On this Day 28th May 1899

Penzance concertina wars: Lowestoft boys and other excitable aliens

There’s been some Eastcountry men in port at Newlyn, over from Lowestoft. And there’s been some Italians in Penzance for a while. And yes, there’s been a bit of trouble down by the Quay, an area known only too well its “ free-fights and neighbours' quarrels”.

Lowestoft drifters, Newlyn North Pier in 1908 (courtesy of Morrab Library Photo Archive)

Lowestoft drifters, Newlyn North Pier in 1908 (courtesy of Morrab Library Photo Archive)

Four of the Lowestoft men came over to Penzance on Sunday afternoon. Chapel-going finished for the day, if indeed they even attended, they set off to “make the town gay”; thought they’d stay over that night. Pockets full of ready cash, no doubt. They had “a glass or two of liquor”, just to start the day off, then in the afternoon it was time to find lodging. And of course, where else would they go but Mr Angelo Pope’s lodging house, in Bakehouse Court.

Now Corpus Christi’s coming up, so of course the place is swarming with Italians. Mr Pope was out, and his wife – well, she can only manage a bit of “very broken English”. She tried her level best to tell the fishermen that “the house was already full of travellers”. But I fear that our east coast friends were not entirely civil in return. In short, they “commenced to use parts of their vocabulary, the purport of which even Southern ears and brains could understand”.

Well there was a bit of “noisy parley”, and out go three of the fishermen. That leaves George Peachman, off the Volunteer, left inside “like a rat in trap”. And what does he see, when he looks round? This is the way he tells it: he’s “confronted by a dark-visaged elderly Italian with a hatchet held aloft, another with a knife, whilst a female held a broom-handle in a threatening attitude”. Peachman – utterly defenceless - begs for mercy, and for his pains he’s hit on the head, “felled… to the ground like an ox”. It’s all his Lowestoft pals can do to drag the injured man away.

Mrs. Drew, who lives nearby, sees both the hatchet and the knife – or so she will later tell the police. She starts screaming for help, and eventually the officers of the law turn up. But before they arrive, Peachman seems to have recovered. Or perhaps the attack has addled his brain temporarily. Now, far from being defenceless, he’s “like a man possessed”. He’s picked up a couple of wooden buckets - then a clothes pole - and he’s smashed Mr Pope’s windows. The fall of glass has broken three dinner plates. A baby in its cradle next to the window has had a lucky escape.

And so, it seems, has Peachman. By the time Mr Pope and the police arrive on the scene, the Lowestoft men have scarpered. But Mr Pope shows the evidence, and the long arm of the law catches up with the fishermen in Market Place; marches them off to the police station.

So, Superintendent Nicholas has his men in custody. But then his problems begin. So many different voices, each telling its own version of the story. And it’s a puzzler, here in Penzance, working out where our sympathy should lie – after all, whatever we think of Italians, the Eastcountry men are foreigners too. “Very great difficulty establishing a charge” the Superintendent will shortly tell the magistrates; “half a dozen witnesses” to get through before the decision to summon Peachman.

Exotic foreigner exhibit A: Victorian concertina playerAnd it turns out that it all started with a concertina – property of some old chap, Italian, lodging at Mr Pope’s. One of the fishermen had given it a kick. No doubt quite by accident. They may be horribly discordant instruments to the ears of a civilised Englishman. But these Italians who come for the fair, and “who make so long a stay that their presence in the town becomes an annoyance”, cherish their instruments - and what’s more, the Italians are well known to be an excitable race.

Tomorrow, at the Borough sessions, Peachman will be ordered to pay costs of ten shillings to Mr Pope. That’s an easy matter for a fisherman who’s had a run of luck – he pays up right away, doubtless relieved to be let off criminal charges. And tomorrow there will be another Italian musician – of sorts - making a court appearance: “wilful damage” in the Morrab Gardens. She’s been there with a little boy, banging a tambourine right in front of the Library. Walking over the grass and even the bedding areas; kicking the edges of the turf, making a fuss when ordered out.

Exotic foreigner exhibit B: Victorian tambourine playerSuperintendent Nicholas has been on that case, too. He’s found that there’s a dozen or more of them, all under the control of a man who sends them out, and rakes ion the money at the end of the day. They’ll be fined ten shillings – it’ll be that or prison. But if the whole family clears out – takes itself elsewhere – they’ll be let off.

Foreigners, eh.

Cornishman 1st June 1899; page 4, longer report of the lodging house case page 8. This longer piece – which is also summarised on page 4 of the Cornish Telegraph of the same date - gives the date of the affray as Monday 29th, but as the court proceedings took place that morning this seems to be a mistake

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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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