Society, Religion and Politics in the Nineteenth Century

Society, Religion and Politics in the Nineteenth Century

As the 18th century drew to its close Cornwall still remained one of the remotest areas of the kingdom. Roads were primitive, ‘the worst in all England’, complained one traveller, while there was little familiarity with wider national or international affairs before the first county newspaper began in 1801. The accounts of smuggling and wrecking clearly point to a fairly widespread disrespect for the law, and the rather contemptuous observations of several up-country travellers indicate that the Cornish were generally thought of as uncouth barbarians, steeped in superstition and more pagan than Christian. One Penzance businessman complained in 1803 that whenever he visited London he met with the preconceived view that in Cornwall ‘the underground inhabitants (piskeys) are the most numerous. . . the above-ground gentlemen are called smugglers.. . those who are not stone-eaters are cannabils’. If the Cornish language had finally expired, the particular version of spoken English which replaced it was still a hurdle to be surmounted, James Forbes noting that ‘it requires some attention to understand the miners and the lower classes of the people’. Other visitors were disdainful of some of the social habits, complaining, for example, that ‘both men, women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and soe sit round the fire smoaking’, while the local gentry were often no more complimentary. To Edward Giddy of Tredrea near Marazion, his neighbours were prone to ‘perjury, drunkeness, idleness, poverty, contempt of the law, and a universal corruption of manners’.

It was easy, though, to make such criticisms from the relative comfort of the local manor house since the living conditions of the labouring classes were hardly conducive to fostering the niceties of social etiquette. In his Survey of 1602 Richard Carew wrote of a general improvement in the housing stock during his lifetime, and yet there remains considerable evidence to the contrary, at least in the central and western parts of the county. The dwellings of the tinners and farm labourers were normally self-built, on land rented for a period of three lives, and were accordingly fairly primitive. The descriptions provided by writers like William Bottrell have much more recently been largely substantiated by the results of archaeological enquiry. Within the Iron Age village of Carn Euny in Penwith a cottage of c. 1750 was excavated in 1968 and the findings were in general agreement with those derived from other examples in the far west and the Lizard. The rectangular granite-built cottage measured 11 ft. 6 ins. (3.5 m) by 23 ft. (7 m) and probably had an upper storey reached by ladder with a thatched roof. Traces of a wooden partition suggested that the building was divided into two nearly equal rooms with the interior lime-washed and the floor composed of ‘rab’, subsoil mixed with water. A large inglenook fireplace stood at the western end and cooking was probably done over an open hearth. Another, later, example from the Scillies indicated that an even more basic type of dwelling continued in use in such remote areas where building materials were limited. In 1977 Howard Mason led a team of archaeologists to the island of Samson and excavated a single-roomed dwelling, similar in dimensions to the Cam Euny example, which was occupied c. 1833-55. Detailed finds included pottery fragments, brass buttons, gun flints, and pieces of clay pipes, while the main ingredient of the inhabitants’ diet was indicated by a midden of no less than 100,000 limpet shells.

If living conditions were poor, wages were little better. At the beginning of the 19th century farm labourers earned about 6s. Od. to 9s. Od. (30-45 p) a week, miners and fishermen a little more but on an irregular basis. With beef a rarity and poultry costing upwards of a day’s pay, meat was not a regular feature of the average household diet, except when the time came to slaughter the familiar household pig, ‘the gentleman that earns his rent’. Fortunately, fresh fish was plentiful and cheap, especially pilchards, while Forbes commented in 1794 on the availability of ‘the finest cod, ling. . . at less than 1d per lb’. There was, of course, the humble but celebrated pasty to fall back on, the same writer noting that ‘the poor have a method of making pasties… of substantial crust, and when baked will keep a good long time. These pasties the labourers take into the fields and the miners to their works, and seem to regale on them with high glee’.

For the average labouring family disease, epidemics and a high rate of infant mortality were realities which had to be regularly faced. The great cholera epidemic of 1831 reached Cornwall in August of that year, ‘probably brought by mariners and fishermen since the ports of Padstow,  Hayle and Newlyn were the worst hit. By December the single parish of Paul had buried 88 victims, and villagers were forced to impose quarantines on their neighbours. Those who survived had little prospect of a long life and, as the 19th century progressed, overcrowding and insanitary living conditions made matters worse. Between 1813-30 almost 20 per cent of burials at St Cleer were of children under five, but by the late 1850s the proportion had risen to over half. Life expectancy fell dramatically, particularly in the mining areas, and the 600 males buried at St Just during the 1840s had an average age of only 25 years and eight months. At St Cleer again, the average age of interments dropped dramatically from 51 in 1819 to under 22 by 1860.

There was little immediate prospect, either, of a political solution to this deprivation. A severely restricted franchise and a property qualification which allowed only the wealthy to become M.P.s produced a House of Commons which was unrepresentative of the masses and largely uncaring of their plight. Cornish politics, in any case, was a den of corruption into which notions of democracy did not enter. National labels of Whig and Tory meant little in a county in which the local landed gentry, aided by an archaic system of election and representa­tion, determined which candidates were returned to Parliament. In the first place, Cornwall was grossly over-represented in the Commons. Each of the 21 boroughs returned two members apiece to supplement the standard county allocation of a further two M.P.s, although the latter seats were rarely contested as candidates were normally returned unopposed. Such elections as did take place in the boroughs involved only a small number of voters, less than 1,400 in 1760, and in a system of open voting the local aristocracy generally determined the outcome. Cornwall, in fact, was notorious for its ‘rotten boroughs’ in which voters sold their preferences to the highest bidder. In 1740 Thomas Pitt had reported that ‘there are few [Cornish] boroughs where the common sort of people do not think they have as much right to sell themselves and their votes, as they have to sell their corn and their cattle’. Seven years later, in an attempt to secure Grampound, Pitt despairingly reported to his leaders that ‘we can carry it, but it must cost damnably dear. The villains. . . rise in their demands so extrava­gantly, that I have been very near damning them. . . the dirty rascals despise 20 guineas’. Others could expect even more; the 40 voters at Camelford were demanding up to £300 each, while an even greater price could be obtained by the electors of Mitchell in 1829 who numbered precisely seven! In most boroughs, however, the hold of the landed gentry was so strong that a contest was hardly necessary. From the reign of Edward II to the Reform Act of 1832 no less than 23 members of the Trelawney family represented Looe in the Commons, while Penryn was firmly in the hands of Lord Edgecumbe and Lord Falmouth. Fowey, with less than 100 voters, was a pocket borough of the Rashleigh family, Calhington likewise in the grip of Lady Orford. Even when an outside candidate was prepared to make a challenge, as happened at Penryn in 1765, the bias of the returning officer ensured defeat by manipulating the voting figures in favour of Philip Rashleigh. It was only in a handful of boroughs, in fact, that an ‘independent’ candidate could expect much of a chance and, apart from Bossiney, Tregony and Grampound, most seats were not worth the expense of contesting.

Pressure to reform this archaic system had been gradually growing since John Wilkes in the 1760s, and the movement gained momentum from the dissemination of radical ideas which followed the French Revolution. Individual M.P.s, however, could hardly be expected to abandon a system which worked in their interests and, apart from a few cosmetic modifications including the disenfranchisement of Grampound in 1821, there was no marked change until the Reform Act of 1832. This nationally modest measure was justifiably harsh on Cornwall, reducing her representation to 12, two dual-member County seats, East and West, plus separate representation for Heiston, Liskeard, Launceston and St Ives (one member each) and two members for Truro and Penryn-with-Falmouth. The total electorate, however, remained small and over 80 per cent of adult males were left below the voting qualification. Uncontested elections remained the norm especially in the County seats, where Cornwall West saw no contest at all until after the Second Reform Act of 1867, and Cornwall East only three.

It was to this world of inadequate representation, corruption, law­lessness and poverty that Methodism at least offered a spiritual solution. The Methodist movement, part of the so-called ‘New Dissent’, had grown up as a reaction to the irreligious climate of the early 18th century when the pace of scientific and philosophical advance seemed to be making theology dispensable. At the same time the established church, the Church of England, had largely lost its ability to launch a counter-offensive and was proving unable to adapt to the changing intellectual and economic climate of the day. Its cumbersome bureau­cratic structure prevented the introduction of a comprehensive pro­gramme of new church building, desperately needed both to keep up with changing population patterns and to cater for the growing industrial communities. As a result, Anglicanism had become weakest in large, rural parishes with a dispersed population, which were experiencing substantial social change through the increase in industrial activity. Pluralism was also rife as the low income of many parishes forced the clergy to take on several livings, leaving the congregations poorly served in the process. In 1748 the western parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Zennor and Towednack were all in the hands of one incumbent, and such was the neglect that the dead were being left a fortnight before burial services could be arranged.

Against this background John Wesley set out to restore heart religion and evangelism among the masses, to save souls and correct moral laxity, and from its small beginnings in 1738 Methodism grew rapidly, although not without resistance. Wesley himself was struck on the head while preaching at St Ives in 1745, and in the following year one of his prominent followers, James Wheatley, was attacked by a West Cornwall mob and only saved from death by the intervention of the mayor who was forced to read the Riot Act. Despite the opposition of conventional Anglicanism, however, the new movement was taking root and in 1747 the vicar of Lelant was complaining that in St Ives ‘there are likewise many people. . . called methodists who frequently assemble at the house of John Nance at unreasonable hours’.

It would be quite wrong, though, to view the growth of Methodism in Cornwall or, indeed, anywhere else in terms of a steady and un­interrupted advance. Apart from the vociferous opposition of much of the establishment, the very nature of the movement, at least in its early days, did not lend itself easily to mass membership. Local methodists were organised into societies which were then subdivided into small classes of about five to twelve members who paid 1d. a week towards the cost of a meeting-place. This intimate structure and the almost puritanical nature of the movement proved too much for many, and several societies had very chequered histories. At Launceston in 1760 Wesley found ‘the small remains of a dead, scattered society: and no wonder, as they have scarce any discipline, and only one sermon in a fortnight’. Two years later, however, he preached his first of many sermons in the famous Gwennap Pit near Redruth and, by 1781, at the age of 78, he was attracting a crowd of over 20,000 people. By the end of the century Methodism had become firmly rooted in Cornwall, and in 1794, three years after the founder’s death, James Forbes noted ‘the portrait of the celebrated John Wesley in many of the poor houses in Cornwall, where his memory is held in veneration and his labours were frequently blessed’.

Methodism’s appeal, as Forbes implies, was greatest among the work ing classes, farm labourers and fishermen, while even the notorious hard-drinking tinners were being won over, the arch-opponent the Revd. Sydney Smith complaining in 1807 that ‘all mines and subterranean places belong to them’. While this was perhaps an exaggeration, hundreds of little chapels appeared throughout the length and breadth of the county, evoking not only a renewed spirit of religion but a new sense of morality and communal life. The advance of Methodism by mid-century is clear from the great Religious Census of 1851 which revealed that over 60 per cent of Cornish churchgoers subscribed to it and only 27 per cent were Anglican. The remainder were mainly Independents and Baptists while the county’s pitifully small number of Catholics, 0.4 per cent, was the second lowest in England. The growth of Methodism not only provoked the antagonism of the Church of England but inevitably increased resentment over the vexed issue of the tithe. While it was true that the mechanics of tithe collection had become largely divorced from things religious and had passed into the hands of lay speculators, an association with the established church remained firmly planted in the minds of the people. Many were increasingly refusing to pay, especially the fishermen who were proving to be the vanguard of resistance. In 1830, for example, the by now pre dominantly Methodist fishermen of Newlyn and Mousehole refused to comply, attacked the bailiff sent to enforce a writ on them, and so terrified the tithe owners that they won the right of exemption.

While there are other instances of militant opposition to the tithe, it would be wrong to interpret this resistance as a symptom of the kind of political radicalism which characterised the Welsh ‘tithe wars’ during the second half of the century. On the contrary, the increasing association between nonconformity and radicalism which was being formulated in many other areas, the industrialised North and Midlands as well as Wales, was not echoed in Cornwall. For one thing, the particular version of nonconformity espoused by the Cornish did not encourage political action. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has claimed that ‘Methodism in Cornwall produced an atmosphere of resignation and acceptance which worked against militancy’ and, while this may be an over-simplification, it remains the case that Wesley himself had been opposed to the involvement of his supporters in political activities, a view not shared by the Primitive Methodists, expelled in 1812, or by the United Free Methodists who broke away from the parent body in 1849. It may have been a Cornishman, William Lovett of Newlyn, who helped found the Chartist movement with its demands for universal adult male suffrage and a major reform of the whole representation and electoral system, but his campaign met with a mixed response from his own people. When one of his organisers visited St Ives in 1839 and asked if there were any Chartists about, he was informed that ‘they catch no fish here but pilchards and mackerel’! Several local Chartist societies were founded and flourished for a while, one follower was even elected to Penzance Town Council, but overall the Cornish showed only a passing interest. In fact, apart from a series of unco-ordinated food riots during the 1840s, mainly by the notoriously lawless tinners, there are few indications of working class political activity.

The Methodist promise of a decent after-life may have reduced the desire to improve the earthly one, and the old adage that poverty was ‘the wages of sin’ led many to accept divine judgement as the explana­tion for their place in the social order. There were other, however, non­religious factors at work in the formation of the county’s political character. To begin with, the structure and organisation of the main occupations worked against the fostering of radicalism and class unity. In the fishing industry a trend towards a share-payment was becoming increasingly common as drifting replaced seining, and this resulted in fierce competition and greater emphasis on individual enterprise. Neither did the organisational nature and salary arrangements in the mines contribute to the kind of political consciousness which charac­terised the coal and steel industries.

Evidence from the medieval period shows a tendency towards small unit workings with tinning rarely a full-time occupation. The expansion of the industry in the 18th and 19th centuries was characterised by the growth of the tribute system by which groups of miners known as pares competed against each other by bidding for working areas or pitches, and paid a percentage of the value of the ore won to the mine owners. The lesser skilled tutworkers, who dug the shafts and prepared the levels, were also paid per completed fathom, and all this emphasis on individual effort was not conducive to fostering the kind of working-class conscious­ness which developed in other industrial areas of Britain. This is clearly reflected in the failure of trade unionism to take root in 19th-century Cornwall and, apart from an unsuccessful strike in 1866 and the forma­tion of a short-lived Miners Association, there were few concerted attempts to unify the workforce. Cornish miners, in any case, were geogra­phically isolated from other mining areas, and the power of the local landowners remained a potent factor throughout the industry’s lifetime.

The combined effect of all these factors was the moulding of an essentially moderate, highly individualistic and sometimes passive politi­cal mentality which often frustrated activists. One Chartist organiser desperately reported that ‘you can have no conception of the ignorance of the people upon general politics’, while another was even less compli­mentary, complaining that the population ‘were slaves to the aristocracy and the moneyocracy’. By the later decades of the century, when the Unitarians, Independents and Baptists had turned the Welsh into a nation of radicals, the Cornish remained aloof, and any connotations of solidarity suggested by the county motto of ‘One and All’ were distinctly absent from the ranks of the Cornish working class. The general election returns from the 1880s and 1890s endorse these conclusions. The Reform Act of 1884-5 reduced the number of Cornish seats from 12 to six, but also extended the franchise to a majority of adult males. The great political issue of the day was Gladstone’s attempts to push through Irish Home Rule, despite the opposition not only of the Conservatives but a sizeable number of his own party led by Joseph Chamberlain. The controversy was enough to split the Liberals; Chamberlain broke away to form his Liberal-Unionist party with its strong imperialistic overtones, and established an electoral pact with the Tories, hence the complete absence of Tory M.P.s from all Cornish seats between 1885 and 1910. Home Rule was vigorously opposed by the conservative Wesleyans, and while many Liberal-Unionist candidates elsewhere took a thrashing, they were so successful in Cornwall that the county became known as ‘Chamberlain’s Duchy’. The farmers, in particular, swung heavily away from the mainstream Liberals with devastating results at the polls, and it is clear that Gladstone’s progressive stance was popular only in the mining and clay-working seats of Mid and North-East Cornwall. The eventual merger between Liberal-Unionism and Conservatism, largely completed by the end of the century, was in Cornwall a subconscious reality well before it became a formal political one.