Off with the tyrant's head in Hayle!

Copyright Maxwell Adams 2005

In an earlier article I wrote about the visit in 1839 to St Ives of two Chartists, Robert Lowery and Abram Duncan. This ended with a large public meeting at Gwennap Pit on 1 April that year.

The Public Record Office (PRO) at Kew, London has the original letters from Cornish magistrates and parsons about the Chartist visit. This file also contains a letter which inadvertently shows how Chartism continued in west Cornwall after Lowery and Duncan left.

It is one of the delightful ironies of history that the views and activities of reformers often survive to reach us only through their reactionary opponents in power who tell about them in the expectation of thereby damning them.

On 26 August 1839 the priest-magistrate at Phillack, William Hockin, wrote to the home secretary in London about handwritten placards put up in Hayle (PRO: HO 40/41 page 912). He says the placards were "stuck up at night." Hockin goes on to say that the local magistrates can probably prove who wrote them through the handwriting. The author, he says, is "the treasurer of a party of Chartists embodied here" in Hayle.

From Hockin we learn much. We learn that in the summer of 1839 in Hayle there were organised Chartists, that their organisation was developed enough to have a treasurer, that he was literate, that they were committed enough to Chartism to put up placards, and sensible enough to do it at night - if Hockin's assertion about night is correct; it is possible that those asked prudently denied seeing the placards put up in broad daylight and who put them up.

Hockin gives away more. He makes a point of mentioning that Hayle has "extensive iron foundries." The priest-magistrate at Ludgvan writing to the home secretary five months earlier had said that the district was "swarming with miners" who were "easily excited" (HO 40/41 page 49-52). It is clear that, despite the easy words used elsewhere to reassure themselves and the government, some of the Cornish established authorities were extremely nervous about the response to Chartism of the Cornish workers.

But Hockin's most generous inadvertent gift to us is the copy of the Hayle Chartist placard that he made, sent to the home secretary, and which has survived (HO 40/41 page 906). Hockin called it "inflammatory" by which he meant that it threatened his comfortable life; it is certainly over-rhetorical. The placard reads:

"Brother countrymen, will you suffer tyrants to go [to] such a length as to murder three of your brethren in order to frighten you out of your rights; who is the coward that will suffer half-a-million of people to rob twenty millions out of their rights and then call it the law of the land; you see here is no law nor justice in England; then arise and prepare for action and knock off the tyrant's head that we may live. We have nothing to do but take our rights. Show yourselves not cowards nor slaves but free Englishmen."

You don't get politics like that in Hayle nowadays, do you? And isn't "Not cowards nor slaves" a magnificent motto for the town?

Finally, Hockin asked the home secretary what the magistrates should do with the suspected author of the placards. The government reply, written in pencil on Hockin's letter, oozes common sense: "Not to prosecute unless the mischief is spreading in Cornwall."

Who was the treasurer-author? I do not know but a leading Hayle Chartist was John Carne who signed the Address of the Radical Reformers from the meeting that he chaired at Gwennap Pit and he is the likely one (British Library Additional manuscripts 34245A folio 178). If, as I believe, he is the John Carne, carpenter and grocer of Fraddam, he lived to see most of the Chartist demands achieved.

Here then are real heroes in a real democratic cause for us to celebrate. Here are people who did not take injustice lying down but who stood up for themselves. Should Hayle not put up a statue to the treasurer-author and his fellow-Chartists? Or at least a plaque?


William Hockin (1776-1853) was a supporter of Edward WW Pendarves and limited parliamentary reform: ELVINS Brian 'the county election of 1826' in Journal of the RIC 2000, 115, citing the Royal Cornwall Gazette 18 December 1824. Pendarves opposed universal suffrage.