Commotion Time: Pool, June 4, 1847: The Cornish Food Riots, Part Three

The Riot Act. Under the laws of the time, anyone arrested an hour after its reading could face transportation for life. Image from Wikiwand

If the whispers were true, Magor and Davey must have realised their town was facing difficulties. After all, a crowd of 5,000 was estimated to have been in Penzance: we can be sure this was a total that would have increased with the telling. Redruth had no police force: the Cornwall County Constabulary would not be formed for another ten years. The maintaining of law and order was normally entrusted to four Parish Officers: George Hicks, Robert Ford, William Nicholls, and John Lander, none of whom were full-time (for example, Lander worked as a grocer). Hastily, Special Constables, all prominent townspeople (and not miners or the rank-and-file), were sworn in. There was a draper, a butcher, and an auctioneer; we do not know the total number of deputised men, the ‘papers only name a half-dozen. Whatever the size of their ranks, they were obviously going to be badly outnumbered, and Magor and Davey were taking no chances. A messenger was sent to Penzance, where the military were still present. Sixty troops of the 5th Fusiliers were mobilised, and marched from Penzance to Hayle, where a chartered train conveyed them the last few miles to Redruth, and they were stationed at West End. (In command, as at Helston and Penzance, was Captain Simmonds.) Forty Pensioners were also pressed into service, their base being what was then the Vestry Room on Falmouth Rd. These hundred or so armed men were in position by the morning of the 4th. Even the coastguard was on standby.

West End, Redruth
The old Vestry Room, Falmouth Rd, Redruth. In 1893 it became the town’s first fire station

Shops were boarded up. Women hustled their brats inside. Market-traders, especially the butchers, discretely removed their goods (and themselves) from harm’s way. Somewhere, two thousand people from the West were coming. They’d been kicked out of Helston, and received a little relief in Penzance. An army marches on its stomach – or on desperation.

The junction of Trevenson Rd, Church Rd, Agar Rd and Station Rd, Pool

…you raise your flour, and we don’t tell you when to raise it, and why won’t you fall it?

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9, 1847, p4

Then all hell broke loose.

Pool, early 1900s. Courtesy of Carn Brea Parish Council12

The militia were rapidly mobilised from Redruth, Pensioners and Special Constables complimenting the detachment of regular soldiers. Magor also rode in on horseback. The troops stood to attention outside Blamey’s now rather sorry-looking place of business, whilst Magor, with a duty befitting his station, read the Riot Act. Under the Punishment of Offences Act of 1837, the crowd now had an hour to peacefully disperse. Anyone remaining at the scene after the expiration of that time, if arrested, could be transported for life.

Dispersing peacefully is one thing; dispersing peacefully after a raid on a corn-factor’s store whilst carrying the fruits of your labour is another matter altogether. Prudence Thomas, still lugging her apron of flour but also now brandishing a large wooden paddle, threatened to ram it into the teeth of one Special Constable if he didn’t back off. Even as Magor had finished reading the Riot Act and was officiously folding the manuscript back into his pocket, Ann Roberts, 45, narrowly sidestepped his mount in her bid to get away with her own basket of flour. Scores of other people must have been making similar sharp exits.

For example, a Parish Constable called William Nicholls was coming out of Pool towards Illogan Highway, when he apprehended Thomas Medlin (or Medlen) and William Dodson, both men carrying what must have been a suspicious quantity of flour. Nicholls manhandled the men and secured them in the Account House at Wheal Agar, but not for long.

East Pool and Agar Mine

Over a hundred men, one of whom was William Osborne, quickly materialised, and demanded of Nicholls that he release their comrades, or,

…d__n your eyes, we will tear the account-house down…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9, 1847, p4

Nicholls said he would do no such thing, and was then subjected to a brutal assault. He was punched, stoned, and finally battered with a shovel, this last item eventually being flung through the windows of the Account House to release Medlin and Dodson. Nicholls staggered off, the cries and insults of Osborne and his cohorts ringing in his ears. Medlin and Dodson were never recaptured – and neither was their flour.

They were lucky. One by one, those prominent in the Pool raid were rounded up. Anonymous faces from out of town escaped with relative ease; it was the locals whom the Constables could readily identify that were in most danger of arrest. They were held at Bodmin Jail awaiting trial, which wasn’t until early July.

Crime and Punishment

A Bodmin Gaol cell. Image courtesy Jackie Freeman13

William Osborne, Stephen Bennetts, Prudence Thomas, Ann Roberts and Mary Ann Craze were all tried at the same Midsummer Sessions as those who had fallen foul of the law at Redruth. As we shall see, the manner of their indictment was the same as that inflicted upon their Redruth comrades. Put bluntly, the authorities wanted to show those in the dock that

…the laws of England are stronger than brute force.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9, 1847, p4

At Bodmin Gaol in the 1840s, hard labour often meant several hours every day on the treadmill, or convict breaker. It could accommodate 26 prisoners at a time and its only purpose was to physically and mentally break its victims, which it often did. The sheer pointlessness of their extreme exertions drove many to nervous breakdowns.

Several prisoners hold onto a bar and walk on a long treadmill at the Brixton House of Correction. Image by © CORBIS16

But the commotion time of June 4, 1847, was not over yet.

Here’s part four of the Cornish Food Riots of 1847:

Hellfire Corner: Redruth, June 4, 1847

Thanks for reading


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