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Truro is unique. I mean, where else in Cornwall can you go shopping at a large number of well-known chain stores? Yet there’s far more to Truro than just its concentration of conveniences — this city has a rich history bedecked with events both weird and wonderful, and I think it’s time for us to dive in and see what we can find.
Truro is full of… RIOTING
A consistent theme of Truro’s history is mob violence. Across the centuries, and for many different reasons, local people have often been happy to band together to engage in a bit of argy-bargy. Sometimes it seems silly, sometimes it seems reasonable, but in every case it proves rather fascinating.
The most common cause was economic strife. When times were hard and food prices outrageous, making a scene in Truro was one of few courses of action open to working people. It was often the local miners (or ‘tinners’) who made their presence felt: in 1787 almost a thousand poured into town ‘to pull their houses about their ears’, with a similar number arriving in 1789. On this second occasion there was such panic that soldiers were ordered to fire into the mob, an outrageous order that they rightly refused to carry out. It might seem surprising that the authorities were willing to fill Truro’s streets with musket balls, but the reality was that miners were often viewed as terrifying savages. In 1776 the St James Chronicle claimed that miners ‘are rough as bears, selfish as swine, obstinate as mules, and hard as the native iron’, which seems a little over the top!
If we move forward a few decades we find that many Victorian riots had less to do with hungry miners and more to do with dodgy individuals looking for a laugh. In 1878 some local units of the Volunteer Force (the precursor of the Army Reserve) were waiting in Truro Railway Station when a large crowd of unruly ‘roughs’ turned up and started pushing them about. The Redruth corp nobly did their best to ignore them, but the Falmouth & Penryn corp couldn’t help but take the bait, and soon a ‘general melee ensued’. The officers in charge, aided by the station master, tried to restore order, but didn’t get very far — one of the mob tried to steal the Colonel’s sword, and the sergeant of the Falmouth & Penryn corp was ‘struck on the head with a stick’. Eventually the relevant trains chugged up and the troops were removed, putting an end to the event. It seems rather difficult to understand quite why this happened, but the Royal Cornwall Gazette added that ‘drink had been freely indulged in on both sides, and it is to this cause, without doubt, that the whole discreditable scene is to be traced.’
A similar event occurred only three years later when the Falmouth contingent of the Salvation Army paraded into Truro, voices ringing and brass instruments blaring. In their early years the Salvation Army were often treated with rough hostility, and indeed, that was to be their fate on this day too. The group tried to hold a religious service in the Town Hall, but it attracted a large crowd more interested in piss-taking than psalm-reading, and so, as the Cornish Telegraph recorded, ‘There was no attempt at reverence, and the service continued amidst great uproar.’ The service was eventually abandoned and the Salvation Army moved out to Victoria Square for an open-air meeting instead, before deciding to head back to Malpas, where a boat would take them back to Falmouth. However, as they marched out of Truro things rapidly became somewhat nasty, since they were tailed by ‘hundreds of low blackguards bent on mischief’. At Trennick Row their poor flag-bearer was ‘thrown down, kicked and otherwise mistreated’, while volleys of stones and mud rained down from every direction. The Truro Mission Band, who were accompanying the poor Falmouthians, came in for some rough treatment too — Mr Michael Nancarrow was kicked so hard his ribs were feared to be broken, and the daughter of one of the band ended up with a broken nose. All in all it sounds rather horrid, and whilst a group of religionists armed with brass instruments does sound a trifle annoying, I rather doubt the Salvation Army deserved such treatment!
The 20th century may have been a bit quieter on the mob violence front, but it wasn’t without its moments. In 1943, when much of Cornwall found itself playing host to US forces preparing for D-Day, a battle erupted between black and white GIs in the Globe Pub on Frances Street (now Reeds Pharmacy). Racial tension was a constant problem during the American wartime presence in the UK; the US military strove to enforce racial segregation here, but most British people thought the idea offensive, and often found that black soldiers were far politer and better behaved than their white compatriots. Indeed, a widely circulated aside at the time was, ‘I don’t mind the Yanks, but I can’t say I care for these white chaps they’ve brought along with them!’
Unsurprisingly, conflict between white and black GIs was common, and often escalated into serious violence. This was certainly the case in Truro that night; what presumably started as an average pub fight quickly grew out of control, with dozens of soldiers doing their best to harm each other with fists, bayonets and pint glasses. The fighting soon spilt out onto the street, where it was eventually ended by the intervention of military police. One eyewitness recorded that, ‘They [the military police] quickly waded into the melee, swinging their staves and knocked to the ground many of the US troops. Other MPs picked up the unconscious ones and threw them bodily into the backs of waiting lorries.’ Now that’s what I call a rough night!
Truro is full of… NAUGHTY CHILDREN
In addition to roving bands of violent adults, Truro’s streets have also been walked by another social menace — badly behaved children. An article in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 1893 complained that, ‘There is no little depravity and ill-behaviour going on among the juveniles of the city’, adding that, ‘Truro youths are very rough and uncouth, and their language is anything but desirable.’
There was some cause for this complaint it seems — contemporary newspapers were chock-a-block with accounts of badly behaved young’uns. In 1862 four teenagers faced legal consequences for hurling rotten oranges at an ‘old woman’ (she was only sixty) over at Lemon Quay, though they protested that the orange salesman told them to do it. In 1864 two lads set fire to a hedge near Kindhart Wood, at Penwethers, but luckily for them the magistrates agreed that it was ‘a boyish trick unaccompanied by malice’, so the kids got away without any serious repercussions. Yet in 1883 the Truro Police Court felt it necessary to fine young William Menheniot and William Champion for the heinous crime of ‘knocking at doors and running away.’
One notable string of misdemeanours occurred in 1893. A large group of boys apparently took to lounging around The Green (now Truro Bus Station) and yelling abuse through the windows of the library (in what is now The Palace Building), as well as taunting anybody that tried to stop them. They were eventually hauled into court, where a succession of police officers described the multiple occasions that these boys had rustled their jimmies, including, interestingly, Superintendent Angel, who featured prominently in my article, The Untold Story of Doctor Dick Part Two. He added that he thought the boys should be whipped rather than fined, but the court clerk sadly stated that it wasn’t within their powers to do so.
Truro’s unruly children weren’t just satisfied with disrupting librarians it seems — they even managed to ruin Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897! A grand procession was undertaken to Victoria Gardens, comprising the military, police and various local officials, and, rather unwisely, two thousand schoolchildren. The Royal Cornwall Gazette recorded afterwards that ‘The management of the children formed the only thing to mar the day’s rejoicing, and in this undoubtedly someone blundered.’ It seems the little kiddiewinks became a tad bored during the several hours of earnest speeches and started to misbehave by shoving each other into the pond and attempting to sabotage a special decorated railway engine by stuffing grass into its pipes.
The logbook of St Mary’s School on the day after recorded that, ‘Attendance small, children being tired.’ Surprise, surprise.
Truro is full of… INEQUALITY
Truro began the 18th century in a state of serious economic hardship (in 1698 travel writer Celia Fiennes described the town as ‘a ruinated and disregarded place’), but by the end of the century things had changed markedly. Cornwall, lest we forget, was then a place of incredible economic activity, and Truro reaped the rewards. This was partly because it was both a port and a stannary town (where tin and copper was checked for quality, given a stamp of approval and then traded), but it also had much to do with the town’s role as the centre of Cornish high society. If you wanted to spend money and look good doing it, Truro was the place to be.
Unsurprisingly, historical accounts of the town often focused on the glamorous side of things. Local clergyman, Richard Polwhele, put it simply when he wrote, ‘Tin glitters in its streets, and all its merchants are princes.’ In 1794 James Forbes, artist and traveller, wrote that ‘The people of this town dress and live so elegantly that the “pride of Truro” is one of the bye-words of this county’. And in 1808 Reverend Richard Warner recorded that, ‘Here all the modes of polished life are visible, in genteel houses, elegant hospitality, fashionable apparel, and courteous manners.’ Indeed, the legacy of all this wealth and high living is still with us; Truro’s charm and aesthetic appeal today has much to do with Georgian and Victorian cash splashing.
Yet, as is usually the case, great wealth lived side by side with great hardship and everything that went with it. In 1900 an article in the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser lambasted this state of affairs with commendable passion: ‘Truro is a charming place to the casual visitor, so long as he keeps to the main thoroughfares, or to the quiet, well-ordered suburban parts. Little would anyone think, as he walks through the centre of our bright, cheerful, and busy city, that within only a few yards of the centre of its business there are… half-dozens of squalid, tumble-down vermin-abounded tenements, unworthy of the name of “houses”.’ Much of this poor quality housing was cleared between the world wars, though it remained a stain on Truro’s record sheet to the very end. In the 1930s a local man, Ivor Dunstan, was walking to work through a poorer district of the city when ‘he heard a low rumbling and an army of rats came out from a turning and streamed down the hill.’
There is something more than a little recognisable in this portrait of Cornish inequality, but luckily armies of rats seem to be a thing of the past!
Truro is full of… LOOSE LIVING
It’s an unavoidable fact that human beings often seek to escape the dreary tedium of routine by pursuing pleasure and vice. This was as true in Truro as anywhere else, and the historical record includes plenty of unchristian behaviour.
Prostitution was, of course, a constant presence, with the area around Calenick Street being something of a hotspot. Sex workers would frequent particular pubs, most notably the Golden Lion, which earned the nickname of ‘The Whore and Donkey’. There were also dedicated brothels; a local character, Elizabeth Ellery, appeared to have run such an establishment on Charles Street, which was raided by the police in 1881. The lady of the house was discovered in bed with a client, which must have been a little awkward for the man in question.
Sex workers weren’t the only ones to seek a living in the physical hankerings of the city’s menfolk. In 1930 an otherwise respectable local man, George Richards (60), was arrested for ‘exposing obscene cards’ in the White Hart Inn. It’s a little hard to ascertain what exactly went down, but it seems to me that he was basically selling pornography. It was noted that his wife was very ill and that his own health wasn’t great either, and it seems likely he was trying to make some money to alleviate their condition. ‘What can I say?’ he said after he was fined by the magistrate. ‘I am ruined.’
Stories of public drunkenness are a constant presence in Truro’s history, as was the case across the rest of the UK. What stands out here though is how often women were the ones doing the drinking! In 1844 two women (both ‘old and notorious drunkards’) were placed in the public stocks on Boscawen Street, which was a bit of an old fashioned approach, even at the time. One took it in her stride and cracked on with her knitting, but her companion immediately burst into tears. In 1870 a mother and daughter, 94 and 45 years old respectively, staggered drunkenly back to their home in Pydar Street, crashed into bed and in doing so managed to set themselves on fire. Luckily, a young woman passing by observed the flames and they were saved from a most unpleasant end. The stories of female booziness also continue into the 20th century; in 1939 a Mrs Minnie Thomas was found to be so completely legless on St Clement’s Hill that a policeman had to drive her home — when they arrived (at 49 Trelander North) she collapsed in the front garden and had to be virtually carried to bed by her husband. She must have greeted the next day with a pretty impressive hangover!
The award for ‘most inappropriate smashedness’ must surely be given to a man however. Actually, two men — a couple of local clergymen who were apparently unable to conduct their duties without partaking in a tipple beforehand. A correspondent for The Cornish Telegraph in 1886 wrote that people had been ‘greatly scandalised at the conduct of two clergymen whose condition, when called upon to read the burial service, has been such as to give very great pain to the relatives of the deceased persons.’ They added that, ‘An intoxicated clergyman in his own house is a disgrace to the cloth, but at a funeral… the sight of a reeling and inarticulate incumbent is something shocking to contemplate.’
Truro is full of… MEDIEVAL VIOLENCE
Historians often get a bit put out if you imply that medieval history was defined by violence, disease and general wretchedness. ‘There’s more to it than that!’ the academics protest. ‘It was also a time of great learning and progress!’ That is quite true, but it doesn’t take away from the fact it was a violent time to be alive. This was especially true in Cornwall, and Truro certainly didn’t miss out on the action.
Sometimes Truro was on the receiving end of direct enemy action. The French raided the town in 1377, and did so much damage that the settlement was described as being ‘almost uninhabited and wholly wasted’. It wasn’t the last time either — the French rocked up again in 1404, and this time they added insult to injury by setting the town on fire. The consequences were so dire that in 1410 a petition was sent to London claiming that local people were abandoning their houses rather than rebuilding them.
Locally originated murder, however, was far more common than foreign invasion. The records hold plenty of examples of Truro’s residents doing each other harm, including some nasty sounding murders. One interesting aspect of medieval justice was the way that criminals could seek temporary sanctuary in churches, so St Mary’s Church (demolished in Victorian times and replaced by the cathedral) occasionally played host to some panicked looking murderers. Here they were granted a choice: they could surrender to the law, they could agree to leave the country, or they could face starvation in the church. That’s a bit of a toughie, don’t you think?
Now, Wikipedia tells me that in the year 1500 we magically moved from the late medieval era into the early modern era, but, gasp — violence in Truro carried on apace, and murdery mishaps continue to colour the historical record. When will the madness end!?
Truro is full of… NOVELTY
We’ve covered a lot of unpleasantness in this here article, so I think it’s only reasonable that we finish off with something cheery and unambiguously positive. Let us travel then to the 14th August 1832, the day selected for a demonstration of a most exciting novelty — the hot air balloon.
Hot air balloons are certainly nothing remarkable for us, but it must have been quite staggering for our ancestors to behold them for the first time. Thanks to balloons it was suddenly the case that humans were able to look at the world from high above and see what the birds see. Like the first manned space flights of the 1960s, hot air balloons introduced people to a new understanding of what human ingenuity is capable of achieving and demonstrated that the constraints of physical laws could be overcome.
But yes, let us return to Truro. The balloon had been positioned in a timber yard next to the gas works (roughly where the Tesco roundabout is now) and gradually filled with gas over the course of two days. It belonged to Mr George Graham, a ‘pioneering aeronaut’, who made his name by wowing crowds all over Britain with the wonders of hot air ballooning, often accompanied by his wife, Margaret, who is now actually much more famous than him.
It was a bright, beautiful day, and there were a great many people there to appreciate it. The launch was planned for 4pm, and in anticipation of the event ‘carriages and horsemen continued to pour into the town’, whilst ‘the roofs of houses, or any elevated situation from which a view of the balloon could be obtained, were crowded with spectators of every rank and condition’. This was a big deal!
A slight delay was suffered due to the tearing of the balloon’s fabric, but once it was repaired Mr Graham got down to work. He took his position in the basket with a companion, Mr Barber, and signalled for them to be set free. This was done, and they then began rising ‘slowly but majestically’, while the crowd looked on in breathless amazement. The balloon rose and rose until it was visible from twenty miles away. It’s not hard to imagine miners across central Cornwall wearily making their way out into daylight, or preparing to head down into the darkness, gazing up into the sky, lost for words to describe what their eyes were telling them.
Mr Graham eventually guided the balloon down, and they landed in a field near Polwhele House, a couple of miles from the city. All in all it was a very successful undertaking, and everyone involved seems to have had a marvellous time. Mr Graham was certainly pleased with how things had gone, and so he wrote a letter of thanks to the town of Truro, praising the support he had received, and mentioning that the gas provided ‘was of excellent quality’.
Did you hear that? Truro has excellent quality gas! Now that’s something of which we can be truly 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.
- A History of Truro: From Coinage to Cathedral Town Vol. 1, by Vic Acton (1997)
- A History of Truro: From Coinage to Cathedral Town Vol. 2, by Vic & Bob Acton (2002)
- An American Uprising in the Second World War: Mutiny in the Duchy, by Kate Werran (2020)
- Cornishman, 10 November 1881
- Cornishman, 25 October 1883
- Cornwall and its People, by A. K Hamilton Jenkin (1945)
- Cornwall Online Census Project
- Cornwall Online Parish Clerks
- ‘Memories of when the Yanks came to Truro Part 2‘, on WW2 People’s War
- Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 August 1832
- Royal Cornwall Gazette, 02 April 1870
- Royal Cornwall Gazette, 07 June 1878
- Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28 September 1893
- Royal Cornwall Gazette, 19 October 1893
- Truro: A History and Celebration, by Bob Richards (2004)
- Truro History & Guide, by Christine Parnell (2002)
- Truro Uncovered
- The Cornish Telegraph, 15 September 1881
- ‘The notorious pubs of Truro that include murder, race riots and prostitutes‘, on Cornwall Live
- The Travels of Celia Fiennes
- West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 04 April 1862
- West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 10 May 1900
- West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 04 September 1939
- Western Daily Mercury, 29 August 1864
- Western Morning News, 07 October 1930
The Untold Story of ‘Doctor Dick’ — The Quack who Scandalised Cornwall (Part 1)09/12/2020
The Untold Story of ‘Doctor Dick’ — The Quack who Scandalised Cornwall (Part 2)06/01/2021
Falmouth’s History of Sex, Murder and Piracy12/10/2020
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