Falmouth’s History of Sex, Murder and Piracy

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Falmouth is an almost absurdly interesting place. Although the streets are now largely filled with passive-looking tourists and arty-looking students, it doesn’t take much investigating to tap into a history overflowing with spicy human drama. This might be a relatively small place, but Falmouth’s enviable spot alongside the high seas has given it great historical importance and invited more debauchery and dysfunction than any one town really deserves. Fancy learning more?

Falmouth is full of… BAD BEHAVIOUR

Although it now tends to be intoxicated students that wake people up and instigate serious bouts of tutting, it used to be sailors that bedevilled Falmouth with their drunken antics. In 1889 the captain of a Prussian schooner, Christopher Greenbag, along with one of his crew, took to the pubs of Falmouth and rapidly became drunk and ‘acted in an offensive and indecent manner towards a number of ladies’. In 1900 a sailor named Charles Bennet landed at Falmouth, had too much to drink, and somehow wandered into a Sunday School lesson at the All Saints Mission Room (now 15 Killigrew Street). When the police finally arrived they found the drunkard lying on the floor, presumably fast asleep, with the Reverend desperately trying to remove him. When taken before a Magistrate, the rapidly sobering seadog confessed that his ‘brain had seemed to leave him’, while everyone present started singing the relevantly named sea shanty. Probably (not). 

And that was (definitely not) how the local sea shanty festival was born

Not every disturber of the peace went quietly. Indeed, it seems to have been alarmingly common for Falmouth’s drunks to try and take on the law with their fists (all four of them). In 1898 John Langton, a bricklayer, travelled to Falmouth by train, but within hours of his arrival was ‘being drunk and assaulting P.C Osbourne’. He later claimed to have no recollection of the incident, but I’m not entirely convinced. In 1909 three gunners stationed at Pendennis Castle hit the town, but when they were refused service in the Ship Inn (now the Amanzi restaurant) they kicked off big time. The police tried to send the shouty squaddies off to bed, but instead of listening to sense the soldiers decided to get a bit fighty. With belts, kicks and a well-timed bite (yes, really) the soldiers gave the police a run for their money, but they were eventually handcuffed and handed over to the military authorities. It sounds like they fared a bit better than a particular Mr A. Chard though, who 31 years later, staggered down Killigrew Street ‘trying to sing’. When stopped by P.C Smith, he declared he could ‘fight fifty policemen!’, but discovered he couldn’t even fight one. 

The devil’s drink may hold much of the responsibility for inciting incivility, but that’s not true in every case. Indeed, one of Falmouth’s bloodiest brawls was instigated not by booze, but by a disagreement over the running of a church choir! In 1883 John Rolling, the choirmaster for the Primitive Methodist Chapel (at 8 Chapel Terrace, near Jacobs Ladder Inn) went abroad for a few years, but when he returned two years later he found that a new choirmaster had been found, and was informed that his services were not required. Most of the choir then mutinied and tried to have Mr Rolling reinstated, refusing to sing until they got their way.

The chapel, once a seething cocktail of miffedness

The exasperated Reverend eventually managed to talk them into accepting the authority of the newer choirmaster, but as people arrived for the next Sunday service it was found the organ had been rendered inaccessible by means of a padlock, presumably an act of sabotage from a John Rolling loyalist. When this was discovered things got a little hairy. The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that ‘The [new] choirmaster and his followers were heard discussing affairs at the other end of the chapel, and they were urged not to make any bother. They, however, marched up the chapel in single file, males on one side and females on the other, and then a disturbance commenced.’

They accused the organist, who happened to be John Rolling’s daughter, of foul play, and when her brother leapt to her defence, things got serious, and soon much of the congregation had piled into a whirlwind of throat-grabbing, head-bashing and nose-punching. As the newspaper put it, ‘During the disturbance blows were freely exchanged and for a time the chapel was the scene of utmost confusion.’ In the end, the service was abandoned and several members of the congregation ended up in court, which was probably fair enough.

Interestingly, when John Wesley, the chap who founded Methodism in the first place, arrived in Falmouth in 1745 he was greeted by a similar scene. Shortly after he arrived at his lodgings an anti-Methodist mob forced down the door and literally chased him out of the house. The poor preacher then had to flee up to Penryn by boat.

John Wesley was used to causing a stir

When he returned in 1789 however, the now elderly Wesley was greeted with a very different welcome. As he wrote in his diary, ‘The last time I was here, about forty years ago, I was taken prisoner by an immense mob, gaping and roaring like lions. But how is the tide turned! High and low now lined the street, and from one end of the town to the other, out of stark love and kindness, gaping and staring as if the King were going by.’

Well that’s nice, isn’t it? The next time a mob kicks down your door you can be reassured by the thought that one day they’re probably going to realise you’re a great person after all. 

Falmouth if full of… UNREPETENT PIRACY

As we’ve already seen, salty seafarers were responsible for many of Falmouth’s less wholesome moments over the last couple of centuries. But this shouldn’t be any surprise: Falmouth was pretty much founded upon the most morally dubious form of sailoring — piracy. You see, until the 17th century, Falmouth didn’t exist in any meaningful form, with the only significant building in the area being the manor house of Arwenack.

Falmouth, busy not existing in 1579

Arwenack was the home of the Killigrews, a fascinatingly wicked family, who for many years did their best to advance the cause of Cornish piracy and their own fiendish influence. There’s not nearly enough room here to shed light on all their evil ways, but in short, for several generations over the 16th and 17th centuries, they walked a line between pretending to be good servants of the Crown and engaging in outright criminality.

Sir John Killigrew (1554–1605) was directly involved in funding, supporting and profiting from piracy, but was hilariously still appointed as a Royal Commissioner tasked with investigating the practice. Strangely enough, Sir John didn’t do a particularly good job of dealing with Cornwall’s water-based bandits and was eventually called out by the Vice-Admiral of Cornwall. They had a sword-fight in Truro to settle the matter, but it ended in a draw.

It looked pretty much nothing like this

Sir John did eventually push things too far and lived out his days in a London prison, but his son, another John, proved even more morally dubious (‘he kept not within the compass of any law’). Yet as generations passed the Killigrews earnt a legitimate place in the annals of history by founding the town of Falmouth, which grew quickly by attracting legal maritime trade. The Killigrews’ influence then slowly waned over the passing decades, until in 1687 they were finally extinguished, when the male heir, George, got into a tavern fight in Penryn and was stabbed in the forehead by a lawyer. That probably wasn’t George’s idea of a good time, but it did at least provide a narratively satisfying end to the family’s existence.

The Killigrews might be gone now, but their home of Arwenack is still here, albeit shrunken by repeated destruction, rebuilding and periods of neglect. When I walk past I often try and imagine some of the events that transpired there, and, if I listen carefully, I can still hear the sound of scary-looking pirates slamming flagons of ale on tables and laughing fiendishly. 

To this day it’s impossible to get a good photo of Arwenack

Before we move on from the topic of piracy it should probably be mentioned that it wasn’t always the case that locals sailed off to rob foreigners of their wealth — sometimes foreigners sailed here to rob locals of themselves! In the 16th and 17th centuries, many thousands of people in the West Country were kidnapped by Barbary pirates from North Africa, who carried them off into a life of slavery. Attempts were often made to free them — in the first parish register for Falmouth’s church, King Charles the Martyr, there are at least eight accounts of money being raised to try and ransom local men from their enslavement. 

The most famous local victim was Thomas Pellow (1704–1745) from Penryn, who was captured when he was twelve years old and then forced to convert to Islam. He was owned by the powerful and ruthless Sultan Moulay Ismail, a man who had over five hundred concubines and sired over one thousand children during his lifetime, which is widely considered to be the largest number of children resulting from any single human in history.

Over 1,000 kids? No wonder he looks so pleased with himself

The Sultan fought many wars and Thomas was compelled to fight on the frontlines as a slave-soldier, though he eventually rose through the ranks as an officer and became a valuable member of the Sultan’s household. 

Thomas escaped when he was thirty four and made his way back home. He landed at Falmouth on 15th October 1738 to a raucous response. As he would later write, ‘“I was so crowded by the inhabitants that I could not pass through them without a great deal of difficulty; though this, I must own, was of a different and far more pleasing nature to me … everyone (instead of boxing me and pulling my hair) saluting me, and, after a most courteous manner, bidding me welcome home.’

Thomas would find reintegrating into Cornish society difficult — he was traumatised by years of slave-soldiering, even his parents didn’t recognise him, and those who had converted to Islam were often viewed with suspicion — but that is a story for another time. 

Falmouth is full of… SEXUAL VICE

Where there are ships there are sailors, and where there are sailors there are… brothels. As is the case with port towns around the world there have always been women in Falmouth either willing or desperate enough to go to bed with crusty seafarers passing through. Indeed, it seems that there weren’t always huge efforts to hide this. In the 1871 census there are plenty of Falmouth women who unconcernedly describe themselves as prostitutes, despite it being normal practice at the time for sex workers to quietly list themselves under other professions instead. Most of these women lived in brothels located in Allens Yard, located roughly where Wilko is now, although there was also a brothel off Webber Street, managed in 1872 (somewhat impressively) by an eighty-year-old man. 

Victorians were masters of morally righteous glaring

In the late-1800s Victorian moral righteousness was picking up pace however, and efforts were made to crack down on these ‘houses of bad conduct’. In 1871 the Falmouth Packet reported that a Mrs Barnett (‘a respectable woman’) had got the law involved after tracking her seventeen-year-old son to Allens Yard, and that ‘for fourteen months she has not been able to keep him at home at night’. I can empathise with the young lad — I visit Wilko all the time.

Over the 1870s a succession of young women were arrested and fined, yet such was the prosperous nature of their business most seemed happy to pay the fine and go straight back to work. In 1875 one Falmouth woman accompanied the payment of a fine with the words ‘this is prostitution money’, which rather upset the authorities then present. At the same time there were also issues when one local copper was discovered in Allens Yard by his boss, which must have been a bit awkward.

In 1875 local magistrates organised a special meeting to discuss the ongoing battle, where all ‘expressed regret that they had no power of summary imprisonment for the offence’. They did find some excuses to throw around some harsher punishments from time to time though, usually on the grounds of alleged theft. Eliza Jane Blewitt (a ‘nymph of the pave’ as described by the Falmouth Packet newspaper) was sent down for stealing an umbrella, while Maria Clyma was given two months’ imprisonment for stealing a gold ring from a Norwegian sailor. In 1876 a policeman tried to arrest several residents of Allens Yard, but was shoved over by Elizabeth Eva when he tried to take hold of her sixteen-year-old daughter. She received an extra large fine and a week’s imprisonment for her troubles. 

It seems the law did get somewhere in the end, as the word prostitute does not appear in the 1891 census. It’s possible the law had managed to eradicate the ignoble institution for good, but somehow I doubt it! 

Falmouth is full of… MURDER

Sometimes people kill other people. Sometimes they do it in Falmouth. And sometimes they don’t get away with it. There are quite a few such stories to choose from, but here are just three, since I find that a little dose of homicide usually goes a long way.

The first tale is one underpinned by mindless thuggery. In September 1858 two young sailors, Hero Ackerman and Nicholas Jungklas, wandered off their ship looking for a good time. Outside the Royal Hotel (now HSBC, Market Street) they met a young lady and asked her if she would like to partake in a beverage. They headed towards a beer shop on Fish Stand Hill (opposite The Grapes), where they bumped into a crew of ‘Yankee Irish’, who had recently arrived from Quebec and seemed in the mood to cause trouble. After a few heated words one of the gang drew a knife and chased the terrified duo down the hill and along Church Street. They caught up with Hero outside the Subscription Rooms (53 Church Street, now Ann’s Cottage Surf Shop) and started to kick the living daylights out of him as he clung desperately onto the railings.

I gave up trying to take a perfect comparison shot because it was pouring with rain. Feel free to send me a better one!

At some point in all this Hero was stabbed in the right lung, and he soon died from his wounds. The Americans were arrested and a Grand Jury ruled that they had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, murdered Hero Ackerman’, although there was some legal toing and froing about who actually committed the fatal deed. 

The second is a strange story of romance and passion, which offers up many frustratingly unanswerable questions. In 1909 two employees at the Falmouth Hotel became entwined in a romance. Charles Hirschkron (20) was German, and worked as a cook, while Mabel Burleigh (29), whose husband had been killed in an accident in South Africa, worked as a chambermaid. The two of them were cheery, likeable types, popular with the other employees, and were regularly popping off to take dance lessons together, giving an impression of being very much in love.

The Falmouth Hotel
Not a bad place for a spot of passionate romance

There were, however, dark clouds on the horizon — Charles seems to have had money problems and always carried around a revolver, jokily declaring that, ‘When I am tired of this world, this little one will put me out of it.’

In January 1910 everything got somewhat stranger and Charles seems to have fallen into a deep depression. One day he wouldn’t get out of bed until noon, and he was later seen writing furiously and ripping up the paper into tiny little pieces. On the 4th January things seemed a little better: the lovers had dinner together and were seen wandering around the hotel grounds laughing, his arm around her waist. Then, out of nowhere, people nearby heard the sound of three revolver shots. Their bodies were soon found, with a letter in Charles’ pockets — ‘God forgive. We have made up our minds to die together. Please remember us to our friends.’ 

Was Mabel really on board with this? What moved Charles to take such a course? And why were they seen laughing beforehand? Someone give me answers!

The final story doesn’t have any trace of high romance, rooted as it is within a rather simpler form of murderous motivation — wanting to immediately get hold of some cash. On Christmas Eve 1942, tobacconist Albert Bateman was in his shop on Arwenack Street, near where Trago is now. At some point in the late afternoon a man entered the shop and struck Albert on the head with a revolver, which had the unfortunate effect of killing him. When he didn’t come home, Albert’s wife found her way into the shop with two police officers and discovered her husband arrayed on the floor, the murder weapon placed neatly on the counter. 

Not a bad place for a spot of unpleasantness

An investigation was launched, with the line of enquiry being directed towards the revolver, which, it became apparent, had been stolen from the docks. This narrowed down the suspects to around a dozen men, one of whom, Gordon Horace Trenoweth, was spotted by the police hanging about suspiciously. They visited his home on the High Street on Christmas Day, and after a short interview (where he presumably did a terrible job of acting casual) he was arrested. A banknote was found on his person that could be traced directly to the deceased, and the case was soon considered to be closed. An attempt was made in court to argue that Trenoweth hadn’t intended to murder his victim, but the intense nastiness of the injuries meant this was rejected, and the murderer was hung for his crime a few months later. Grim. 

Falmouth is full of… TOLERANCE AND OPENNESS

After that series of stories of notable nastiness, it’d probably be a good idea to end the article celebrating some of the more admirable aspects of Falmouth’s history. Because, the occasional murder aside, this town has a past well worth celebrating!

From 1688 until 1850 Falmouth was the country’s main Royal Mail Packet Station, which received the latest news from across the world, carried across the waves by a special fleet of plucky packet ships. This constant flow of information made Falmouth a place of real significance and the town thrived as a globally connected hub, drawing in visitors from across the seven seas. Some of these were wealthy travellers for whom Falmouth represented a waypoint — somewhere to stretch their legs whilst waiting for the next ship to their final destination. The poet Robert Southey was detained here for a long while in 1800 due to bad weather, and he described the town with the words ‘dirt, noise, restlessness, expectation, impatience’, which makes Falmouth sound somewhat like Heathrow Airport.  

Falmouth as it used to be

Yet for all the notable names that have passed through — Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Joseph Bonaparte, to name but a few — Falmouth’s identity has been forged more by the ebb and flow of history’s unknowns. As Phillip Marsden put it, ‘Falmouth was always a town of outsiders. Rising from bare fields, it had no native population. From the outset, it attracted freebooters and buccaneers, entrepreneurs, pietists and wanderers, who found no long-established community to resent their settling.’

Thanks to the manifold maritime opportunities and a population that shifted with the tides, Falmouth offered a safe harbour to those who didn’t necessarily fit neatly into social hierarchies elsewhere. Unlike most inland communities, where working people rarely travelled far from their birthplace, Falmouth was defined by movement, change and a relationship with the great wide world. There are still a few physical markers of this pluralistic past nowadays, notably the synagogue on Gyllyng Street, which served a thriving Jewish community for over a century. Yet for my money, the best illustration of Falmouth’s cosmopolitan pedigree is the story of Joseph Emidy. Most of the historically-interested residents of Falmouth will likely have heard about Emidy, but even so, his story is one that deserves to be shared as frequently as possible.

He was born in the 1770s somewhere in West Africa, but as a child was sold into Portuguese slavery and was taken to Brazil. The details are lost to history, but somewhere along the line it became apparent that he possessed an incredible musical ability and he ended up in Lisbon, where he took on a role as second violin in the city’s opera’s orchestra. One night a group of British sailors, including the great fighting captain, Sir Edward Pellew, saw the African perform, and were amazed by his ability.

Sir Edward Pellew, being amazed

Rather than just asking for an autograph and treasuring the memory of his performance like normal people, the crew decided that they wanted to hear Joseph play on a more permanent basis, and so, later that night, they kidnapped him and rowed him out to their ship. Joseph then spent four years on the HMS Indefatigable, playing jaunty tunes for the crew, while longing to make his escape.

Eventually, in 1799, Captain Pellew allowed Joseph to disembark at Falmouth, where he chose to settle. He quickly developed a reputation for musical excellence here, leading the Falmouth Harmonic Society, giving lessons and playing concerts. He married the daughter of a ‘respectable tradesman’ and spent fifteen years in the town as his reputation steadily grew. He eventually moved to Truro, where he died in 1835. 

Unfortunately, we don’t possess any of the music Joseph composed and have to rely on contemporary reports of his talents, which repeatedly proclaim him as one of the great musicians of the age. James Silk Buckingham, the terrifically named writer and adventurer, recorded that, ‘With the same advantages as were enjoyed by most of the great composers of Europe, this man might have been a Mendelssohn or Beethoven.’

The only known image of the gifted musician

It would surely be a mistake to claim that Joseph Emidy lived a life in Cornwall free from prejudice, but it remains heartening to hear about the extent of his local success. He lived in an era that still bore the moral stain of the Atlantic slave trade, yet in Falmouth he found a degree of acceptance and popularity.

Joseph’s story is a heartening account of a man overcoming great trials and finding a form of rooted happiness, but it also shows us that the global movement of people is not some modern invention. People have always travelled and started new lives in distant lands, and more than almost anywhere else in Britain, Falmouth was built upon an acceptance of this. And that, without doubt, it a heritage of which the town can be proud. 


Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.

If you happened to think this article a source of interest and joy, please like the page on Facebook to keep track of my journeys through Cornwall’s history. And, if you’re feeling generously minded, perhaps you’d consider throwing some loose change in the tip jar? Just click on donate below.

Many thanks are due to Peter Searle at the Falmouth History Archive for his research assistance, editorial oversight and much appreciated encouragement.

References

  • Barbary Piracy, on the National Maritime Museum website. 
  • Barclay Fox’s Journal, edited by R. L Brett (1979) 
  • Cornishman, 21 January 1943
  • Cornwall and its People, by A. K Hamilton Jenkin (1945)
  • Cornwall Online Census Project
  • Cornwall Online Parish Clerks
  • Falmouth and the British Maritime Empire (PhD Thesis), by Megan Lowena Oldcorn (2014)
  • Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, 01 October 1909
  • Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, 10 January 1910
  • Royal Cornwall Gazette, 17 July 1875
  • Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 November 1876
  • Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 December 1885
  • Royal Cornwall Gazette, 05 May 1898
  • The Journal of John Wesley
  • The Levelling Sea, by Phillp Marsden (2011)
  • The Cornish Telegraph, 21 January 1886
  • West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 31 October 1889
  • Western Evening Herald, 24 December 1900
  • Western Morning News, 08 January 1940

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