Autobiography of Richard Tangye: Chapter 2
CHAPTER II. A CORNISH RETROSPECT.
UNTIL the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832, Cornwall, my native county, was politically important because it returned more members to Parliament than the great and populous counties of Durham, Northumberland, and York combined, and within one of the number assigned to Scotland. The cause of this political distinction lay in the circumstance that the county was an appanage of the Crown; and in the time of Edward VI. and the two succeeding reigns, the sovereigns exercised their right of creating new constituencies at pleasure. Clusters of half-a-dozen houses returned two members to Parliament, who were pledged to support the King's party in the Commons against the representatives of the people.
There was, however, one member for a small Cornish Borough who deserves eternal honour for his brave words in defence of free speech. When, in 1575, Queen Elizabeth sent a message to Parliament commanding it not to meddle in the matter of religion, and directing the Commons to leave all such matters to the initiative of the clergy, Peter Wentworth, member for Tregony, spoke out in unmistakable language. He plainly told the Queen that she was subject to the law, and that without free speech, it was a scorn and a mockery to call them a "Parliament;" and then he filled up the measure of offence against Her Imperious Majesty by adding, "There was none without fault, no, not even their noble Queen;" and joyfully he went to prison in attestation of his sincerity.
The only good thing that can be said of such a state of things is, that men like Sir F. Drake, Sir W. Raleigh, and other names distinguished in English history, at various times represented those Royal Boroughs in Parliament. Cornwall has had its fair share of distinguished representatives in literature, science, and art, and has furnished many statesmen and warriors for the service of the country.
Until the beginning of the last century communication with the rest of the country was very limited, and the ancient Cornish language - a dialect of the Gaelic or Celtic — continued to be spoken in many parts. The last time that it was used in public worship was in 1678, when the rector of a western parish preached a sermon in old Cornish. It is now only used in mining and fishing terms, in the names of household vessels, tools, etc., and of places and families.
"By Tre, Ros, Car, Lan, Pol and Pen
You may know all Cornish men."
Until a few years since, the borough boundaries of Helston were preserved by having a game of "hurling " carried on through the streets at midday on Ascension Eve, the ball being provided by the Corporation, and a distribution of buns amongst the boys being made at the bound-stones. But the great leveller of provincial peculiarities is the Railway, and very few of the old customs of Cornwall have survived the connection of its railway system with that of the rest of the country.
I was born at Broad Lane, in the parish of Illogan, on the 24th of November, 1833, and like my brothers, helped on the farm until I was about ten years of age. Many of the old customs still lingered when I was a schoolboy. On Midsummer Eve (the eve of St. John) the village children would light bonfires, and joining hands would dance around them, occasionally jumping through the fire, singing the while
Midsummer Eve is passing away, is passing away,
Hip, hip, hooray!
Another relic of old times was the performing of Sacred Plays. I well remember seeing the story of Joseph and his brethren acted in very realistic fashion on a stage in the open air, on a Sunday.
Long after the present century commenced, the clannish feeling of the Cornish men, was wont to show itself in set battles between large numbers of people from different parishes. At Cury, in the southwest part of Cornwall, stood for centuries a great tree, "The Great Tree of Cury;" and under its shadow the men of Breage and Wendron used to meet in savage conflict. Their sports partook of the same character, and great crowds met together to witness wrestling matches, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and other brutal games, the whole usually ending in a general fight. Their limited intercourse with the world outside prevented much amelioration; but with the advent of the railway, and of better roads, new aspirations have been kindled, and the old savagery has disappeared.
An obvious survival of these ancient faction fights still existed when I was at school. Mimic battles took place between the boys from different parishes, each side using the same battle-cry by simply transposing the names of the parishes. The Mogan boys would say-
Redruth boys, Redruth boys, up in the tree
Looking as wisht  as wisht could be,
'Logan boys, 'Logan boys, up in the oak
Knocking down Redruth boys at every stroke.
Trying to count the stars was to court certain disaster; and whistling at night, even to keep one's courage up, was considered to be quite "uncanny;" while the miners used to entertain a strong dislike to anyone whistling while in the mine, underground. The belief in pixies or "piskies," as they are called in Cornwall, used to be very common; and many a man who has come home at night drunk and with his pockets turned inside out, has declared next morning that he was only "piskey-led," or dazed by these mischievous little fairies.
One of the first railways opened in England was in Cornwall, as indeed was only fitting seeing that Murdock invented the locomotive there, and Trevithick and Vivian greatly improved it. The line ran through my father's farm, and I well remember the awe with which I looked upon the train as it passed, for our nurse girl, Jennefer, used to tell us as we looked upon the smoking engine, belching forth steam and sparks of fire, that it was a wicked thing and that we were to hate it because it made more smoke and fire to torment poor sinners in hell!
And then there was our farm-boy, who rejoiced in a name that would have delighted Dickens, Joseph Gribble to wit; Joseph believed in the widest possible diffusion of knowledge, and objected to its being
"A steep which few may climb,"
for he used to say with great emphasis, "What a good thing it es, sure enough, that no wan man knawed everything for if wan man knawed everything, nobody else would knaw nawthen."
Queen Elizabeth used to say of the higher classes of Cornishmen, "The Cornish gentlemen are all born courtiers, with a becoming confidence" they were the "travelled Thanes;" but many a visitor to Cornwall has had occasion to note the almost uniform courtesy of all classes of the people.
One effect of the long-continued isolation of the county has been to produce strongly marked characteristics amongst its inhabitants — their doggedness and tenacity of purpose is proverbial and often, having come to a conclusion on a matter, whether right or wrong, they have stuck to it not wisely but too well.
Almost every village in Cornwall had its "character" fifty years ago, and ours was no exception. Amongst others there was William R-. He was a fine example of what some of our modern cast-iron politicians would call a "consistent" man, for once having said a thing he would never alter. On one occasion a neighbour meeting him said, "William, they tell me you say you are forty feet high, are you?" "Did I say I was forty foot?" "Yes, you did." "Then I ham," said William, and nothing could shorten him.
Another neighbour was Constance Wiles, who was the wife of an old shoemaker; they had been for some years living on the bounty of their friends. Like many aged people, Constance sometimes gave way to unavailing regrets; and on one occasion, on being visited by a friend of mine, she was found in a state of the most passionate grief. My friend, deeply sympathising, asked her what her trouble was. Amidst a perfect hurricane of hysterical sobs and wild lamentations, she told the story of her wrongs:— "You know," said she, "I sent the boy to the bakehouse with an apple-pie, oh, such a beautiful pie!" here the poor old woman's grief broke out afresh. "And what do you think? when he brought it back there was the pie with such a beautiful crust, but, oh dear, oh dear, when Thomas cut a piece out it was full of gravel, and all the apple was gone: that bad boy had stolen it all, and filled the pie with dirt!
Again old Constance sobbed and cried vehemently, and it was some time before she would listen to my friend, who presently said, "Never mind, Constance, I will send thee some dinner." "Oh, it wasn't to-day," she said. "When was it then, Constance?" "Let me see, Thomas," said she, putting her finger to her forehead, "it was the year you were at Falmouth making shoes for the fleet — and let me see, it was forty-three years agone, last 'tatey season." And my friend was compelled to leave her, still sobbing for her spoiled pie.
The Cornish system of working the mines by three "shifts" of eight hours each, gives the miners at regular intervals, sixteen hours of daylight in which to work for themselves; and this is largely taken advantage of by them to cultivate small plots of land, upon which they raise sufficient vegetables, fruit, etc., for the use of their families; many of them, too, have their pig, cow, and poultry. By this means the Cornish miner, like many of the artisans in the towns, has the advantage of a small farm without being dependent upon it; and having plenty of employment, the public-house has few attractions for him. In spite of low wages, he is enabled to live in greater comfort than the working people of most other counties. Down to the middle of last century, before Boulton and Watt had brought the pumping-engine to a state of great efficiency, the mines were worked in a primitive fashion. In some parts it was the general practice to work upon the farms until the springs subsided, so as to obtain access to the shallow mine workings, when all hands that could be spared went to mining.
In workings that rewarded their labour, the practice was to plant a "skaw," or elder-tree, or other quick growing shrub, so that the place should be recognised more readily when the season returned; but when the results were unsatisfactory, a thorn was significantly planted as a warning to the next comers.
At the beginning of the present century there were large tracts of land in the mining districts that were "waste" but as mining developed, the workpeople began to take into cultivation small plots, upon which they built their houses, dug wells, and made other improvements. The land was held upon the iniquitous "three lives" system; and although the landowner never spent one penny upon its reclamation or upon the buildings or other improvements, in the great majority of cases he has long since entered into the peoples' labours, reaping where he had not sown, and gathering where he had not strawed.
It is well known that the deepest and most lasting impressions are those made in childhood, and I will here somewhat anticipate the course of my narrative in order to relate some experiences which did much to form my character. In cases of oppression arising from the operation of cruel enactments, it is only the "galled jade that winces," the rich and powerful do not feel it and I saw enough of oppression before I was twelve years old to make me hate it with all my heart for ever after.
I have referred to what is known as the "three lives" system of land tenure, and as it is not generally understood I will briefly explain it here. When a man wishes to build a house, he selects a piece of ground, and having agreed with the landlord's agent, a lease is drawn; but instead of its being for a fixed number of years, it is good only for as long as three persons may live whose names are inserted in the lease. But when they die, the landowner takes possession of the house, etc., unless the "tenant" who built it, consents to pay a fine and other charges, including an enhanced ground-rent, more or less onerous, according to the character of the landlord. One case which came under my notice when I was fourteen years old, will illustrate the iniquity of the system:
A miner, after a life of toil and economy, had managed to save money enough to build a couple of cottages, and having selected the land, the lease was drawn in due course, my own brother being one of the three "lives." Usually the practice is to put the names of the man, his wife, and that of their youngest child, so as to secure a roof over their heads for life; but in the case I am quoting the man had no children, and as he was over sixty years of age he chose three young people as the "lives." Before the last slate was on the roof, all three had died, and the poor man was at the mercy of the landowner. If it had been in the West of Ireland, he would have been turned out "neck and crop;" but being in England, public opinion was too strong, and custom, which is sometimes stronger than law, compelled the landlord to offer the usual composition. The miner's intention was to live in one house, and to enjoy the rent of the other; but the "fines" and other charges he had to pay in order to place two new lives on the property effectually deprived him of any advantage from the possession of the second house. The circumstance of the death of my brother fixed this case in my mind, and its gross injustice made a lasting impression upon me. The system still continues, although during the past ten years it has been somewhat modified without legislation, thanks mainly to the agitation conducted by Mr. Broadhurst, M.P.
And then there was the Church Rate question. My father was a small farmer and shopkeeper; and by constant toil and unceasing care and economy he had managed to bring up a large family upon a farm of about a dozen acres, most of his children taking their share in the field work. He was generous and open-handed to all his poorer neighbours, and was a man of unblemished character; but being a Quaker — the only one in the parish — he was the "fly in the ointment" which troubled the Christian spirit of the parson. This clergyman was currently reported to have been an officer in the army, but left Brussels for England shortly before the Battle of Waterloo, and having sold out of the army, bought into the Church. The inhabitants of the parish being mostly Dissenters the parson's work was light. He lived in a fine house in the midst of beautiful grounds; and enjoying a comfortable salary, one would have thought he might have been happy without "baiting" a poor hardworking inoffensive Quaker. But no; twice a year he sent the officers of the law to distrain for tithes and Church rates, at one time seizing the cow upon which we depended for our bread and milk breakfast; and at other times seizing upon articles of food and other things in the house. These distraints were always made in the most aggravating fashion, every device for running up a long bill was resorted to, and uniformly, goods were seized of a value shamefully in excess of the original demand. Sometimes the distraints were made under circumstances of great brutality, and, young as we were, our parents had enough to do to restrain my brothers and me from defending our food with "sticks and staves."
On one occasion, in particular, our anger was raised to white heat. My mother was a farmer's daughter, of a kind which, I fear, is fast going out of fashion: she was skilful in all the duties which used to be considered necessary accomplishments for farmers' daughters in the days when George III. was king. Amongst other things she was clever at bacon curing, and used every winter to put aside sufficient for the use of the family. Unfortunately for us, our mother's skill in this respect reached the ears of the parson who, it appeared, was a devoted admirer of pigs, especially when, as Epictetus has it, they had been "elevated into pork." He sent the officers to make the annual distraint, and, ascertaining where the bacon was kept, they went straight for it in order to offer it for public sale. Now, the parson could not, for decency's sake, to say nothing of its being against the law (he was a great stickler for the "law") bid in person at the auction sale; but we were told he sent one of his servants, who bought it in his own name and resold it to his master; and as the public sympathised with us in our trouble, they refrained from bidding, and consequently, the parson got his bacon very cheaply. This was bad enough, but worse remained, for a few days after the distraint the servant saw my mother and told her his master bade him say that "the bacon was excellent, he had never tasted better in his life." Whether the parson really sent the message, or whether the servant in a "superfluity of naughtiness" concocted it, I cannot say, but the effect upon us was the same.
Many years after, when I was living in London, I went down to Birmingham to hear John Bright deliver a speech in the Town Hall in favour of the abolition of Church Rates — a result which was soon after accomplished. On the following day I returned to London, there being only one person in the carriage besides myself. At Leamington we were joined by a tall, stout gentleman with a jolly, red face, which seemed to speak of its owner being at peace with himself and with all the world; he was evidently a clergyman of the Church of England. I was engaged in reading Mr. Bright's speech when he entered; and presently observing that he wished to say something, I gave him an opportunity, when he said, "I see you are reading Mr. Bright's speech; now, I have a very great respect for Mr. Bright, and agree with him in most of his opinions, but (pointing to the paper) he is wrong there, you know!" I gave him a significant look, and replied "Of course, for great is Diana, etc." "No, no, that is not fair," he said; "you think that because I am what I appear to be — a clergyman of the Church of England — I must necessarily be prejudiced on such a subject." I said I thought it would only be natural that he should be, and that I could, probably, better understand and appreciate Mr. Bright's views on the subject of Church Rates, from the circumstance that, like him, I was a Quaker. The clergyman looked at me in surprise, and presently said, "Excuse me, but I should never have taken you to be a Quaker." I asked him why not, did he expect to see a four-footed beast? "No, no," he said "of course not, but -" and completing the sentence in dumb show, he put his hands to his coat collar, and then to the brim of his hat as if extending its diameter, ending by pointing to my own which was of the ordinary character. "0-ho!" I said, "is that all? These things are but the Rags of Quakerism;— many of us never wore them, and most of those who did have cast them off long ago; and, curiously enough," I added, "they have been taken up by a certain section of the Church of England clergy," pointing to his own straight-collared coat and broad-brimmed hat.
The effect of this sally was most extraordinary. My friend was fairly choking with laughter, until I became really alarmed lest he should have an apoplectic fit; for, as Mrs. Brown would say, "he was of a full "abit.' "Presently recovering himself, he said, with well-simulated indignation, "Oh, it is too bad, it is too bad that we, the clergy of the Church of England, should be accused of, wearing the Rags of Quakerism! It is too bad, I will tell my reverend brethren." The remainder of the journey was occupied by an interchange of stories about the dignitaries of the Church and some of the ancient Quakers, so that when we arrived at Paddington, we were surprised to find how quickly the time had passed.
- Autobiography of Richard Tangye
- Autobiography of Richard Tangye: Chapter 1
- Autobiography of Richard Tangye: Chapter 3
Sources of Information
- "Wisht" was the old Cornish word for sad or melancholy.