4pm, June 4, 1847. Things were getting ugly. The majority of the crowd may not have had time to help themselves to Blamey’s provisions in Pool, and this, combined with the elation of a successful raid, emboldened them to march into the by-now forewarned and fortified town of Redruth3.
A crowd estimated to be somewhere in the size of 5,000 men, women, and children marched up Illogan Highway, through Blowinghouse, and on to Fore Street, Redruth. Here, with some complacency, the grocers’ stalls had been set up for market day, and one can only imagine the consternation felt amongst the traders as the restless mob came amongst them, demanding fair prices. No deal could be met, and somehow the grocers were passed over unscathed.
No such leniency was dealt the butchers, however. A few had been unwise enough to remain in Redruth. Either the mob elected spokesmen to barter, or simply bellowed intimidating cries, but the miners made what was later described as a “ruinous demand”4 of the butchers, to sell them their meat for a pittance. On the flat refusal of this offer, fights rapidly broke out, the stalls were upended on to the street, and the butchers as a whole suffered vicious assaults. One man, for example, had his face sliced open with one of the tools of his trade. Redruth’s most prominent magistrate that day, John Penberthy Magor, reprised his earlier role in Pool and made an attempt to read the Riot Act, but found it impossible. The swell of bodies in the Market Place was too much, and, after all, the riot was already happening.
Magor, with a couple of panicky magistrates, had no option but to retreat, and dashed to the London Hotel on Fore Street. Here, breathless and besieged, Magor finally read the Riot Act from an upstairs window, and made various, largely-unheeded pleas to the hordes below on the consequences of their actions. Some vestiges of caution on the miners’ part must have remained, though, and it was agreed that the demands of the crowd be voiced to the hemmed-in Magor by two delegates.
These negotiations may, by now, have become largely ritualistic, with neither side entirely believing the sincerity of the others’ words, but both having to observe the tradition for form’s sake. The miners could therefore justify their recourse to riot if the discussions went sour (they lied to us, brothers, what are we to do now?), and the authorities could later say they listened to the crowd’s demands in a civilised manner, and could also later claim bad faith on the part of the miners if disturbances broke out (we said, these things take time…their demands were unreasonable…), and force was required.
In any case, in Redruth the crowd’s two diplomats were Abraham Trevethan, of Consolidated Mines St Day (but appears to have lived in Salem, near Chacewater5), and William Williams, a bullock-jobber, or dealer, from Gwennap. The plight of the majority of the crowd and, indeed, the labouring classes of Cornwall, is suggested from the recording of the conversation between them, Magor, and his fellow magistrates. It was very hard, said Williams, that
…the men could not have animal food…
Royal Cornwall Gazette, June 11 1847, p2
as they would offer 4p/lb for it. Was the situation now so desperate people were contemplating the consumption of fodder? Or was it merely Williams, a trader in livestock, showing concern for his animals? This is unclear. What is apparent is that even this offer for sustenance, for either man or beast, was refused, and Magor patronisingly took the moral high-ground, arguing that Williams, as a bull-trader, should slaughter his own stock and sell it to his comrades at 4p/lb! Furthermore, Magor continued,
…don’t you think the same observation would hold good with regard to flour?
Royal Cornwall Gazette, June 11 1847, p2
The way Magor saw it, to slash the price of one foodstuff set the precedent for the cost of other goods to be drastically reduced also. Or perhaps he just didn’t like a couple of plebs telling him what he ought to do. Magor probably held true to the opinion of Mr John King Lethbridge of Launceston, Chairman of the Magistrate at the Midsummer Sessions held in July of that year. Dearth, he opined, was
the Act of God, who, for reasons to themselves inscrutable, had thus afflicted them…the duty of man was, submission to the Divine Will…
Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 2 1847, p2
Try telling that to a man who was possibly considering eating animal feed.
Clearly, both sides were intractable, and many pacing impatiently outside The London Hotel must have realised this even before the unsatisfactory conclusion of the discussions. Of the thousands in the street, fifty or so slipped away to Pednandrea, where a flour-merchant was said to keep stores. On forcing entry, though, all they found was a consignment of fertilizer – guano.
We can imagine their disappointment, even their raucous disgust. All this way, for a shed full of bird shit. James Jewell, 19, from Crowan6, who had been out of work for the last ten weeks (though he claimed in court to have been on shift when the mob arrived in Redruth), was one of those present in Fore Street. He may have been one of those who tried their luck at Pednandrea, and possibly had been to Pool, or Helston, or Penzance. He was certainly involved with what happened next.
5pm. If Magor had read the Riot Act some time after 4pm, the hour’s grace granted the crowd to disperse was rapidly running out. Under the Punishment of Offences Act of 1837, anyone at large after the expiration of an hour after the pronouncing of the said Act, was liable to be transported for life.
The party that had been unsuccessful at Pednandrea returned to Fore Street, yet all was not lost. From the crowd of several thousands, many hundreds decided to visit the stores of William Warmington, situated near the Wesleyan Chapel on Higher Fore Street. James Jewell was among them, as was George Stapleton from Gwinear, William Francis from Gwennap, and John Jones, from North Country6. All were in their late teens, or very early twenties. They, like the others around them, were also destitute and starving, and told William Warmington (who met the marchers in the street) in no uncertain terms that
…all the flour-merchants were rogues of the first order…
Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9 1847, p1
Clearly, there was going to be no delegation, or polite bartering. The crowd made a token demand of Warmington to sell his stock to them at what was little more than daylight robbery. Warmington flatly refused, which is probably what the crowd had been hoping for. Jewell and Jones, foremost in the crush, swore an oath that there was flour to be had, and that they would have it, Jewell remarking he’d be “d____d”9 if he went away empty-handed.
What happened next ensured he didn’t.
Suddenly a large body of around fifty men and women pulled a ladder free from a nearby wall and proceeded to employ it as a battering ram, charging on and on to cheers and shouts of encouragement. Eventually the big double-doors of Warmington’s warehouse were reduced to kindling. Women swarmed through the gaping entrance – the only person running in the opposite direction was Warmington himself. Stapleton elected to take on sentry duty, arming himself with a hefty piece of two-by-four for the purpose, whilst inside women took on the business of liberating the stores, emerging plastered in flour, their aprons and bags bulging.
Redruth’s Special Constables, with Magor at their head, weren’t about to stand idly by. They sprinted across town to the scene of the looting and made straight for the entrance to Warmington’s. There, braced by the door, was Stapleton who, although he gave as good as he got, was overpowered and relieved of his weapon, receiving several lusty blows for his trouble. (Stapleton, in court, denied he was ever there.) The Constables then surged through and endeavoured to clear the warehouse of its invaders. Mary Tippett, a lady in her fifties, was rapidly turfed out, but slipped in yet again and filled her basket. One Constable, John Lanyon, cracked her one over her hands with his tipstaff as she was leaving; Tippett screamed murder and immediately received some able assistance. Lanyon was dragged off her and coshed out by a blow to the head, then kicked and stoned as he lay prone.
In fact, stones and various missiles were now being hurled at the constables and magistrates with regular abandon. The authority figures might have claimed they were re-taking possession of Warmington’s; their tormentors, on the other hand, might justifiably claim they were retreating inside under a shower of rocks and broken glass. One of those under siege was John Rogers, a local auctioneer who had been deputised for the day. He and his fellow-constables ran upstairs, assisting a groggy Magor who himself had been struck by a stone. They were relieved to locate a rear window and, one by one, all leapt 15 feet to freedom and the ground below. Or so they hoped. Rogers, on hitting the earth, was dragged to his feet by none other than George Stapleton, who then knocked him down with his fists, to yet more cheering. (Stapleton was later to deny this too.)
Somehow, the doors of Warmington’s had been secured, but not for long. William Francis, with a cry of “stop throwing stones a minute”10, seemingly conjured up from nowhere a grinding-stone of about a foot in diameter, and with some good manly swings, gained entrance to the stores once more. (The stone was later exhibited in court.) Jane Trengove, in her late forties, was obliged to ask two young lads to assist her in carrying off her swag of flour. She needed at least one hand free to heave a rock described as bigger than “two fists”11 at Mr Darke, another deputy (who was also later the prosecuting lawyer at the rioters’ trial). Her aim was true, and Darke was felled, blood streaming from his face.
Maria Floyd, 29, plastered in flour and her apron bulging, needed the intercession of her husband to warn off an approaching Constable, Joseph Harris:
Let her go; she has worked hard enough for it…
Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9 1847, p1
Harris, viewing the carnage about him, sensibly complied.
All the while, John Jones had remained outside, directing affairs and later described as “quite the ringleader”, telling all who would listen that “we’ll have the flour in the stores”12. It was later determined that 10 sacks of flour to the value of £20, 1,000lb of loose flour (£20), 10 hemp sacks (£1), and ten ordinary sacks (£1), had been removed13.
Magor, having had a most undignified exit from the scene of the looting, must have taken recovery of his senses. The Riot Act had been read over an hour ago. Enough was enough.
…a raking cross-fire…
By 6pm, the military were present in Higher Fore Street. Stapleton and Francis were rapidly identified and told to go home and await a summons, but many, with their improvised cargoes of flour, melted away. One of those who slipped through the thin red line was James Jewell.
(Over the next few days, quantities of flour began appearing around Redruth. 30lbs was discovered in the house of a teenager, John Williams, and he was arrested14.)
The militia didn’t just round up the principal figures of the disturbance. Under Simmonds’ orders, and, with the Pensioners, the Redcoats quickly surrounded the thousands of civilians still present in Higher Fore Street. They then took up elevated positions, from all angles, to thus enable a
Royal Cornwall Gazette, June 11 1847, p2.
on the multitude below. This wasn’t like Penzance, where the military presence had been a flex of muscle from the authorities. Those on the ground in Higher Fore Street were now seriously in harm’s way. It was later alleged in reports that the ringleaders in the tumult remained to the rear of the crowd, using women and children as protection. True or not, these were tense hours. Higher Fore Street is a relatively narrow thoroughfare; had the order to fire been given, there would have doubtless been a slaughter of many hundreds. History books would perhaps touch on ‘The Redruth Massacre’ as well as The Peterloo Massacre, when describing instances of the British Army killing civilians15. Mercifully, though, no shots were fired. The soldiers looked on from under their helmets, and the crowd insulted them as best they could, before eventually returning to their respective villages and homes between 9 and 10pm. The later reports praised the forbearance and restraint on the part of the military and authorities. The people in the crowd, however, were condescendingly, and patronisingly, described as “misguided fellow-creatures”16. And who, exactly, was ‘misguiding’ them? The way many individuals involved that long-ago day saw it, taking food by force was the only recourse left to them. Begging and bargaining had failed. Riot and looting was part of a time-honoured progression.
The above attitudes of the authorities are echoed in one of the very few articles on the Riots, written by Ashley Rowe in 1942. In his view,
The miners were in the wrong…the inhabitants generally did their duty as good citizens; and…the magistrates nobly upheld the great traditions of those charged with the maintenance of the King’s Peace.
Report of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, Vol 10, 1942, p67
Of course, Rowe’s conclusion is shaped by the wartime context in which he wrote; it exudes the values of patriotism and paternalism. His analysis takes the newspaper reports at their face-value, indeed even echoes them. However, put in the framework of the moral economy of the Cornish crowd, as originally propounded by John Rule17, we can see the situation was rather more complex and nuanced than just, merely, authorities = good, miners = bad. Besides making miners interchangeable with ‘rioters’, what “great traditions” did Rowe believe the authorities upheld in keeping the peace? In short, what happened next?
The militia were to remain in Redruth until “after harvest”18; pubs remained closed for another day after the disturbance. Food was increasingly scarce in the area: many merchants deigned not to sell their goods in an unsafe area (ie an area unsafe for them), and the market of Tuesday June 8 was reportedly barren. A cargo of flour, docked at Portreath for distribution to the district, hauled anchor for safer waters, exacerbating the shortages and increasing prices.
George Stapleton was arrested on June 10th. By the next day, a Friday, over a hundred of his fellow miners from Tincroft and Carn Brea had assembled in Tuckingmill, demanding his release or they would sink the shafts. This bravado was short-lived, and futile. The army was only a couple of miles up the road.
The trial, on July 1, lasted nine hours. Stapleton, James Jewell, and John Williams were undefended, and though they received assistance, were largely left to speak for themselves. With them in the dock were John Jones, Mary Tippett, Jane Trengove, Maria Floyd, and William Francis. All were indicted for the breaking and entering of Warmington’s stores, yet were acquitted of the charge of rioting18. It was the (successful) argument of the prosecution to prove that
…every one siding, abetting, or assisting in the commission of the offence, was as guilty as the person who actually took out and carried off the stores.
Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9 July 1847, p1
The punishments meted out were, therefore, a warning
…to the peaceably disposed, to abstain from being even present at riotous assemblages of people.
Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9 July 1847, p4
Someone was going to be made an example of.
John Jones: nine months hard labour. Maria Floyd, Mary Tippett, and Jane Trengove: three months hard labour. John Williams: one month hard labour19.
George Stapleton and William Francis, both prominent in the tumult, were both given seven years transportation. They never saw Cornwall again.
Francis arrived in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, in June 1849. He worked in the bush until 1858, but seems to have been paralysed in some way after this date and spent time in hospital. He died in 1869, aged 46, and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum Cemetary, Redland City, Queensland.
George Stapleton was held for a time in the prison hulk Justitia, near Woolwich, arriving in Moreton Bay in 1850. He was shortly granted a ticket of leave, and married Ellen Wallace in 1853. They had nine children. Stapleton died in 1903, and is buried in the Toowong Cemetary, Brisbane22.
But what of James Jewell? Though he was convicted at the same trial as Stapleton and Francis, he was not initially captured…
With special thanks to Vicky Watt, Nostalgic Redruth, Tracey Evans, Australian Genealogy, and Ian Stapleton, a Cornish relative of George Stapleton.
Here’s the final two parts of The Cornish Food Riots of 1847: