Billy Bray’s Dancing feet

Once while on one of our trips my other half and I were taking in just another orange Caribbean sunset when we heard what we thought was a party just a few dusty streets away.

It may have been the rum or the weeks on the road with little in the way of night life but we quickly decided we had better investigate further.  To our surprise what we discovered was not a night club but a church.  The place was so alive. The parishioners were dancing in the aisles, whooping and singing, clapping and laughing. The children were running about playing, there was no solemn formality, just joy.

Outside the night was now deep dark and I remember looking in the windows at the warm glow of the lightbulbs and feeling the happiness shining out.  We both agreed right then if church at home in England had been like that we would have gone every Sunday.

There was one man I think that would have known exactly what we meant.  During his lifetime and in some ways to this day his joy in his religion is what has made him so loved

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Billy Bray 1794-1868

and so memorable. It is also what has made him in some ways a little bit of a joke too.

Billy Bray found religion after hitting rock bottom (almost literally).  He was a poor miner and a riotous drunk and it was a near fatal accident at work that stunned him into thinking about his life.  Quite suddenly and to the astonishment of those around him he found God and became a preacher for the next 43 years.

But the main reason that Billy Bray is still remembered all this time later is that he was renowned for breaking into spontaneous singing and dancing in the middle of his sermons.

He would say “He has made me glad and no one can make me sad. He makes me shout and no one can make me doubt…”

In fact as well as his happy feet Billy also became renowned for his enthusiastic little sayings:”If they were to put me into a barrel, I would shout glory out through the bunghole!”.

When someone told him that they were less than impressed with his singing voice he is said to have replied:   “God would just as soon hear a crow as a nightingale. I’ll sing all I want to sing and if I shut my mouth, my feet would still shout. Every time my left foot hits the ground, it says ‘Amen!’ And every time my right foot hits the ground it says, ‘Glory’ and I just can’t help myself.”

The first person that Billy converted was his long suffering wife, Joanna who it seems had supported them and their children during his former drunken life before his conversion.  But Billy was a changed man and as well as the 7 children they had together he also raised 2 orphans and built 3 chapels.  The ‘Three Eyes’ Chapel at Kerley Downs is the only one that remains and it is beautiful peaceful little place that is open to the public.  (The Three Eyes name is in reference to its windows I believe.)

I for one think that Mr Bray must have brought a great deal of fun and laughter to those around him.  He certainly left an impression on the local miners by providing Sunday School outings of hundreds of their children in the Carharrack area.  One such day out was reported in the West Briton in 1847, the article says that the 200 ragged children were entertained with a band and a choir of singers and that this was followed by lashings of tea and cake for everyone.

I am not religious in the conventional sense but the way I see it is that faith should be about supporting and enlivening the lives of those around you and that Billy Bray most certainly did.

For more local legends take a look at my page devoted to Cornish Characters: Cornish Folk

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Some Cornish Mining History – The Ground Beneath Our Feet

When exactly mankind first discovered the art of smelting metal is a mystery but what we do know is that tin has always played a major part of the history of our county and up until recent years a vital part of our economy and our culture.

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My pride in all things Cornish was well and truly pricked by the wonderful Man Engine which has journeyed across the Cornwall this summer promoting our mining heritage.  The 33ft tall mechanical giant miner certainly drew unexpectedly large the crowds wherever it went but for me it was its creator Will Coleman’s passionate commentary on mining that filled me with enormous pride and just a little sadness. He reminded us who were once were.

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The Man Engine in Truro

 

Tin veins are not at all common and there were very few sources in the ancient world and very few today.  Mining in Asia began around 3000 years ago but the archaeological clues in Cornwall date the first tinners here at 1000 years before that.  Four thousand years of history!

The earliest signs of the industry come from prehistoric finds in old tin-working sites discovered during later mining activity.  Finds from the early Bronze Age are very rare but have been unearthed at 4 sites in Cornwall: St. Erth, Caerloggas Down near St. Austell, Levalsa Moer near Pentewan and the Carnon Valley near Truro.

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Part of Carnon valley

The early methods for extracting tin were very basic and known as ‘streaming’.  In certain river valleys the tin was so abundant that the mineral could quite literally be picked up out of the river bed. The sand, earth and general debris were gathered and ‘washed’ so that the heavier tin deposits were left behind.

One man took a very particular interest in the tin ground of the Carnon valley, near Truro,  his name was William Jory Henwood (Jan 1805- Aug 1875).  He was a member of the Royal Society and had written unprecedented papers on rocks and minerals travelling the world for his work.

Henwood wrote numerous articles for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and it is one of these papers published in 1873 which interests me.

It is snappily titled ‘Observations on the Detrital Tin-Ore of Cornwall’.  In it he describes a very unusual discovery made on 29th March 1823 by workers in part of the Carnon Valley Stream works.

“About half way from Tarnon-dean [Tarrandean] to the Arsenic manufactory” the workers “were removing a quantity of mud” and ” at sixteen or eighteen feet below the surface, some 2 or 3 tons of large, rough angular masses of quartz were found resting on a bed of silt, shells and vegetable matter.  Immediately beneath the stones, at some 22 feet below high water an entire human skeleton was discovered.”  Henwood goes on to describe the scene in great detail and the original article includes sketches of the position of the find.

Henwood’s drawing of the Carnon Valley skeleton

Some of the more interesting points include that the body was enclosed within a frame of roughly hewn pieces of timber, possibly oak and that it faced north, the knees were drawn up and the right arm was above the head.  The remains were lying on the surface of the tin ground. No hair, cloth or any other objects were found apart from the skull, teeth and antlers of a red deer stag nearby.  An examination determined that it was the prehistoric remains of a man roughly 5’5″ tall, who had good teeth and was no more than middle aged when he died.

Henwood adds that the remains created deep public interest and so the discovery was left on view for some time.  The skeleton was then given to the Royal Institution of Cornwall (now Truro Museum) who have since apparently ‘misplaced’ it.

How this man died and how he came to be buried isn’t clear.  It is worth noting that the hills around the Carnon valley are dotted with numerous ancient barrows, many now sadly disappearing into housing estates or being ploughed up by farming, and the whole area is considered to be a prehistoric cemetery site. Was it the tin that brought them there?  The skeleton is also not the only evidence of this valley’s ancient past, on display in Truro20160729_104736 Museum is a beautiful tinner’s pick, which was dug up in 1790 but dates from around 2000BC.  The tool is made from a deer antler and is one of two that were found.  (That same 18th century dig also unearthed a skeleton but I am unable to find any details about it.)

Other finds included oak shovels, one of which is also on display, a tin bowl and a Bronze Age flat-axe 15.5cm in length.  Also interestingly Murray writes in his ‘Handbook for Devon and Cornwall, 1859’ that fossilized ‘trunks of trees’ were discovered at the same site.

The Carnon valley river flows into Devoran creek, near Perranarworthal and from there out towards the Fal and the open sea.  The observations of William Pryce demonstrate the extent of the

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Heap of detritus left by mining in Carnon valley

mining industry in just this one small area of Cornwall around 1708.  He writes that “the low lands and sands under Perran Arworthall [sic], which are covered almost every tide with the sea, have, on its going off, employed hundreds of poor men, women and children washing the tin ore out of them, as they are incapable of earning their bread by any other means”.

 

Although mining for tin has now ended it is worth remembering that work still continued in the valley up until the 1980s  and with good reason.   Henwood says that “the tin ground was nowhere else so rich as at the confluence of the Carnon valley with the vales which extend through Perran Wharf and from Taran-dean [sic] through Perranwell”. He paints us a vivid picture with this description from 1855: “The tin was found in boulders or rounded lumps, varying from the size of a man’s fist to a grain of sand, the smallest generally the richest.  But I have seen lumps as large as a man’s fist nearly pure black tin”

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Just this glancing look at our mining heritage reveals such a rich past that it becomes easier to understand why some many in Cornwall greeted the Man Engine with such joy and enthusiasm.  Despite the fact that hardly anyone in the county still works in the industry as a people we have a infinitely long and strong connection with the ground beneath our feet.  Our county was once the centre of the tin mining industry right from its birth in the Bronze age through to its unhappy end not so long ago, the remains of this long association dot our countryside and it seems it is still very much part of our national Cornish identity.

For other posts on ancient man try: Tregiffian Barrow & the Cup-marked Stone or on Cornish industry take a look at Precious Powder, Our Cornish White Gold

 

 

Celia Fiennes: Through Cornwall, side-saddle!

Celia Fiennes was born in 1662 but she had very different ideas about what a woman of her time should be and how they should behave.  Celia refused to be bound by convention.  She never married and, at a time when making a journey for its own sake was a new and rather racy idea, Celia became an enthusiastic traveller.

She wrote in her diary that her journeys helped her “to regain [her] health by variety and change of aire and exercise”.  It seems that Celia, like myself, found meaning in her life from seeing, experiencing and finding out about different people and places.

This of course was a time when travel was for most people an arduous necessity that took planning and resolve.  The first stage-coaches didn’t appear in Cornwall until 1790, so nearly one hundred years after Celia’s travels, and even then the 100 mile journey from Exeter to Falmouth took 2 whole days. (About the same time as the A30 on an August Bank Holiday weekend then.)

But Celia was her own boss, with her own agenda and she did it all riding side-saddle in a frock.  She completed her “Great Journey to Newcastle and Cornwall” in 1698 on a horse accompanied by just one or sometimes two servants.  And of course as you might have guessed apart from my admiration for her as an independently minded woman it is her descriptions of Cornwall that also interest me.

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After a rather dramatic hour-long crossing of the River Tamar from Devon (there was no bridge at Saltash in those days) during which she catches a cold and wishes she had never started, one of the first places that Celia visited was Looe.  Here she describes crossing “a little arme of the sea on a bridge of 14 arches”.

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The bridge at Looe in 2016

That particular bridge no longer exists but the illustration above from 1840 gives us a good idea of what she might have seen.  She also writes that Looe is a “pretty bigg seaport” with “a great many little houses all of stone”.  I wonder what she would make of it now?

 

A little further down the coast Celia and her faithful four-legged companion made another river crossing.  This time at Fowey where she marvelled at the colour of the sea. “As green as I ever saw” she says.

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But perhaps my favourite episode in her diary is the entry of the night that she spent in St Austell.  It is easy to forget that Celia was what you might call a ‘well-breed’ lady, she had been brought up in privileged circumstances and here she was travelling into darkest rural Cornwall without an escort.  She was staying (when not at the homes of wealthy friends) in whatever accommodation was available when the sun set and she couldn’t go any further that day.  So on this particular evening Celia finds herself in some kind of lodging in St Austell which she describes as “barn-like” and she gives us a delightful look at the Cornish people around her.

After telling us about an excellent “apple pye” with which she partook of “clouted creame” (clotted cream) available only in these parts she goes on to describe her company.

I was much pleased with my supper tho’ not with the custome of the county, which is a universall smoaking both men and women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and soe sit round the fire smoaking, which was not delightful to me  . . . I must say they are as comely sort of women as I have seen any where tho’ in ordinary dress, good black eyes and very neate.

I love this. Cornish women are indeed “comely”!

It reminds me also of later photographs of elderly men and women with a clay-pipes that seem to be as much as part of them as the nose of their face.  I imagine her as being as much a curiosity to the locals as they were to her.  I can see them all gathered about the fire, peering as her through their pipe smoke, mumbling . . . pretty much how I felt a few weeks ago when I visited the Bucket Of Blood Inn in Phillack but that’s another story.

As Celia rides out St Austell the next morning she is amazed by the industry in the area, the numerous mines and the “violent heat and fierce flames” coming from the furnaces.  These were hard times when a lucky few were making their fortunes on the backs of the many.  She comments again on the force of the industry  when she passes through Redruth describing it as “very bleake”.

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But Celia’s horse carried her on, right to the end of the county, her diary ends with a description of her clambering about on the rocks at Lands End.  And as she says her “horses legs could not carry me through the deep and so return’d to Pensands [Penzance]” and there “the Mount . . . looked very fine in the broad day the sun shining on the rocke in the sea”.

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Celia continued her travels intermittently throughout her life until at least 1712 and took her through most of England.  She comments that because of the various wars with England’s neighbours she is too nervous to travel to the continent alone but I have a feeling if she had been able she would have ridden her horse side-saddle for as far as its legs would have taken her.

Her diaries have been published and are actually an interesting read I promise! Link here.

For other tales of feisty Cornish ladies try: Hannah Jory: Mother, Prostitute & Convict or Granny Boswell: Cornwall’s Gypsy Queen