O call back yesterday, bid time return

Maxwell Adams

Yesterday was better. It was Arcadia, a golden land of innocence where young people respected their elders and betters, crime and wrongdoing didn't really exist outside London, and you didn't have to lock your door.

Yesterday was different and better. Well, not in Lelant and St Ives it wasn't.

Let us begin with the young. In 1909 the St Ives Weekly Summary reported that visitors had complained about "the rough and unseemly behaviour of the young men of the town." They also complained that the young were "congregating at certain public places and expectorating on the pavements." I don't know what the young women of St Ives were doing while this was going on. Probably watching them with mixed feelings of horror and fascinated admiration, I suspect.

I am afraid that the young always congregate. Hanging around together in public, doing nothing in particular except being noisy and showing off to friends, passers-by, and possible partners is part of growing up. It is wholly harmless, doesn't frighten the horses, but alarms some people who, recalling their own youth, are sure they are up to no good. Spitting is something else but perhaps there weren't many handkerchiefs about then.

Later in that year the Vicar of St Ives, a guest speaker at a civic dinner, startlingly denounced "Saturday night orgies" in the town. Orgies. Even the editor of the presentday St Ives Times and Echo hasn't managed to uncover any of those recently. Alas, the vicar gave no details and indeed said, "I do not want to speak more plainly," a great pity for there are few things more satisfying than to read of other people's misdeeds while recalling your own saintliness. I fear, however, that the vicar's idea of an orgy probably fell wildly short of ours. I always remember William Wilberforce who believed that slavery, trade unions, and playing the piano were, in no particular order, all wicked so when Wilberforce denounced wickedness it was as well to check what he meant.

1909 was definitely a bad year. The October edition of the Lelant church magazine baldly says, "Complaints have been received by the Churchwardens of damage to Prayer Books in the Church." Personally, I suspect the press-ganged young but it could have been a disgruntled religious elder.

It is interesting to note that this was a year when a golden past was recalled wistfully. Writing in the St Ives Weekly Summary someone grumbled that in Lelant "the only celebration of May Day was a bonfire near the Station. The old custom of children carrying garlands and singing from house to house has quite died out." Why can't life be like it was when I was young? is a cry that you will often hear today. The nostalgic title of this article was written by Shakespeare four hundred years ago.

Incidentally, 1909 was also the year of a large fraud at a Penzance building society. Perhaps it was simply an untypical year? I'm afraid not. It wasn't even the worst despite the orgies, spitting, and fraud. A couple of years later the paper was still complaining about the behaviour of "rough lads" and the language of "loafers." The unemployed were denounced for "smoking, chattering, and chewing tobacco" in groups which got in the way of people going to church or chapel. The police were rebuked for not moving them on.

The young were often troublous. A hundred years ago five boys from Lelant went into a field belonging to Olds, the butcher, and found a wagon which they pushed through the field and over the cliff.

The records of Lelant village school tell of the difficulties that some of the young have always given to their elders. For example, in the early years of this century an entry in the school logbook says: "The older boys of the school... greatly impede the work of the school and are not amenable to discipline. Their influence on the younger boys is very bad." The classes were reorganised to keep older boys away from others.

An inspection a few months later said: "the teachers work but most of the children are idle and pay little attention to the teaching."

A long-gone court case inadvertently gives a glimpse of the unchanging boisterous spirit of young people. In his evidence to the court James Peters, a sixty five year old native of Lelant, looked back with lively affection on his youth around 1775 and recalled regular friendly warfare with the boys from Lelant and the boys of what we now call Hayle throwing stones at one another. When the Lelant boys had driven the others back across the Penpol River they would give "three cheers and exult." Next time you are on the river beach at Lelant look over to the Penpol and picture the hail of stones, the boys surging forward and running back, and, under the lawyer's talk of three cheers and exultation, hear the raucous crowing from Lelant. James Peters's evidence to the court is two of the most wonderfully animated pages in the whole of Cornwall Record Office. He even tells us how he used to sit to wash his feet in the river and exactly whereabouts he did it.

A hundred and fifty years later Lelant Parish Council complained about schoolchildren throwing stones at notice boards. And in 1896 a band of Lelant boys were catapulting and throwing stones and getting into the paper which said that they "care not on what or where the stones fall." Some fell on greenhouses and a fowl was stoned.

Looking through all this I recall that I too was once a boy. However, the young are but novices in mischief and misdeeds.

The Minute Book of the Managers for the school in Church Road at Lelant tells that in June1869 they appointed John Henry Phillips as master (what today we call headmaster) on the basis of his declared qualifications and experience. The Minutes of 10 November 1869 say: "It having been in consequence of these statements made by Mr JH Phillips that he was elected Master...and these statements proving to be without foundation, it was resolved that in consideration of Mr Phillip's recent severe illness and his future prospects, the school managers consent to his remaining as master until Christmas next, subject to his working the school thoroughly until this date."

The head had lied about his qualifications and experience and was dismissed.

Five years later Richard Henry Scaddan was "dismissed for insolence to the master and general neglect of duty" though as a pupil-teacher at Lelant he might be thrown in among the young rather than the old sinners.

In April 1932, during the economic depression, coal delivered to the school one evening was found to have disappeared from the school coalhouse by the next day.

John Wesley denounced the smuggling at St Ives but unseemly pillaging continued. The West Briton reported in spring 1826 that a French ship became stuck on Hayle Bar. Much of the cargo was unloaded on to the shore and people from "adjacent villages crowded down with the view of plundering the stores. The greater part of the miscreants were women, who carried off whatever they could lay their hands on, and were very dexterous in concealing bottles of wine and other things, so as to elude a search. Some of the men knocked in the heads of three or four casks of wine, into which they dipped their hats and drank what they took up in them. As the day advanced, the plunderers, male and female, became intoxicated, and a variety of contests, some of them of a most ludicrous description, took place."

Plundering, drink, and a tantalising hint of untoward behaviour. A pistol was fired too at a disappearing plunderer. I don't know whether this is the beach at Lelant or Hayle but no doubt people from both places were there. Usually it is the males who figure in the misdoings but this time presumably many of them were at work when the news came of the foundered ship and the stores.

Even abstinence from drink brought its problems. The Lelant Band of Hope, a religious teetotal society, was twice beset in 1911 by accusations of forgery and stealing against individual members. These charges were investigated and found to be utterly untrue, but we can wonder at the spirit that lay behind the untrue accusations.

When the railway came to the area in the mid-1870s trouble came too. The arrival of numerous, effectively single, male workers to build the branch railway had an impact on the life of Lelanters that must have been exciting and disturbing. In 1875 in Lelant a man was apprehended for stealing railway timber. Other stories seem to be disappointingly few though Terry Coleman's book The Railway Navvies points our imaginations and Brother to the ox, Fred Kitchen's autobiography, includes a vivid and detailed account of the coming of the railway navvies to a south Yorkshire village. Hard work, a hard life, drink, and sex sum it up. The same year a villager wrote that drunken men were rambling through Lelant on Sundays "from half past two in the afternoon till late at night." The combination of drink and sabbath was powerfully wicked for many Victorians. Another villager wrote indignantly to the Cornish Telegraph stating that the true culprits were railway navvies and the villagers themselves were blameless. Of course.

Alas, drink was not the only trouble, but let's save the sex till the end.

In 1831 there was a murder in Lelant. Mrs Elizabeth Richards of the Praeds Arms (now the Badger) was killed by "a blow from a bludgeon which pushed in her eye." Actually, the inquest decided it was manslaughter. The guilty man, Edward Richards, had been working at the pub, had been drunk, and had run away.

So far we have had orgies, drunkenness, manslaughter, damaging prayer books, rough behaviour, spitting, congregating, indiscipline, lying, cheating, plundering, untrue accusations, and stealing, along with 'ludicrous contests.' And I'm pretty sure there must have been some piano-playing trade unionists amongst them too.

No, there isn't anything new under the sun. We can go back to the sixteenth century. Gilbert Doble, in his book about Lelant based on Charles Henderson's calendars of the church court records, reminds us of cases involving Lelant neighbours in spectacular vulgar abuse and name-calling. The court records show that in 1572 Cecily James and Agnes Davy squabbled on the way to St Uny's Church and went into the church quarrelling and exchanging words. In the church and in front of the priest and a congregation of about forty Cecily called Agnes a whore and a whore bitch. Agnes was also called a whore during a noisy squabble while she was washing at a water chute.

The righteous did try to keep the rest of us in check. After the church had lost its powers, the secular authorities tried. The Minute Book of the Penzance Union, the workhouse for our area, shows how. In 1838 the Board decided with sanctimonious cruelty that while they were in the workhouse at Paul, where they had been collected together, the mothers of illegitimate children should wear "a particular and marked garb." Later it was decided that when they went to church these single mothers did not have to wear the "garb of disgrace." The Minutes don't really explain why and I can't think of any reason that hasn't to do with hypocrisy. In May 1839 Pamela Curgenven of Lelant, who presumably showed no signs of knowing her place, was described in the Minute Book as "an idle and disorderly person." Perhaps, but she had an illegitimate child and didn't or couldn't maintain it, so the well-heeled among the parishioners had to and that undoubtedly coloured their view of her.

In the summer of 1823 Lelant Fair produced what the Royal Cornwall Gazette called "a disgraceful scene of riot...the standings were thrown down, windows broken, etc." I like that titillating "etc". It could mean nothing at all, it could mean everything.

The godly stumbled too. In 1878 an ancient stone cross standing by the roadside at Lelant was vandalised apparently by Christian fishermen from St Ives who painted the word "Popery" on it. The cross was moved into the middle of the new cemetery at Lelant for safety and is still there. Incidentally, in 1875 a holidaymaker, down with his wife and family, protested in the Cornish Telegraph at the "indecent bathing" in St Ives. He said that he had seen "naked men disporting themselves on the rocks and sands in full view of the road and houses" and this went on every day, along with loud swearing. This was around Porthminster and it was denied of course and who now can tell where the truth lies? And how did he know it happened every day?

Oh, I nearly forgot the railway sexual scandal. It is a sad and dramatic story, a keen look at the difficulties people face in the struggles for survival and happiness. The Cornish Telegraph reported it, in extraordinary language and with no understanding of the broken lives, in 1876:

"The monotony of Lelant life has been broken by an elopement, the first remembered to have occurred in the village. About three years ago a miner of the neighbourhood went to seek better fortune in America, leaving a wife and four children behind. During his absence the influx of strangers caused by the railway works induced his wife to take in lodgers, and she became so satisfied with one of these a mason employed on the works that, with the exception of taking the money sent her from America from time to time, the existence of the absent husband was ignored. About a week ago the husband returned home, but it soon became evident that he was deemed an intruder. Matters being thus made uncomfortable, the wife, on Friday, during the absence of her husband, decamped with her paramour, taking her progeny with her. It is to be hoped that the husband will appreciate his situation, and think himself well quit of a worthless spouse and her belongings."

I have deliberately kept to the distant past and much has been omitted. How trivial some of the misdoings of yesterday seem now, how much more dreadful others. And of course this is not the whole story of our village. There are many tales of Lelanters showing courage and kindness and wisdom and humanity. Their virtues shine out. No one can look at the names on the First World War roll of honour and war memorial of the village or recall the story of Charles Hawes saving Alfred Gall from drowning at Brewery Quay and not be proud. However, when we read lowering stories of present misdeeds and nastiness, and dream of a golden yesterday, we should remember that the mix of human nature does not change and there never was an Arcadian past.


St Ives Weekly Summary
8 May 1909 May day at Lelant
17 July 1909 Complaints about the young
13 January 1911 More complaints

West Briton 14 April 1826 Plundering on the beach

Cornish Telegraph
8 September 1875 Charles Hawes rescues Alfred Gall
15 September and 22 September 1875 Drunken navvies
20 October 1875 Stealing railway timber
17 April 1877 and 12 March 1878 Cross daubed with paint
8 September and 22 September 1875 Indecent bathing at St Ives (also see CRO)
9 May 1876 Elopement at Lelant
20 February 1896 Stone throwing at greenhouses

Cornish Record Office
October 1909 Lelant Church Magazine P 120/2/47/3 Damage to prayer books
1828/29 Harvey/Cornish Copper Company law case DDH 44/2 pages 39-40: James Peters's evidence
1838/39 Workhouse papers PU/Penzance /1 DDP/120/2/50-51
Lelant National School Managers' Minutes
B/St Ives 12-13 Lelant Parish Council Minutes 1894-1934: April 1926 Complaint about stone throwing at notice boards

DC/WPRDC/195 (Minutes of West Penwith Rural District Council 1894-1899) "A letter was read from Messrs Holman Bros Camborne complaining that persons bathed in a state of nudity at Carbis Bay and asking that a notice be put up calling on bathers to wear a suitable dress. Resolved that the application be granted." 12 September 1895, page 86 in the Minutes.

Royal Cornwall Gazette
23 August 1823 Riot at Lelant Fair
26 November 1831 Manslaughter at Lelant

Cornishman 11 November 1911 Orgies in St Ives (civic dinner)

Lelant National School Head's Logbook
26 June 1925 Older boys unamenable
1 March 1926 Inspection report "teachers work..." (Entered in the Logbook 1930)
12 April 1932 Coal disappeared

Terry Coleman (1965) The railway navvies (Hutchinson, Penguin)
Fred Kitchen (1940) Brother to the ox (Dent, reprinted 1963)

Notes by Samuel Edmund Hopkinson, Vicar of Morton with Hacconby 1795-1841 [Lincolnshire Archives reference Doc Misc 1/10]. Hopkinson, writing of the early nineteenth century, comments adversely on the effect on the area of the misbehaviour and crimes of itinerant bankers introduced into the area to manage the fens. Compare Lelant railway navies.

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