When Francis Basset, Baron de Dunstanville, died in Knightsbridge in London in 1835 he was one of the wealthiest landowners in Cornwall and the head of one of its most ancient families. There had been Bassets in Cornwall for nearly 900 years and his death came as a shock to his friends and family and the people of the Redruth and Camborne area. The subsequent grand funeral arrangements and elegant, costly memorials for this man demonstrate the great affection and admiration felt towards him by the whole Cornish population. His granite obelisk on the heights of Carn Brea is one of the most iconic sights in Cornwall.
“No traveller in West Cornwall has failed to see the great granite obelisk on the summit of Carn Brea. It commemorates Lord de Dunstanville, the most famous member of the Basset family.”
But who was Sir Francis Basset and what was behind this outpouring of grief and affection?
The Great Bassets
There were few families that could claim such long-standing and close ties with Cornwall as the Bassets could. The first Bassets came here in the time of William the Conqueror and the last members of the family sold the Tehidy Estate, where they had lived continuously for 700 years, in 1916.
During that extraordinarily long time the family’s wealth and status grew. They were at one time the masters of St Michael’s Mount and had acquired the manors of Illogan, Redruth and Camborne, therefore laying claim to some of the richest mining land in the whole of Cornwall. They also owned Dolcoath and Cooks Kitchen, two of Cornwall’s most profitable mines. So needless to say they were wealthy beyond measure and extremely well connected.
As Royalists the Basset men fought for the king during the Civil War, raising money though the sale of their tin to support his army. And back in the 16th century Anne Basset served as a maid of honour to King Henry VIII‘s wife Jane Seymour. It is even thought that she caught the king’s eye and became his mistress.
In 1739 Francis Basset, Sir Francis’ father, unexpectedly inherited Tehidy after the untimely death of his elder brother John Pendarves Basset. Francis Snr. found himself with a newly remodelled house and an enormous estate which he was able to pass on to his son.
Who was Sir Francis Basset?
Sir Francis Basset was the eldest son and heir of Francis Basset and his wife Margaret St Aubyn, born in 1757 in Oxfordshire. He had an excellent education at Eton and then King’s College, Cambridge before embarking on a ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in his late 20s. He was considered a man of high morals and firm principles, once fighting a duel with Sir Christopher Hawking over political differences. (Both men fired but neither hit their target.)
When Francis inherited the family estate in 1769 it was the fourth largest in Cornwall with around 16,000 acres. It seems he threw himself into the care of the Basset’s affairs and the betterment of the local people that he felt responsible for. He became an MP like his father and received his knighthood after marching 600 Cornish miners to Plymouth to defend the town against French invasion in 1779.
Both Francis and his wife Harriet seem to have been involved in several philanthropic projects. His income from the family mines was enormous but it is said that Francis actually put large sums of money back into the mining communities to try and improve the welfare of the workers and their families. He started charities for local widows and founded schools for the poor and was described as “a great and good man, nobleman patriot and a Christian philanthropist, the benefactor friend and advisor to the poor”.
Francis’ charitable acts may not have been entirely altruistic however. His good deeds may have stemmed from feelings of guilt and perhaps self-preservation due to some earlier periods of unrest amongst the local people. In 1785 he had been forced to deputise around 50 special constables in order quell unrest when there were food riots caused by the deprivation brought on by the low wages at the mines.
It was an uncomfortably turbulent time with some of those arrested hung and others transported. So, in all honesty, while he may genuinely have wanted to help, it was to Francis’ advantage to make sure that his workers were content and didn’t turn on him again.
While it is difficult to know the truth – how much he was truly admired by the ordinary man on the streets of Redruth and Camborne – the events following his death may give us the best insight and if the reports are to be believed it does seem that by the time he passed away Basset was very well thought indeed.
The Procession from London
Sir Francis Basset died on 5th February 1835 aged 77 years after being taken ill while journeying to London. This was the age before railways and so his body was returned to Cornwall in a horse-drawn hearse. The grand procession, which sounds very much like something you might expect for a member of the royal family, left London on 14th February “at a walking pace”.
“The funeral procession was on an uncommonly extensive scale of sombre grandeur and consisted of outriders and ten pages on horseback. The hearse was richly in blazoned with the heraldic honours of the deceased, splendidly worked on hangings of rich black silk velvet in a raised circle of emblazoned silver, and drawn by six stately horses superbly plumed and covered with escutcheon hangings of black velvet on which was worked in a similar manner to the hearse the arms, crest, motto etc. Jennants (?) of silk and silver were thickly interwoven with the hearse and horse plumes. The hearse was followed by two mourning coaches with six horses each richly caparisoned, containing some of the deceased nobleman’s principle domestics . . . The pages, mates, drivers and postillions wore splendid badges on their cloaks with the family crest worked in silver on black velvet. The coffin is of mahogany, enclosing a leaden one and is covered with the richest crimson Genoa velvet, studded with silver gilt nails with embossed plates and handles to correspond.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28th Feb 1835
The procession took six days to arrive in the city of Exeter.
There the cathedral bell was tolled to mark Francis’ arrival and he was ‘lodged’ in the Old London Inn overnight. He crossed into Cornwall on Sunday 22nd at Poulson Bridge near Launceston where the hearse was met by “a respectable body of persons of the town and neighbourhood”. The newspapers report that the streets in each town the procession passed through were lined with silent crowds of people. And as the solemn cortege reached Launceston, Bodmin and Truro the shops were closed and the coffin was placed “in state” in a church or hotel so that people could file past and pay their respects.
And as Francis Basset, Lord de Dunstanville, neared Redruth it is said that around 200 of his tenants came out to meet the hearse on horseback and escorted him to Tehidy.
On the day of the funeral, Thursday 26th February, one journalist wrote that he had lost count of the number of coaches arriving at the church after 150, each one carrying the great and the good from across Cornish society. In addition the crowds of ordinary folk were enormous, an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 people attended. It was like a public holiday. All the shops in the area were closed, even the miners took the day off.
” . . . the shops at different neighbouring towns were closed and the miners had a general holiday and the strongest manifestations of unaffected concern were evinced by the population of Illogan and the adjacent parishes for the loss of one who had by his humanity and kindness rendered himself so universally esteemed and beloved.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28th Feb 1835
Sir Francis Basset was laid to rest in the Basset family vault in Illogan churchyard which, through overgrown, can still be seen today as a raised platform with a stone sarcophagus on top.
Within days of the funeral plans were already circulating about how best to mark his passing. A public subscription was started to raise funds for some kind of memorial.
The Dunstanville Monument
Donations to the Dunstanville memorial fund quickly began to pour in. Not only did Cornwall’s most important families give money but the Royal Cornwall Gazette, which published a subscribers list, also included the names of much humbler donors. Some gave just one or two shillings. And, perhaps most notably, the miners pooled their money too, the list of benefactors includes Dolcoath miners – £100, East Wheal Crofty miners – £50, East Pool miners – £30 and Cook’s Kitchen miners – £20. The fund had hoped to raise £1500 to built a granite monument for Sir Francis Basset and by February 1836 they had raised in excess of £3800.
Despite some objections that the monument would spoil the natural majesty of Carn Brea the foundation stone was laid on 27th June 1836 with, as you might expect, much pomp and ceremony. Again thousands turned up and swarmed over Carn Brea to see the proceedings.
“The foundation stone was laid in June 1836 with great ceremony and attended by one of the largest gatherings ever witnessed in Cornwall, an estimated 30,000 persons. A gathering so vast that the hill was described as ‘a mountain of flesh . . . Tough miners in their thousands rubbed shoulders with aristocratic gentlemen, whilst beautifully dressed ladies seated themselves in an elevated position in the sunken depressions of the well known ‘sacrificial stone’ to witness the ceremony.”Micheal Tangye, Carn Brea, Truran Publications
Joseph Prior, a local builder, was awarded the contract and amazingly the work was completed three months ahead of schedule in March 1837.
Today the Dunstanville Memorial, also known as the Basset monument, stands seemingly unchanged and visible for miles around. It is a massive and yet elegant octagonal cross of dressed granite some 28m (90ft) high standing on a plinth which is 12m square and 3m high. It is only when you are standing beneath it that you really appreciate its scale.
The inscription on the side reads: THE COUNTY OF CORNWALL IN MEMORY OF LORD DUNSTANVILLE AND BASSET AD 1836.
The excess money that had been raised for the building of the memorial was placed in what became known as the ‘Dunstanville Fund’. This money was used to provide care and annuities for people who had been injured or permanently disabled while working in the mines and quarries in the Redruth/Camborne area. This support often meant that families were saved from the workhouse and were able to maintain a degree of independence and comfort for the rest of their lives.
The fund was still functioning more than 60 years after Francis Basset’s death when in 1894 money was awarded by the trustees to William Casley of Camborne who had been blinded in an explosion in Wheal Seton mine.
So in that way Francis Basset’s good works continued long after his death.
(Listen to the most excellent Bert Biscoe who remembers the “Boy Basset and his Monument” in poetry HERE)
I wanted to write about Sir Francis Basset and the Dunstanville Memorial because although the monument is such a part of everyone’s lives here in Cornwall I wasn’t really clear on what its story was or the life of the man behind it.
I also wanted to know whether the man who was still being honoured in such a visible way so long after his passing was really worthy of our remembrance nearly 200 years later.
I’ll leave the final conclusion to you.
Since this post was published two years ago I have received a number of messages regarding the content. Some people have pointed out that they have heard rumours that the miners were intimidated into donating towards the fund for the monument. That they were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t contribute. I obviously can’t say whether this is true on not.
Secondly some have expressed a certainly amount of resentment towards the Basset family. This is entirely understandable, this one family controlled this area of Cornwall for around 900 years and profited massively from the hard labour of others, there is bound to be very mixed feelings about that! However I feel that it is worth noting that, as with any family, there will be good members and there will be ‘Black Sheep’ you would rather you didn’t have to invite round at Christmas.
When I was researching this article I became aware of some serious concerns around the behaviour of the last Basset, Arthur, who seems to have been a real wrongun. He was, according to many, a drunk and a gambler who spent money at a ridiculous rate and inflicted terrible suffering on his workers to maintain his lifestyle. I can’t help but wonder if, due to the passage of time, the hatred now aimed at Francis and his monument is due to the actions of this man, Arthur, and rather than because of anything Francis did.
I am NOT a historian so perhaps someone wiser than me can unravel this . . . (25 Sept 2023)