Trouble in Clay Country: The Food Riots of 1847, Part Five

Reading time: 20 minutes

Striking Miners, Clay Country, 19131

The evil disposed2

Charlestown United and Bucklers Mines, St Austell, have long vanished from the face of the earth. There’s now a kitchen furniture dealership and various other businesses on Bucklers Lane, Boscoppa, near the old location of the mines. Back in 1847, though, these workings were a ferment of unrest. On the morning of June 11, the Captain of Bucklers, Hancock, became aware that some of his men had “risen”3, and by that he didn’t mean coming to grass at the end of their shift. Approaching an open shaft, he came upon around 30-40 men, led by Charles Faull, 25, of Treleavens Cross, and Richard Kestall (or Kestell, or Kestle), 28, of Crantock4.

Both Faull and Kestall were said to be earning good wages at a prosperous mine, but, as they had heard the price of bread had yet again risen in St Austell,

…it was no use for them to work any more…

The Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p1

They, and their mining colleagues, were going to town to put matters right. They were also going to get reinforcements from among the men of the poorer-off clay works. These were two things Hancock found difficult to understand. What business would you have with them, he asked, for they are

…poor men [who] are differently situated from what you are, with the wages you are getting.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p1

But the miners were not to be talked down, and became increasingly impassioned, with Kestall telling Hancock that

…we’ll go in and rob the shops and shove the b_____s in the common sewer…

The Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4
St Austell, 1835. Courtesy of Barry West, St Austell History Group

A short while later, Kestall and Faull, their band now numbering over two hundred, arrived at the Blue Barrow Clay Works. They used persuasion and a bit of force to commandeer 24 of the 30 men on shift that day at Blue Barrow. This ever-burgeoning force was the “evil disposed” and their “poor dupes” who “intended interference” at St Austell market5.

Parley? What parley?

There was to be little in the way of negotiating prices, or bartering with the authorities. Whereas, in previous disturbances, looting was a last resort, those who had heard what the miners were about that day in St Austell plainly came to town expecting “meditated plunder”6. Local women, to the “disgrace of their sex”7, walked the streets laden with baskets and containers of any stripe, in gleeful anticipation of some pillaging. They certainly encouraged their male counterparts to action, and were as conspicuous throughout the events as the miners.

2pm. 3,000 people are in the town centre, with an estimated hard core of 300 rioters. The tradespeople, as we have seen previously, did what tradespeople are wont to at any sign of people marching for food: they shut up shop, with the flour merchants and butchers to the fore.

Nonetheless, with the situation deteriorating, various minor incidents broke out. At Hannah Rowe’s bakery, going towards the old West Turnpike from Fore Street8, a swarthy band of individuals armed with a pick-hilt entered, demanding loaves and throwing bread to the crowd outside. Undeterred, Rowe slung the ringleader out on his ear, he threatening to “scat her brains out”9. John Badge, a flour merchant on Fore Street proper, had a menacing visit from William Bunt, 46, a blacksmith at Bucklers Mine10. When Badge flatly refused Bunt’s demand that he sell his flour cheaply, he was told that “you’ll be the next we come to”11.

Bunt left, with the threat hanging in the air. Badge rapidly put his shutters up, and doubtless had a worrying few hours.

All of which begs the question: where were the authorities?

Enter Nicholas Kendall

British (English) School; Nicholas Kendall (b.1800); Royal Institution of Cornwall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/nicholas-kendall-b-1800-14110

In fact, the authorities knew the miners were rising not long after Kestall and Faull marched out of Bucklers Mine. The High Sheriff of Cornwall, Nicholas Kendall (1800-1878), of Lanlivery, received word and was in St Austell before lunchtime. Kendall was also Conservative MP for East Cornwall, a County Magistrate, and also a Captain of the Royal Rangers Militia12. He was also, it must be said, a man of no little physical courage and resolve. Even when you strip away the somewhat fawning eulogies he received in the wake of the events, there’s little doubt his industry and purpose ensured there was to be no repeats of what had happened in Pool and Redruth. The magistrate in Redruth, Magor, had had days to prepare for a mob of several thousands to march into the town, and matters there still degenerated into a full-on riot. Kendall, by contrast, had hours.

It was all he needed. By 1-2pm, with fellow magistrates Sir Joseph Sawle and Thomas Hext, Kendall had rustled up 55 soldiers of the 5th Fusiliers from Bodmin, mobilised the Coastguard, and deputised 30 Special Constables. Although the Redcoats had been observed marching toward St Austell, once present in the town they did not, for the time being, “show themselves”13. Kendall possibly wanted some element of surprise.

St Austell Town Hall and Market House, Market Square, erected in 184414

Setting up base in the new Town Hall, Kendall was soon informed of a disturbance by his Under Sheriff, Thomas Coode, of Pondhu House. Coode’s residence provided a suitable vantage point from which to observe the throng below, and what they saw was not promising. A crowd of four hundred, many brandishing sticks of “an enormous size”15, were crying out that they were headed for “Warne’s Mills”16, and dashed off in that direction. Kendall and Coode, realising, too late, that the soldiers were too distant to be deployed effectively, sprinted out of Pondhu House in hot pursuit.

Warne’s Mills

Carthew Mill, north of St Austell, which dates from 1837. Warne’s Mills has vanished. Photograph by Martin Bodman

In the crowd of miners and clay-workers was Joseph Hore, 35, a man with a “peculiar eye”17, a feature which counted against him later, and Matthew Roberts, 21, from St Breward18. They, and their fellow-looters, rifled a few shops en route to the mill and, once arrived, took to the doors of that building with boots, pick-hilts, and whatever came to hand.

It’s important to note that, at this point, there had been no delegates nominated, to address the town’s authorities and/or merchants as to the crowd’s demands. All pretence toward diplomacy had, for the time being, been suspended. It was down to Kendall to restore it.

Mounting a wall, whilst the horde below him hacked, sweated and swore at the entrance to Warne’s Mills, he addressed them, later stating that:

…under ordinary circumstances nothing would induce me to hold a parley…but as I knew there was great distress in the country I would gladly hear all they had to say…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4

He advised they send a deputation and, after some grumbling, Kendall was told he could expect their demands in an hour’s time, back at the Town Hall. (The doors of Warne’s Mills were obviously pretty impregnable, and the men were getting nowhere with them; if they’d forced entry, there would have been no deputation.) In the interim, Kendall warned them not to “keep up a row during that time”19, or else, of course, all bets were off.

The Town Hall

No sooner had Kendall and Coode returned to the Town Hall, hoping to have bought some time, when they were alerted to news of yet more looting close by. Again, Kendall chose to go with minimal back up: this time, he had one Special Constable with him, a civilian sworn in hours earlier, to go and pacify who knows what mayhem.

It was a mistake that could have cost him. As he spoke to the looters in rather schoolmasterly tones, ordering them to disperse “in the Queen’s name”20, the miners turned and, in his words, several “squared up” to him, raising their sticks to put one through his jaw21.

Maybe Kendall flinched; I doubt it. In the nick of time, a force of several Constables arrived, and a scuffle ensued. Two rioters were rapidly disarmed, clobbered, and dragged off to the nearby clink, which in those days was situated in the Town Hall. Matthew Roberts then made a dash for Kendall, drawing back his own cudgel for a hardy swipe but, to his amazement, Kendall himself squared up to the man, grabbed him by the throat, sneered “how dare you”22 into Roberts’ face, and threw him off to one side, for another Constable to deal with. Coolly wiping his hands, Kendall returned indoors to meet the delegation.

Stalled negotiations

Kendall was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and after the set-to outside the Town Hall, his blood must have been up. The delegates got short shrift, being told that lowering the price of corn was “perfectly impossible”, under the current circumstances. Corn was so scarce, he lectured, that

…we ought to be obliged to the persons who would bring us corn in this neighbourhood at any price…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4

Which is all well and good, if you can afford it.

He then went on to echo the earlier opinions of the Captain of Bucklers Mine, that the most riotous that day were actually more affluent than the more peaceably-minded. Kendall believed their motivations to march for food and riot were therefore wholly spurious, and driven more by a desire for general anarchy than any genuine need. He did, however, promise to call a meeting with Sir Joseph Sawle with a view to setting up a subscription fund for the town and outlying areas. This was agreed on, but when the spokesmen demanded the immediate release of those taken prisoner, they provoked Kendall’s ire:

…you mistake your position; I am the commander, and not to be commanded…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4

Faces in the crowd

Market Square, St Austell, 1800s23

But the crowds outside hadn’t heard Kendall’s stern words as regards the prisoners. When he went forth yet again to address them on the outcome of the negotiations, the hundreds in Market Square yet again demanded their release. Kendall must have surveyed his barrackers with mounting frustration.

There was that man Hore again, with his distinctive eye. And there was Philip Matthews, 27, a labourer from the Penhale Clay Works, with his mate, 22 year-old John Payne (or Paine), from Tresayes. Kendall spoke to William Bunt, who had earlier threatened John Badge, telling him to get off home before things got serious. Bunt’s reply stayed with him:

It as well to be shot as starved.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4

Near to where Kendall was standing was John Cock, 28, from Western Hill24. Shouting over Kendall, he warned anyone who would listen that

…if you meddle with us, it will be death to every one of you; we will have life for life, and blood for blood.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 6 August 1847, p4

This line upstaged Kendall, and Cock was cheered to the rafters.

Obviously, the miners were spoiling for a fight, and there was much more big talk from big men circling the Town Hall that afternoon. One man who was advised to discard his weapon replied in the negative, for “by and bye it may be useful”25. Another recorded statement was that “we are prepared to die, we may as well go now as at another time”26. William Hancock, a 24 year-old from Broadlane, Roche27, told Under Sheriff Coode that force would be met with force.

Really, it all boiled down to who had the biggest fists.

And that was Nicholas Kendall.

Bayonet point

A Barnett London Brunswick Rifle, with bayonet. The British Army’s rifle in the 1840s

“I have done”, Kendall later remarked, “that which I would have given hundreds of pounds not to have done – I have read the Riot Act”28. Remorseful or not, he read it in front of the Town Hall, and within minutes, the militia had the crowd surrounded. Coode announced that the soldiers had already loaded and primed their muskets, and had further received orders to fire into the crowd, rather than over their heads.

If this was bluff, nobody, for all the fine speeches earlier, was prepared to call it.

With bayonets fixed, and doubtless a few fingers on triggers, the streets of St Austell were cleared, people rushing ahead of the Redcoats’ deadly march. Kendall was still active even here, identifying key malcontents for further investigation.

One of these was William Tellam, 27, from Carnsmerry, whom we’ve met before29. In Wadebridge on May 12th, Tellam had been identified as one of a group that had brutally assaulted Edward Stephens, a local magistrate, during a food riot. He must have been one of many hundreds, if not thousands, to be have present at more than one disturbance in 1847 – he was just one of those unfortunate enough to have been caught.

The aftermath

At the Bodmin Summer Assizes of 28 July, the rioters were damned, for choosing to disturb the peace “to a most outrageous degree”, and exploiting the famine “which did not bear upon you as it did upon others”30. Kendall, by contrast, was feted as a hero, by the authorities and citizens of St Austell alike. He’d saved the day, uniting “kindness and forbearance with a proper manly firmness”31. He also kept his word, chairing a meeting at the Town Hall on the Monday to organise a relief. Invited to attend were St Austell’s principal residents, magistrates, and the neighbourhood’s mine owners and adventurers.

No miners or clayworkers were invited. In other words, those most in need of aid were denied a voice. Martin Luther King once said, “riot is the language of the unheard”32. Riot, they did. But still nobody listened.

Instead, several rioters were imprisoned.

England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, County Assizes, 28 July 1847. From Ancestry. The names of those acquitted are Richard Webb, Elias Newcombe, William Osborne, Richard Julyan, John Bennetts, and Jacob Hancock. William Tellam’s sentence is on the next page

For “riot and assault” (see image above), Charles Faull and Richard Kestall both received two years hard labour. Matthew Roberts and John Cock, 18 months hard labour. William Hancock, 12 months hard labour. John Payne and Philip Matthews, 6 months hard labour. William Tellam was sentenced to nine months for his involvement in the St Austell riot, and a further 18 months for the assault on Stephens at Wadebridge – with hard labour.

The outbreak at St Austell was the final food riot of 1847. The now numerous – if belated – relief funds throughout Cornwall, combined with a bountiful harvest and “flourishing” crops33, meant that the scenes of violence and desperation seen in many major Cornish towns, finally ceased.

Of course, these were not the final food riots to have ever taken place in Cornwall. That accolade perhaps belongs to the events in Redruth, in 1920. But I’ll tell you all about that some other time…

Afterword: The Making of the Cornish Working Class?34

Whilst researching the Cornish Food Riots of 1847, two questions occurred to me. The first was, could these events, as a whole, be taken as a general Cornish insurrection or uprising, to rival those of 1497, or 1549?

The answer, obviously, was no. No army of rebels marched on London, with discontented noblemen at their head. Nobody was shot. No Cornish people, to my knowledge, even crossed the Tamar in search of redress for their hardships. The people who marched and rioted, put simply, weren’t marching and rioting against the Government per se; they marched for food, and rioted, or tried to riot, against those who denied them.

What we are seeing in the events of 1847, perhaps, is class conflict. At St Austell, the authorities couldn’t understand why better-off workers were rioting, when, after all, they could almost certainly afford grain. It was almost as if they were acting on behalf of the poorer clayworkers, who the authorities believed were the “deluded ignorant”35, and were duped into acts of lawlessness. Alternatively, you may argue that this represents solidarity, and organisation: the twin problems of food shortages and high prices were the problems of all of Cornwall’s working class, not just its most destitute members. Working people from St Just joined people from Breage and Helston. Men marched with women; children carried bags of flour for looters in Redruth. To be prepared to riot, and face the military, on yours and others’ behalf, or, in the words of William Bunt, it is as well to be shot as starved, maybe represents a liminal class consciousness.

You might say the authorities realised this too. In excluding members of this nascent working class from their discussions of relief funds, you might level E.P. Thompson’s famous accusation at them, that they were guilty of “the enormous condescension of posterity”36. Relief from hunger was solely the business of the people who could provide that relief, and not that of the people most in need of said relief. Instead, they were the evil disposed and deluded ignorant in St Austell, or misguided fellow-creatures in Redruth. Therefore these people needed to be treated with at a distance, and with some caution. More research is needed in these areas.

*

My second thought was, was there a genuine ‘famine’ in Cornwall, akin to the Great Hunger in Ireland, with thousands starving to death? Determined to find an answer, I decided to look at parish burial rates, choosing, somewhat fittingly, Breage and Helston, from the years 1845-1850.

184518461847184818491850
Breage9910083828083
Helston685968656057
Parish Burial Rates, 1845-1850. Figures taken from Cornwall Parish Records37

I was expecting to see a significant spike in burials for the years 1847-8, but was surprised to discover no real increase. Indeed, the figures for Breage drop in 1847-8 from a peak of 100 burials in 1846; Helston’s rates are relatively constant. Admittedly, this is a very small sample, and the numbers don’t tell us how people died. But why, if there was such apparent shortages of food in Cornwall in the late 1840s, don’t the figures markedly increase?

The answer is this: people left.

The Hungry Forties see the first instances of the Great Cornish Migration of the nineteenth century. For example, between 1841-51, the parish of Breage and Germoe lost 27% of its population38. The nonconformist and radical West Briton newspaper positively advocated emigration from the late 1830s as a “radical ‘improving’ cause”39. Even the West Briton‘s Tory counterpart, The Royal Cornwall Gazette, was advertising reduced steamship fares in 184940. All this burgeoning culture of emigration, combined with the food shortages and the cholera outbreak of 184941, made people leave Cornwall and not want to come back. One man, Samuel Robins from Penryn, broke a promise he made to his sister to return home from Australia in 1847. The account his sister had given of all things Cornish was so “wretched”, he decided to stay put42. Richard Kestall, the St Austell rioter, also left, starting a new life in Glamorgan43.

Judging by the number of people who, after reading this series of posts, have contacted me to remark that their ancestors left Cornwall in the late 1840s, many hundreds must have done the same.

All in all, the year 1847 was a desperate one for Cornwall.

Many thanks for reading

References

  1. From Cornwall Live. See Lee Trewhela’s article on the strike of 1913 here.
  2. From The Royal Cornwall Gazette (hereafter RCG), 18 June 1847, p2. The main sources for this post are RCG, 18 June 1847, p2, and August 6, 1847, p1&4.
  3. RCG, 6 August 1847, p1.
  4. 1851 census.
  5. RCG, 18 June 1847, p2.
  6. RCG, 18 June 1847, p2.
  7. RCG, 18 June 1847, p2.
  8. 1851 census.
  9. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  10. 1851 census.
  11. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  12. According to his entry on Wikipedia here.
  13. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  14. Image from Tripadvisor, here.
  15. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  16. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  17. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  18. 1851 census.
  19. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  20. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  21. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  22. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  23. From the St Austell Town website: https://www.staustelltown.co.uk/st-austell-town-facts/
  24. 1851 census.
  25. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  26. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  27. 1851 census.
  28. RCG, 18 June 1847, p2.
  29. See part two of The Cornish Food Riots of 1847 here.
  30. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  31. RCG, 6 August 1847, p4.
  32. King said this in two speeches, at Stanford University in April 1967, and Grosse Pointe University in March 1968. With thanks to @Str8OutaKernow.
  33. As noted in the RCG, 23 July 1847, p2.
  34. From E.P. Thompson’s seminal 1963 work, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, 1991).
  35. RCG, 18 June 1847, p2.
  36. The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, 1991), p12.
  37. See https://www.cornwall-opc-database.org/
  38. Philip Payton, The Cornish Overseas, Cornwall Editions, 2005, p132.
  39. Philip Payton, “Before the Mines: Early Cornish Emigration to South Australia” in Garry Tregidga (ed.), In Search of Cornwall, Cornish Studies, Third Series, Volume 4, University of Exeter, 2021, p18.
  40. RCG, 19 January 1849, p1. From a tweet by Charlotte MacKenzie, January 18, 2022.
  41. See Bernard Deacon’s post on the outbreak here.
  42. Philip Payton, “Before the Mines: Early Cornish Emigration to South Australia” in Garry Tregidga (ed.), In Search of Cornwall, Cornish Studies, Third Series, Volume 4, University of Exeter, 2021, p21-2.
  43. 1851 census.

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