Truro sits in the heart of Cornwall – our only city and our most populous area. These days it is home to Cornwall’s cathedral and a multitude of shops as well as a theatre and the Royal Cornwall Museum. But what lies beneath the buildings and carparks and what lurks in quiet side-streets, forgotten by today’s busy shoppers, is truly fascinating. These forgotten places create, for those who are interested, a completely new and surprising picture of this little city and its past.
The earliest recorded form of the name Truro is Triueru in 1195 and then Triwereu or Treveru in around 1201. There is some debate over the meaning of the name, although it is agreed that the first element come from try meaning ‘three’, the second element is uncertain. Some say that it derives from the Cornish for ‘three rivers’, in reference to the streams that flow into or past the city – the Allen, the Kenwyn and the third is up from debate – the River Tinney or the Fal perhaps. However, Borlase and others thought that the word’s origins referred to three streets or even Tre Vur – the town on the Roman road.
The city we see today rose up from just a huddle of a few houses on a marshy river bank. In 1140 Richard de Luci was granted the Manor of Kenwyn as reward for his support of King Stephen during the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda. The manor was situated on the low ground beside the tidal creek and at first the village of Truro competed with the older settlement of Newham for river trade. This picture changed forever however in around 1300 when Truro became a coinage town. From then on and for hundreds of years after it was a place where Cornwall’s most valuable commodity tin would be brought to be assayed. Such were the quantities moving through the town that in 1824 F. W. L. Stockdale even described ingots just lying about in piles in the streets:
“The blocks of tin lie in heaps in the streets, and are left unguarded, their weight rendering the difficulty to remove them so great that it is never attempted.”
Truro’s new status coupled with a weekly market and flourishing maritime trade meant that its size and fortunes grew throughout the Medieval period. By the time that Norden visited in 1584 he noted that the town was pretty and compact with many wealthy merchants and neat buildings.
The continued prosperity which followed in the 18th and 19th centuries made the town a centre of Cornish commerce and new streets of elegant houses such as Lemon Street and Walsingham Place appeared, as did theatres, libraries and museums. Truro became a city in 1877 after the construction of the cathedral.
But during those nine hundreds of years of history and expansion, trampled beneath the unrelenting pace of change, some pieces of Truro’s past have been lost entirely. Buried and forgotten beneath layers of brick and tarmac.
It is time to rediscover a few.
The Friary of St Dominic
Looking at a map of the present city it is possible to pick out a small triangle of land bordered by Little Castle Street, Kenwyn Street, St Dominic Street and Francis Street. Now covered with shops, homes and gardens this plot of land has a history that takes us right back to the very beginnings of the settlement of Truro.
It was here in c1259 that a Dominican Friary was established on rough ground that was then on the outskirts of the small town. In fact, though hard to image today, at that time the River Kenwyn, which acted as one boundary of the new friary’s land, was still tidal up to this point. This meant that the ground here was marshy and the banks of the river ill-defined but the determined friars built their compound on a piece of reclaimed ground.
The original building is thought to have stood close to the road now known as Little Castle Street, with a gateway opening onto Kenwyn Street. It was considered a favourite place to stay for wealthy travellers and visiting clerics passing through the town and as a consequence the Order’s wealth grew. The buildings were extended, especially during the 14th and 15th centuries, and at one time the complex included its own church, cemetery, chapter house, culver house (dovecote) and well. The friary was supported largely by donations and even the Black Prince, Edward Duke of Cornwall, is said to have given the friars oaks from Restormel and stone from Pentewan for their building work.
During the construction of River Street and Francis Street in the 19th century some structural remains thought to belong to the old friary were uncovered, as well as large quantities of oyster shell. Presumably the shellfish constituted a large part of the friars’ diet.
In 1462, when the friary was given an endowment by Ralph Reskymer, it is thought to have been home to as many as twenty brothers but by the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 there were no more than ten. Sections of the buildings and the friary well were recorded as still standing in around 1700. But later that century the site had become an area of empty waste ground known as ‘Friary Meads’ and was at one time used as a tanning yard. Today the old well that once stood within the precincts is rumoured to be in the back garden of one of the houses on Francis Street, though no one is sure where. In fact, in all honesty, this once well-known and probably rather impressive complex of buildings has completely disappeared and few are aware that it even existed.
The Vanished Castle & Cemetery
Another once substantial building now entirely lost to us is Truro’s Castle. From the 13th century onwards this small fortress stood overlooking the growing town, the friary and its people for more than two hundred years before vanishing without a trace. In another variation of the meaning of the name Truro the old guidebook Murray’s Handbook For Devon and Cornwall (1859) suggests that it is actually a corruption of the Cornish Tre-ru meaning ‘castle on the water’.
It has been suggested that there was a fort on this site during the Iron Age but Truro’s castle, as we know of it, was built sometime before c1270, most probably by Richard De Luci or his descendants. There may also have been an earlier structure here, built after the conquest by someone called Hamelin, Lord of the Manor of Trehaverne and it is possible that De Luci enlarged this older fort. The medieval castle supposedly had a diameter of 75ft (23m) and walls of local slate that were three feet thick. Truro castle was of classic circular construction built on a high mound and Murray’s claims that it would have resembled Launceston’s castle:
“the scarped mound where it stood may be seen to this day on the high ground at the top of Pydar street, to the left. It is crowned by a modern circular wall, surrounding a circular terrace, arrangements which render it probable that this castle resembled Launceston in plan.”
The true history of Truro castle has been mostly lost but it is thought to have once been the home of the Earl of Cornwall, though it is not clear exactly which one or when. Whoever the occupant was however he had secured himself a Lordship over a thriving waterside community. But before long, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the castle fell out of use. As early as c1270 it was in serious disrepair and when John Leland travelled through Cornwall in the 1530s the castle at Truro was already in ruin. Leland wrote that it was ‘clere down’ and that the site was being used for ‘a shooting and playing place’. In the 1790s Whitaker wrote that the only remains of the castle were the name and an area of waste ground. He also wrote that the last remnants of a keep were ‘daily vanishing by application of it to other purposes’, presumably the stonework was being taken away to be reused in others buildings.
The site of the castle, even after its ruin, was always known as Castle Hill and it was here at the Castle Hill crossroads that a small medieval cemetery could once be found. This particular cemetery, however, was sadly an area of un-consecrated ground which was used to bury those who had taken their own lives. One unfortunate man is actually mentioned by name in a document held by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit:
“James Stephens, a teacher and celebrated local preacher, committed suicide when faced with a serious criminal charge. his body was interred in the dead of night at the crossroads on the Castle Hill, Truro.”
After years of deterioration the site of the castle was finally levelled in 1840 to make way for a cattle market. Then the market itself was demolished in 1985 and Truro Crown Court was built soon after. The only clues to the existence of Truro’s castle these days are the street names in the area. Castle Hill, Little Castle Street, Castle Rise and Barrack Lane.
The Williams’ Almshouses
At the top of Pydar Street, one of the city’s most ancient thoroughfares, and not far from where the castle and the small cemetery once stood, was the Williams’ Almhouses. This group of low buildings surrounding a central courtyard were built in 1631 at the bequest of Henry Williams. All that remains of the complex now is the foundation stones which were once part of the arched almshouses’ gateway and now lie forlorn in the gardens of a modern bungalow nearby.
Henry Williams was a woollen draper in Truro who, when he died in 1629, bequeathed a plot of land and a large sum of money in a charitable trust for the poor. As per his instructions the trust built the almshouses which were to be home to ten poor widows of the community. These women were also provided with clothes and two shillings (in later years four shillings) a week to spend as they liked. Williams also gave them a small meadow beside the house in which to keep a cow. It was a generous and entirely practical gift to the town but not everyone was happy with Williams’ thoughtfulness. His two partners in the Town Mill, George and Henry Bray, tried to have him declared insane when they discovered his plans. Unfortunately for them he had bequeathed his share of the business and therefore his share of any future profits to the Trust, little wonder they were so unhappy!
Sadly as the years passed the endowment also fell victim to serious mismanagement with considerable sums of money being diverted from the care of the inmates and spent on other non-charitable purposes in the town. In the end even the almshouses’ meadow was built on to provide a prison and workhouse.
Despite this the Williams’ Almshouses were part of Truro’s community for nearly three hundred years, providing food and shelter for hundreds of destitute women. When exactly they were demolished isn’t clear but it was sometime after 1920, as that year the board advertised for a new attendant at a wage of 17s 6d per week with room and board. The site was then used for the Carrick Council Offices, now empty themselves and soon to be redeveloped no doubt. I wonder what Henry Williams would have thought?
Lost Cock Fighting Rings
Almost unimaginable to us today, cock fighting was once a popular form of entertainment. It is thought to have been introduced to England by the Romans and was adopted as a sport across the UK, with purpose built rings in most towns. It was enjoyed by all levels of society for hundreds of years and wasn’t outlawed until the arrival of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act.
“It is only in comparatively recent years that [cock fighting] has been regarded as disreputable in Britain . . . In some of our larger towns there ae yet to be seen the old cock pits where, but a generation ago, fortunes were lost and won and where leaders of society were not ashamed to be seen gathering together for the purpose of witnessing an encounter between fiery combatants.”Cornubian & Redruth Times, 9th September 1898
Truro had at least two cock fighting rings that we know of in the 18th and 19th centuries. On Green Street, near the new bus station today, there once stood a beerhouse known as The Fighting Cocks Inn, c1789. The pub apparently took its name from a ring nearby on the quay. Incidentally, this inn was the birth place of Cornish explorer Richard Lander who was born in 1804 and changed its name to The Dolphin in 1810.
A little more is known about the Cock Pit, the town’s purpose built fighting ring. It was an octagonal building which could be found at the east end of The Leats, a networks of opes and alleyways between Pydar Street and River Street. The Cock Pit was said to be infamous for violence, gambling and riotous behaviour. In an article entitled ‘Truro, a Century Ago’ a local newspaper laid out the various entertainments that had once been available in the town:
“Cockfighting was carried on in an octagonal building – the Cock Pit – adjoining Tippet’s Backlet, badger baiting took place at the back of the Barley Sheaf Inn and a wrestling ground was laid out on Mitchell Hill.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 31st May 1900
In the 1750s the town’s curate, Samuel Walker, attempted to clear up the sordid reputation of the Cock Pit and bring an end to cockfighting in the town. The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that after his death in 1761 some of his parishioners actually began holding services in the building and bizarrely in around 1790 the Cock Pit was converted into a chapel when it was taken over by members of the Methodists Society. It fell into serious disrepair however and was eventually demolished in around 1880.
Truro’s Lazar House – a home for lepers.
A lazar house was the name given to an institution that was set up to house and care for lepers. Truro’s Lazar House was built around seven hundred years ago in c1309. At that time it was said to be home to 24 people suffering from leprosy. This terrible disease was thought to have been brought to England by crusaders returning from the Holy Wars and was often taken as a sign of uncleanliness, meaning that sufferers were often doubly ostracised.
In Cornwall in 1300 there are thought to have been seven hospitals, that is free standing institutions devoted to caring for the sick and infirm. Of these six were said to provide long term care for lepers at Bodmin, Helston, Lanlivery, Launceston, Liskeard and Tregony but there were many other places that those afflicted with the disease were housed in a less formal capacity. In 1310 Thomas Bitton, the Bishop of Exeter, made donations to twenty three places in Cornwall where lepers were being looked after, these were mainly rural locations away from centre of populations such as Roche, Argal near Budock and Freewater near Probus. One of the facilities (perhaps that’s too formal a description!) to receive the sum of 12 shillings from Bitton was ‘Truru”.
George Newman writes in his book Leprosy in the British Isles (1895) that the disease was in decline towards the end of the 13th century but that it had tended to remain fairly common in rural areas like Devon and Cornwall and according to Polwhele was still frequent in Cornwall up until the 16th century. It isn’t clear when Truro’s Lazar House finally closed and there is very little evidence that can help us to pinpoint its location either. In 1657, however, a lease was granted for an area of ground called Park Vedras. The document describes the land as being “near unto a paire of walls heretofore called The Leper’s House.” Park Vedras has been identified as being close to present day Stratton Terrace, which 700 years ago would have been well away from the main town in the valley below. Although any trace of the house or those walls has long since vanished, the plain fact of their existence adds another layer to the history of the city and its people.
Comprigney – field of the gibbet
When researching this particular part of the story I was reminded of the famous quote “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. The world of crime and punishment even just a hundred years ago was so vastly different from today that it seems unrecognisable. For example, it was once commonplace to hang the bodies of dead criminals in iron cages on roads leading into towns and villages. The site of Truro’s gibbet was at Comprigney perhaps a mile from the centre of the city.
Comprigney is a corruption of the Cornish Gweal Clogh Prennyer which translates roughly as ‘gallows field’. It isn’t clear if criminals were actually executed here but it seems likely, and then after death their bodies were left exposed to the elements and as food for birds sometimes for months. Writing in 1977 in his book about Truro H. L. Douch describes the scene, and perhaps the purpose of such a macabre sight, vividly:
“A rotten human carcase suspended there at the town’s limits would occasionally remind the ill-intentioned that he was entering a town with its own jurisdiction.”
It is hardly surprising perhaps that Comprigney has long been thought of as a haunted place. Peter Underwood in his book Ghosts of Cornwall explains that local people say that they avoided the area after dark because of ‘shadowy figures’ and the sound of ‘rattling chains’.
I grew up just a few miles from Truro and being from a farming family meant we went there most weeks when I was small for market day. Writing this however has made me realise not only how much I still have to discover about Truro but also just how much it has changed over the centuries. My research has really given me fresh insights into Cornwall’s only city and its fascinating past and I hope it has entertained you too!