21. He would therefore have had ears in high places, and subterranean ones. Subsequently, rumours had reached him and the town’s authorities over a week previously that the miners of the Breage and Germoe region intended to come to Penzance with what he would have viewed as nefarious purposes on market day – the 27th. This may have given Bolitho little cause for concern; after all, their numbers in Helston had only been a few hundred, and the Mayor there, Rogers, had demonstrated what could be done with a decent show of strength. However, on the 26th he received word that Breage’s forces were to joined with that of the miners from the St Just area, and this represented a far more considerable strain on Bolitho’s resources.
(Also, in an anticipatory move, Penzance men with mining interests had rode out to the mining districts, not to dispense charity, but to attempt to convince the miners of the futility of coming to town on the 27th. The pleas fell on deaf – and hungry – ears.)
The soldiers of the 5th Fusiliers had barely dumped their kitbags on the barrackroom floor at Pendennis Castle when they received yet another order to mobilise against civilians. Captain Simmonds (or Simmons) was again in command, as he had been in Helston. By dawn on the 27th, 60 Redcoats were in Penzance. Bolitho then pressed the coastguard, and a number of sailors, into service. Besides this he also deputised a private army of 200 Special Constables. The shops were shut, taverns closed, and market trade suspended. Bolitho obviously feared the Breage and Germoe mens’ hands. The town of Penzance was now utterly “begloomed”.
From 9am, men “in bodies varying from 50 to 200 in number” began appearing at the town’s outskirts. Two local padres, Fathers Punnet and Graham, met many of these itinerant bands and “expostulated with them, but in vain”. By 11am, 3,000 miners, men, women and children, were at large in Penzance. This total later increased to 5,000, as the hungry of St Just joined forces with the hungry of Breage in the town centre.
These were now tense moments. As the crowd turned down Market Jew Street, it became apparent they were marching into a trap. The soldiers had been stationed “in a position to command from the windows the whole of the principal directions of the heart of the town”: the army was covering the marchers with their muskets from an elevated position. It may have been Capt. Simmonds force, but it was Bolitho’s town: he was the man issuing orders in cahoots with his fellow-magistrates, and managing the forces at his disposal, lest “evil ensue”. He hadn’t looked for this situation, but he can’t have wanted it to end in a bloodbath either. The miners yelled at the sight of the Redcoats grimly scrutinising them from above, the women screamed murder, and the mob’s overall appearance “bespoke fierceness”, but, mercifully, nothing happened.
As at Helston, a rampage of looting was out of the question, if it had even been considered by the majority of the miners. Watched, probably from a safe distance, by fascinated townspeople, a halt was called at Eastern Green. Again, as at Helston, it was decided that a deputation of miners should address Bolitho et al, at the Market House on Market Jew Street. Their purpose was to
…lay their case before them, and to ascertain what they could engage to do to alleviate their condition…
Penzance Gazette, June 2, 1847
And so the negotiations began. In a show of good faith, bread and victuals were distributed amongst the crowd by principal townsmen. Eventually, a deal was hit upon, with both sides apparently getting what they wanted. The miners would leave Penzance in a peaceful manner (and with the militia in town, this was something akin to gunboat diplomacy by the town authorities), and the town council would “use their utmost exertions” to secure a supply of barley, distributing said supply to the mining districts for sale at a reduced rate. With their stomachs full (or no longer empty), the crowd dispersed. Peacefully.
Well, not quite. A group of miners stole away from the main body, having heard that corn had been concealed in a nearby warehouse; they found nothing. This same shadowy group then attempted to force the doors of the prison, on Old Brewery Yard, suspecting corn to be hidden there too. However, lacking sufficient resolve (and doubtless mindful of the close proximity of the army), this attempt at breaking and entering was aborted.
Reports state, with some relief, that “no violence…was resorted to” that day in Penzance. Matters had been attended to without serious incident, and supplies would soon be winging their way to the mining districts, courtesy of the town’s authorities.
But such arrangements take time. The bushels would only begin to arrive in the inflicted areas from June 5. For many, this was simply not fast enough. For many strickened families, even buying food at reduced rates was frankly no longer an option. And many therefore decided that sitting tight in their squat cottages waiting for good news was no longer feasible. Talk, and plans, for a longer march, further east, must have been discussed. As would have been what the intentions were on reaching the proposed destination.
Part three of the Cornish Food Riots can be read via the link below :
Royal Cornwall Gazette (hereafter RCG), May 14, 1847, p2.
RCG, March 19, 1847, p4. More secular, hard-nosed and politically minded views of the causes of dearth laid much of the blame at the door of Government policy: RCG, 22 January, 1847, p2, and June 25, 1847, p2.
See The King of Mid Cornwall: Life of Joseph Thomas Treffry, 1782-1850, by John Keast, Truran, 1982, Chapter 9. I am grateful to Caroline Stephenson for showing me this. A copy of the handbill outlining the proposed relief scheme Treffry issued in his name can be seen in RCG, 21 May 1847, p2.