Ten Documents of Cornwall: A history of a County at Cornwall Record Office

By Ralph Gifford and Chloe Phillips | 08 September 2011
The Ten Documents of Cornwall

The Cornwall Records Office in Truro opened its doors to the public in September 2011 as part of the national Heritage Open Days. With four miles of shelving holding more than half a million documents it was the perfect opportunity for people to discover things about the county they live in.

To give a flavour of what visitors saw, Culture24’s Ralph Gifford teamed up with Records Office Learning Officer Chloe Phillips to compile a list of themes that represent an overview of Cornish life and history via documents in the collection.

The 10 documents also relate to the themes explored in Cornwall’s 100 Objects project compiled by members of Cornwall Museums Group.  The 100 Objects, like the 10 documents, have been put together to highlight things that have been important in Cornwall’s history.

Included in the text are the reference numbers of the documents so that anyone interested will be able to find them when they visit the Records Office.

The Civil War

a photo of written doucments with seals on them
© Cornwall Record Office
Document references V/BO/4, T/1629

Document V/BO/4, appointing Sir Richard Vyvyan as a Colonel of a Regiment of foot, August 1st 1642, is particularly poignant because it is signed by some of the most well known figures of the Civil War in Cornwall, many of whom did not survive the war.

Sir Bevil Grenville was a much-loved Royalist leader from North Cornwall, whose untimely death was very damaging to the morale of the Cornish army. Sir Nicholas Slanning, the governor of Pendennis Castle, died of injuries sustained during the Royalist attack on Bristol in 1643. Sir Francis Bassett, of Tehidy and St Michael’s Mount, spent the war raising money to fund his and other defences around the coast, as well as the Cornish army. He died in 1645.

After the Cornish Royalist army surrendered in March 1646 at Tresillian Bridge, near Truro, many of the weary and defeated soldiers marched onto Pendennis Castle, in Falmouth, which they refused to hand over to Parliamentarian forces. Instead they settled in for siege.

The Castle’s occupants, around a thousand soldiers and camp followers (mainly wives and children), lived on the site for five long months until eventually a scarcity of resources and malnutrition drove them to surrender.

Despite their defiance, and the Parliamentarians’ long wait, the surrender terms (T/1629) were very lenient, allowing them to leave with the full honours of war: ‘flags flying, trumpets sounding, drums beating’ as well as allowing them to keep their belongings – including weaponry – and make financial allowances for sick soldiers.

The surrender of Pendennis Castle coincided with the end of the First Civil War in England. A few days later Raglan Castle, in Wales, waved its white flag, officially ending the first of the British Civil Wars.

These documents can be related to the 100 Objects Civil War Helmet at Liskeard and District Museum and Sir Bevil Grenville’s portrait at Prideaux Place, Padstow.  

The Civil War helmet belonged to Major Thomas Johnson, a Parliamentarian soldier who fought at the Battle of Braddock Down in 1643. It is unusual because the cloth used to pad and camouflage the helmet has survived.  The portrait of Sir Bevil Grenville came to Prideaux Place from the Glenville family home in North Cornwall.

Cornish Agriculture
a photo of a series of maps and documents
© Cornwall Record Office
Document references X1323/2/3, AR/2/60, AR/2/132, AR/2/217.

Cornwall’s economy has always been heavily dependent on agriculture. The map, from 1791 (X1323/2/3), demonstrates this via illustrations of typical farming activities, such as ploughing a field, catching rabbits and milking a cow. It shows land at Trematon in St Stephen by Saltash.

There are more than 1,000 manorial records in the Arundell (AR) collection, and manorial court records further demonstrate how agriculture defined existence in Cornwall.

Manorialism was an essential part of the feudal system which was characterised by legal and economic power being vested in a lord. Extracts from the documents pictured, all dating from the 1440s-1460s, describe crimes such as "breaking beehives" (AR/2/60), leaving gates open so that animals got in and damaged a neighbours’ crops (AR/2/132) and stealing leeks (AR/2/217).

Ox shoes at Gerrans Heritage Centre are part of Cornwall’s 100 Objects and are significant to agriculture in the county because Oxen were the main beasts of burden for farmers from the medieval times up until around 1850. Unlike horseshoes, ox shoes are made in two parts.

Cornish Feasts and Festivities

a photo of musicla manuscripts and song sheets
© Cornwall Record Office
 

Document reference, EN/2473/160-161

These records are of the Furry Dance, also known as The Flora, which takes place in Helston, Cornwall, and is one of the oldest British customs still practiced today. The origins of the dance are certainly pre-Christian and are connected with ancient spring festivals all over Europe.
 
The Furry Dance takes place every year on May 8 (or the Saturday before if May 8 falls on a Sunday or Monday), and is a celebration of the passing of winter and the arrival of spring.

The day features various dances, of which the midday dance is perhaps the best known: it was traditionally the dance of the gentry in the town, and today the men wear top hats and tails while women wear smart dresses.

The Hal-an-tow is distinct from the Furry dance and, owing to its association with drunken revels in the 19th century, fell into disrepute and decay. In 1930 it was revived by the Helston Old Cornwall Society.

The Obby Oss is a similar festival in Padstow as it celebrates the coming of Spring.  An Obby Oss (dialect for Hobby Horse) is part of Cornwall’s 100 Objects and can be found in the town’s museum.


Cornish Language

a photo of medieval documents and a magnifying glass
© Cornwall Record Office

Document reference: F/2/39


Cornish language (Kernewek) is the direct descendant of that spoken by the Celts that originally lived in Cornwall. Earliest written records of Cornish language occur in the form of a Cornish-Latin dictionary, as well as marginal notes on other documents.

From 1400, the Ordinalia (a trilogy featuring Origo Mundi (origin of the world), Passio Christi (passion of the Christ) and Resurrexio Domini (resurrection of our lord)) exists, three plays designed to be performed in a plen-an-gwari, or ‘playing place’. These plays were designed to educate Cornish people about the Bible and the lives of the saints.

The pictured document includes William Scawen's manuscript entitled `Antiquities Cornubrittanic', 1688. This features 'The Passio Christi' in ancient Cornish, with a literal translation, and observations on the language.

William Scawen (1600–1689) was a 17th century Cornish patriot, language revivalist and a Vice-Warden of the Stannaries.

The decline of the Cornish language began with the reformation and was exacerbated by civil war and the further encroachment of the English language on Cornwall. Cornish speakers tried to preserve the language through translations but by the 19th century it had died out as a spoken language.

Though opinion is divided, it is widely believed that a Cornish fishwife by the name of Dolly Pentreath was the last native Cornish speaker.  Her portrait by respected Cornish artist John Opie can be found at St Michaels Mount and is one of Cornwall’s 100 Objects.

Cornwall's Maritime History

a photo of mansucript letters and old maps
© Cornwall Record Office
Document references: AD1738/1, J/1/2277, X498/15

From fishing to wrecking, the history of Cornwall is inseparable from the sea and Cornwall Record Office holds a wealth of material relating to maritime affairs.
This book of navigational rules and exercises (AD1738/1) was by John Short, of St Ives.

Despite being a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars he still worked on his navigation exercises. On his return to St Ives, John Short became master of a charitable institution for the education of poor boys, where the principle subject he taught was navigation. 

The record of Avery the pirate’s buried treasure (J/1/2277) shows another aspect of Cornwall’s involvement in the sea, but is shrouded in a little more mystery. The treasure, apparently buried on the Lizard peninsula, includes ‘precious stones and bracelets, large rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes and diamonds’.
 
Illustrating a more dangerous aspect of the sea is the picture of the box for rocket apparatus (X498/15), part of a collection relating to Helston-born inventor, Henry Trengrouse. After witnessing the wreck of the Anson frigate in 1807, Trengrouse devoted himself to inventing a method of saving lives from shipwrecks, thus the rocket apparatus was born.

Part of the 100 Objects series are Henry Trengrouse’s rockets which can be found in Helston Museum. Another connection can also be made with the Saracen’s Head Crest, which can be seen in Penryn’s museum. The head, which has been the symbol of the town since the 17th Century, is thought to refer to pirates from North Africa, who operated off the Cornish coast at the time.

Cornish Methodism

a photo of manuscripts with the signature of John Wesley visible
© Cornwall Record Office

Document references: X99/1, MRD/254/2


These accounts, from the St Just Wesleyan chapel in Penwith record the purchase of ‘three fowls for Mr Wesley’. This 1784 letter (MRD/254/2), from John Wesley himself, outlines a minor dispute.

Wesley, along with his brother founded the Holy Club in 1729 while at Oxford University. They set aside time for praying, examining their spiritual lives, studying the Bible, and meeting together. They were branded as "Methodist" by students at Oxford who derided the methodical way they ordered their lives.

Initially they merely sought reform, by way of a return to the gospel, within the Church of England, but the movement spread and soon a significant number of Anglican clergy became known as Methodists in the mid-18th century. The movement did not form a separate denomination in England until after John Wesley's death in 1791.

John Wesley visited Cornwall 32 times between 1743 and 87 (when he was 84!). The original chapel in St Just would just have been meeting rooms – and was probably established around 1765. He first visited St Just in 1743.

In Constantine Heritage Centre a Methodist Font dating back to around 1880 was used in the villages Chapel for baptisms and is now one of Cornwall’s 100 Objects.

Cornish Migration

a photo of letters and an envelope dating to the 18th century
© Cornwall Record Office

Document reference: AD833/65-115


The exodus of Cornish people in the 18th and 19th centuries was so vast that it is today sometimes referred to as a "Cornish diaspora". The shortage of jobs in Cornwall combined with greater opportunities overseas led many to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Between 1861 and 1901 it is estimated that some 20% of Cornish men migrated overseas, with miners making up the majority of this number. They migrated abroad to work in the gold mines of California and South Africa and copper mines in Australia. The Cornish diaspora has resulted in Cornish associations and traditions being established all over the world.

These letters are from a collection of 50 written by Richard Scoble (to his mother Mary Ann), from Devoran, during ten years, after he emigrated to America in 1874 aged 19 or 20. These fine dialect letters describe events he experiences in America and also contain wishes sent home to his family and a sense of how much he misses his home.

Scoble arrived in New York and then travelled to Nevada, where he tried prospecting. Later on he moved to Idaho, where his letters end. The letters with the photograph include comments about his family and his feelings towards his home:

(AD833/66) “how is Joe getting on he did cry dreadful when I did leave Truro platform...tell William to kiss all the maidens up top of the hill for me...”

(AD833/110) ‘'when I get your letters I read them...and then think about home I do begin at Truro station then run at Carnon Downs...I can fancy myself now coming home...then mother say here dickey is a rice pudding...',’

From the 100 Objects series, at King Edward Mine near Camborne, there is a Money Box in the shape of a pasty which is from Mineral Point, Wisconsin, USA. A popular destination for Cornish miners.

Cornish Mining

old photos of miners laid over mining plans and documents
© Cornwall Record Office
 
These images, from Dolcoath and East Pool Mines illustrate the realities of mining in the 1890s. The first known reference to Dolcoath mine was in 1738 – a very deep mine, digging copper and then tin.

It was the deepest mine in the county but closed in 1921. East Pool Mine dug tin, copper and uranium. It amalgamated in 1897 with Wheal Agar and these eventually closed in 1945. The engine house is now owned by the National Trust.
Mine plans, such as this of Boscawen Mine (MRO/R92), dating to mid-late C19th, dramatically demonstrate how much of what lies beneath our feet in Cornwall is hollow!

Boscawen Mine produced copper, tin, zinc and arsenical pyrite (mispickel). The mine is known to have worked prior to 1791, when it was included with North Wheal Busy in a sett known as 'Wheal Truro'.

Mining in Cornwall spanned literally thousands of years, from the Bronze Age until South Crofty closed in 1998. In the 19th century it was a world hub for tin mining.

One of many, the 100 Objects relating to mining in Cornwall is the Mine Engine at Levant Mine, near Pendeen.  Built around 1840 by Harvey’s of Hayle it was installed at Levant to extract ore out of the Skip Shaft.  It is the oldest Cornish mine engine in existence and is still operated for demonstration purposes.

Cornish Tourism

a photo of documents showing architectural drawings and letters
© Cornwall Record Office

Document references: AD396/605, D/E/17, EN/2178, H/1/186/16


Silvanus Trevail’s King Arthur’s Hotel in Tintagel (AD396/605) remains dominant on the landscape, although it is now known as the Camelot Castle Hotel. King Arthur's Castle Hotel (Castle Hotel) was an enterprise of Sir Robert Harvey and opened in 1899: Silvanus Trevail (October 1851–1903) – who designed it – was the most prominent Cornish architect of the 19th century.

The notice of meeting concerned with establishment of tourist hotels for Cornwall, from October  25 1890 (H/1/186/16), clearly demonstrates the link between the increase in tourism to the county, and the arrival of a national railway network.

As he proposes in the document, Trevail went on to design numerous other hotels in Cornwall (including the Duchy in Falmouth – then known as the Pendennis – and the Atlantic and Headland hotels in Newquay). Through this he significantly helped boost tourism further in the county. He often raised the money to build them, and ran them after their construction.

Extracts from Guides to Cornwall for tourists and travellers, c.1833 (D/E/17) and ‘The Cornish Tourist or Excursions through Cornwall’, 1834 (EN/2178), show some early tourist guides for visitors to Cornwall. The sites they pick out are still notable tourist destinations today, for example Lanhydrock house, near Bodmin.

Today tourism plays a hugely significant role in Cornwall’s economy and has done particularly since the arrival of the railway in the late C19th.

At Dairyland, near Newquay, Souvenir Beach Hut models are a part of Cornwall’s 100 Objects. In 1876 the railway started taking holidaymakers to the town in 1876 and it was from here on that the town became a popular destination for tourists.

Medieval Cornwall

a photo of medieval manuscripots and seals
© Cornwall Record Office

Document reference: BLAUS/641


This Latin text, dating from somewhere between 1245 and 1257, sees Robert, Prior of Launceston and the convent of the Priory, granting land of Gillemartin in Launceston – along with chapel and premises – to the lepers of Gillemartin in return for a tenement that had been previously granted to them.

It lists the witnesses to the grant, including Richard, Earl of Cornwall and Gervase de Hornicote.

The document’s green wax seal is the first known impression of the seal of Launceston priory.

Launceston Priory was founded in 1126. It was dissolved in 1539 as part of Henry VIII’s reformation. For 400 years it had flourished, gaining land and property, although the priors’ main priority remained the healing of the sick – including the leper community at St Leonards – and prayer. Launceston was the capital of the Earldom of Cornwall in the 13th century.

Before and even after the discovery of its biological cause, leprosy patients were stigmatized and shunned. Often leprosy sufferers had to wear special clothing or ring bells to warn others that they were close.

At Lawrence House Museum, in Launceston, there is a floor tile from Launceston Priory when it was the Cornish base for Richard, Earl of Cornwall between 1227 and 1272.  Richard was the younger brother of King Henry the III and was one of the most powerful men in Europe. The priory tile shows part of Richard’s coat of arms.

  • The collection of Cornwall Records Office can also be accessed through bookings. Anyone wishing to contact the Records Office about the open day or with any other enquiries should visit the website at www.cornwall.gov.uk or call on 01872 323136.

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