Hellfire Corner: Redruth: The Cornish Food Riots, Part Four

Reading time: 20 minutes

Peaceful demonstration of 600 miners, men, women and children, against the stopping of Wheal Agar Engine, April 1889. Photo by James Chenhalls1

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.

The London Hotel, Fore Street. With thanks to Ralph Elcox

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.

The Parley

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.

…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.

Pednandrea

The Stack, Pednandrea Mine, Redruth6

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.

Warmington’s Stores

The Wesleyan Chapel, Higher Fore St, Redruth. Warmington’s Stores were nearby

…all the flour-merchants were rogues of the first order…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9 1847, p1

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.)

A grinding-stone, such as that employed by William Francis

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.

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…

Higher Fore Street, 1898. Courtesy of Francis Frith

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.

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

…raking cross-fire…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, June 11 1847, p2.

Analysis

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

The Aftermath

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.

Shire Hall, Mount Folly Square, Bodmin. The Midsummer Sessions were held here in 1847. From Wikipedia

…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.

Criminal Registration Records, Cornwall, 1847. All those convicted for their involvement in the Pool and Redruth riots are listed20

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.

William Francis’ burial record21
Newgate Calendar image of the Justitia prison hulk. Conditions aboard these vessels were horrifying
George Stapleton’s grave, Toowong Cemetary

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.

Next Sunday, February 6th: the final part of The Cornish Food Riots of 1847:

Trouble in Clay Country: St Austell

Thanks for reading

References

6 thoughts on “Hellfire Corner: Redruth: The Cornish Food Riots, Part Four

  1. Found this very interesting as my ancestors came from illogan, my 3rd great grandmother Elizabeth wills born in January 1802 and moved to Rushden northants to work in service , daughter of Richard Wills and Susannah Scoble Richard wills passed away in 1839

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  2. Absolutely mind blowing. I’ll say it again,why aren’t we taught this at school? This is our Cornish history. Cornwall has been too diluted over the years and therefore our Cornish status has been diminished
    .

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  3. Joseph Harris -a special constable mentioned in your article was my third great grandfather. He was a farmer/butcher/ money lender. There are later reports in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of several robberies at his property. He was also prominent in the establishment of the Fore Street Methodist Chapel.

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