Rise of the Miners: The Food Riots of 1847, Part Two

Reading time: 20 minutes

Cornish miners in California, on their croust break. From Cornwall Forever. Many emigrated as a consequence of the dearth of 1847. Standing, left, is Richard Harry, Captain of New Alamaden Quicksilver Mine, near San Francisco. With thanks to his great-granddaughter, Kitty Quayle

…Compell them to sell their corn…at a fair and reasonable Price…march one and all with determined Hearts and Hands to have redress – or vengeance…

Anonymous handbill advertising a march for food, Stratton, 1795. From John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006, p50. No miners’ handbills from 1847 have survived

Cornwall, May-June 1847. Locations of unrest, relief, and organisation are marked

Hard Times

…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

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

Holmbush Mine, Callington3

…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


The engine house and crusher supports, Polberro Consols, St Agnes. Image reproduced courtesy of Simon Jones, Cornish Mine Images (www.cornishmineimages.co.uk)

The Men of Breage Get Organised

Underground at Wheal Vor, Breage14

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.

Helston, May 22, 1847

The foot of Sithney Common Hill, Helston
The Guildhall, Church St, Helston

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.

The Coinage Hall, in its modern incarnation

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.

Penzance would be different.

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.

Thomas Simon Bolitho, Mayor of Penzance. Photograph by Camille Silvy, 1862. National Portrait Gallery, NPG Ax5738020

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.

Market Jew Street

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.

Eastern Green

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
The old Market House, Penzance

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.

Thanks for reading


6 thoughts on “Rise of the Miners: The Food Riots of 1847, Part Two

  1. Didn’t know any of this, it’s absolutely amazing reading about our history, but why isn’t it taught in schools?


  2. I am currently researching details on my great great grandfather Matthew Paul Moyle who was born in Cornwall in 1820 and died on 8 June 1909 at Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia…….Dearly love to know if he came to Australia as a result of the 1847 Food Riots?


    1. Hi Trevor, thanks for the interest. Alas, the only names of the rioters that have come down to us are the ones that were later caught and arrested, and there’s nobody by the surname of Moyle that turns up. Sorry! Of course, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved, or indeed did emigrate as a result of the dearth. Lots of Cornish people emigrated at around this time. Have you contacted the Australian Genealogy Facebook Page? They’re very helpful. Stay tuned for more posts, regards, Francis


  3. I am looking for information on my great great grandfather who allegedly killed a “policeman” in a tin mine riot. The story we heard suggests he pulled a policeman of his horse, during a food riot, killed him.Then, with his son, who witnessed the event, made his escape. His name was William or Joseph Perratt. (Spelling uncertain) We have an Ambrotype glass photo of him.


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