On this Day 19th July 1908

Shocking Tragedy at St Ives
The old Penbeagle farmhouse today
‘by kind permission of St Ives Community Orchard'

Sunday 19th July 1908. You might like to picture a lazy and peaceful day in a fine Edwardian summer. Boaters. Croquet.  Cucumber sandwiches. That sort of thing.

But for some it’s a working day. Take James Curnow, for example. He’s 20 years old, and has a steady job at Penbeagle Farm – been there working for John Pearce since he was 16. James is a conscientious young man.  Pearce – who is currently serving as Mayor of St Ives - will later, to applause, “testify to his good behaviour, thoughtfulness and good work.” 

And for a conscientious young man there’s work to do, this summer afternoon - Sunday or no. And so, around 2.00, James Curnow leaves his home at Stennack and walks up to meet his pals – ‘chums’ as the newspaper will later call them – at Nanjivey. So cut to a new scene, and picture now – in place of the boaters, the croquet, the rattling tea tackle -  four working lads, hanging about for a bit, then walking up to Penbeagle Farm.

The site today‘by kind permission of St Ives Community Orchard'

There’s John Wedge Nankervis of Ayr Lane, the youngest, at 15; Thomas Hambly, aged 17, who lives near to Thomas Curnow at Back Road East;  Thomas Grenfell Phillips, also 17, a fisherman’s son, who lives at Pier View and works with his uncle as a carter. They’ve collected a few eggs, and now they’ve settled down in the barn until it’s time to milk the cows. James Curnow stays on his feet but his friends lounge on a bit of old canvas - perhaps an old sail, or some old canvas bags.

It’s Thomas Hambly who spots the gun, hanging up in the beams above his head. He can reach up to seven foot – he must be a tall lad – and grabs it, but Thomas Curnow wants first go.

“Mind – there may be a shot in it,” warns Hambly. But James Curnow knows it’s empty – it’s always empty. And what better diversion to liven up a Sunday afternoon?

“No, nothing,” he replies. “Won’t hurt.”

Nobody will later be sure what happens in the next instant, although there is no suggestion of any quarrel. Is there some kind of playful scuffle with Thomas Hambly? Does James Curnow play at taking aim? Does he just accidentally touch the trigger?  Whatever the reason, it is Thomas Grenfell Phillips – still seated on the canvas - who is suddenly dead, shot through the head, with a hole two inches round below the left eye. Young John Nankervis goes over and looks at him, calls his name, “but he never spoke.”

the Cornishman news headline
by kind permission of the Cornish Studies Library, shortly to re-open at Kresen Kernow, Redruth’

James Curnow is in shock. His two surviving friends “put him home,” where he falls unconscious. Then they run for help. At 4.00 one of them brings down P C Grainger, who examines the scene.  But there is nothing to be done.

At the inquest, the following evening, James Curnow will still be suffering the “terrible effect” of the accident, “in a state of absolute nervous prostration… utterly unable to give evidence.” There are fears for his sanity, and called to the witness box he will present a “pitiable sight,” unable to give evidence, or do more than call out “in tragic accents” the name of his dead friend.

Although manslaughter is a possibility, the verdict will be accidental death; the jury will not even need to retire.  The Coroner will extend his sympathies not only to Thomas Grenfell Phillips’ family, but also to James Curnow.

Cornish Telegraph 23 7 1908 page 5; Cornishman 23 7 1908 page 4 (identical reports)


What happened next?

None of the survivors appear on the St Ives 1914-1918 war memorial, although they would all have been of an age to serve. We have been unable to trace them into later life – but if you have information, we would be happy to update this story

Penbeagle Farm is now the site of St Ives Community Orchard. Interested in making sure the old farm has a happy ending? The Community Orchard always needs people to join in with its productive and enjoyable work. If you're interested, please contact stivesorchard@gmail.com or go to www.stivesorchard.co.uk


an album of old St Ivesan album of old St Ivesan album of old St Ives‘by kind permission of George Care ©'



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