The Cornish & Devon Post & East Cornwall Times, 29th November, 1884. report:
OLD & NEW LAUNCESTON.
Lecture by Mr R Robbins. An Interesting Discussion.
On Monday evening Mr Councillor Robbins gave a lecture in the Western Subscription Rooms on “Reminiscences of Launceston during the last 60 years.”
The Mayor [Mr O Graham White, jun.] presided, and the room was crowded.
The Mayor, in opening the proceedings, said it was pretty well known that the object of that lecture was to raise funds for the Launceston Fire Brigade. The brigade had this year incurred something like £20. extra expense in new helmets and boots for the men, and in order to defray that expense their townsman and friend, Mr R Robbins, had kindly consented to give this lecture.
Mr Robbins, who was loudly cheered on rising, said: Mr Mayor, ladies and gentlemen, – When first I contemplated giving a retrospect of the history of the town for the past 64 years, I found the task was a more gigantic one than I had anticipated. There have been so many stirring events during that period, and such a number of debatable subjects connected with it, that I considered it would be an impossibility for me to complete the task in one paper. Take, for instance, the period from 1829 to 1834: there were the discussions on the Catholic Relief Bill, the stirring events connected with the Reform Bill, the exciting scenes that followed the Launceston Election, and the Emancipation of the West Indian Slaves. Then again there was the Municipal Act of 1835, the new Poor Law Act of 1836, the building of the Market Houses in 1840, the first discussion on the introduction of the Railway in the old Council Room in 1843, the making of the Cemetery under the Walk in the same year, the report from Mr Clark from the Local Government Board respecting the sewerage and water supply of the town, and the agitation for the South Devon Railway Scheme, which was completed in 1865. I think, therefore, I may fairly say that it is impossible to grapple in one paper with all that has taken place. It is only within the last few months that my mind has been made up to again appear before you in this capacity, my object being to show that the town is in a far more prosperous state than some would have us suppose, and that it has a far more prosperous future before it.
Some two years since our much-respected townsman, Alderman Ching, stated his intentions of reading, in the following spring, a paper on “Old Launceston”, about which he had such a fund
of information. It pleased providence, however, to deprive him of the task and ourselves of the pleasure of hearing him – a pleasure to which we were looking forward with much interest.
Some time ago, my interest was called to the subject, and as I have lived in Launceston for threescore years and seven, I think I may be said to know something about its history, and can call to mind usages and customs of bye-gone days which, I think, will not be uninteresting to you, or the rising generation, by whom I hope they will be remembered. The late Rev. Mr Wallis, of Bodmin, in the Cornwall Register for 1846, says – “Does it not seem strange that no one has published an authentic history of Launceston, without doubt one of the most ancient towns in England?” But I am glad to know that the history of Launceston will soon be published, and that a place has been secured for a museum in that unique old spot, the Southgate. If that museum had been established a century ago, what a flood of light could have been thrown on the past to those living in the present day! The old adage says “It is never to late to mend,” but I fear that it will not altogether apply to Launceston, nor to the other towns in the county; for the utter neglect of our forefathers to preserve intact relics of the past committed to their charge is simply beyond comprehension, and the evil which they have done is irremediable. Take, for instance, the demolition of Westgate and the destruction of Northgate, through the last named of which I have passed thousands of times. What on earth could have induced the Corporation to destroy the Northgate when the traffic had been diverted from that part of the town I am at a loss to conjecture. Happily the institution of which they were members ceased to exist the year after.
When we consider that, had their political decease taken place a year earlier, we should still have the Northgate with us, we cannot do otherwise than lament their longevity as a public calamity.
I must also give a few instances of the want of interest felt in property in times of old by those who had it committed to their charge as guardians. In the latter part of the last century Wind Mill was the property of the poor of this parish. In 1770 the Corporation, who were the custodians of the property, represented that it was of no benefit to the poor, and no use whatever being made of it, an Act of Parliament was obtained empowering them to sell it. It was sold for a small sum of money to a Mr Frost. The money was invested in Consol’s, the interest to go for repairing the Church and lighting and repairing the streets; but I cannot recollect that the town has had any benefit from it for the last thirty years. This should be seen into. A few years ago the representatives of the gentleman who bought Wind Mill sold it again and made something over £4,000 of it. In 1775 the Government also obtained an Act for the disposal of Scarne [which also belonged to the poor], the Corporation representing to the Lords of the Treasury that no benefit accrued to the poor whatever. A ready purchaser was found in Mr John Pearse, innkeeper of this town, for £25 per annum for 500 years, the vendors reserving to themselves the right to the timber grown on the estate for the remainder of the term, [419 years] – at £15. 19s. The deeds were kept by the Clerk to the Local Board of Guardians, the late Mr John Darke. He brought them to a meeting of the Board on one occasion and took them away again in his pocket, but they were never seen afterwards. In reply to enquiries the Clerk said he thought they had been taken out of his pocket for lark, and that he had no doubt they would turn up again. This kind of “lark” – although played on Mr Darke –would hardly suit Launceston now, and would not I think have been kept dark quite so long. When I was elected guardian, 30 years ago, the late Mr Dingley called on me and asked me to use every effort to get a counterpart of those deeds, to obtain which he said he had tried several times during the few years he was member of the Board, and had failed. Shortly after I became a member, on the motion of Mr Peter, a counterfoil of the deeds was requested of Mr Cowlard, the leaseholder. That gentleman readily gave it, and it is now in the possession of Mr Pyke, late clerk to the local Board of Guardians. Although that body had been in existence for over a century, all that the clerk had at the time of its dissolution was a minute book. Not a single deed or document relating to the proceedings of the Board could be traced. That Board having now ceased to exist, the counterfoil of the deeds I have already referred to and all books belonging to the late Board should be handed over to the Town Clerk, the record keeper of the Town Council, that body being the custodians of all property belonging to the Town. The late Mr Wallis, when on a visit to Wardour Castle, in Wiltshire, 1846, found [amongst other things] some paper of Richard , Earl of Cornwall, with the seal still appendant, a curiosity not to be met with in the British Museum itself.
A vulgate copy of the Gospels, belonging to the Church of Bodmin 900 years ago, also exists in the British Museum. About the same time an ancient seal of the Tinners was picked up near Bath. So that it is apparent that many of the most valuable remains of our town and county have been lost for the want of looking after; and it is only lately that you have ‘awoke’ to the importance of preserving the fragments which are left. I propose this evening to give a few remarks on the Hamlet of St Thomas, the borough of Newport, and the growth and development of the town, with a short account of the customs and habits of the people since the coronation of George IV, in 1821, commencing with Broad Street.
This street, as you know, is in the centre of the town and was for centuries the main road from London to Falmouth. There stood the old Guildhall, where many a criminal was sentenced to banishment or execution and many a law suit lost and won, according to the general uncertainty of the law at that time. On the day of the Assizes the Sheriff’s stately equipage would be brought up to the White Hart door. The Sheriff would enter his carriage, and, followed by his captain and 30 troopers on horseback, equipped with riding boots and coats turned out with red, proceed to Polson Bridge to meet the Judges. The Judges would there change carriages and return to the town with all the pomp usual to such occasions. The judges and sheriff having taken their places in the Guildhall, the Clerk of Assizes then read the Proclamation against vice and immorality ; and the judges returned to their lodgings amidst the shrill sounds of the herald’s trumpets. The following Sunday the judges and their retinue went to Church, the pews of the Mayor, Town Clerk, Aldermen and Recorder being on these occasions given up to them. At that time, too, Launceston boasted a Recorder, and at four sessions in the year the Town Hall was used for the trial of prisoners before him, and at other times public meetings were held there by consent of the Mayor. Here also was first held the Church Sunday School for boys, established in 1812, and removed to the Walk in 1826.
A girl’s school was at that time held in the upper room of the old Council Chamber, between the tower and the church, and a day school by Mr Spear, Clerk of the parish, was also held in the old guildhall, besides it being used for a corn market. Three houses and shops used to stand at the Northern end, while at the Southern end was the pig market, then called Star Cross, and the main entrance to the Crown Court was opposite to the White Hart doorway. The entrance to the nisi prius Court was opposite the Devon & Cornwall Bank, and on the north side of the hall was the grand jury room, reached by a flight of granite steps. This room was on the left-hand side; on the right being the Clock Tower, supported by a superb granite arch.
At the bottom of the steps was the Town Pump, to which many a criminal had been tied and whipped. I have seen a criminal brought from the Dark House to the Town Hall, where he was stripped. He was then tied with his back outwards, triangle fashion to the pump, and the usual 25 lashes for cases of larceny were laid on by the town scavenger. The last offence for which a young man was thus whipped was that of stealing tarts. Fancy, my young friends present who are fond of a tart, what would your fate in those days had your taste overcome your fingers in a baker’s shop. The instrument with which the punishment was laid on was the ‘cat o’ nine tails’.
At the bottom of a second flight of steps leading to the Crown Court were two granite posts, which are now to be seen in the path leading from Tower Street to the Walk. The last assizes were held here in 1838, when I heard Lord Denman sounded their death knell by saying that in future they would be held at Bodmin. The last prisoner tried here for murder was a young man called Henwood, who killed his father in 1836. Prisoners were brought here from Bodmin by carrier’s vans. They were packed together, hand-cuffed and heavily ironed round the legs and body with what were called gieves, or stout iron bands, and two or three men had to lift them out of the van.
After his condemnation Henwood was again heavily ironed, taken to Bodmin and executed the third day after his conviction. At the same assizes two young men of this town were arraigned for stealing fowls. They were arrested on the Sunday morning, brought before the Mayor the same evening, and committed to the assizes, but admitted to bail. When the case was called on at the assizes the following week a true bill was found against them, but as the case could not be tried that day they had to spend one night in jail. On the following morning they were acquitted. newoodHenwood
Two extreme cases of this sort could not occur again. A man would not now be hanged within 48 hours of his sentence, and a case of the latter class would be dealt with summarily,
The Guildhall was also used for parliamentary elections. When one of these took place the Corporation would meet in the old Council Room, and, forming in procession, with three town sergeants at their head, the first with the white rod, blue robe and white gloves, and the other two with their robes and the town maces, they marched to the hall. Arriving there, and the candidates being seated, an alderman would propose that one the gentlemen who had come for that purpose was a fit and proper person to be their representative. This was seconded by another alderman and almost invariably carried unanimously. A third alderman would then propose another gentleman, who was also seconded and carried. Only aldermen and freemen could vote, and by a return made before the Reform Bill of 1832 was passed it appeared that in those days there were only sixteen voters! Compare these with its 800 voters today, and it will be seen that the small borough of Launceston has gone ahead in this as in many other things. After the members were chosen a dinner was usually given at the White Hart to the aldermen and freemen, and whilst it was going on a large crowd of men, women and children congregated outside, screaming ‘so-and-so’ for ever, no doubt with an eye to the reward which they generally got in the shape of small silver and coppers generously thrown amongst them from the dining room window. Very often the coins had been put on the fire and heated, much to the annoyance of those who picked them up , and the amusement of onlookers. Barrels of ale were also given away to all comers in the evening, and the scenes afterwards were generally those of drunkenness and dissipation.
Mr Ching, in his diary, says he has often seen members, aldermen and freemen lying huddled together under the table incapable, and no doubt feeling quite proud of the fashion of those days, as drunk as a lord. The Mayor was also chosen at the Guildhall, the Corporation meeting in the Council Room at the Church, and marching in a precisely similar way as on the occasion of the election of an MP.
At the left-hand side of Broad Street, extending from Mr Lane’s to Mr Oliver’s, was the fish market. The stall for salmon – which sold for 8d. per pound – stood in the centre. The fruit market was on the other side, and the vendors also occupied the pavements, which, in fact, were in such a deplorable state as to be barely passable to pedestrians. The entrance to the house where the Tavistock Bank now stands was by a flight of steps extending to the gutter and under a portico, and the three dwelling houses already mentioned stood on the north side of the Guildhall, and extended to the present London and South Western Railway Company’s Offices, leaving barely room for a vehicle to pass.
The White Hart was the headquarters of the hundred of east, or, in other words, that part of the county, including Launceston, set apart for magisterial purposes, counties then, as now, divided into divisions or hundreds, said to have been introduced into England for State purposes by King Alfred. *The present arch, or entrance to the White Hart is the doorway or the old priory, which stood close to St Thomas Church up to the 14th Century. Proceeding, the lecturer related how, in 1847, bread riots took place here in consequence of two women who came from Lifton and had not money enough to buy a bag of wheat, determining to have it for the money they had got. They seized the wheat and attempted to take it away; but ultimately the farmer accepted their price. By the next market, however, special constables were sworn in to protect those who brought corn into the market. The Post Office used to be where Mr Wise’s shop now stands, and from there the lecturer had seen the postman come out with the whole town delivery [one a day] in his hand. Great improvements have taken place in Broad Street, including the erection of the Market House in 1840, and the rebuilding, or renovation of the Devon & Cornwall, Tavistock, and East Cornwall Banks, Mr Oliver’s, Mr Wise’s, Mr Lane’s, Mr Philps’, the White Hart Hotel, and his [the speaker’s] own house.
Coming next to High Street, the lecturer said: The butter market extended from the South-Western Company’s Offices to Mr Gillbard’s. Mr Ching said he could remember eggs sold here at 50 for 1s. In the early part of the century, the Judge’s were at Mr J Nicolls’s and afterwards at Mr Ching’s, Broad Street. In the early part of the last Century Mr Ellicott’s present house was the head hotel – the “Queen’s Head”. Nearly the whole of the fronts in this street were then let for butcher’s shambles. Mr Rowe’s and Mr Nicolls’ were private houses, with porticos and wood railing in front extending to the street. The entrance to the Little White Hart was also by a portico, and here were the entrances to Mr Dingley’s and Mr Rogers’.
Mr Hayman’s toy shop was the old butcher’s shambles, and Mr Spence’s the back of the new shambles. New houses in this street include Mr Hayman’s and Mr Powell’s, Mrs Spence’s, Mr Wevill’s, Mr Stephens’, Mr Baker’s, Miss Eggins’s, and Mr Wenmoth’s. The paving of this street was very irregular, but in this, as in other respects, it has greatly improved during the past thirty years. Starcross, outside Mr J Geake’s, was the principal entrance to the Castle Green, there being no roadway past the back of the Dolphin, Mr Millman’s, & c., as now. All that property is newly built. On the left stood the Witches’ Tower, built after the same style as the Castle, and nearly 50 feet high. When the new road was in construction, in 1834, it was expressly stipulated by the Duchy that the Tower was not to be touched, but the navvies having undermined it a violent storm came on and the whole fabric was blown into the road. The pig market was then at Starcross, the animals being secured by means of rings attached to the Guildhall wall.
There was a custom on Mayor Choosing Day of choosing a mayor of the pig market. The person chosen for this dignified office was first made tipsy and then proclaimed mayor. His hat was torn from his head, which was well powdered with flour, and if his back hair was sufficiently long a frying pan was attached to it and allowed to hang down over his back. He was then led away, pelted meanwhile with flour by the mob, to the “New Inn,” the house now occupied by the proprietor of the Launceston Weekly News, which then had the nickname of the “Shindy Arms.”
The practice was discontinued in 1827. It was here that sentence was executed on criminals condemned to be flogged at the cart’s tail. I remember seeing one so flogged in 1826, the cart to which he was tied being drawn through High Street, the Butchers’ Market, Broad Street, and back to Starcross.
I now come to Southgate-street; this leads you to the ancient south gate where, in the 16th century, many a contest for the mastery of the town took place between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The first floor was occupied by offenders, and the second for debtors, the last incarcerated there for debt being in 1828. There was no fireplace nor w.c. and in 1827 five men were confined there for supposed burglary. A spirited townsman wrote to the Home Secretary, informing him of the state of the place. Orders were at once sent down to the Mayor to put the cells into tenantable order and the five prisoners were admitted to bail.
The vegetable market was held from the corner of Mr Lane’s to Dr Thompson’s.
* and * The Priory was closed in 1539: it is doubtful the doorway would have been stored until
1834 when the frontage of the White Hart was built.
In 1840, when the new corn, butcher’s, butter and poultry market was opened, a proclamation was issued that in future potatoes would be sold by weight and not by measure. Very great dissatisfaction was expressed at so great an innovation. A riot ensued, and special constables had to be sworn in to keep the peace. This was continued for several market days.
A dwelling house stood against the Southgate, and the marks of the roof are still to be seen on the wall against the gate. The building in Mr Ching’s court which was used as the Baptist Chapel has now been converted into spirit cellars. The grammar school of Mr Hicks was carried on for a short time where Mr TH Nichols’ shop now is. A shop was first opened there in 1825 by Mr Parkin, tailor and draper. The long room of the King’s Arms Hotel, at the back of the coach-house, was for many years the only room for public meetings in the town. The entrance to it was by Blindhole, and it would only contain from 75 to 100 persons. Southgate Street has been greatly improved. Dr Thompson’s house and Mr Treleaven’s have been rebuilt, and a new wing has been added to the King’s Arms, besides other improvements. The pavements here have been greatly improved.
Church Street – here stands the Church, built in the 15th Century [16th*] by Henry Trecarrel, and restored in 1852. According to tradition Charles II sat in one of the pews, and amongst the distinguished men who worshipped there were Sir John Trelawney, Sir John Darling, Sir John St. Aubyn, Henry Trecarrel, Sir Hugh Piper, Sir Beville Grenville, the Judges who came here to the Assizes [many of whom afterwards became Lord Chancellors], the Sheriffs, and most of the leading men of the County, and in the present day your borough member, an ex-Solicitor-General, and perhaps future Lord Chancellor. During the close of the last and the opening of the present century this edifice was turned into an open sepulchre for the burial of the rich. On account of the constant excavations which continued to be made up to 1840, the church pillars gave way, one leaning to the north and the other to the south, so that they had to be braced up by large iron girders, extending straight across the centre aisle. At the restoration the gravestones placed here were laid down on the north side of the Church to make a pavement from the Church to the Walk. These stone were mostly of families of the town; and it is a noteworthy fact that although this was for centuries the only burying place, there is not in the churchyard a stone bearing a date earlier than the present century. In the Church porch stood the stocks, in which habitual drunkards were placed for twelve hours without food, and on the Church door was a notice as follows: “Be pleased to take off your pattens.” I have seen men who have broken off their engagements with their sweethearts, handcuffed to a constable and taken to the hymenial altar, both here and at St Stephens.
The last time a person was put in the stocks was in the Mayoralty of Mr Frost. Church Street was then the only thoroughfare from the Northgate. Opposite Mr Hayman’s stood the old Butcher’s shambles, and the street here was so narrow by the stalls that these had to be removed when Davis’s waggon from Exeter passed. The front entrance to the new shambles was by the London Inn, which also led into High Street. There were three public houses in the street, the London Inn, the Turk’s Head (where Mr Hayman’s music shop now stands), and the New Inn, Mr Brimmel’s. When the new market houses were built the Corporation were offered the site of the old shambles for £250. £150 was raised but the Corporation refused the other £100. The Tavistock Bank, Mr Hayman’s, Mr Cater’s, Mr Brimmel’s houses and others have all been rebuilt and other improvements made, but much still remains to be done here, particularly setting back of the house now occupied by Miss Maunder.+
We now go to Westgate, one of the three gates – Southgate and Northgate being the other two – which formed the entrance to the town. If the town had fallen into the hands of a foreign foe, it is a question whether the destruction of the antique could have been carried much further than has recently been the case, seeing that both the Westgate and Northgate have been demolished in the present century. This was the principal road to the west up to 1835 when the traffic was diverted by the opening of the Western Road. The Western Rooms were built in the same year. Bellevue, now the house of Mr Gifford, was occupied by Mr and Mrs Cope, who kept a school for young ladies and gentlemen. Below was the house occupied by the celebrated Robert Watling, who was more than once Mayor of the Pig Market.
^ Mayor Frost – 1812/13.
+ Miss Maunders house was burned down and the front put back in 1896.
He kept a rendezvous for German musicians, organ grinders, and vagrants. Mr Watling one day called on Mr Pattison at the White Hart Hotel and wondered that there had not been greater friendship between them, for they could, he said, greatly help one another. When he was full he could send his lodgers to the White Hart, and when the White Hart was full he would oblige Mr Pattison by taking some of his lodgers. On the site of this house stands three villas. Below this stood six miserable old dwellings which were rebuilt several years ago, and Mr Beare’s house has also been built recently. The Westgate well is under the kitchen of the Westgate Inn, which has been rebuilt within the last 60 years. Between Mr Cook’s stables and Mr Saunder’s house was formerly a lane leading to the Dockey, and from thence to a path led through a field to where are now Messrs. Ham, Friend, and Luxton’s stores.
In Westgate Street resided Mr William Shilson, who became partner Messrs. Coode & Son, of St Austell, and afterwards the leading member of the firm. At the house but one on the Westgate Inn side have been rebuilt, as have also Mr JF Geake’s, the Launceston Bank, and the County Court offices on the other side. Before the latter improvement was carried out it was almost impossible for two vehicles to pass each other in this street.
Dunheved Road was made in 1869. It is a great convenience and very attractive, and besides being the main road to Dunheved College, is an easy access to South Petherwin. Several gentlemen’s houses and villas have been erected there, and it is reported that several more will shortly be built. At the top, and in the centre of the road was the town reservoir, a gift from the third Duke of Northumberland in 1826.
Castle Street – It is very evident that the principal thoroughfare to the Castle was through here. At the end of this street stand the Castle, in which have trod kings, princes, warriors, statesmen and politicians. Mrs Edwards house was built about 50 years ago, the site having been previously occupied by an old house in which lived John Frayn, the sexton. Next to it upwards was a freehold house used as a common bakehouse. Its walls were from four to six feet thick, but it became so dilapidated that it had to be pulled down. Several old houses above have given place to the new Wesleyan Chapel and schoolrooms, which were erected about 12 years ago at a cost of several thousand pounds. In front of the chapel there was formerly a town well, and an old mound, giving only a very narrow passage to Northgate-street. Refuse was constantly thrown on this mound, and it was a continual eyesore to passers by. In the early part of this century a wool, serge, and yarn market was held on the site of the Jubilee Inn, the Armoury, and the house of Messrs. Oke. These houses have fallen into the hands of the Council, and in the course of a few years the Jubilee will follow suit. Eagle House was occupied by Mr Christopher Lethbridge, the then town clerk, it being known as Lower Madford. It is said that Mr Lethbridge was the only one in town who thought of taking a holiday, and this led him to Bude, which then consisted of three cottages, known as “Nanny Moore’s Bridge.” Eagle House was afterwards occupied by Mr J Dark, Mrs Horwood [grandmother of Edward Archer, Esq.] and it is now occupied by Mr J Dingley.
The lecturer next dealt with Tower Street, where the first Wesleyan chapel stood, on the site where Mr Strike has just erected three cottages. Formerly this street was paved, and when the paving stones were being removed for the road to be macadamised The Rev C Lethbridge passed and said he would give the men a treat if he could succeed in getting the road named Lethbridge Street, after his family. After enumerating the improvements which have taken place here, the speaker next referred to Fore-street, now Northgate-street, the two having been merged in the mayoralty of Mr Nicolls.* In this street, which was the leading thoroughfare to the North, and in the middle of which there was an open gutter three feet wide into which the refuse of the neighbourhood was thrown, he did not remember a new building having been erected for 60 or 70 years until the commencement of the Congregational Schools. Some years ago two hatting businesses – Mr Treleaven’s and Mr Rice’s – were carried on in this street. Duke’s Road was made about 30 years ago at the expense of the Duke.
At the bottom of Angel Hill stood the old Workhouse, the west end of which was the Bridewell, and in the centre of which stood a tree at which refractory inmates were tied up and whipped. The Workhouse was built in the middle of the last century for the poor of the parish of St Mary Magdalene, and it continued to be used for that purpose up to 1837, when the new Poor Law Act came into operation, and the paupers were removed. The paupers in the old house had considerable liberty, being allowed to sell all their victuals to buy tea, tobacco, and snuff, and whole families occupying the front of the building were allowed to carry on their small trades.
Angel Hill was in those days the coach road to Exeter. Then there were more paupers in the old Workhouse than there are in the present one. which embraces 27 parishes. There was great excitement at the time the new Act came into operation, and 50,000 Cornishmen threatened to “know the reason why,” but beyond about 50 labourers coming in from North Petherwin, and soon leaving the town again without doing any damage, nothing came of it. In the middle of the hill [which was the main road to Exeter] was the Angel Inn, the license of which was transferred to the Launceston Arms on the opening of the Exeter Road in 1823.
Outside the Southgate there were also the Packhorse Inn and the Plymouth Dock Inn, the latter being named the Plymouth & Devonport Inn after 1824, when Plymouth Dock received the name of Devonport.
Tamar Terrace Road was opened in 1835, prior to which Race Hill was the main road to Plymouth and Devonport.
Attention was next called to the Castle and Castle Green. On the north side of the Green was the county jail, in which, by an Act of Parliament in 1829 prisoners were no longer to be detained, and which was pulled down in 1841, when the grounds were enclosed by the Duke of Northumberland at a cost of £3,000, in consequence of representations as to the condition of the place made by the Queen of Portugal, who had visited the spot, to Queen Victoria. Halfway down the Green stood Gallows Hill, which was destroyed in 1861, when the Green was levelled for volunteer drill, and the last persons hanged there were Thompson and Barnicott in 1821, and they were buried half-way up St Thomas Churchyard.
Blindhole, before the Butcher’s Market was built, had a very ugly appearance, as in the centre stood a catch-pit for the drainage. This nuisance was removed when the Board of Health came into operation. Below the rectory [to which a new wing had been added], was Diamond’s Brewery, which has long since ceased to exist. On the Walk stood the old Grammar School conducted by Mr Hicks, after whose departure it fell into abeyance, and the higher part of the house was used for theatricals and the lower part for the Church Sunday School. Public national rejoicings were held here on many occasions and which the lecturer remembered. The large number of houses which have been rebuilt here were mentioned. In Horse Road is the Church cemetery, which was consecrated in 1843, the ground having been previously used as a bowling green, circus, rope walk, and nursery, and there also stood a ‘kiddlewink.’
St Thomas Hamlet has advanced in trade and wealth more than any other part of the town. On the nape of St Thomas Hill, from Mr Worden’s to Mr Love’s, stood the Northgate, a very imposing structure. It consisted of one arch 24 feet high and 18 feet broad and was built of freestone with granite battlements. In 1824 he saw the face of the church clock [made by Mr Burt, Newport] brought up in a waggon, and it had to be turned round sideways to enable it to pass through the narrow arch. In his [the lecturer’s] younger days there were only two businesses carried on in the Hamlet. Mr Westlake’s, coachbuilder] and Mrs Wilmot Hender’s, grocer and flour dealer, to whose shop he had often gone for ½ pound of salt and paid 2 ¼d. Sugar was then 14d per pound; pepper 3s 6d per pound; tea 7s. or 8s. per pound; and I knew many who went about begging tea leaves. The gasworks were erected in 1835, the Wesleyan cemetery was opened in 1823, the railway station was made in 1865. In 1830 there were 43 houses in St Thomas, in 1884 there are 170. Passing on to speak of Newport, after stating that the new North Road was made through the Deer Park in 1834, the lecturer said: Newport sent two members to Parliament from the reign of Edward VI to 1832. There was a large woollen trade carried on here. This, indeed, was the staple trade of the country up to the early part of the present century. I remember six spinning factories at work at Newport, besides wool combing, wool stapling and serge factories, the latter of which are now the Town Mills. Newport serge was in great demand in the home and foreign markets, and was the only clothing worn by the working people in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have seen old men attired in only Newport cloth. The octagon building by the side of the Square was erected after the style of the Temple of the Winds in 1828 to shelter candidates from the storm during an election, the huge granite block inside having previous to this, was in the middle of the Square, where the candidates and their supporters stood during an election. At these times, which as now, were generally very stirring, hogsheads of beer were distributed to all comers and coppers and small silver thrown among the crowd from the White Horse Inn. Horwell’s School was erected in 1823, thanks to Mr Nicholas Burt for unearthing the Charity. Having related an amusing incident of an election at Newport, Mr Robbins went on to give the date of construction of what are now leading roads and passed on to the erection of bridges in the neighbourhood. Exeter Road was made in 1823; North Road in 1841; Greystone and Fell Down Head Road in 1826; Callington and Hexworthy in 1836, Two Bridges Road in 1824; Tamar Terrace Road in 1834, and the Western Road, the Yolland Bridge Road, the road through to Druxton Wharf, and others of more modern date. Taking bridges next in the same period, Polson Bridge has been rebuilt and Yolland and St Thomas bridges widened.
Ridgegrove Mill bridge is new, Polson Bridge was rebuilt in 1834. Whilst it was being rebuilt a wooden structure was put up for temporary traffic on the right hand side. I remember that in the year the bridge was finished when Mr Wilson, the Duke’s steward, was on his way to Launceston, the horses of the night mail in which he was riding ran away from the Arundel Arms, Lifton, the driver, the guard, and the two outside passengers having gone into the Inn, but the animals stopped of their own accord at the White Hart Hotel, Launceston, where it was found that Mr Wilson, the only passenger and was riding inside, was unaware that the driver and guard were not in their place. Speaking of footpaths, he said that encroachments on these were frequently being made. From the Town Mills to St Stephens, From Wind Mill to Hurdon, Ridgegrove to Colhay, Pennygillam to the Alexandria Slate Quarries – all those he paths had been obliterated. Although those he had named passed through the most picturesque parts of the neighbourhood they were sadly neglected; no one seemed to look after them; stiles were, in many cases, so dilapidated as to be rendered dangerous, and in other cases they were besmeared with tar. Describing the old modes of conveyance, Mr Robbins said: Two vans started from Southgate at 8 o’clock in the morning for Plymouth, the passengers dining at Tavistock and reaching Plymouth at 8 o’clock in the evening, fare 2s. 6d. These were the only conveyances to Plymouth up to 1836. From Exeter it was rather better, two four-horse mails passing through here from London to Falmouth, both in the night and also one day coach. In 1835 another day coach was added and a third competitor started in the following year, which made five conveyances passing through the town, but this mode of travelling was beyond the reach of the working classes, the fare to Exeter being 12s. That being so, a waggon was started at 6 in the morning arrived at Exeter in the following afternoon, the passengers sleeping the night at Sticklepath, fare 3s. 6d. A one-horse van also started on Wednesday mornings, stopped at Sticklepath the night, and arrived at Exeter the following afternoon, returning on the Saturday. A one-horse cart left Truro Monday mornings, and, stopping the night at Bodmin, arrived at Launceston on Tuesday afternoon, fare 3s. Travelling was then, as you see, a luxury to be enjoyed only by the privileged few. The rich drove from town to town in their own carriages, and I have seen four drive up to the White Hart door and stop and change horses in one hour. Travelling for single gentlemen was on horseback with saddle bags by their sides and a servant riding behind on another horse. To Bude and Boscastle the only mode of conveyance was by a coal waggon, the journey being done in ten hours for the sum of 1s. 6d. Working men and small tradesmen had to perform their journies on foot. I have known young men go to London on foot, and I have myself walked to Exeter, Plymouth and Bodmin and back. In those days coal had to be brought from Boscastle and Bude by waggons and was so dear that but little was used. It was sold by the gallon.
I now come to schools. 50 or 60 years ago a school was kept where the Wesleyan chapel now stands by Elizabeth Triese, the last representative of the Town Clerk of that surname. Mr Rogers kept a school in St Stephens Hill; Stephen; William Bultin in the old Wesleyan chapel, Tower Street; another was kept by Mr Spear in the Town Hall; and Sunday afternoons and night school in Quarry lane for those who could not attend at ordinary schools. This last school was kept by Charles Roos, who was for many years clerk at North Petherwin, and the only person, besides the parson in that parish who could read and write, he having been taught by the parson himself.
Dunheved College, Horwill’s School, and several ladies schools have been built and made great progress during the last few years. In the decade of 1851 – 1861 the population of St Mary Magdalene decreased by 580. In a lecture which I gave in the Central Rooms in 1856 I made a statement that no new houses had been built during the past twenty years, that house property had been sold during that time at one half its former value, and that the population was decreasing daily. I urged on my fellow townsmen the necessity of uniting together and putting forth every effort to get a railway if we were to save ourselves from furnishing a theme on which some future Goldsmith would have a poem describing “A Deserted Village.” Few people believed me at the time, but when, by the next census of the population, it appeared that it had fallen off the number of 584 for St Mary and 866 in the whole parliamentary borough, everybody was staggered, and soon recognised that nothing but a railway could save us from commercial ruin. A great amount of enthusiasm was shown in favour of the railway, which, after many difficulties we obtained, thanks to Col Archer and others. Having briefly recapitulated what had been done in Launceston during the last 50 to 60 years, Mr Robbins said that when they considered the strides that had been made in science, art and literature, they could not deny that the present century was one of the most important epochs in the history of the world, and he went on to speak of the introduction of steam and its application to various purposes, and many other changes. In conclusion, he said he believed Launceston had a grand future before it, and one of their first objects should be the extension of the borough boundaries, and the amalgamation of the Town Council and the Board of Health. The erection of a large hall should also be no longer delayed. They had a nucleus of £300 or £400 and with £400 from the Aftermath Fund would be enough to start. Having related an anecdote of Lord Palmerston, the lecturer resumed his eat amid loud cheering.
Questions having been invited, Mr AJ Hender asked if Mr Robbins could give any reason for the woollen trade in the neighbourhood having totally collapsed. Mr Robbins, in reply, said the North of England took away the trade by better machinery and larger capital.
Mr J Treleaven whilst agreeing with all the lecturer had said relative to the condition of the town during the past 45 years which he [the speaker] could look back over, said there was one thing which he had omitted to refer to – providing accommodation for the increase of the population.
True, they had a fine old church and Reading Rooms, a Museum, a Guildhall, and various places of worship, but what was the use of these if they had no house accommodation whereby their borders could be extended? Formerly it was said that there was plenty of enterprise in the town if land could be obtained, but now numerous placards were displayed announcing land for sale for building purposes, and though it a matter of regret that hey had no enterprising builder who would build rows of villas. Launceston wanted buildings for the middle classes who would come and reside in the town, thus increasing the population, without which how could they have increased prosperity? Some years ago he [the speaker] started a factory, but he could not get sufficient labor to carry out the work in a way to compete with larger towns. He had 25 hand and they would dictate what terms they pleased, but these same people went to Leeds and there the master was the master. In a small town they were under the disadvantage that they could not carry out any staple industry because labour was insufficient to compete with larger towns. Was there any means on foot whereby they might increase the number of houses.
Mr Robbins said he was connected, and had been from the beginning, with a Building Society in this town. Every effort was made to get shareholders, but the more they tried the less they got.
It had been asked how was it houses were being erected. Would Mr Treleaven put down £200? He knew of no other way of doing it. Mr Treleaven was throwing it on others; but let him set to work himself, and no doubt he would find willing helpers. He [Mr Robbins], with others, was connected with sixteen houses which would not pay more than 2 ½ per cent. He should like to know whether Mr Treleaven was prepared to speculate in that kind of building.
Mr Treleaven now mounted the form, and was loudly cheered. He said that very few people had laid out more in building than he had, but as regarding building cottages, he did not understand the business. Within the past six months, however, he went to a builder in the neighbourhood, and told him that if he would build twelve houses he would buy them if he could not get a better purchaser. Was that fair? A builder in that room had asked if he [Mr Treleaven] would buy houses if he built them, and he said “Yes.” What did a Building Society consist of? It consisted of men particularly interested – lawyers, bankers, and others, and there was scarcely a man connected with it who did not get perquisites beside the 2 ½ per cent. If they could get an enterprising builder to put up 70 houses they would all be sold before they were completed.
Mr Robbins had insinuated that bankers and lawyers took up the profit of the Building Society; they did not. Mr Treleaven was invited to become a member of that Building Society, but said he had no objection to giving advice, – he had no money to lay on it. Continuing, Mr Robbins said that although the Society was worked on the most economical basis it only paid 2 ½ per cent. He should be glad, however, if Mr Treleaven would give a helping hand to continue the society.
Mr TB Hender thought that whilst thanks were due to those who had already erected houses they had worked on the wrong lines – on political lines. He advocated a Limited Liability Company, with shares within the means of working men, and the tenants should be chosen without reference to party. He thought there would be no difficulty in starting a scheme on those lines.
Mr Robbins said their tenants had been chosen without once considering whether they were Liberals or Conservatives, and the matter had never mentioned at the meetings.
Mr Hender said he did not refer to the tenancies so much as to those who promoted the buildings. The owners of these houses were men who held strong political views, and if that were lost sight of the thing would go ahead.
Richard Robbins 1884 Lecture
The Cornish & Devon Post & East Cornwall Times, 29th November, 1884. report: