On this Day 27th May 1847

Penzance: Rise of the Miners

On 27 May 1847 John Tregerthen Short (JTS) wrote in his diary, “The miners from the western mines assembled at Penzance to endeavour to get corn and flour sold to them at a reduced rate.”

His entry is brief and makes no judgement as to the rights and wrongs of the matter or whether there was any trouble. Subsequent reports in the Royal Cornwall Gazette (RCG) of 11 June 1847 provide more detail though not specifically about the affair in Penzance. The main report, which is quite substantial, begins:

On Wednesday last week intelligence reached Redruth……..that it was probable a large body of dissatisfied miners, who had been treating disturbances at Penzance and Helston, would visit Redruth on Friday, the principal market day.”

Wednesday last week” would have been June 2nd, so a week after the assembly reported by JTS. The Gazette does not have any actual reports of what happened in Penzance which leads one to suspect that maybe it had been a moderate affair but, maybe, it was the duration of the trouble which finally caught the attention of the Gazette.

The RCG article makes it clear that a detachment of the 5th Fusiliers, numbering about 60 men, were already at Penzance and because of the scare they were moved to Redruth by special train from Hayle. The account goes on to describe how, on June 4th, a large crowd gathered at Pool and were incited by three women into breaking into a corn factor's stores after he refused to lower his prices. The crowd was said to number 3000 and eventually the magistrate read the Riot Act and the military were sent for.

The crowd then moved on to Redruth where there was further violence and and the magistrate again attempted to read the Riot Act. At this point it was meat prices which were being targeted by the crowd. The magistrate retreated into Andrew's Hotel and read the Riot Act from an upstairs window. There was an unsuccessful attempt at talks and the crowd moved on to Ped-an-drea and then on to Heynes' store where there was some fighting before the military arrived. Following a stand-off of several hours the crowd began to disperse without any need for the Fusiliers to open fire. Two of the 'ringleaders' were taken prisoner and The Gazette stresses that these two men were not from Redruth, furthermore the 'rioters' were mostly said to be from Breage, Germoe and Penzance. Further research may be able establish the truth or otherwise of this assertion.

At no point does the Gazette acknowledge that there might actually be a problem with the food supply though in another article it reports that Wheal Vor, Wheal Rose and Wheal Ruby have all bought grain or flour which they have sold on at a discounted price to their workforces. There is also an entry in the Levant Cost Book for June/July 1847 which reads:

Paid for barley, beyond what has been received of the miners £43-13-6d

Extract from the Levant Mine Cost Book Jun-July 1847

Extract from the Levant Cost Book June-July 1847, Cornwall Record Office

This looks very much like a cost to the mine for barley which has been sold on to the miners for less than the purchase price. Barley does not make a regular appearance in Levant Mine's bills, in fact there is no other mention of the purchase of barley in 1847.

The Penzance Gazette of 2 June contains a substantial report on the assembly at Penzance under the heading, Penzance: Rise of the Miners. Alongside this report is an item entitled The Anticipated Famine, which acknowledges the problem resulting from the failure of the potato crop but also blames the 'labouring classes' for the predicament they find themselves in which, the writer implies is due to their own fecklessness, drunkenness and other dissolute habits. The article on the miners' assembly reports that there was a lot of disquiet when word got out that men from St Just and the mines east of Penzance may link up to 'invade' the town on market day. A detachment of troops was sent for and 60 men of the 5th Fusiliers arrived in horse buses from Falmouth on the day before Friday market. Two hundred special constables were sworn in but in the event there was no significant trouble. Representatives of the miners made their case to the town authorities in the town hall, after a long discussion the authorities agreed that they would do their utmost to secure a supply of barley at a reduced rate of 16s per Cornish bushel for those earning less than 55s per month or 18s per bushel for those on 60s per month. This was to be done in concert with the mine-adventurers and was to be delivered to the mines for distribution. It seems likely that this is what the entry in the Levant cost book relates to.

Having secured this agreement most of the men were satisfied and began to disperse. The Gazette report suggests that some trouble was taken to avoid confrontation with the men, whose number is estimated at 5000. This experience in Penzance contrasts significantly with what happened in Redruth and Pool and also with accounts of disturbances in Wadebridge, Callington and St Austell. At this time it is impossible to tell whether the Penzance situation was alleviated by enlightened action on the part of the authorities or whether the authorities were forced, by the weight of numbers and organisation of the men, to back down. Probably a bit of both combined with a reluctance to actually involve the troops. It was also reported that the miners had taken the pledge for their day of action. This kind of organised action was quite uncommon in Cornwall but its success in Penzance does not seem to have led the miners of St Just, Germoe and Breage to use it again to obtain better working conditions.

Sources 

Diary of John Tregerthen Short

Levant Mines Cost Book June-July 1847, Cornwall Record Office

Penzance Gazette 2 June 1847 - available in the Morrab Library Newspaper archive

Royal Cornwall Gazette 11 June 1847 available via the British Newspaper Archive.

 

For an account of the situation generally in Cornwall in spring 1847 see John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution , 2nd ed, Cornish Hillside Publications, 1993

 




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