The radical summer of Thomas Treweeke

Maxwell Adams 2003,2005

I first came across him when I was looking at the history of Lelant parish council. He was a bankrupt and as such expelled from the council, fighting every inch of the way through two stormy meetings. A few years later he died at Lelant on 25 April 1903 aged seventy eight and his obituary in the Cornish Telegraph on 2 May noted that "his rabid radicalism keenly cut the run of local Conservatism."

Rabid is an alliteration too far but a quarter of a century earlier Treweeke seems to have spent the summer looking for a parapet to put his head above. His was not a quiet Liberalism. He explored with a bright light the nasty corners of parish administrative life and told what he found, often what he suspected rather than knew. He believed passionately in the right to tell Conservatives and Anglicans what they did not wish to hear. How they must have loathed him, how they must have feared him, how they must have rejoiced when he fell on hard times at the end of his life.

The summer of 1881 was Treweeke's finest hour. For weeks he tormented the Tory-Anglican nexus of Lelant with their own failings, threw aspersions at them like confetti, denounced the "cunning devices" of the Tories (Cornish Telegraph 11 August page 8), left us with a sharp insight into their ways, and appears to have lost every battle. At least I can find no crowing triumph in the newspapers from him and he was not a man to win quietly. I hope he comforted himself with the observation of William the Silent, surely the patron saint of the Left, "It is not necessary to hope in order to act, nor to succeed in order to persevere."

Of course we are more than a hundred years down the road from Treweeke's stirring summer and we have only his version of matters; his enemies did not publicly respond to his charges, unwisely for their reputations in history. We must remember when we look at his summer and the reports of it what Jane Austen said in chapter 49 of Emma, "Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken."

Treweeke waged his war on several fronts. First, he reported a rumour about the records of the sexton of St Uny's Church, John Leacher (Cornish Telegraph 14 July 1881, page 5). I find this an obscure issue and Treweeke was here a master of hinting; but some pages of Leacher's records were perhaps missing. The rural dean had investigated some months before. Treweeke demanded a meeting of the vestry, the council of bourgeois ratepayers that ran the village before the parish council existed, to explain whether "such a foul scandal" had happened.

We should note three aspect of this episode which are common to most of Treweeke's work. First, he had raised this question privately but, having been ignored, went public. This was his chosen approach throughout that summer, publishing his largely unanswered letters to the authorities. Second, people also seem to have found Treweeke a ready conduit of fact and perhaps fancy. Much of what he said that summer was based on unidentified authority and he seemed to have been used by parish whistleblowers. Third, he made allegations hedged around with ifs.

Why would a radical bother about the failings, if they were that, of the village's Anglican gravedigger and parson's helper? Ah, at that time the Church of England was theTory Party at prayer and in attacking the parish church Treweeke, a Liberal Party man, was attacking the Tories.

That opening skirmish apparently got nowhere but doubts about the propriety of the church and party were usefully sown.

A week later, before the Lelant Conservatives had time to catch their breath, he charged again. There had been an election for the board of governors of Trevarrack School. This was the secular school, now the Tyringham Arms on the coach road, not the Anglican National School in Church Road. Treweeke had canvassed hard and had held, we are told, a series of meetings. No doubt his concerns about the sexton's records figured in them. He stood, he was confident of winning, and he lost. The winners of the election were by and large the Tory Anglicans. He was furious and, in his own words, "dumbfounded." He wrote to the Cornish Telegraph alleging, in the paper's words, "wholesale bribery and corruption, as well as coercion and intimidation" (21 July page 5). In a letter he said votes had been "tampered with" and only 123 out of 500 electors had voted (Cornish Telegraph 21 July page 8). He wrote to the Education Department about the election, naming to them but not to us the people who he said had "completely corrupted" the election (Cornish Telegraph 4 August page 8). His complaints seem to have got nowhere.

There is no way of knowing now whether he was a poor loser or had a genuine grievance. But those aroused by the sexton affair were no doubt further aroused by the school board election affair. The Tories and Anglicans would by now be realising Treweeke's temperament and be experiencing fear and loathing.

His robust response to defeat certainly roused one villager to support him. "Verax" wrote to say that the Treweekes were long-standing mining enterpreneurs whose enterprise had benefited the community. He went on to denounce a "clique" at Lelant and to say of the recent school board election: "there must have been foul play...somewhere, or the most popular candidate [Treweeke]...could not have been defeated." The anonymous supporter then falls into Treweeke's way of a hedging allegation: "I trust if rascality were practised it will be exposed."

In the 21 July issue of the paper, as well as denouncing the election, Treweeke revealed a new challenge and this has raised lasting doubts about the reputations of the Tories of 1881. It was not about sexton's records and an election. It was serious. It was about money.

Over several weeks Treweeke challenged the accuracy of the parish accounts and the exemption from payment given to some Lelanters, though it was never only about those matters. He characterised his challenges by saying, disarmingly and unconvincingly, "I am a novice in these matters and merely ask for information" (Cornish Telegraph 18 August 1881 page 8). He announced that he had written to the two Lelant overseers, John Toms and John Millett, and told them that he understood "on the most reliable authority" - he did not say who this was - that the parish finances were "in a most deplorable condition." (Cornish Telegraph 21 July 1881 page 5). Then he announced that he had demanded the "supplemental valuation sheets" should be amended and that he would inspect the parish accounts (Cornish Telegraph 4 August 1881 page 8). He suggested that people did not pay the rate until all had been clarified.

It is interesting that Treweeke conditioned his call for a vestry meeting by saying, "Let there be no hole-and -corner meeting. I should suggest that a circular be sent to each ratepayer." We shall see later why he rightly distrusted the Tory administrators to call a proper meeting.

The assistant overseer of Lelant was James Sandow. It was the chief administrative post in the village, its holder was the keeper of the village accounts, collecting rates and distributing relief to the poor. Treweeke went at him and a second anonymous letter backed him saying the elected overseers were not the "masters" but the "tools" of the appointed assistant overseer. Treweeke said some ratepayers were excused from paying rates; indeed, Sandow "excuses whom he pleases" (Cornish Telegraph 1 September 1881 page 8). Later he charged that there was illegal underrating with some favoured farmers at Lelant not paying proper rates. Lelant was run by a "clique" working on the principle, Treweeke said, "I tickle you, you tickle me." (Cornish Telegraph 8 September 1881 page 5).

The second anonymous letter gave the example of the rating of Lelant Quays, what is now often called Dynamite Quay. The quay was "rated at 40 a year only during the time it was held by Praed [Tyringham of Trevethoe, a local Tory and Anglican squire], but raised to 550 as soon as it was taken by Harvey and Co." (Cornish Telegraph 1 September 1881 page 8). The writer asked, "Have all Sandow's relatives paid their rates?"

Treweeke inspected the village accounts and publicly questioned the propriety of two sums for 25.8.5 and 29.19.6 in the village accounts, a large amount in 1881, challenged the failure to provide vouchers for the cost of postage stamps, said the rate demand was improperly completed, and demanded that the overseers should be surcharged. Treweeke unrelentingly went on to point out that Sandow had doubled his expenses for travel to audit though the travel was now easier. Unsurprisingly, he tells of his difficulty in uncovering information (Cornish Telegraph 18 August page 8). Later he said the assistant overseer used to be paid 15 to collect four rates a year but was now apparently paid 35 to collect three (Cornish Telegraph 8 September 1881 page 5).

As far as the rate demand was concerned, Treweeke unusually got a reply to his charges and was told he was right and Sandow had been told do it properly in future (Cornish Telegraph 18 August 1881, page 8).

Well into his investigations now, Treweeke told Lelanters his request to see the receipt book and cheque book held by Sandow had been refused belligerently (Cornish Telegraph 25 August 1881). Was Sandow weary of Treweeke's attacks, thoroughly exasperated by unjust aspersions, or did he fear inspection? We cannot know but the public accounts in the newspaper of his aggressive and secretive and abusive behaviour must throw a shadow on him for us. It would be helpful to read Sandow's version of events. Treweeke actually spelled out publicly that Sandow threatened to kick his backside (no, he does not put it like that; this is 1881); and slap him in the mouth and knock him in the head (yes, he does put it like that).

We are now into September and still Treweeke stings. He wrote to the chair of the Board of Guardians at Penzance, the people who looked after the poor of Lelant (Cornish Telegraph 8 September 1881 page 5). He complained that Sandow, who was responsible for giving out the money, was insisting that the poor came to his grocery shop to receive their outdoor relief, what we would call their benefits, rather than visiting them in their houses. Treweeke muttered trucking. He unfavourably compared prices in Sandow's village shop and declared them too high. He managed to give the impression of an unsavoury scam, of Sandow too astutely giving public money with one hand and getting it back for himself with the other. Others no doubt saw convenience and enterprise.

I do not know what to think of Treweeke's financial attacks. Was he on to something or was he a gadfly, stinging willy-nilly, chasing rumours? He was not alone in his suspicions of ill-doing. There are the two anonymous letters of support; but more importantly one of the writers said, without rebuttal, that John Toms, one of the elected overseers, "was a very bold talker on these matters before he took office, but has ever since shown the white feather" (Cornish Telegraph 1 September 1881 page 8). It looks as though doubts were common but that does not make them true.

What, then, are we to make of Treweeke's charges? There was the large rise in Sandow's salary, the vast increase in the rates to be paid when Tyringham was succeeded by Harveys at the quays, the use of Sandow's shop to pay out the benefits which Treweeke felt muddled public and private functions though we do not see it that way today, the charges of improper underpayment and excusal. The people that Treweeke sneeringly called Lelant's "bigwigs" (Cornish Telegraph 8 September 1881 page 5) offered no rebuttal, no defence; Sandow was obstructive about the books. What are we to make of these things? Was their silence the disdain of innocents, an awareness that anything said would only encourage Treweeke? Or guilt?

There seems to have been institutional backscratching and a laxity in arrangements, growing perhaps from years of unchallenged administration. I do not know whether these amounted to corruption. It is always a difficult judgement to know when mutual backscratching and relaxed practices fall into actual corruption. However, I can find no suggestion that Treweeke's charges came to anything which perhaps indicates they were baseless, that there was no impropriety. But who locally could independently have investigated? No doubt similar practices happened elsewhere, including places where Victorian Liberals held sway. And at the time of Treweeke's summer the mayor of St Ives, who was also the rate collector, was facing allegations of serious financial irregularities.

Recall Treweeke's fear of a hole-and-corner meeting. He ended his hot summer by complaining that a notice of the vestry meeting to examine the list of Lelanters excused from paying rates had been put only in the porch of St Uny's Church (Cornish Telegraph 22 September 1881 page 5). At that time Lelant parish included a largely unbuilt Carbis Bay and a vast rural area stretching towards Halsetown and Ludgvan. Treweeke made the reasonable point that most villagers and parishioners would not see it and said that it should be displayed in the chapels of the parish too. That it was not, that it went up only in the Anglican place on the edge of the village, tells us much about power and efforts to retain it in Lelant in 1881. It helps Treweeke's general case about established poor practice.

Strangely, Treweeke failed to report in the paper on the excusal meeting. That protest seems to have come to nothing. Presumably Treweeke's charges were untrue or unprovable.

His final attack was made in a letter of 29 September (Cornish Telegraph page 8). The two young sons of a "poor widow" had gone on a treat organised by the Lelant Wesleyan Methodists. In consequence of their eating and playing with Methodists, the Anglican parson, Tyacke, had "excommunicated" them and refused to let them attend St Uny's Sunday school tea and treat for children. Treweeke's revelation of this insufferable mean-spiritedness and sectarianism by Tyacke was a very damaging blow. I have written about Tyacke previously. Two years before he turned away the two young boys he had successfully sought the imprisonment of two young Lelant girls for stealing flowers from a grave ('Victorian justice in Lelant' in St Ives Times and Echo 24 January 1997).

We have come full circle. Treweeke began the summer with attacking the church and ends with it, blasting the Tories in between.

Treweeke went on to become briefly a Lelant parish councillor before his bankruptcy did for him. His end was lamentable. The Cornish Telegraph reported on 30 January 1896 his bankruptcy case at Truro. He had been unsuccessful in mining and flower-growing businesses. "He lost everything and his health broke down twelve months ago." But for a few weeks in the summer of 1881 he gave them hell.

Notes

Thomas Treweeke born 1824-25 at St Austell, died 25 April 1903 aged seventy eight Married Margaret (born Lelant) 1891 census: living at Alma Villa, Lelant (now called Rosedale, Mount Pleasant, Lelant)

Sources

Cornish Telegraph 1881: 14 July page 5, 21 July p 2 and 5, 4 August p 8, 18 August p 8, 25 August p 5, 1 September p 8, 8 September p 5, 22 September p 5, 29 September p 8, 13 October p 5

Cornish Telegraph 30 January 1896 p 8 column 3: bankruptcy

Cornishman 30 January 1896 p 5 c 1: bankruptcy

CRO: B/St Ives 12, Lelant parish council minutes: entries for 7 June 1898 and 13 July 1898 (expulsion from council)

Cornish Telegraph 2 May 1903: obituary