Paul Rabey and the False Imprisonment: They Died With Their Shoes On, Part Two

Reading time: ten minutes

Punishment cell, Newgate. By Thomas Miller, 18521

Promising to stay poor

South Wheal Leisure Mine, of which Paul Rabey the Younger was purser, was struggling throughout 1864. As one former worker stated, “It was very poor, and promising to stay poor”2. No ore had been raised at all for a year, the mine was in debt, and all the miners were either laid off, or had simply quit because they hadn’t been paid. The tinners, for their part, appear to have just quietly accepted their lot and gone in search of more promising setts, but the mine’s agent, William Harvey, from Cardrew Downs, was owed money. A lot of money – £36. That’s around £4,800 today.

Chapel Hill, Bolingey, looking towards Wheal Leisure and Perranporth

Blood from a stone

Determined to get his money, in early 1864 Harvey sued an adventurer in the mine, one Teague – but this went against Rabey’s advice. Why would a purser not want his agent to be paid? When that purser is Paul Rabey, there were several reasons. Firstly, Rabey hated to be parted from money, even money that wasn’t his. Secondly, he seems to have had a morbid fear of appearing in court: he didn’t want to appear as a witness against Teague, as there was a real danger of his South Wheal Leisure account books coming under legal scrutiny. (Indeed, Rabey claimed to be too ill to appear in court three times throughout 1864-5.) In the event, Teague quietly paid Harvey off out of court; Harvey also successfully sued another adventurer for £18 in April 1864.

However, when Harvey met Rabey in his carriage on Blackwater Hill on April 16, 1864, he asked him for the remaining £6 (£800 today) that he was owed. Rabey refused point blank, and rode off3 .

Blackwater Hill today4

Rabey would have viewed Harvey as a threat, rather than a needy colleague. Firstly, he was legitimately in debt to Harvey, and for all his displays of wealth Rabey resented opening his wallet unless he could gain advantage from it. Secondly, it would have been obvious to Rabey that Harvey was litigiously-minded and determined enough to sue people for what they owed him. After all, Rabey would have doubtless done the same had the tables been turned. Who knew what dirty linen of Rabey’s might be washed in court? Rabey preferred to appear in the public eye on his own terms, if at all.

What happened next is what we may consider to be a classic Rabey manoeuvre, the move of a “clever and unscrupulous” man5: to strike first, and hard.

Trumped-up

That same evening, April 16, Rabey paid Harvey a visit, with a local policeman. The officer of the law, at Rabey’s instigation, searched Harvey’s premises, and found (as Rabey told him he was sure to find), a box of scales and weights for Wheal Leisure, which in fact Harvey had bought and paid for with his own money two years previously. For convenience, he kept them at his home, as Rabey well knew. Rabey claimed to the policeman they were his, and the bemused Harvey, after some ineffectual protests, was arrested and led from his home to the (now long vanished) lockup at Scorrier.

Harvey’s wife, we can imagine, was understandably distraught; his children, upset. Perhaps curious neighbours peered through windows or stood by, adding to Harvey’s shame. His mood would not have been improved by Rabey maliciously adding the following commentary from the comfort of his carriage:

…bring out the black guard rogue…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 26, 1864, p7

Harvey was conveyed from Scorrier to Truro, and led handcuffed through the streets (on a busy Saturday evening) to the lockup there on Pydar Street6.

He was held in prison until Monday morning, when he faced the magistrate to hear the charges brought against him7.

Without any probable cause…8

Hall for Cornwall, Boscawen Street, Truro. In the 1800s the magistrates’ courts were housed here9

That Monday, Harvey stood in the dock to discover that Rabey had further twisted the knife. Harvey was now not only accused of theft, but also fraudulent book-keeping: a charge of £2 19s had allegedly been entered into the accounts by Harvey for a non-existent employee of South Wheal Leisure. Harvey stated that, yes, he had indeed made this entry; it was in fact for his son, who had done some work for Rabey, but Rabey had convinced Harvey to enter the payment under a false name because

…it would not look well in his account…[that amount] for a boy of his age…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 26, 1864, p7

Rabey was now using his own sleight-of-hand to ensnare Harvey, as Harvey now claimed. The £2 19s had in fact gone to Rabey, as was later proven in court, and Harvey also soundly demonstrated that the scales were not Rabey’s.

Understandably, the case was thrown out.

Harvey was free to lick his wounds, but he was still owed £6 from Rabey, and would no doubt be fostering a great deal of personal resentment. On May 6, 1864, he charged Rabey with false imprisonment, and sued for damages10.

Three months later…

I note the date that Harvey filed his charges against Rabey, for it was over three months before the case was finally heard, at the Stannary Court in Truro, on August 19. Rabey had already achieved one postponement by claiming illness; he tried the same trick in August, yet the hearing went ahead, in his absence. Such was Rabey’s contempt for the actions against him, no solicitor represented his interests in court either.

Harvey won the case, and Rabey was ordered, in absentia, to pay £100 in damages which, with costs, came to £125. The jury were of the opinion that Harvey was

…an honest man, and has been badly used.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 26, 1864, p7

Rabey was shown to have plotted the accusations against Harvey, and Harvey’s subsequent incarceration, with malice aforethought. Witnesses testified to overhearing Rabey say that Harvey

…is a d____d rogue, and I will have him up again, if I rot in hell for it…It is better for anyone to begin with the devil, than to meddle with me.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 26, 1864, p7

If Rabey had sought to blacken Harvey’s name, then his own reputation fared little better during proceedings. His conduct, it was noted, should

…not be tolerated in this kingdom.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 26, 1864, p7

He was motivated purely by “the most malignant feelings”, the charges against Harvey were “trumped up”, and the whole affair was succinctly summarised as a “gross outrage”11.

Whither Paul Rabey?

A gentleman swindler, 186812

As noted earlier, Rabey wasn’t even present at his own trial, allegedly being ill in London. Presumably, he couldn’t have cared less about the outcome. The important thing was, his account books, over which there was much “suspicion” (Rabey had apparently told Harvey they’d both be in gaol if the ledgers were ever openly scrutinised), were safely out of the public eye13.

He also had no intention of paying William Harvey.

If nothing else, Rabey’s actions against Harvey, and his subsequent repeated ducking of his own trial, brought him time to plot his next schemes. He also may have hoped that Harvey had been warned off any thoughts of crossing him in future, but here he was mistaken, as we shall see. This unsavoury tale also demonstrates that Paul Rabey was a genuinely unpleasant individual, who sought to destroy anybody who opposed, or tried to uncover, him. It’s a characteristic that reappears in our story.

Early commentators on white-collar crime believed it was undertaken without animosity on the part of the offender, or of physical injury and/or alarm to the party being defrauded14.

Paul Rabey the Younger did not fit this common perception…

Click below for part three of They Died With Their Shoes On:

The Two Paul Rabeys

Many thanks for reading!

References

  1. See: http://www.victorianlondon.org/prisons/newgate.htm
  2. Western Daily Press, April 6, 1866, p3.
  3. Royal Cornwall Gazette (hereafter RCG), August 26, 1864, p7.
  4. See: http://cornishstory.com/2020/06/11/blackwater/
  5. RCG, February 3, 1865, p7.
  6. Like the Scorrier lockup, this has long gone. See: https://www.prisonhistory.org/prison/truro-town-prison/?fbclid=IwAR0BkB08wdpdDqL5siP5nBp_3awLPFAeB7Vl8kNGFb8d5cQHTe5W01C1RDM
  7. From RCG, August 26, 1864, p7.
  8. From RCG, August 26, 1864, p7.
  9. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hall_for_Cornwall
  10. From RCG, August 26, 1864, p7.
  11. RCG, August 26, 1864, p7.
  12. See: https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/02/12/385310877/how-scams-worked-in-the-1800s?t=1647549718867
  13. RCG, August 26, 1864, p7.
  14. See Sarah Wilson, “Fraud and White-collar Crime: 1850 to the Present”, in Histories of Crime: Britain 1600-2000, ed. Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash, Macmillan, 2010, p147.

They Died With Their Shoes On: The Career of Paul Rabey the Younger, Part One

Reading time: 15 minutes

The London Stock Exchange, by Lockhart Bogle, 1891

The Hook1

The men of substance from Bristol were on to a good thing. There was William H. Brunt, a music-seller from St Augustine’s Parade. There was Mr Hyde, a banker, and William Chilcott, a bullion merchant. There was James Bigwood, a merchant on Great George Street2. There was Mr Atchley, a solicitor, and a Mr Pring. They were businessmen, with experience of the stock market, and they had travelled to Cornwall to view, and inspect, their latest investment: South Wheal Leisure Mine (not to be confused with the considerably larger Wheal Leisure concern), at Penwartha Coombe, Perranzabuloe, near Bolingey.

The hill from Bolingey towards Penwartha Coombe, where South Wheal Leisure was located

What they saw, in June 1865, did not disappoint. Miners were hard at work, the main shaft had a fully-functioning engine housed above it, and the impression that the whole concern was a family-run business must have further assured them. The purser’s cousin owned the account-house and the land around it; Brunt for one met the purser’s elderly father, and was quite charmed. The purser had also shown Brunt, and maybe the other investors, samples of ore from Wheal Leisure before their journey to Cornwall. He had also made it known the mine was very profitable, not in debt, and that a ‘call’ on shareholders to make up any financial shortcomings incurred during operations, was highly unlikely3.

The investors had seen what they wanted to see, and doubtless strolled away from the slopes of Penwartha Coombe anticipating some easy money to be had from the backs of these Cornish tinners. Brunt, for example, had purchased 125 shares in South Wheal Leisure, paying the purser £532 for them. Furthermore, the purser had intimated that he was starting a new mining venture, to be called Bolingey Hill Consols, which Brunt, amongst others, should be anxious to invest in. Brunt quickly snapped up 500 Bolingey Hill shares, for £200.

A bonds and share certificate for the Old Trewether Company of Endellion, 18544

And why not? The purser, a disabled Cornishman in his mid-forties, resided at a notable Clifton residence in Bristol, employed a liveried servant, tooled about the town in a coach and pair, and presented the very image of a successful Victorian businessman. He splashed his cash on diamond rings, harmoniums, and impressive quantities of port and sherry. He told all who would listen in Bristol that his income would soon be around £20-30,000, thanks to his shrewd mining ventures, and that buying shares in his mines was, in modern parlance, a no-brainer.

The problem for the Bristolians was this: the purser in question was Paul Rabey, the Younger.

The Player

Though virtually unheard-of nowadays, Paul Rabey (or Raby) the Younger is deserving of the accolade of Cornwall’s most notorious con-man. Born in Gwennap, in 18185, and raised at Radnor, near Scorrier, in his day he was recognised as

…one of the cleverest men in the county of Cornwall in mining transactions, which was saying a great deal.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, March 29, 1866, p8

Rabey was blessed with an incredibly “acute” mind, and one prosecuting lawyer had to grudgingly admit that he was as able

…to conduct business for his own benefit as any man that he had heard of in the whole course of his life.

Western Daily Press, April 6, 1866, p3

Shame, then, that he was as crooked in his business ministrations as the night is dark.

Wherever he went – and Rabey was as peripatetic as he was a rogue – he left ruined dreams, decimated bank accounts, and simmering resentment. In 1856 he was to appear in York as an insolvent debtor; his previous addresses up to this point were listed as Sheffield, two residences in Birkenhead, another two in Anglesea, three in Manchester, Kingston-Upon-Hull, Bath, another two in London, Liverpool, New Brighton (Merseyside), Chelsea, and Westminster. Oh – and Portreath6.

Such was the regularity of his appearances in various law courts throughout the 1860s, that reports of these hearings in the ‘papers carry their own sense of weary resignation. For example, the heading

appears at least twice7. Or this, from the London Morning Herald8:

It got so that his activities needed no introduction to the regular reader9:

Such was Rabey’s notoriety, he was actually cited in public lectures that sought to caution the unwary public on the dangers of bubble-schemes, market rigging, and various dubious business practices10. People taken in by his get-rich-quick enterprises were embarrassed to admit to being so foolish, even when under oath in court11.

All of which begs the following questions: how did he operate, and how did he get away with it? Some historical context is needed.

Victorian White-collar Crime

William Strahan. The web-page of the Institutional History Society describes him as ‘The Bent Banker’12

The Industrial Revolution and expansion of Empire changed British society for ever. It also gave rise to a new variety of financial crime, known at the time as ‘high art’ crime. The railway boom of the 1840s saw a number of attempts to exploit the trend for investment, and many fraudulent ‘bubble’ companies were set up solely to dupe unwary financial speculators. That people were easily gulled by these outwardly respectable crooks-in-suits was largely due to the prevailing culture of the era, namely a belief that all members of Victorian society’s respectable upper- and middle-classes were just that: respectable and, above all, honest.

One of the central tenets of the newly-formed police force was to protect the middle- and business-class from what was seen as society’s criminal elements, ie the lower, working-classes. Crime therefore came to be viewed as the preserve of poor people, committed on the better-off: it would be unthinkable for a gentleman, or gentlewoman, to break the law.

But break the law, they did, with financial fraud becoming the crime of choice for ‘respectable’ criminals. London bankers Strahan, Bates and Paul misappropriated their clients’ money in 1855; likewise the directors of the Royal British (1858) and City of Glasgow (1878-9) Banks stood in the dock to answer for their embezzlements. One of the ‘brains’ behind the Great Train Robbery of 1855 kept a fashionable address in Shepherd’s Bush; another member of the gang was a corrupt barrister13.

On the whole, though, people trusted ‘respectable’ citizens because they appeared to be just that – respectable14.

No one appeared more respectable than Paul Rabey the Younger, and this appearance could not have been further from the truth.

Indeed, his career could have been written by Charles Dickens. Think of the younger Ebenezer Scrooge, and, like Scrooge, in the end, Rabey’s past caught up with him. But there was to be no redemption.

It’s beyond the scope of these posts to itemise every shady deal and every shameless con-operation Rabey carried out15. Instead, I’m going to focus my attention on the years 1864-1872, the later period of his colourful career. This ought to serve to illustrate the (often questionable) business practices of the high Victorian era, and serve to remind the reader that mining wasn’t just a risky business for the men below the ground16.

As with my previous work on the Cornish Food Riots of 184717, I’ve divided my work on Paul Rabey the Younger, entitled They Died With Their Shoes On18, into separate posts, of which this is the first:

Part two, Paul Rabey and the False Imprisonment, can be read HERE.

Thanks for reading and following

References

  1. The narrative for this section is taken from the Royal Cornwall Gazette (hereafter RCG), 29 March 1866, p8, and the Western Daily Press, April 6 1866, p3.
  2. 1861 census.
  3. For a brief explanation of the Cost Book system in Cornish mining, see John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, 2nd enlarged edition, Cornish Hillside Publications 1993, p23-5.
  4. See https://spink.com/lot/18021000293
  5. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, film #1595598, ref ID p139, Ancestry
  6. North Wales Chronicle, September 13, 1856, p2. Debtors’ known residences were listed publicly in the hope any creditors in those areas would be made aware, and could act accordingly.
  7. RCG, November 9, 1865, p8, and March 29, 1866, p8.
  8. March 28, 1866, p8.
  9. RCG, August 9, 1866, p5.
  10. Such a lecture was advertised in the Western Daily Press, September 10 1868, p1. The lecturer, Mr H. I. Brown, was one of Rabey’s victims; see the Bristol Times and Mirror, 12 & 13 August 1868, p3.
  11. See the Western Daily Press, May 18, 1866, p2.
  12. See: https://institutionalhistory.com/homepage/prisons/major-prisons/woking-prison/woking-invalid-convict-prison-inmate-list/william-strahan/
  13. Michael Crichton fictionalised the story of The Great Train Robbery; it was also made into a memorable 1978 film starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.
  14. See Sarah Wilson, “Fraud and White-collar Crime: 1850 to the Present”, in Histories of Crime: Britain 1600-2000, ed. Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash, Macmillan, 2010, p146-51.
  15. Kresen Kernow hold records of his earlier exploits, references as follows: STA/693c/1441, 1443, 1446, 1460.
  16. See “A Risky Business: Death, Injury and Religion in Cornish Mining 1780-1870” by John Rule in his book Cornish Cases (Clio, 2006), for more on the hardships of Cornwall’s mining population.
  17. See: https://the-cornish-historian.com/2022/01/09/the-cornish-food-riots-of-1847-background-and-context/
  18. Rabey once wished his enemies would “die in their shoes!”. The reason for this will be explained in my final post. (See: The Cornubian and Redruth Times, October 16, 1868, p4.)

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.

The Fugitive: James Jewell: A Prologue to Part Five of the Food Riots of 1847

Reading time: 5 minutes

Bodmin Gaol in the 1850s1

Unlike his less-fortunate compatriots, George Stapleton and William Francis2, James Jewell chose not to wait around at his home in Crowan, so the authorities could issue him with a summons3. As the military surrounded the rioters in Higher Fore Street, Redruth, on June 4, he slipped town. Unlike the many hundreds, possibly thousands, complicit in the looting of Warmington’s Stores that were able to melt anonymously away, Jewell must have realised his foremost role in the events made him a marked man.

We don’t know what route he took, whom he talked who, or who gave him shelter. Quite possibly, he slept rough. Maybe he begged shelter in the mining districts he came across, or at remote farmsteads. Perhaps, as a baptised Methodist4, he sought succour among a kind of underground railroad of fellow Bible-Christians. What we do know, is that he was most definitely a wanted man, and that a warrant was out for his capture.

By June 11, two constables had traced their man to St Austell, but enquiries there realised nothing. The elusive Jewell had escaped again, but not for long. Saturday June 12 saw him captured, in Liskeard, and returned to Bodmin Gaol to await trial. He was sentenced alongside Stapleton, Francis, and the others who had been arrested in the wake of the tumult in Redruth. He received nine months hard labour5, but not before acquiring a certain notoriety.

It was believed at the time that Jewell was one of

…the leading men…with others from the west [who were] amidst the disorderlies…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 June 1847, p2

The ‘disorder’ under discussion here was not events at Pool or Redruth, or even Helston or Penzance. Jewell, possibly with others from the ‘west’, was believed to have been fomenting unrest in the east of Cornwall too: namely, the riot that took place in St Austell, on Friday, June 11.

Alas, whether or not Jewell (or others) stirred up the miners on his sojourn through Clay Country is unknowable. It’s more likely he kept his head down, and his mouth shut. In fact, it turned out there were plenty of people in the area desperate enough, and hungry enough, to defy the authorities…

The final part of The Food Riots of 1847 will be posted on Sunday February 6:

Trouble in Clay Country

Thanks for reading

References

  1. From the Bodmin Jail website: https://www.bodminjail.org/discover/about-bodmin-jail/historical-timeline/
  2. See my previous post, Hellfire Corner, here. Jewell told a flour merchant that he’d be “d____d” if he left the town empty handed. Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9 July 1847, p1.
  3. According to the 1841 census, Jewell was born in around 1829, in Crowan.
  4. See: England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1936 for James Jewell, Piece 0559, Helston (Methodist), 1804-1837, Ancestry.co.uk
  5. Kresen Kernow, Quarter Sessions Rolls 1847, QS/1/14/284.

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.

Here’s the final two parts of The Cornish Food Riots of 1847:

The Fugitive: A Prologue

Trouble in Clay Country: St Austell

Thanks for reading

References

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

References

Rise of the Miners: The Food Riots of 1847, Part Two

Reading time: 20 minutes

Cornish miners in California, on their croust break. From Cornwall Forever. Many emigrated as a consequence of the dearth of 1847. Standing, left, is Richard Harry, Captain of New Alamaden Quicksilver Mine, near San Francisco. With thanks to his great-granddaughter, Kitty Quayle

…Compell them to sell their corn…at a fair and reasonable Price…march one and all with determined Hearts and Hands to have redress – or vengeance…

Anonymous handbill advertising a march for food, Stratton, 1795. From John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006, p50. No miners’ handbills from 1847 have survived

Cornwall, May-June 1847. Locations of unrest, relief, and organisation are marked

Hard Times

…barley gruel…about three quarts of water and a halfpenny-worth of skimmed milk thickened with barley flour…

From Philip Payton, The Cornish Overseas, Cornwall Editions, 2005, p135

We have no fear of any formidable strike among the Cornish miners. Superior to every other class of workmen in the Kingdom…they are beyond the influence of the political agitator.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, January 22, 1847, p2

This complacency was short-lived.

In their cottages, in the barren fields, and underground, people were getting organised.

Although in terms of weight of numbers the most impressive riots took place in Pool and Redruth, disturbances were reported in many Cornish towns through the spring and summer. Localised events, perhaps, but taken as a whole one begins to get a sense of the hardships and privations faced by entire communities across Cornwall, and the several attempts at aid made by the authorities and/or the philanthropically minded.

The Merry Month of May

Holmbush Mine, Callington3

…don’t hear what the old b____r has to say, he’s only going to delude us…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 6, 1847, p4

Relief

The engine house and crusher supports, Polberro Consols, St Agnes. Image reproduced courtesy of Simon Jones, Cornish Mine Images (www.cornishmineimages.co.uk)

The Men of Breage Get Organised

Underground at Wheal Vor, Breage14

God, keep us from rocks and shifting sands,

And save us from Breage and Germoe mens’ hands.

qtd. in Philip Payton, Cornwall – A History, Cornwall Editions, 1996, p171

As the old nautical prayer above makes clear, the inhabitants of Breage had long enjoyed a certain reputation for lawless derring-do, wrecking and smuggling being their primary interests. In 1847, they turned their attentions inland. Anonymous handbills were posted around the village, calling on local miners to assemble at a certain spot on Saturday, May 22. The reasons for this meeting were unstated and, alas, no copies of the handbill survive. But we do know where the men of Breage were headed for their gathering, and there was a lot of them.

Helston, May 22, 1847

The foot of Sithney Common Hill, Helston
The Guildhall, Church St, Helston

The Mayor measured the sincerity of their words, and their appearance. Yes, the miners could enter the town and wait, whilst he and the magistrates discussed what relief could be provided – if any. Rogers assured them that everything possible “should be done to alleviate their distress”, with the proviso that any resolution to violence on the miners’ part to achieve their aims would be folly, as “ample means were at hand to repel any attack they might make”.

Rogers had the whip-hand, and everyone knew it. The miners trudged to Coinagehall Street to await a possible handout. The soldiers stayed where they were.

The Coinage Hall, in its modern incarnation

But no contemporary report mentions this, quite the contrary: “The soldiers did not quit the building in which they were stationed”, and blame for the scrap was put down to the “officiousness” of the constables. With both sides battered and bruised, it was the miners who retreated, empty-handed.

Did Rogers eventually provide bread for the miners? No; after all, he’d given them fair warning on the improprieties of rioting. He did, however, ensure the military remained in his town until the 25th, and bumped up his band of Special Constables to a round hundred. Eventually, the Great Work Mine at Breage decided to purchase corn for its workforce – to be sold on to them at a 30% discount.

As for the miners, they probably realised that, if the element of surprise was denied them, a town’s market well-defended, and they encountered a Mayor as wily as Thomas Rogers, there was little they could do. Especially with only three hundred men.

Penzance would be different.

The present season of commercial difficulty ought to unite all classes of the community more firmly together – teach property that it has duties to perform…and labour that it has rights to respect…

“The Anticipated Famine”, Penzance Gazette, June 2, 1847

The above lines may have been written more in hope than expectation. The season of “commercial” difficulty (note the inference here that the problems are linked to business and trade, and that, therefore, is where the readers’ concerns ought to lie), was in fact driving an even bigger wedge between all society’s classes. “Property” was increasingly looking to protect its own interests, and “labour” looking to assert, or perform, their long-held right of marching for food and price-fixing in times of dearth. And so it was to prove in Penzance.

Thomas Simon Bolitho, Mayor of Penzance. Photograph by Camille Silvy, 1862. National Portrait Gallery, NPG Ax5738020

The soldiers of the 5th Fusiliers had barely dumped their kitbags on the barrackroom floor at Pendennis Castle when they received yet another order to mobilise against civilians. Captain Simmonds (or Simmons) was again in command, as he had been in Helston. By dawn on the 27th, 60 Redcoats were in Penzance. Bolitho then pressed the coastguard, and a number of sailors, into service. Besides this he also deputised a private army of 200 Special Constables. The shops were shut, taverns closed, and market trade suspended. Bolitho obviously feared the Breage and Germoe mens’ hands. The town of Penzance was now utterly “begloomed”.

From 9am, men “in bodies varying from 50 to 200 in number” began appearing at the town’s outskirts. Two local padres, Fathers Punnet and Graham, met many of these itinerant bands and “expostulated with them, but in vain”. By 11am, 3,000 miners, men, women and children, were at large in Penzance. This total later increased to 5,000, as the hungry of St Just joined forces with the hungry of Breage in the town centre.

Market Jew Street

These were now tense moments. As the crowd turned down Market Jew Street, it became apparent they were marching into a trap. The soldiers had been stationed “in a position to command from the windows the whole of the principal directions of the heart of the town”: the army was covering the marchers with their muskets from an elevated position. It may have been Capt. Simmonds force, but it was Bolitho’s town: he was the man issuing orders in cahoots with his fellow-magistrates, and managing the forces at his disposal, lest “evil ensue”. He hadn’t looked for this situation, but he can’t have wanted it to end in a bloodbath either. The miners yelled at the sight of the Redcoats grimly scrutinising them from above, the women screamed murder, and the mob’s overall appearance “bespoke fierceness”, but, mercifully, nothing happened.

Eastern Green

As at Helston, a rampage of looting was out of the question, if it had even been considered by the majority of the miners. Watched, probably from a safe distance, by fascinated townspeople, a halt was called at Eastern Green. Again, as at Helston, it was decided that a deputation of miners should address Bolitho et al, at the Market House on Market Jew Street. Their purpose was to

…lay their case before them, and to ascertain what they could engage to do to alleviate their condition…

Penzance Gazette, June 2, 1847
The old Market House, Penzance

And so the negotiations began. In a show of good faith, bread and victuals were distributed amongst the crowd by principal townsmen. Eventually, a deal was hit upon, with both sides apparently getting what they wanted. The miners would leave Penzance in a peaceful manner (and with the militia in town, this was something akin to gunboat diplomacy by the town authorities), and the town council would “use their utmost exertions” to secure a supply of barley, distributing said supply to the mining districts for sale at a reduced rate. With their stomachs full (or no longer empty), the crowd dispersed. Peacefully.

Well, not quite. A group of miners stole away from the main body, having heard that corn had been concealed in a nearby warehouse; they found nothing. This same shadowy group then attempted to force the doors of the prison, on Old Brewery Yard, suspecting corn to be hidden there too. However, lacking sufficient resolve (and doubtless mindful of the close proximity of the army), this attempt at breaking and entering was aborted.

Reports state, with some relief, that “no violence…was resorted to” that day in Penzance. Matters had been attended to without serious incident, and supplies would soon be winging their way to the mining districts, courtesy of the town’s authorities.

But such arrangements take time. The bushels would only begin to arrive in the inflicted areas from June 5. For many, this was simply not fast enough. For many strickened families, even buying food at reduced rates was frankly no longer an option. And many therefore decided that sitting tight in their squat cottages waiting for good news was no longer feasible. Talk, and plans, for a longer march, further east, must have been discussed. As would have been what the intentions were on reaching the proposed destination.

Thanks for reading

References

The Cornish Food Riots of 1847: Background and Context

Reading time: 15 minutes

The Famine Statues, Custom House Quay, Dublin. By Rowan Gillespie, 19971. The potato blight that caused the Irish Famine also hit Cornwall in the winter of 1846-7

In consequence, however, of the failure of the potato crop, prices had gone up beyond their expectation.

Report of the Annual Meeting of the Wadebridge Farmers’ Club, Royal Cornwall Gazette, 25 December 1846, p1

The moral economy of the Cornish crowd

Clay strikers, St Austell, 19134

Throughout the May and June of 1847, looting and riots were seen rather a lot.

The causes of the 1847 Riots

Free Trade protest, London, 1840s6

The fundamental conflict of a food riot was between builders of Britain’s Empire and commerce, who believed in operating a free inland trade in grain, and the lower orders who maintained that trade should be regulated in their interests, with corn to be sold at a ‘just’, or traditional price: the forces of modern economics meet the forces of folk traditions.

In Cornwall farmers preferred to sell their corn in bulk to factors, rather than piecemeal in local markets. These middlemen, of course, increased the price of corn and looked to export it from the county in an effort to maximise their profits. This is classic capitalism: buy in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest; or, take your supply to where the demand is willing to pay top mark. Obviously, the Cornish labouring poor could ill afford what they took to be inflated prices, and took a dim view of merchants of any stripe. As the crowd at Redruth told one factor in no uncertain terms that year, they believed that

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

Royal Cornwall Gazette, July 9, 1847, p1

Why write about the 1847 Riots?

…food rioting [in the rest of England] was already a thing of the past. In Cornwall the riots of 1847 were the final fling of this traditional form of protest.

John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006, p43

The Cornish Food Riots of 1847 are worthy of study because, at the time, they had a geographical heft significant enough to be a real cause of concern to the authorities. There were outbreaks in Wadebridge, Callington, Delabole, Camelford, St Austell and Breage. These were not isolated or localised incidents of a few dozen village roughs, putting the frighteners on the farmers and officials, to secure grain at an advantageous price before melting away to their cottages. 300 miners took to the streets of Helston. 3,000 demanded corn in Penzance. 2,000 in Pool. 5,000 faced off against the militia in Redruth. This was a concerted fight for survival, virtually county-wide.

Study of the Riots also give us an insight into the attitudes and culture of the people who lived then, through the reports on the events and individuals involved. There’s emboldened miners, self-righteous women, high-handed magistrates, dutiful constables and victimised merchants. There’s patronising lectures and short, impassioned speeches. There’s cowardice, and bravery. There’s handbills, and tip-offs. There’s negotiation, and violence. There’s fugitives from the law, and harsh punishments. In short, there’s a lot worthy of historical interest.

I’ve broken my work on the Cornish Food Riots of 1847 into four more separate posts:

  1. Part two takes in the tumults of Wadebridge, Callington, Delabole, Camelford, and St Austell. As they’re all linked, particular attention is given to the uprisings in Breage, Helston and Penzance.
  2. Part three discusses the rioting in Pool.
  3. Part four analyses the uproar in Redruth.
  4. Part five looks at the disturbances in St Austell, and summarises the events as a whole.

Click here to read part two: Rise of the Miners

With special thanks to Deana Schultz Wade, who recommended I start using footnotes.

References

The Notorious Beatrice Small, Fortune Teller

Reading time: 30 minutes

“Good Luck”, by Charles-Louis Baugniet, 1871

Costermongers, hawkers, and pedlars, a class of workers who live from hand to mouth more than those of any other class…

Jack London, The People of the Abyss, 1902, p265

…it is feared…any probable mischief in the increase of hawkers which may arise from the abolition of hawkers’ licenses…

Cornubian and Redruth Times, May 13 1870, p8

A gang of gypsies who for the last week have infested the neighbourhood…

Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 3 1822, p2

Liskeard Guildhall, October 12, 1898, was packed. There must have been a ripple of conversation and speculation – nothing would have been lost in the repetition. She had the power to read fortunes in peoples’ faces, they said. She could read your future in playing cards, they said. There could be unheard-of riches in your family, and property, they said. She had the power to cure the sick, they said. She bore the surname of the Gypsy King, they said.

And then the prisoner was led in. As if the nature of her alleged crimes weren’t extraordinary enough, the manner of her capture was equally singular. In an era when suspects were waylaid by the forces of law and order within a radius of a few miles of the offence, today’s centre of attention had been arrested in Jersey. Villagers craned their necks, journalists licked their pencils. Maybe amulets were clenched tightly; quite possibly one or two even crossed themselves.

Perhaps appreciating that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Beatrice Small had, for the big occasion, decked herself out in her best finery. The married lady was, observed the Totnes Weekly Times of October 15, of “small stature”, with an intelligent look to her features. Her outfit included a “gigantic brilliant tartan shawl”, a “spotless” black and white check apron, and what must have been a rather gaudy feathered hat, “typical of the tribe” (p8).

Grand entrance or not, Small was sentenced to six months hard labour for obtaining money by false pretences from the parishioners of Lanreath, St Stephens-by-Saltash, and Longdown, near Exeter.

I dwell on this courtroom scene as it gives us some insight into the character of Beatrice Small. She was clearly a larger-than-life figure, who knew how to cut a dash and make herself the centre of attention. She also knew how to play a role, a role her audience that day obviously expected of her, that of the gypsy fortune-teller. Her not infrequent brushes with the law aside, it was a role she must have been rather adept at playing. Beatrice Small roamed the countryside of South West Devon and South East Cornwall for over twenty years, preying on the superstitions and gullibility of those she met, and made a passable living out of it.

In her day, Beatrice Small truly was “notorious” (Western Evening Herald, January 21 1902, p3), a “well-known character in the Western Counties” (Totnes Weekly Times, October 8 1898, p5), and not just for her dubious merits as a fortune-teller. On that day in Liskeard, it’s apparent Small wished to project an image of herself as a more-or-less respectable ‘healing woman’, thus masking the more unsavoury aspects of her character. She was also, at various times, a con-artist and a thief. She’d known more gaol-time than was perhaps good for her, was probably over-fond of a drink, used language that would make a stevedore blush, and had intimate knowledge of domestic violence, both for and against. Perhaps most shamefully, she also neglected her children.

In fact, from the 1880s to the early 1900s, Small’s offences, and the locations in which these offences took place, are so numerous as to border on the bewildering. Therefore I believe it’s beyond the main scope of this post to itemise every time she fell foul of the law. However, the more curious reader is directed to the map below. Each marker contains details of the date, nature and judgement passed on Small’s crimes, and the newspaper in which they were reported.

The various locations of Beatrice Small, 1871-1905. Census returns are included. Feel free to zoom in

My primary focus is on Small’s activities as a fortune-teller, and the light these activities shine on the fears and beliefs of the rural populations of Devon and Cornwall in this period. Where these activities were brought to the attention of the authorities – and the press – they also show the prejudices inherent in the authorities’ attitudes towards people of Small’s background, and their scorn for what was viewed as outmoded, false beliefs. Quite simply, the people of the countryside still adhered to what Stephen Mitchell calls a “magical world view”, where everything is “connected in a chain of causation”, yet is at odds with, and inferior to, the world views of both religion and science (Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe, Ed. Blecourt and Davis, Manchester University Press, 2004, p21).

Hawker, Gypsy

Beatrice Glide was born in 1864, in Totnes, though when imprisoned in Bodmin Gaol in 1898, she claimed to have been born on the Channel Islands (Reg #469, Vol. AD1676/3/3). Her father was a hawker, a class of worker categorised by Charles Booth in his survey of London of the 1890s as “very poor”, indeed merely one degree above criminal (Penguin, 1971, p54-5). In 1880 she married Robert Gully Small (1842-1911), eventually bearing eleven children. This Robert Small must have been connected in some way to the “King of the Gypsies”, Robert Gulley Small, who died in 1884, aged 69. His obituary in the Devon Evening Express of August 25, 1884, noted that Small was the eldest of his “tribe” in the Westcountry, and had travelled “ever since his childhood”, acquiring “sufficient property” in Jersey (p3). (One of Beatrice’s children was born in the Channel Islands.) The Smalls were a “notorious family of gypsies”, noted the Western Evening Herald, of January 21 1902, p3, perhaps being victims of “oppression, harassment, discrimination, and of persistent efforts to outlaw and destroy their way of life” (Deborah Nord, Gypsies and the British Imagination 1807-1930, Columbia University Press, 2008, p3).

…Gypsies could be rounded up simply by virtue of their nomadic existence. For the offences of hawking, peddling, begging…telling fortunes or vagrancy (however defined), Gypsies could be prosecuted, fined, locked up or persistently harassed.

Gypsies and the British Imagination 1807-1930, p44
Thomasine Blight (1793–1856), the White Witch of Helston
Tammy Blee (1793-1856), the White Witch of Helston, by William Jones Chapman, Royal Cornwall Museum

Torquay, May-June 1883

Eliza Shepherd was a servant in a house on Woodend Road. Small had visited this residence several times, whether to tell fortunes, or hawk goods, or both, and perhaps sensed that Shepherd might be an easy mark to trim. One day she got Shepherd on her own and offered to tell her fortune, for sixpence. On being told she was the happy owner of a “lucky face”, Shepherd coughed up a shilling more. Then Beatrice turned the screw, telling Shepherd she had been

Ill-wished…

Beatrice Small, qtd. in the Torquay Times & South Devon Advertiser, June 9 1883, p6

Small said she would have to call back in a few days time, ostensibly to look into who had actually been ill-wishing the hapless housemaid, but presumably to also let Shepherd’s imagination get to work. Small left the girl one of her rings, suspended in a glass of water, the purpose of which, sadly, was unexplained.

To us, Eliza Shepherd may sound helplessly gullible, and Small’s charade a piece of risible hokum. However, in the Devon of the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a firm rural belief that cancerous growths could be caused by ill-wishing and malevolence – Shepherd, therefore, had reasons for concern. Ill-wishing could only be reversed by a pellar, by means of obtaining a sheep’s heart, sticking it with pins whilst reciting a formula, and hanging the heart in the chimney of the victim’s cottage. The evil inherent in the wish would then be reversed back onto the person or persons who had wished it (from “Charming in Devon”, by Theo Brown, Folklore, 81:1 (1970), p40).

Small returned on the arranged day, claiming to have been to London to trace the people who had ill-wished Shepherd. She produced three envelopes, each containing a photo of the three ill-wishers. Placing a coin in the glass of water with the ring in it, she told Shepherd that, when the coin floated to the top, she was to retrieve it, place it on the envelopes, then place it under her pillow for two hours. Only then could she open the envelopes to reveal the images of those who ill-wished her. Small had been giving these instructions to Shepherd from a book of hers, and now she asked Shepherd for a dark garment “to cross the book with”, at which point the girl produced a pair of black stockings. Money changed hands, and Small left.

But Beatrice had misjudged her target. PC Hockeridge was concealed in the parlour, seeing all and hearing all, acting on instructions from Eliza to be present on the day in question as a “woman was going to call to tell her fortune”. The envelopes were discovered in court to contain nothing but blank pieces of card, and the mysterious book Small had been consulting, Hockeridge noted, was nothing more than a pedlar’s certificate – Small’s license to hawk. He arrested her a little way up the road, with 8s 6d on her.

Small turned ugly, saying

…she could lay the servant on a bed of sickness…

Beatrice Small, Torquay Times & South Devon Advertiser, June 9 1883, p6

But she did no such thing, of course. Small was sentenced to two weeks hard labour for vagrancy by telling fortunes. Tellingly, although Eliza Shepherd had hardly been taken in by Small’s mummery, the judge in summing up stated that

…those people who encouraged such things as these deserved an equal term of imprisonment…

Torquay Times & South Devon Advertiser, June 9 1883, p6

In Victorian England, the victims of fortune telling were as culpable as those attempting to extort money from them. Both were guilty of holding true to outdated belief systems and therefore rejecting the massive advances of society in “rationalist and scientific orientation towards human nature, behaviour, and belief” (Louise Henson, “Half-Believing, Half Incredulous”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24:3 (2002), p251).

Aveton Gifford, December 1890

Fore Street, Aveton Gifford, 1904. Online Parish Clerk

John Masters was toiling in the fields near Aveton Gifford when a hawker came up to him, requesting a moment’s shelter at a nearby cottage. Masters led the lady to his home where, unprompted, she told him he was a lucky man, who “had a fortune coming to him”: £250. Masters’ eyes must have shone. If Masters were to give the lady ten shillings, she could get the money for him. Masters had no such ready coin, but paid the lady with threepence and a brace of chickens.

The next day, Beatrice Small (for it is she) returned, extorting a further two shillings from Masters, and doubtless filling his head with more tales of promised bounty. The day after that, Small was back again, claiming £5 was needed to engage the services of a lawyer she knew, in order to obtain the fortune. Small was prepared to stump up some of this sum herself, and Masters’ wife, now also taken in, borrowed £1 from her father to give to Small. The day after that, Small received a bag of potatoes and half-a-crown from Masters. Small, with some officiousness one imagines, noted Masters’ personal details for her lawyer, and gave Mr and Mrs Masters a small cloth bag of salt each. John was to wear his inside “the seat of his trousers”, and tell no one about it because

…it was a very difficult and particular business.

Beatrice Small, qtd. in the Western Morning News, December 30 1890, p3

Mrs Masters’ bag had to be worn beneath her “petticoats”, in order for Small to work her “in luck”.

A day after this, and hearing nothing more from his mysterious benefactor, Masters went to where Small’s tent had been pitched, only to find she had gone. Maybe the lucky charm in his trousers started itching. Maybe, somewhere, a donkey was braying, but whatever it was, Masters finally realised he’d been played for a fool. He and his wife had also parted with £2 7s 6d. Masters swallowed his pride, extracted the charm, and sought out the nearest magistrate, but the case was later dismissed.

(At the hearing Small claimed to have actually been engaged by Mrs Masters to ascertain the identities of two women she suspected her husband of being in love with.)

Whilst conning the Masters’, Small was also engaged in a similar merry-go-round with Mrs Mortimer of Aveton Gifford. To her had been promised a fortune of £245, and a house. Over a period of days, Small extorted 6s 6d from the Mortimers, as well as several chickens. She received two months hard labour at the Devon Quarter Sessions January 6, 1891. (From the Western Morning News, December 30 1890, p3, and the Western Times, January 7, 1891, p2.)

The Torquay and Aveton Gifford cases show Small’s sheer persistence and tenacity when she believed she’d come across some truly pliable locals. She was clearly skilled at playing her quarry over a relatively long period, with a well-rehearsed patter. There was the initial flattery of the mark having a “lucky face”, followed by the hook of them either having a fortune lying in wait for them somewhere, or being “ill wished”. Of course, getting the wish lifted or the cash to hand was a complex task, with details and difficulties being embellished with each visit by Small. Each visit, of course, would be punctuated by her extracting some money or goods from her victim – never a large amount (for they could never afford it!), but, taken cumulatively, it was often pretty substantial by the time Small decided it was time for her to up sticks and leave.

Also part of her act was the mysteriousness: the spells, the charms, the lawyer in London, etc. All served to further flatter – and bewilder – the credulous country folk who were her prey. They would have identified Small as a white witch or pellar, and therefore a person to be treated with respect, if not caution. As we saw at Torquay, it was a fine line between white witchcraft – having an ill-wish lifted – and black witchcraft, when Small was heard to utter she could have Eliza Shepherd on a “bed of sickness”, if she so desired.

Small’s prison record, Exeter Jail. UK Calendar of Prisoners, 1868-1929

And this could be no hollow threat. For example, in 1857 Isaac Rushwood, a wizard from Leeds, was sentenced to eighteen months in a “most disgusting” case. His “dupe”, Ritty Littlewood, had been driven insane by his antics, and was removed to an asylum. Since his conviction, Rushwood had let it be known that Littlewood would be haunted by devils, and would die in prison. So afflicted was poor Littlewood that she was inclined to clawing the skin from her face, and had to be confined in a straitjacket. (From the Cornish Telegraph, July 25 1857, p3.)

As we shall see, Small’s technique altered little over the years, and from this we may deduce that it was a rather successful, if immoral, way of making a living. We must remember that the only incidents of her fortune telling we know of are the intermittent ones where she got caught, and are therefore documented. What is unknowable is the amount of people who were completely taken in by her patter, and parted with their hard-earned cash sincerely in the belief that they would, one day, be rich. Equally unknowable are the numbers of people who actually did realise, sooner or later, that they’d been conned, but were too embarrassed to report the crime. Masters must have blushed to his roots when he recounted in court the tale of the cloth bag down his trousers (which elicited much laughter), and this fear of public ridicule must have made many give pause before running to the authorities. Also, how many men and women in late 1800s Devon were walking around with bags of salt on their person, convinced that this minor discomfort was somehow ‘working luck’ in their favour?

St Marychurch, Torquay, 1894

Fore Street, St Marychurch, 1910. Babbacombe and St Marychurch History Society

Mary Jane Perring, servant, didn’t want to buy the lace she was being offered from the lady who appeared at the back door one day. She didn’t really want her fortune told either, with a pack of playing cards, but Beatrice Small was insistent. After a while, and perhaps realising that Perring wasn’t overly enamoured of this approach, Small asked her for half-a-crown, which of course Perring didn’t have. Why not give me something else, then, said Small, to

…weigh down the planet?

Beatrice Small, Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser, August 3 1894, p3

Perring handed over a bodice and a nightdress, and sent her on her way. A few days later Small returned, without the clothes, still in search of money. Perring, evidently not overawed, still had no money, so Small asked for more clothing, with which to “weigh the planet down”, and produced her playing cards once more, but Perring was obviously something of a stubborn character and Small retreated, empty-handed.

Perring didn’t report the incident, but someone else did, and the Chairman of Torquay Police Court, recalling Small’s previous convictions, sentenced her to three months, with hard labour. (From the Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser, August 3 1894, p3.)

Over the years, Small must have realised that some people were, quite simply, not easily taken. Mary Jane Perring is an example of one such. How many more must have listened to Small’s performances by the back doors of their cottages with an amused, detached air, and sent her quickly and quietly on her way with a small consideration?

The inciting of the “planets” and the heavens in these very uncelestial goings-on was a not uncommon trope amongst fortune tellers. In a 1905 case in West Cornwall two women were given three months hard labour each: they were said to have been “working on the planets” to find property for their mark whilst taking her money. The judge, in sentencing, called the lady prosecuting not just a superstitious woman, but an “absolutely wicked” woman: were it not for the likes of her, fortune-tellers and their ilk would cease to exist. (From Lake’s Falmouth Packet, 28 July 1905, p7.)

Basically, people putting their faith in fortune-tellers and healers of all stripes was little more than a rejection of the advances in education and science made during the nineteenth-century. It was also a rejection of faith in the power of God. (From Lake’s Falmouth Packet, August 25 1905, p8.)

Ware Cross, Kingsteington, 1896

Fore Street Kingsteington. From Fore Street Barbers

Elizabeth Veale of Ware Cross was terrified. She’d been ill, as Beatrice Small had correctly observed, but now the gypsy woman was telling her this illness had been caused by witchcraft, courtesy of one of her neighbours. Veale “would die”, Small callously told her, unless she worked two charms, on Elizabeth and her husband, to have the witchcraft removed. Small wasn’t about to practice her magic out of kindness, however: £3 was the sum required to save Elizabeth’s life. Small acquired fowls, and bag of potatoes, and over £1 in money: total value, £2 11s 6d. She was sentenced to two months, with hard labour. (From the Western Times, December 11 1896, p6.)

Into Cornwall and the Channel Islands, 1898

Main Street, Lanreath, 1800s. Lanreath Parish Council

We come here to the events which opened this post. It became known as the “Chancery Myths” case, and was covered in several newspapers: the Totnes Weekly Times (8 and 15 October), the Western Morning News, (October 10 and 19), and the Royal Cornwall Gazette (October 13). Small went on some kind of fortune telling spree in the spring of 1898, extorting around £21 from the parishioners of Lanreath and St Stephens-by-Saltash. (There was, at the time of her arrest, an outstanding warrant on her for telling fortunes in Longdown, near Exeter.) £21 in 1898 was the staggering sum of £2,700 in 2020, which tells us she must have hit a rich vein of untapped credulity in these areas.

This was fraud on a large scale.

Small’s modus operandi was a familiar one. People, lots of them, were told they had “lucky faces”, and that there was money (the usual sum was £600) waiting for them to be collected “in Chancery”: a fortune she foretold for them by “cutting the cards”. Of course, Small could get the money – for a fee. Not content with this, she also claimed to be able to cure a Lanreath man of his “delicate” health.

It took several months to hunt Small down, but, once the police were aware of who they were looking for, it can’t have been especially difficult. She was traced back into Devon where, acting on a tip, she was discovered to be in Jersey, lying low with her Small brethren.

There may have been many of her fraternity waiting to denounce her. Several times over the years she had been involved in fights in public houses with other members of the Small family. For example, in 1884, Small prosecuted two of her female relatives for beating her up in a Newton Abbot pub. It must have been a particularly brutal spectacle. One of these relatives had lost both her hands in a “railway accident”, and promised Beatrice she would

…give it to her with her stumps.

Sophie Small, East and South Devon Advertiser, September 27 1884, p7

This she did, smashing Beatrice up against a wall with a haymaker.

On returning from Jersey in handcuffs, Small pleaded guilty at the trial, and as her offence was a “very serious” one, she was handed six months in gaol, with hard labour. Tellingly, before she was led away, Small asked the judge if she was liable to be arrested again at the expiration of her sentence: clearly not all her recent activities had been uncovered by the case of the Chancery Myths. Indeed, she was only convicted for a total sum of just under £16 (Kresen Kernow ref. QS 1/21/399, 18 October, 1898).

Beatrice Small needed the countryside to operate. She needed remote villages, and detached households. There would be less witnesses, and hopefully more impressionable, less-worldly people to dupe. She would have no fixed abode, making a moonlight flit all the easier once she had exhausted all the possibilities – and the wallets – of a given area. For example, the 1891 census captures the Small family in a tent, on St Cleer Downs.

Detail, 1891 Census

Hence, even though she lived in Plymouth for a couple of years (including John Lane in the 1901 census, and the aptly-named Hawker’s Avenue), there is no record of her telling fortunes there. This doesn’t mean, of course, that she didn’t cut the cards during her sojourn in the city, but the chances of her making a sustained run at extortion by fortune-telling were greatly reduced. For a start, she had a regular address, and regular neighbours. There was also a regular police force. Locals might have been less readily taken in by her tales. In any case, it seems city life didn’t suit the Smalls: Beatrice was assaulted twice, was fined for being drunk and disorderly, and received a caution when attempting to throw herself off Plymouth Hoe whilst intoxicated. They were soon back on the road.

Final cases: Quethiock, 1902, Teignmouth, 1903

St Hugo's Church 1908, Quethiock
Quethiock, 1908, Francis Frith

The “Extraordinary Credulity” displayed in the Quethiock case bears all the trappings of a classic Beatrice Small manoeuvre. Mr and Mrs Adams, of Blunts, Quethiock, were first told that someone had put an ill-wish on them, and that she could halt the curse – for money. Next, they were told £110 was waiting for them, in Chancery. For a fee, Small could engage a lawyer to get it for them. This took place over a period of days, with Small saying, of course, she needed something to “go on the planet”.

Small was sentenced to three months, the judge remarking that

…he wished he could send such credulous people who were so easily gulled to half that period.

Western Evening Herald, August 18 1902, p2

The Teignmouth episode bears out my earlier observation, that the remoter the area, the easier it is to carry out a little clandestine card reading. Beatrice and her daughter, also Beatrice, were attempting to entice a barmaid in a pub, but the conversation was overheard by a local policemen, and the two women were picked up. The case was dismissed. (Teignmouth Post, March 6 1903, p5.)

Beatrice Small who married Belcher
Beatrice Beatie Small, 1886-1954. Courtesy of Debra Hughes

This was the last recorded instance of Beatrice Small telling fortunes, though of course she had several other convictions after this, and actually lived until 1947. After the early 1900s, however, it’s apparent that her daughter Beatrice starts appearing in newspaper reports, and separating mother from daughter has proven difficult.

Beatrice was living in Taunton, on her own means. Maybe, every now and then, she gave card readings. She was once quoted in the East and South Devon Advertiser of May 9, 1905 as saying that you would have to be very wide awake to catch “old Mother Small” (p5). I suspect that remained so for many years.

Many thanks

Sister Helen and Saint Barnabas

Reading time: 1 hour

Sister Helen Phillipps-Treby, St Barnabas Hospital, 1925. Courtesy of Saltash Heritage

Would to God that every district in the land had its cottage hospital, where the suffering poor could receive the best medical skill and nursing.

Rev. Canon Bush, dedicatory service to St Barnabas Hospital, reported in the Western Morning News, 12 December 1888, p5.

St Barnabas (“Son of Consolation”) Cottage Hospital and Convalescent Home on Higher Port View, Saltash, opened on May 13, 1889. The Western Daily Mercury announced that its main purpose was to receive “persons suffering from accident, non-contagious or non-infectious diseases, especially those convalescing from illness, who are discharged from hospitals and not sufficiently strong to resume their work” (April 27, 1889, p2).

The building of the hospital had been proposed and funded by Mrs Caroline Ley, in remembrance of her late husband, the Rev. Richard Ley. Running to a cost of £4,500, St Barnabas was certainly a state-of-the-art institution. The rooms were “well lighted and cheerful”, with particular attention paid to “sanitary arrangements”: every ward had its own toilet. There was a heating chamber, a kitchen, a dining room, a scullery, an ice-house, a laundry and a mortuary. The whole building was heated by hot water pipes, there was a good source of water from a well on the site, and a lift communicated with “the upper landing”.

There were two male wards, two female wards, a childrens’ ward, and a day room – a capacity of ten adults and three children. The Sisters had their own room which opened on to a verandah, and a separate bedroom. These Sisters could also be alerted to any ward by a system of “pneumatic” bells, and indeed had windows through which they could keep an eye on their patients. The east side of the hospital was given over to an “exceedingly pretty little chapel”, and beside the in-house surgery and entrance lobby there was “a recess” in which an ambulance was stored, for use “at a moment’s notice”. The operating room was also located near the entrance lobby, enabling urgent procedures “to be taken there direct”. (From the Western Morning News, December 12, 1888, p5.)

St Barnabas Hospital | saltash.org

In practice, of course, things were very different. A former patient of St Barnabas felt moved to write to his local newspaper in 1897, stating that the hospital is

Open to all creeds and no creeds, and all religious denominations without distinction…and, does such great work for the sick and suffering poor…

“A Grateful and Former Patient”, Western Morning News, June 10, 1897, p8

Of course, like any medical institution, the Sisters of St Barnabas were honour-bound to respond to an emergency, whether those in need had the requisite funds or not. One evening in 1903 Alfred Turpin, a drayman, whoa’d his horse and cart laden with barrels of ale to a stop at the top of the hill on Fore St, Saltash. He jumped off and knelt down to carry out some running maintenance to his vehicle, but the horse “went on”. Turpin was knocked under the cart, “and two wheels passed over his back”, fracturing his ribs. He was quickly conveyed to St Barnabas Hospital. The horse, in an absolute orgy of destruction, ran amok, careering into Silver St where it fell and knocked the cart flying, hitting over a lamp post, smashing a window shutter, and flooding the streets with ale. Alas, nothing could be done for Turpin. He died that night, in agony. (From Lake’s Falmouth Packet, 15 August 1903, p3.)

Fore Street, Saltash. Courtesy of Saltash Heritage

The 1891 census captures the early make-up of St Barnabas Hospital. Besides Margaret Powles, the Sister-in-Charge, there were five other Sisters of Charity present, one nurse, and a servant. Only these last two would have been earning earning anything like a wage. There were five patients and three visitors. As you can see below, the Sisters, and their guests, truly were daughters of Empire, hailing from all corners of the globe.

St Barnabas Hospital, 1891 Census

In 1894, the Wantage Sisterhood was replaced by the Order of St Margaret’s of East Grinstead, West Sussex. Among the Sisters of St Margaret who came to St Barnabas was Helen Phillipps-Treby: Sister Helen.

By 1896, Sister Helen was Head Nurse of St Barnabas Hospital. She soon took over the management.

She retired in 1951.

Though seldom recalled today, Sister Helen became the embodiment of St Barnabas Hospital. The span of her career covered some momentous changes in nursing and society, and the way nursing was viewed by this rapidly changing society. The story of Sister Helen is also the story of the early years of St Barnabas Hospital.

Landue House in 1990
Landue House, Launceston

It’s unclear as to what motivated Sister Helen to take the veil. When she was growing up in the 1870s, observes Monica Baly in Nursing and Social Change (Routledge, 1994), later marriages, a falling birth-rate, young men emigrating because of Empire, and economic depression produced a “pool” of middle-class spinsters who had nothing to look forward to but “idleness in the home” (p124). This context, allied to Florence Nightingale’s reforms of nursing and the medical advances including those of Pasteur and Lister (p100-24), created a “new image of the hospital nurse” who was “associated with doctors, science, and cure” (p124). In short, the Victorian era made nursing respectable, it opened a path to the fulfilment of Christian duty, and it didn’t involve competition with men.

Sister Helen wasn’t, however, a nurse of Nightingale’s new model army. As Sioban Nelson argues in Say Little, Do Much: Nurses, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century (Pennysylvania University Press, 2001), the “triumphant” story of Nightingale’s reforms “obscures” the dedication of nursing nuns to hospital care. It was, states Nelson, the “vowed labor” of the nuns that “built so much of the health care system that we take for granted today” (p2-3). Furthermore, according to Nelson, in the nineteenth century “nursing innovators were all religious women”, yet the work of vowed nurses came to be “ignored or trivialized, always depicted as a preparatory stage to real nursing” (p5). Secularisation, therefore, equalled “proper” nursing; the nursing nuns, of which Sister Helen was such a one, were pre-professional. Nelson’s book seeks to rebut this stance, illustrating how nursing nuns were also in the vanguard of nineteenth century advances in hospital care, becoming not just nurses but managers, administrators, and negotiators in the public domain. Sister Helen was one of these nurses.

Photo of East Grinstead, St Margaret's Convent 1909
St Margaret’s Convent, East Grinstead, 1891. From Francis Frith

Maybe it had been an easy decision for her to make; maybe it was out of desperation. Either way, she was turning her back on a leisurely, middle-class life as the daughter of a well-off, decorated, and rather eminent, soldier. She would never marry, bear children, or earn a wage. She would have no independent or individual life of her own: all decisions regarding where she worked, with whom, and for whom, were dictated by the Superior at East Grinstead. Sister Helen’s life, her religious life, would be formed by a pragmatic attention to the needs of those around her. It was to be a life of hardship, but this hardship would be turned, through her spiritual training, into “exercises in obedience and humility”. Sister Helen was now on “God’s mission” (Nelson, p1).

Guy’s Hospital, 1891 Census
Engraving of Guy's Hospital.
Guy’s Hospital, how it probably looked in Sister Helen’s day. From King’s College London

Sister Helen must have come to St Barnabas Hospital in 1894 as no green recruit. She was already an experienced nurse from a busy, sprawling metropolitan institution, who had seen and dealt with first-hand the ravages of an epidemic. Little surprise, then, that by 1901 at least, she was Head Nurse. By 1911, if not before, she was in charge of the overall operation of St Barnabas Hospital.

Census records, St Barnabas, 1901 and 1911

Sister Helen’s concerns were therefore fiscal, as well as spiritual.

Before 1914, the hospital witnessed several improvements, and the odd setback. The pamphlet compiled by the League of Friends on St Barnabas (1999) tells us that in 1896 and 1897 St Barnabas was forced to close for five weeks, owing to a water shortage: clearly the old well on the grounds was beginning to prove inadequate. The solution was provided by Saltash Town Council, who laid a permanent supply in November 1897. Though in its infancy, Sister Helen’s Hospital was already gaining a reputation for two things that seemed to be a constant during her long tenure: excellent care, and shortage of funds. One patient wrote that the sisters’

…spare neither time nor trouble to make their patients’ happy…by careful nursing endeavour…it is above all praise…this Hospital may receive a larger share of sympathy and support from the charitable and generous public…

“A Grateful and Former Patient”, Western Morning News, June 10, 1897, p8

The above letter-writer stated that all donations should be sent to the Sister-in-Charge: Sister Helen. And perhaps this person’s appeal reached the right ears. By 1912, notes the League of Friends pamphlet, building improvements had been made and a new operating theatre installed. In 1913, 94 patients were treated, nine operations were successfully carried out, and there were no deaths.

Operating theatre, St Barnabas Hospital. Courtesy of Saltash Heritage

…War Office tried to persuade individual hospitals to give up beds for war casualties, persuasion that had to be backed by considerable subsidy.

Monica Baly, Nursing and Social Change, p141

In short, the Government pumped money into hospitals in return for beds and treatment of wounded Tommies. Naturally, the traditionally cash-strapped hospitals feared the consequences of this sudden influx of riches drying up; the net result was the embryonic beginnings of a government-sponsored health service. As Head Sister of St Barnabas and holder of the hospital’s purse strings, Sister Helen’s institution would have benefited greatly from the new state of affairs.

But the money was hard-earned. As early as August 12, 1914, it was announced that the doors of St Barnabas would be “thrown open” to receive the wounded (Western Morning News, p3). The League of Friends pamphlet tells us that 646 soldiers were received at St Barnabas Hospital in the war years, plus civilian admissions. (It was also a Section Military Hospital for over a year.) Admissions before the outbreak of war, was, as we have seen, 94 patients in 1913. If these figures are accurate, then St Barnabas’s average annual intake of patients between 1914 and 1918 was around 255. That’s an increase of approximately 36%.

Shocking: British Pathe footage filmed during World War One shows traumatised soldiers displaying terrible symptoms such as tics and uncontrollable shakes
Shell shock victim suffering a fit, Seale Hayne military hospital, Newton Abbott
Hospital ward, Antwerp, Belgium
Amputees at the military hospital
Amputees, Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Hampshire

This massive increase in patients as a result of war, and the emancipation of women with the Representation of the People Act of 1918, led to a new infusion of women entering careers in nursing. Estimates from the 1901 census showed that, of the 67,000 women stating their occupations as a nurse or a midwife, only 25-30,000 of these were actually formally trained. By 1917, there was now 45,000 trained nurses in Britain. And the demographic was changing too. In 1901, 45% of these women were either married or widowed; by 1931, this figure is put at 12%. Reform and war made nursing almost the sole preserve of the young, single woman. (From Baly, Nursing and Social Change, p125, 140-2.)

But theory and training is one thing, practice is another. And who would have been better to provide all three than the experienced Sisters of St Barnabas? Sister Helen had seen Russian Flu first hand; one of her patients (possibly more than one) had TB. In 1904, there was an outbreak of typhoid in the St Germans district – sufferers were moved to St Barnabas (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 August 1904, p7). Soldiers from the Western Front would have presented a whole new chapter of learning on the job. And Sister Helen ensured St Barnabas had the means with which to move with the times. We do not have the original letters she must have written, the communications to local businesses and townspeople, the levels of organisation and commitment, the dialogues with ordinary townspeople, or the simple goodhearted donations the hospital received anon. But we do know they happened.

In 1893, as told in the League of Friends pamphlet, St Barnabas regularly received gifts of rabbits (though no mention is made of whose land they were snared on), and what must have been the prized present of a washing machine (manually operated, of course). In 1898, the Mayor of Saltash arranged a carnival for the town, the proceeds of which were to be donated to the hospital (Royal Cornwall Gazette, December 1, p7).

After 1918, the voluntary hospitals found themselves in financial difficulty. A fall in donations, coupled with increasing costs, resulted in a government grant of £1 million being proposed. Only half was ever delivered (Baly, Nursing and Social Change, p161). St Barnabas, and Sister Helen, had to find other ways to fill the coffers. In 1926, the vegetables presented at St Stephens District Show were all donated to St Barnabas (Cornish Guardian, September 24). A year later, the Board of St Germans Guardians granted the sum of £3 3s for the hospital’s upkeep (Cornish Guardian, January 7, 1927, p14; the same ‘paper reported the same amount granted in 1930 – January 30, p3).

“Oyez! Oyez!”, advertised the Cornish Guardian of September 27, 1928. A jumble sale in aid of the hospital was to be held in Saltash, under the patronage of the Mayor and Mayoress, Mr and Mrs Venn (p8). In February 1930 Saltash Guildhall held a Valentine Dance, to raise money for more hospital beds. We get a flavour here of the fag end of the Roaring Twenties and the era of Big Band jazz. For the night, the Guildhall was decorated with fairy lights, Chinese lanterns, and flowers. Music was provided by the brilliantly named Miami Band. One imagines none of the members were from Miami. Another ball aimed at improving the finances of the hospital was held in 1931; this time, however, the tunes were courtesy of Fullbrook’s Royal Hotel Dance Band. (Cornish Guardian, February 20, 1930, p4, and February 2, 1931, p8.)

Burraton Vegetable Show donated all its produce in 1930, as did the show at St Stephens in 1931 (Cornish Guardian, August 28, 1930, p10, and September 3, 1931, p5). At the St Barnabas AGM of 1931 Sister Helen “expressed gratitude” for all the voluntary help received – but as always more was required (Cornish Guardian, April 2, p4). And the help kept coming. In October 1939 a lady of Saltash left £100 in her will to St Barnabas; that same year x-ray equipment was anonymously donated (Cornish Guardian, October 5, p9, Western Morning News, April 21, p4).

Sister Helen was the indefatigable epicentre of all this philanthropic activity. She, and her Sisters, went from house to house in Saltash, begging, in between regular hospital duties. She developed, and of course worked in, the hospital garden, wielding hoe and spade, in order to put vegetables on the table. Patients’ meals were personally attended to by her in the kitchen. Whatever spare time she might have had was dedicated “to making cakes and preserves for the benefit of the hospital funds” (Western Morning News, August 19, 1939, p10). Lest we forget, Sister Helen ran a hospital too. A hospital that, under her management, was forever modernising and expanding.

In 1923, writes the League of Friends, electricity was installed, at a cost of £450. In 1927 an adjoining house was purchased – this annex, the Claremont Wing, was used as a maternity ward, with a separate ward for the chronically sick. In 1931, a new luxury was added: the wireless. Each bed at St Barnabas Hospital now came equipped with its own earphones (Cornish Guardian, April 2, p4).

Listening to the platters that matter, Cardiff Hospital, c1935. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the eve of World War II, Sister Helen reported a total number of patient admissions of 361, testament to the expansions, reforms, and new equipment (Western Morning News, April 21, 1939, p4).

There were setbacks, of course. Marion Crooke had been a patient at St Barnabas in 1922. After her recovery, she continued to live at the hospital, mainly digging and weeding alongside Sister Helen in the garden, where she gained a reputation as a “hard worker”. One morning in December 1931, Sister Helen asked Crooke to reduce the number of flowers she was growing – there had been complaints in Saltash that the hospital had been producing “too many”. Crooke flew into a rage, threatened to leave St Barnabas, and stormed off. The next morning, Crooke was discovered by a Saltash resident, lying in a field, with a service revolver close by. She had shot herself. The coroner returned a verdict of “Suicide by shooting whilst of an unsound mind.” “Much sympathy” was extended to Sister Helen and her staff (Cornish Guardian, December 10, 1931, p5). Sister Helen’s reaction to the violent death of a lady she had known, treated, and looked after for the best part of ten years is unknown.

On July 18, 1938, Christine Petherick, a “young hospital maid” of 26, began her first shift at St Barnabas Hospital. She had, commented Sister Helen, unpacked all her clothes and arranged her room as though she had intended to settle down and stay. Sister Helen had also been impressed by the girl’s personal appearance, but had heard that Petherick “suffered from a slight nervous affliction”, and was prone to losing her memory. On July 19, Petherick disappeared, launching a search for her that extended over Cornwall and into Devon. On August 1, she was found, safe but malnourished, in a chicken shed in Looe, where she had been for “two or three days”. Where her wanderings had taken her in the meantime are a mystery. (From the Western Morning News, 1 August 1938, p5, and August 2, p6).

The nature of the institution of which Sister Helen was a member – The Order of East Grinstead – and her financial management occasionally fell under scrutiny as well. At the hospital’s 1926 AGM, in front of the Mayor of Saltash, she rebutted the beliefs amongst some that St Margaret’s of East Grinstead reaped “pecuniary advantage” from St Barnabas. People were accusing the nuns of siphoning off the hospital’s funds, and that the books were being cooked. You can almost hear the sharp, emphatic tone of Sister Helen’s voice when she said that

This is not so.

Sister Helen, in the Western Morning News, February 18, 1926, p3

She went on to demonstrate the hospital’s financial state and that, far from beliefs to the contrary, the Mother Superintendent of East Grinstead actually sent £25 annually to the parish Church fund, in recognition of the local vicar’s work at St Barnabas. Sister Helen, in this instance, is truly a public figure, defending her hospital, her order, the people she works for, and the people who work for her. She was also defending her religion, which may have been more of a battle than is perhaps realised now. It was noted in 1939 that the hospital had been “fighting against an undercurrent of prejudice” during its earlier years – prejudice against the Catholic religion. How many doors had been slammed in the Sisters’ faces on one of their countless begging excursions, how many insults? How many letters ignored? (From the Western Morning News, 19 August, 1939, p10.)

1939 was the year of the greatest setback for St Barnabas, and for the town of Saltash in general. And it wasn’t the beginning of the war.

Saltash residents are faced with a grave situation concerning St Barnabas Hospital…

Sisterhood “Bombshell” for Saltash, Western Morning News, August 19, 1939, p7

They certainly were. The Mother Superior of the Order of East Grinstead had taken the decision to “withdraw the Matron, Sister Helen, and her three assistants”. They were to leave on New Year’s Day, 1940. Three weeks before the news was made public, a letter arrived from the Mother Superior which was read by the three medics concerned with the hospital, stating that the Sisters would be withdrawn and that, in effect, the trusteeship of St Barnabas would pass into new hands. The medics wrote at once to the Mother Superior, protesting her decision, but the reply was non-negotiable: East Grinstead, and Sister Helen, were pulling out. This, commented one medic, was nothing short of a “bombshell”.

Reading the ‘papers, it easy to see that Drury must have given a hell of a speech. If Sister Helen and her colleagues were to leave, they were losing forty-five out of the fifty years of the hospital’s life. They were losing Sister Helen, a lady from a family “whose name is well-known in the West of England”, who was therefore able to command “a certain amount of influential interest”. Drury sketched the arduous labours of the Sisters, such as the begging, the fundraising, the gardening, and, above all, the nursing, all of which was “unpaid, of course”.

By their wonderful serenity, patience and devoted lives, the Sisters have won the admiration and gratitude of the community, and Saltash has at last realized that it has in its midst a hospital unique, because of a certain atmosphere it possesses…

Col. Drury, Western Morning News, August 19, 1939, p10

Drury attributed this atmosphere, indefinable but appreciated by all who were a patient at St Barnabas, to Sister Helen. Such was her selflessness, noted Drury, that even so she had been informed by her Superior of her departure eleven months before the announcement was made public, she had been sworn to secrecy, and had obviously kept this promise. Drury stated that the proposed, compromised, and what looks like, in hindsight, cobbled-together trusteeship, would mean losing that “loving personal touch for something far more formal”. Just as, in Drury’s opinion, St Barnabas was reaching the peak of its “efficiency and prosperity”, the whole situation was to be arbitrarily “uprooted”.

Drury went on to pan the decision of the East Grinstead Superior. No member of an Order “questions” a decision made by the head of that Order, yet, Drury added, “it is a cruel” rule, reminiscent “of the Middle Ages”, carried out in a “high-handed manner”. (From the Western Morning News, August 19, 1939, p7, 10.)

What Sister Helen made of all this is anyone’s guess. How she was expected to react is blithely set out in the writings of an Abbott from Dublin in 1967:

…if, at the request of her religious superior, a Sister is sent from one area of the country to another, she can do so immediately. There is no house to sell, no family members to consider, and no concerns about whether it is the right place for her to be. This, in turn, leaves her free to undertake the work or activity for which she was sent, without guilt feelings for those left behind and for what might have been.

Quoted in “Daughter of Charity”, by Celeste Bowe, International History of Nursing Journal, 2001, 6(2): 75-9

Now, that’s an easy thing to read; it’s pretty easy for me to type. But it would take the stoniest of hearts to turn your back on a place where you have lived and worked, ceaselessly, for nearly fifty years, without a twinge of regret. Through no choice of your own, the hospital you took over, extended, modernised, and ran in your own image, you would never see again. Her fellow Sisters of Charity, with whom she had toiled for forty years, would be leaving too, but not with her. That would have been one of the hardest goodbyes. Sister Helen must have known that, sooner or later, she would have to retire, and leave St Barnabas. But not this way. The news, I feel certain, must have hurt. Perhaps Col. Drury was right to describe the Grinstead Superior’s decision as a hangover from the Middle Ages.

Or maybe I’m being unfair. The quote above says the Sister was expected to leave her post immediately. At least Sister Helen’s Superior gave her eleven months to come to terms with the prospect, a prospect she couldn’t – and didn’t – share with anyone.

St Barnabas Hospital, 1939 England and Wales Register. Carried out in September of that year, with the purpose of producing National Identity Cards, it was updated over time and formed the basis for the National Health Service Register of 1948. The records that are blanked out are for patients who are possibly still alive.

As a result of the war, the Government finally had a “new role as an employer of nurses” (Baly, Nursing and Social Change, p172): all nurses’ wages were reimbursed to the hospitals by the Government. By 1941, there was 80,000 nursing staff in England and Wales, all under the remit of the Division of Nursing, which had been created at the Ministry of Health in that year. The Nurses’ Act of 1943 inaugurated a professional code of conduct, a pay scale, a regulation of working hours, holidays and sick pay (Baly, Nursing and Social Change, p168-73). The more “formal” approach of how hospitals were run, and how their employees were treated, an approach Col. Drury cautioned against regarding St Barnabas in 1939, was rapidly becoming a reality. World War II heralded the birth of the NHS.

All this didn’t make work at St Barnabas any easier. Throughout the war, the Western Morning News is littered with job advertisements for the hospital, most of them required “immediately” (December 5, 1940, p4). As before 1939, volunteers helped take up the slack, such as Elizabeth Pearce, from Forder, who went to St Barnabas to help because

…they were short staffed…the camp at Wearde was full of military wounded…When Plymouth was bombed it was full. One day we hadn’t slept for nights because of the bombs so my father took the lorry with blankets and pillows to find somewhere quiet. We drove out to a wood a few miles away and slept out under the trees…

Elizabeth May Pearce, Kresen Kernow, ref. AV1/252

Not everyone contributed positively to Saltash’s Home Front, however. One evacuee from London stole money from the house at which he had been billeted, and attempted to return home, saying he would “rather be bombed” than live in the country (Western Morning News, June 26, 1941, p4).

And through it all, St Barnabas Hospital provided care, with bomb victims, civilians, and military wounded receiving treatment (Western Morning News, May 2, 1941, p5, and July 20, 1942, p4). Yet still the problems of funding and staff remained. In January 1947 the first dance since 1939 was held to raise money for the hospital (Western Morning News, January 25, p2). In 1948, probationer nurses were desperately needed, with the threat of wards having to close. Of course, now, a definite salary could be offered to applicants: £50/annum (Cornish Guardian, August 26, p2).

In 1949, the 55 years continuous service of Sister Helen was formally acknowledged in a presentation ceremony at the hospital. One of the dignitaries was amazed to note that, in the 60 or so years of St Barnabas’ existence, it had been run in practically all that time by one woman.

The advent of the NHS had done little to change the nature of the regime at the hospital:

But it is certain that unless the spirit of voluntary service, well represented by Sister Helen, is continued, the Service will not do what we want it to do.

Mr H. W. Woollcombe, Chair, Plymouth, South Devon, and East Cornwall General Hospital Management Committee, Western Morning News, November 2, 1949, p3

In effect, the embryonic NHS needed people like Sister Helen, which is ironic, considering how the Vatican of the period had been hardening its stance over women in active roles. The Sisters of Charity were about to move “out of the professional limelight” (Nelson, Say Little, Do Much, p162). The Sisters of St Barnabas’ days were numbered.

And even Sister Helen could not go on forever. On her retirement in 1951, at the age of 85, she had seen the role of nursing evolve into a government-sponsored career with a regular, fixed wage, for young women. When she had begun, women weren’t even allowed to vote and the nursing vocation was in its infancy. St Barnabas Hospital was now funded by a local authority and not reliant on handouts, volunteers, and begging missions. Medical care, thanks to the NHS, was now free for all, and not just mainly for people with a decent income. The building itself, once without electricity or running water, had been modernised and extended to include a maternity ward and operating theatre. It grew its own produce. Sister Helen’s hospital had received over 8,000 patients, according to her obituary, through two epoch-making world wars, a Depression, and the formation of the modern welfare state. The hospital she had helped create was renowned throughout the community for its level of care and professionalism.

And Sister Helen never received a penny.

Sister Helen died on October 22, 1958. She was 91. Her obituary in the Cornish Guardian of October 30 was three short paragraphs, on page two.

With special thanks to Hayley Hillman, Bruce Hunt of Saltash Heritage, and Mary Shears of the League of Friends