Reminiscences of Thomas Vosper
A CENTURY BACK. (A Cornish and Devon article from March 27th, 1937.)
Reminiscences of a former Launceston Man.
“I was born at Upton Barton in the parish of Lewannick, near Launceston, Cornwall, the 1st March 1812, on a farm which has been in the tenancy of my grandfather, my father and brother, for a period of upwards of 90 years….. I was the eldest of sixteen children.”
So runs the opening paragraph of an old volume entitled. “A Story of Commercial Life, and Memoirs, with Leaves from a Journal,” kindly lent us by Mr H. Wadge, Lewannick, who, having family connections with the author, appropriately enough now owns and farms the old homestead of Upton Barton.
Thomas Nicholls Vosper, who as stated was the eldest of a large family, began his career by being sent to a dame’s school, and afterwards for seven years to the village schoolmaster, being occasionally engaged on the farm. At the age of 14, he went to a ‘classical’ school at Callington, under a Dr Hender. His education finished, he next took an apprenticeship with a draper cousin at Devonport, and having completed this, kept a small shop for some time with his sister near the farm. In 1836 he went into partnership in the mercery and drapery business with a brother-in-law, Mr Robert Maclean, in Launceston.
FLUCTUATIONS IN TRADE.
Having married in 1839, he appears to have settled down to a business life, and continued in the town for 17 years, “but,” says he, “during that period I passed through many fluctuations in trade.” He dissolved partnership with Mr Maclean and commenced on his own account with small capital. Interesting side lights are given as to the conditions of the trade in the town in those days. Half a year’s receipts in the first part of the year 1847 were, he says, £3,000; but the latter half only brought in £1,300. He bought the stock of an old tradesman in the town who was declining business, taking over the premises as well, for the sum of £900. This deal did not come up to expectations, and he lost heavily owing to most of the stock being ‘rotten.’ Further losses on one thing and another included his being rather badly let down on a guarantee which he had given to a London house. In the end, he says, “I was obliged to succumb,” and eventually he turned his back on Launceston in 1859.
His subsequent career, interesting as it must have been, does not concern us here, our purpose being to quote from the many incidents and items of information given as typical of the local life of the period. In comparison with our own times, these accounts of bygone days make rather interesting reading. The recollections of Richard and William Vosper, brothers of Thomas, which appear in the same book, have also been drawn upon for the purposes of this article, though it should be added that for the sake of brevity it has not been considered necessary to quote them separately.
TRAVEL IN 1839
A long journey 100 years ago was a matter not to be lightly undertaken. Up to then the stage coach held sway, and was often a tedious and sometimes dangerous method of transit, as the following will show. This adventure happened to Mr T. N. Vosper:-
“I think it was in the year 1840 I was coming down from London to Launceston on the Royal Mail. We had arrived at 8 a.m., near Bridestowe, Devon. We were going down-hill, and the driver Gellard drove by some mistake into a heavy Tavistock wagon, which was then coming up the hill. We had then Dr Paris, the Queen’s Physician, and his daughter inside the coach, and among others outside, there was a gentleman of the name Treweek, a native of Truro, who had, it was reported, made his fortune in India, from which country he was then returned. The wagon we had driven into was of much heavier metal that the coachman had anticipated, and we were going down-hill at a good rate. The pole was instantly broken. The writer was sitting on the box seat with the driver. He heard him say, ‘We are done.’ He threw away the reins; the horses, leaving the coach, the pole being broken, galloped off down the hill, and the coach went on and shunted about like a drunken man, and we were upset with a terrible throw. I fell on the coachman, and although it was amusing to see, it was not amusing to feel. Dr Paris and his daughter pushed their heads out through the door of the coach, through the broken glass, which had cut their faces, and they were not else much injured. The worst accident that befell us was poor Mr Treweek, who was sitting behind the writer, had his thigh broken by the fall. We immediately procured a gate in the locality and carried him back to the inn, which I believe was kept by Mr Crotch. I was fortunate to have some brandy in a flask, which we gave to him. We then left him under the care of mine host. After Mr Treweek’s recovery, he paid the writer a visit to thank him for his attentions. I was informed he got £300 damages from the coach proprietors, and although I was much bruised I did not apply for any. After we had got the coach up, the coachman accompanied the writer to view the spot where we came in contact with the wagon. He said, ‘You are the only man who can save my character.’ I told him, certainly I could not say what was on his mind, but one thing I was certain of, he had given us a most awful upset, and which I felt, as regards myself, long afterwards. The mail was delayed five or six hours, and the next day the inspector of the mails called to know what I had to say in respect of the accident. I told him it would be impossible for me to give evidence against the man, as I could not say he did it wilfully, but it would have been a nice point for a jury, knowing his antecedents. I was fortunate in one respect, as, when I got on the mail at Exeter, I had put my coat in the exact seat Mr Treweek happened afterwards to take. But knowing the coachman, and the box seat being disengaged, as fate would have it, I escaped without having broken limbs.”
A SPORTING YARN
Sport with the gun in those days was and still is, often a matter of luck. But not every luckless sportsman would care to go to the length of making up his bag at the end of the day in the manner given in the following incident:
“I was once on a sporting excursion with Edward Archer, Esq., and his steward, on those extensive moors surrounding Dozmary Pool. We had a long day’s fag but did not succeed with the ducks. Mr Archer was then a young gentleman who had just attained his majority and succeeded to his father’s estates. I believe only a few snipes were the result of our day’s sport, and we had a long journey to return to our father’s house. When we arrived Mr Archer asked my father’s permission to shoot some of the farmyard ducks, as he did not wish to go home without some specimens of game. The request was granted, and he shot as many as he chose, and they were bagged for Trelaske House.”
A WOOL-PACKING STORY, AND A GREAT SNOWFALL.
Farming conditions then, as now, presented their difficulties, particularly during the more severe winters which seem to have been the rule more than now. The difficulty which occurred during the wool-packing has, owing to the discontinuance of an illegal custom, no counterpart in the present day, which is perhaps just as well.
“The writer’s father was once engaged with a cousin of his in weighing wool, as the custom was then among the neighbouring farms, but this was not in his own parish. While they were engaged in the above occupation news was brought that the Excise officers were close at hand in search of stills, which were then common in farmhouses, as I remember, and were used for the purpose of distilling spirits. The master of the house was much perplexed in his mind, as his domicile contained the fated article. My father’s ready wit proposed instanter to put it into the wool sack, and it was packed up and sent to market as wool, which saved a great astronomer’s (John Couch Adams) father a penalty of £50. The Exciseman had a ‘pleasant walk back.’”
“Fifty years ago, during the lambing season, I used to stay up at night with the shepherd, for my father had a flock of six hundred sheep. After being around the farm with our lantern torch to see all right, we had on some occasions to bring the young lambs and dames to the house for shelter, especially during frost and snow. We were on our return regaled with mulled wine from my mother’s elder wine barrel. During a long severe winter we had eleven of our flock missing for three weeks, and when the snow had partially melted away, we discovered them, with their wool eaten off as far as the animals could reach, and I believe they all survived their long imprisonment.”
HUNG FOR SHEEP STEALING
Here is an account of a Launceston execution in the days when fresh meat was scarce with the working classes and sheep stealing became a capital offence. Doubtless many of these executions took place within the walls of Launceston Castle, but the names of places outside, such as Gallows Hill, St. Stephens, would seem to indicate that these gruesome spectacles were not confined to one place.
“I have it in memory at the time, since I was not more than five or six years of age, of seeing my father in his scarlet coat and yellow vest, etc., the usual costume of a captain of the Troop of his return from the Assizes, which were then held at Launceston as well as at Bodmin. There was at the Assize a man condemned to death, and to be hanged at Launceston Castle, for the crime of sheep stealing. The culprit was about to be placed on the drop but was waiting for the executioner, and it was time the execution should have been completed, my father informed me that he should have had to perform that office if the executioner had not, fortunately, made his appearance. The writer was then a lad and was shown the spot on the Castle Green where the prisoner was hanged. The man being on the drop, repeated the Lord’s Prayer over several times, and then said, dropping from his hand a white handkerchief, which was the signal that he was ready, ‘It is as well go.’ After the legal hour had transpired, his remains being placed in a shell, his father came with a common cart for his son and removed him for burial to his own home. As he passed a public house a mile out of the town he left his melancholy load, and went into the inn, and called for a pint of ale, telling mine host he ‘had got our Will out in the cart.’ The name of the inn was the ‘Bennetts Arms.”
PARISH APPRENTICES TRICKS
The day of the parish apprentice has gone, but the following story shows that the old adage “Boys will be boys” was as true then as now.
“It was during the early years of my grandfather’s tenancy at Upton Barton that he was sent for by Colonel Rodd, the landlord, to come immediately down to Trebartha Hall, where he had no sooner arrived that he was informed of the urgency of his advice, which was required under the following circumstances; The Squires of that day were accustomed to have parish apprentices to keep from the age of seven years till they were twenty-one, and were compelled by law to do so as well as the tenantry. The Squire told my grandfather that he was sure to lose all custom to his prize masculine porcine, which that very morning some miscreant had fearfully maimed by cutting off its colossal tail. It was the only one in the parish then. The colonel said to the writer’s grandfather, “Thee must try and find out the criminal.” After due investigation and inquiries in the squire’s locality and elsewhere, he suspected one of the squire’s own apprentices. My grandfather said to the boy, ‘If thee’s tell me where he is I’ll put him on again while he is hot.’ The boy innocently said, ‘Here he is, maister, up here by the hedge.’ The lost member was found and the perpetrator duly horsewhipped, and on the following Sunday placed in penance in the church porch, in public view, with his coat reversed.”
THE COMING OF THE RAILWAY
It is interesting to note the trend of criticism at the advent of an entirely new age of transport when the railways first came west. What these sturdy yeomen would have said could they have visualised the railway’s more formidable competitor –the motor car- can be left to the imagination.
“In or about the year 1840, the late John Rundle, M.P. for Tavistock, was giving a lecture on ‘Railroads’ at Launceston: my father was present among his agricultural neighbours. The lecture was expected to be extremely interesting from the novelty of the subject, as no railways were then known in this part of the country. At the conclusion of the lecture, a gentleman farmer who resided near my father’s farm, and was considered the greatest politician in the parish, and a man of good parts and highly respected, put a question to the honourable member which he thought would be a poser. The question was ‘In the event of railways becoming general, and the numerous horses not being required, what, Mr Lecturer, shall we do with the oats?’ The lecturer did not reply, and during his silence, the writer’s father answered the question: ‘Instead of strewing it on the highways, we will make it into beef, mutton and pork,’ said he, ‘And into the poultry,’ the ladies added.”
IN THE TIME OF CROMWELL
Here is a curious tale from Tresmeer, which, if true, deserves to be better known as a matter of history. It would be interesting to know if any local tradition exists to support the story:
“I heard a story of one of our ancestors, that during the civil wars, in the time of Charles I, Elizabeth Vosper held a farm at Tresmeer, near Dunheved, otherwise Launceston, and when the parliamentary army, under General Fairfax, who had stormed Dunhevid Castle was appropriating all the horses about the country, she had a favourite horse which she much valued, and to preserve her steed she caused a rick of wood to be hastily built up, in which she made a stable for her noble bloodhorse. The troops passed on and did not discover the secret. She might have read Homer and the account of the wooden horse of Troy.”
DRAINING DOZMARY POOL
Here is some first-hand information concerning an attempted feat of draining Cornwall’s only lake. This story has been told in other forms by various writers, but the present narrative appears to represent the truth of the matter.
“In relating some events of history reference has been made to Dozmary Pool, which was the property of the writer’s father, with 200 acres of land adjoining. It is now more than 40 years ago, I remember, that so coveted was the water of the pool, my father, whose residence was seven miles distant, was sent for, and was informed that a party of miners had, during the previous night, dug a deep trench at the west end thereof to drain off the water, to supply a copper mine at St. Neot. It being a dry summer their own supply had run low. The writer’s father engaged a number of men from the moor, who carted some granite and filled up the trench, and we remained all night by the pool to prevent a surprise, in which I was acting as butler, in supplying the workmen with rations. We have also a keg of rum for the supply of all those who assisted. There were a large number of cattle grazing, whose position was imperilled, for the draining off of the water rendered them liable to sink in the mud when they went to drink at the pool.”
GRAVEL FOR LAUNCESTON CASTLE
A visit to the keep of Launceston Castle reveals that the mortar in the walls is largely composed of a coarse gravel containing small white pebbles. Who would guess that this gravel was brought all the way from Dozmary Poll a thousand years ago!
“The soil around Dozmary Pool is a compound of light black earth, intermixed with white gravel, except at the east end, which is a fine sandy beach extending to more than one-fourth of the circumference of the pool. How comes this fine white sand here, which was used in the mortar at the building of the castle at Dunheved, at Launceston so ancient as about the year 900 A.D. according to Leland, the Historian!”
“The sand and gravel with which the mortar in the building of Launceston Castle are mixed was brought from Dozmary Pool, a distance of about fifteen miles.”
“I can recollect about thirty years ago mounting the summit of the Castle, from which I distinctly saw the smoke arising from the great conflagration of Sir William Molesworth’s late seat of Tetcott, which may be sixteen miles distant from the Castle.” The latter remark is, of course, and exaggeration; the distance being actually 10 miles.
There were some very strict church-going people in those days but that they were not entirely devoid of a sense of humour the following incident will show:
“On a certain sacrament Sunday, after the celebration, there were two bottles of wine remaining; and the clergyman was putting them into his pocket, but the churchwarden succeeded in getting one of them, and said to the parson, “If you do that I shall pocket one of them myself,” This happened not a hundred miles from Launceston, and the churchwarden, in telling the story, said he was determined the parson should not have both.”