The Cornish Butter Boycott of 1920

Reading time: 25 minutes

…the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization crumpled in the flames of world war…

Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Abacus, 1995, p22

Men who had fought in the war came home to be starved.

Unnamed miner, Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2


Graphic, December 9 1916, p755

West Penwith, Saturday, February 7, 19201. Policemen are nervously guarding the Genatosan Factory at Stable Hobba, near Newlyn. A subsidiary of Sanatogen, the works produced ‘tonic food’2 and other dairy products. Consequently, it purchased a lot of milk in the region.

Illustrated London News, February 20 1909, p292

The officers – there’s only four of them – scan the road ahead and check their watches. Somewhere, a thousand striking men and women are coming.

And they’re hungry.

Cornwall hadn’t seen a march for food in over seventy years, but everyone knew the drill3.

St Just’s town crier had let it be known the night before. The following morning, miners from nearby Geevor and Levant joined forces. The workers at the Holman’s Foundry, Tregaseal, downed tools and went to join them for a rally in St Just Town Square, where a councillor addressed them as “Comrades all”4.

Leading them was Arthur Wilkins of the Workers’ Union, and Jasper Richards of the Dockers’ Union. They asked of their followers that they should

…keep within the strict observance of the law…in a legitimate constitutional fight.

West Briton, February 9 1920, p2

Off they went, for a seven mile cross-country stank to Stable Hobba. The clayworkers of Balleswidden joined them en route. The numbers swelled.

Peaceful or not, constitutional or not, a thousand people on a protest march is an awesome, intimidating sight.

Hence the presence of law and order at Stable Hobba.

Let’s ask the obvious question: why is all this happening?

…a state of chaos

Cornish Post and Mining News, January 3 1920, p2

Not for the last time, Cornwall was experiencing a cost-of-living crisis. “There are”, asserted Arthur Wilkins,

…two essentials to maintain life today, milk and fat.

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

By ‘fat’, Wilkins meant butter. Margarine, introduced in the war as an ersatz alternative to butter5, was an object of scorn, an item

…not fit for human consumption…it is 80 per cent water and 20 per cent nothing…If margarine is not fit for food for the upper classes, it is not fit food for us…

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

At Penzance Market in January 1914, butter was available at 1s 3d/lb6. Then war began, and the UK, heavily reliant on imported foodstuffs from its Empire, was threatened with defeat-by-starvation courtesy of the German U-boats7.

By 1916, and with pricing now under Government control as a result of the crisis, butter now cost 2s 6d. Even this was “sixpence too much” in the eyes of many8.

Now, in February 1920, butter was to go back on the free market9. Inflation could be the only result. “We shall never again see”, remarked one commentator,

…the prices of milk and butter back to anything like what they were before the war.

“Argus”, West Briton, January 5 1920, p5

With control now lifted, butter now cost 5s 6d/lb11. From 1914 to 1920, that’s an increase of 340%.


The Holman’s Foundry at Tregaseal, 1900s. From the Royal Cornwall Museum

The wages of many hadn’t correspondingly increased either11. In 1920, it was far cheaper to import foreign tin than have it mined in the UK, with the attendant disastrous results for Cornwall’s primary industry. Tincroft Mine was shouldered with debts that year of £13,107 – that’s nearly £469,000 today. By July 1920 nearly 300 workers had been laid off at Grenville and Dolcoath. The number of men unemployed in West Cornwall alone stood at 3,000. Soldiers returning from the Front could find no work. Many emigrated12.

“I thought”, grumbled one miner,

…our boys went out to war for liberty and freedom, but it does not look like it.

West Briton, February 9 1920, p2

Men could no longer

…stand by and see their wives and children go short…

Cornishman, February 18 1920, p2

“We cannot get”, said Arthur Wilkins, “milk for our kiddies”13. Milk, also unfettered by Government price control, was as exorbitantly expensive as butter – and it took two-and-a-half gallons of milk to make one pound of butter14. Cornwall was heading for a “state of chaos”15.

Hence the march to the Genatosan Factory, perceived as a major drain on local dairy produce.

The Primrose Dairy at nearby Sancreed avoided any trouble. Though founded in 1910, it only really began expanding in the 1930s. From the Cornishman, July 11 1935, p11.


A fine example of a Genatosan van. From the Remember Loughborough Facebook Page

Messrs. Telfer and Marsden of the Genatosan works received the marchers’ deputation, led by Wilkins and Richards, “courteously”16.

It pays to be polite when a thousand-strong mob is at your gate, and Genatosan had been the object of the locals’ ire in the recent past17.

Wilkins and Richards were sharp enough to realise that might was on their side, and could infer that Telfer and Marsden felt intimidated, police guard or not.

They also knew that giving their forces the word to raise hell would ultimately solve nothing. Wilkins would later remark that

I want to prove to these people that we have got as much dignity as they have…

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

As chief prosecutors in the enquiry, Wilkins and Richards issued no threats to the Genatosan men. They didn’t need to.

The disgruntled fellow-members of the deputation did that for them.

Thus, the unspoken sub-text of the whole discussion was something like this:

Treat us reasonably now, and negotiate some sensible options…or…

It was a masterly display of silk glove, iron fist.

For example, the marchers wanted to know why the price of butter, once 2s 6d/lb under control, was now so much higher.

Genatosan’s reply was that, obviously, because milk was so dear: 3s 3d/gallon. Lest we forget, it took over two gallons of milk to make a pound of butter.

Wilkins dismissed this. The way he saw it, the farmers were profiteering. Furthermore, and equally obvious to everyone, there was a milk shortage “all over the place”18.

One of Wilkins’ entourage then bulled his way forward: the Genatosan vans took all the milk in the area, he asserted, and kept the prices high:

The carts come and take the milk away, and we are butterless.

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

Wilkins called this “exploitation”19. You’re profiteering, just like the farmers.

Marsden and Telfer’s counter-claim, that they had actually been producing butter at a loss, provoked cynical laughter. (They claimed that Government control had kept the price falsely low.) One man asked:

Are you prepared to withdraw your carts from the district?

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

Telfer, hastily, refused. The response his refusal garnered told him his side weren’t the only ones prepared to play hard-ball:

Then we shall have to stop it.

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

We can imagine a staring contest. Wilkins then interposed, airing his opinion that the factory could sell butter for 2s 6d/lb…if they really wanted to…

Another forthright statement was heard from a local miner:

We’re out for butter at 2s 6d, and we’re going to have it…Can I afford to pay 4s 6d for butter? No, I have to eat margarine and go down Levant mine to work. I’m not going to have it.

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.

The screw was tightening. Marsden and Telfer offered to supply their milk to St Just.

Wilkins and Richards waited patiently, politely. Is that the best you can do?

The Genatosan men didn’t exactly crumble, and they bought themselves some breathing space. If Wilkins and his entourage could get the farmers to sell butter at 2s 6d, Genatosan would transport the farmers’ milk to their factory, produce the butter (keeping the skimmed milk for themselves), and have the farmers sell the butter at the agreed price.

It sounded good. Everybody got something: Genatosan, free skimmed milk (and their factory left intact); the marchers, butter at what they perceived to be a ‘fair’ price; and the unpopular farmers could make some money and give their standing in the community a much-needed boost20.

Wilkins was sure he could convince them.

The marchers and their leaders left for Newlyn and Penzance, where they received a heroes’ welcome for their “courageous action”21.

Marsden and Telfer very probably reached for one of their company’s tonics: a large one.

Even when a Genatosan van was later attacked in Penzance and a few pails of milk thrown into the quay, Wilkins was happy to play peacemaker. Rome didn’t have to burn for him to win the battle. But it could burn, all the same, if required.

St John’s Hall, Alverton St, Penzance. Formerly the Public Buildings

Questions were asked in Parliament regarding the gunboat diplomacy at Stable Hobba22, but Wilkins and Richards had little or no time for the current coalition government. In a rousing speech given in front of Penzance’s Public Buildings Wilkins described Lloyd George and Churchill et al as “this crowd”:

We have been told for the past five years that we have been fighting a despotism that would enthral this country in slavery. Our women have given their sons and husbands to go out and fight against this horror…

(Jasper Richards may have felt a trifle uncomfortable here: during the War, he had been a conscientious objector23.)

But has there ever been in the world’s history a law laid down, written, unwritten or spoken, that there should be one class of people born into this world who must work, work, work, and then barely live, with no beauty in life, no recreation, but like worms and earwigs, simply crawl through life, and at the end be thrown on the scrap heap…

Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2

Not that Wilkins was all bombast. On Saturday February 14, a week after the march, a “factory lorry” delivered butter for sale at 2s 6d to Geevor, Levant, and the Holman’s Foundry24.

A “pest to society” is how a “local dairy concern” described Wilkins. One can easily infer the name of the company. Conversely, others believed they owed Wilkins a

…debt of gratitude…

Cornishman, February 18 1920, p2

For or against, his community had secured an affordable supply of butter, and he’d pulled it off without any major disturbances.

Will know the reason why…

1879 map of Redruth, detailing where the main disturbances in 1920 took place25

For just under a month, the march on the Genatosan Factory remained an isolated incident. Many other Cornish districts lacked such an obvious target of opprobrium.

Many people in these districts also lacked the means with which to pay such excessive sums for essential goods.

The simple solution was to go without – a boycott. You may believe that the decision of, say, a few dozen people to keep their purses shut would have a negligible affect on the dairy industry.

But people shunned butter in their thousands:

A determined boycott of butter is being made throughout the country, and local trade in this produce is practically at a standstill.

West Briton, February 12 1920, p4

At Penryn Market on Saturday February 7, there was no butter sold.

Likewise in Helston.

At Truro on Wednesday 11th: “no sale”26.

There were complaints of butter being overcharged in Newquay – not that anyone bought any.

The shoppers of Lostwithiel enjoyed a period of “abstention” from butter27.

The Camborne Food Committee resigned en bloc, citing overwork28.

Those that could, sought to employ servants skilled in the art of butter-making29.

Union organisers encouraged the boycott and protests in general. We’ve met Arthur Wilkins, but Camborne’s William Uglow was cut was from the same cloth, later being described as the “People’s Champion”30.

At a protest meeting he chaired, it was stated that

The workers did not want riot or bloodshed, but they could not stand by and see their wives and children go short…If the price of butter was not reduced, the workers in that division would know the reason why.

Cornishman, February 18 1920, p2

(This wasn’t the first time Uglow had taken up the cudgels against high prices either31.)

The West Briton‘s reporter-at-large interviewed some of Truro’s “dairymen and provision merchants” to give the reader a sense of matters32:

  • Some asserted that the boycott would lower prices;
  • Others believed the boycott wouldn’t lower prices, as producers/farmers would send their milk and butter upcountry;
  • Some thought the Railwaymen would refuse to send butter out of Cornwall;
  • Others reckoned butter was going out of Cornwall: local supply depots bought surplus butter – of which there was a glut – at the given price, and kept prices high.

Even the farmers refused to further hoick up the cost of dairy products, as requested by their own Union:

We are a hated class now, and if we carry out the resolution sent us from Truro we shall be hated more.

West Briton, February 9 1920, p2

Clearly, something had to give.

And it gave in Redruth.

Chuck him out…

Market Way, Redruth, 201933

The Buttermarket might well be the apple of the Redruth regeneration scheme’s eye34, but in its former incarnation the place was no stranger to disturbances or unsavoury goings-on.

For example, in 1819 a man successfully negotiated the sale of his own wife there. Then, during the food riots of 1847, a crowd of 5,000 starving people ransacked the market and raided local stores35.

The market on Alma Place, Redruth, c1915. The entrance to Market Way is in the background36

On Wednesday February 25, Union officals presided over a large, open-air meeting in the town to “protest” against the high price of butter. It was understood that

…the employees of the various mines…will assemble [on Friday] and march to Redruth to meet the butter retailers as they enter the town…

West Briton, February 26 1920, p2

Friday 27th was market day37.

A photo of an earlier protest on Alma Place and Station Hill, 1889. Over a thousand people congregated in the same place on February 27, 1920. Image by James Chenhalls.

8.30am. The miners of East Pool, Tincroft, Tresavean and South Crofty downed tools and marched on Redruth. Their employers let them go – the men had no grievance with them (or not that much), and after all, this was an official, Union-sponsored protest.

Would it go off without a hitch, as at Stable Hobba?

En route, the several hundred miners gained reinforcements. By the time a halt was called, 1-2,000 people filled Station Hill and Alma Place to hear the speeches, of which a selection is given here:

…the price of butter must come down to 2/6…in a land of plenty the working man could not afford to buy the daily essentials of life…The Government…could not build an A1 worker on C3 diet…It was time they rose up…in order that men might live…

West Briton, March 1 1920, p2

Whilst all this was being cheered to the heavens, one man did rise up.

The wrong man, at the wrong moment.

Mr Tregurtha, a farmer and butter-dealer from North Country, stood on a chair to express his solidarity. He seriously misread the crowd.

Another voice rose up:

Chuck him out…

West Briton, March 1 1920, p2

It was the catalyst. Tregurtha was dragged down, and beaten up. He took cover in a shop on Alma Place.

For several hundreds gathered there, marching through Redruth as part of a peaceful protest was not the immediate solution they had been hoping for.

Instead, they rioted in the Buttermarket, demanding 2s 6d/lb for butter, and assaulting any dealer who refused. So reckless were they, some precious butter was spoiled.

Several dealers got the hell out of town. Others concealed their wares in the back-streets, and thus evaded detection by the mob, who were relentless in their quest.

Local grocers’ shops – even a private dwelling – were raided, the elderly female proprietor of one establishment forcing the invaders to beat a hasty retreat by threatening them with a knife.

Alas, any dialogue that might have occurred during the above incident is lost to history.

Mr Dunstan, a dairy farmer from Wendron, unwisely drove his heavily laden goods vehicle straight down Clinton Road toward the crowds on Alma Place.

Opting for discretion over valour, he ‘agreed’ to sell all his butter for 2s 6d, and enjoyed a roaring trade. He also went home unmolested.

Another van was commandeered in the area of Station Hill known as Jack’s Splat (see map above). From here, butter, milk and eggs were distributed freely, to much celebration.

Redruth Market, c1870. Note the wooden railway viaduct in the background. Kresen Kernow, ref. corn02860

The dealers that had remained in Redruth took the hint: 2s 6d, or else. By “early afternoon”,

…there was no butter to be purchased in the town.

Cornish Post and Mining News, February 28 1920, p5

Butter must come down…38

Cornish Post and Mining News, March 6 1920, p5

While all this was happening, the Workers’ Union were negotiating a price of 3s/lb for butter at next week’s market with the Farmers’ Union.

As claimed by the Genatosan men, the farmers contended that the government price had been too low, and they had actually sold at a loss. Be that as it may, 3s/lb was the going rate announced to the crowd waiting on Station Hill.

And then the news of the disturbance broke. It was publicly condemned by the representatives of the Workers’ Union (what their private thoughts were is unknown), and they were exonerated in the Press:

The Trades’ Union leaders were not in the least responsible for the few unpleasant incidents…

West Briton, March 4 1920, p2

The blame was put on a few (or several hundred) bad apples, and they were never caught.

The immediate effect, with William Uglow actively campaigning for higher wages in Camborne’s mines39, was a near-total breakdown of the dairy market.

Further negotiations with the Farmers’ Union for a price of 3s/lb for butter broke down40.

Redruth’s tradespeople, and the people who came to Redruth to trade, protested against the actions of the protesters themselves41.

At the next market day in Redruth, March 5, the traders performed a boycott of their own, despite a heavy police presence protecting against undesirables. There was

…little butter in the market.

Cornish Post and Mining News, March 8 1920, p2

There was still stalemate a week later. The Union wanted 3s/lb, the farmers, 3s 3d. Many women, doubtless throwing up their hands in frustration, voluntarily paid 3s 3d for what butter there was in Redruth. It was observed that

…the workers’ wives thus showed they had far more sense than their husbands’.

Cornishman, March 17 1920, p7

Even as late as May, the two sides were at loggerheads42.

It wasn’t until early June that the price of butter finally came down to 2s 6d/lb43. The butter boycott had finally succeeded where negotiating, protesting and rioting had ultimately failed:

When control is absent, price is determined by the demand.

“Argus”, West Briton, February 9 1920, p2

Many thanks for reading


  1. The narrative of the march is taken from the West Briton, February 9 1920, p2, and the Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2. The events are also recalled here:
  2. For a survey of the early history of protein powders, see:
  3. See my series on the Cornish food riots of 1847 here. For Cornish food riots, see John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006, p35-74; for food riots in general, see E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common, Penguin, 1991, p259-351.
  4. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  5. See Matthew Richardson, The Hunger War: Food, Rations and Rationing 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Books, 2015, p99-129.
  6. West Briton, January 22 1914, p2.
  7. See Matthew Richardson, The Hunger War: Food, Rations and Rationing 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Books, 2015, p99-129.
  8. West Briton, February 9 1920, p2.
  9. Decontrol of dairy products was noted in the West Briton, March 18 1920, p2.
  10. West Briton, February 9 1920, p2.
  11. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  12. See: West Briton, February 23 1920, p2; Cornishman, Febuary 11 1920, p4 and February 25 1920, p2; Cornish Post and Mining News, July 3 1920, p2.
  13. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  14. West Briton, February 9 1920, p2.
  15. Cornishman, January 28 1920, p2.
  16. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  17. The works had been accused of misuse of milk. See: West Briton, December 27 1917, p4.
  18. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  19. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  20. Even the farmers’ themselves knew their name was mud: see the West Briton, February 9 1920, p2.
  21. Cornishman, February 11 1920, p2.
  22. As recorded here.
  23. See the Cornishman, April 6 1916, p8.
  24. Cornishman, February 18 1920, p5.
  25. For more on the ‘Jack’s Splat’ (there were various spellings) area of Redruth, see here.
  26. All from the West Briton, February 12 1920, p4.
  27. Both from the West Briton, February 26 1920, p5.
  28. Cornish Post and Mining News, February 28 1920, p5.
  29. As advertised by a St Austell family in the West Briton, February 26 1920, p1.
  30. Cornishman, April 3 1947, p5.
  31. See the West Briton, November 20 1919, p4.
  32. These are taken from the West Briton, February 9 1920, p2.
  33. From a feature article on the Buttermarket here.
  34. For more on the regeneration project, go here.
  35. See my post on the wife sale here; for more on the food riots of 1847, see my post (as part of a series) here.
  36. From:
  37. The narrative of the protest, riot and aftermath is taken from: Cornish Post and Mining News, February 28 1920, p5; West Briton, March 1 1920, p2, and March 4 1920, p2.
  38. West Briton, March 4 1920, p2.
  39. Cornish Post and Mining News, March 6 1920, p5.
  40. Cornish Post and Mining News, March 8 1920, p2.
  41. West Briton, March 4 1920, p5.
  42. West Briton, May 20 1920, p4.
  43. Cornishman, June 2 1920, p3.

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