Life in the Parishes

St. Austell Bread Riots
based on the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser newspaper
18 June 1847
J. Mosman, OPC


The year was 1847, and the terrifying spectre of famine spread over the land. For two years, hunger had extended throughout Cornwall. Shortages and rising prices combined to place basic foods out of the reach of the labouring classes. The potato blight that had ravaged Ireland swept through the South West, leaving in its wake fields of withered plants, with people unable to afford alternatives to the potato for their staple diet. To make matters worse, two bad harvests had lead to a doubling of grain prices. Now there was talk of a stunning 18 shilling per quarter increase that would place bread well beyond the reach of the working man.


A widely believed rumour that local wheat was to be shipped out of the county brought angry crowds of miners from St. Austell, Roche, and Luxulyan to Wadebridge on the 14th of May. They demanded an end to the trade, and lower prices in the home market. Official reaction to the demonstration was, for the most part, restrained, as the difficulties being faced by these desperate people were fully understood. The ‘export’ rumour was forcefully denied and the mob dispersed without injury.


A violent demonstration against high prices by the massed quarrymen of Delabole occurred. Another, more violent, took place in Redruth and Pool on the 11 th of June. Yet a third display occurred at Callington, where, most alarmingly, the demonstrator’s wives took over the Butter Market, and forced the sale of produce at low prices. There was further trouble at Camelford.


Throughout the county, magistrates and town worthies recognized the dangers of the growing unrest, and plans were made accordingly. Coast Guard units from Mawgan, Forth and Padstow were placed on standby. An emergency military headquarters was established at Truro under the direction of the Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who had been given overall responsibility for keeping the peace within the county. Three hundred men of the 5th Fusiliers waited at Bodmin, reinforced by troops from Exeter, and a Squadron of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards from Trowbridge, were ready for the trouble which soon came.


It was the tin miners who made the initial move; 50 miners of Charlestown United mines left their work, and marched to a nearby mine. The men at Buckler’s also refused to work, and their self-appointed spokesmen, 28-year old Richard Kestle and 23-year old Charles Faull made the point that “bread had risen and it’s no use going back to work anymore.” From there, the miners moved on to other mines, entreating and encouraging men to join them, while sometimes threatening violence if they did not. When a delegation was sent to Polgooth, telling the men to ‘come to grass’, Captain Bell was notified. He promptly said that any man leaving work would never be employed in that mine again; not one miner left. At Wheal Beam mine, the protestors threatened to stop the engine and turn the water in upon the miners still below-level. The burgeoning groups of miners flowed on to the various clay works, and soon their numbers were swelled by masses of much-lower paid clay men.


Meanwhile, the magistrates and gentlemen of St. Austell were not waiting passively. Thomas Coode, Under Sheriff (and a resident of St. Austell all his life) and Mr. Shilson, a partner in his law firm, were able to take control of the situation, and activate a communication system with mine captains in the area to keep apprised of developments. Using the Town Hall as their headquarters, they sent word to Nicholas Kendall, of Pelyn, High Sheriff of Cornwall, alerting him to the imminent danger. They also sent for the Coast Guard unit based at Porthpean.


Luckily for them, Nicholas Kendall was already on his way to St. Austell. When he was intercepted by the messenger at St. Blazey Gate, he immediately sent for a detachment of the 5th Fusiliers waiting at Bodmin. They were loaded into four-horse omnibus vans, owned and operated by Kellow, of Tregonissey Farm, and sped quickly on their way. Meanwhile, the magistrates swore in 90 special constables chosen from a list of ‘reliable citizens’ composed weeks before. The constables were given rather formidable staffs to enable them to carry out their duties – and if not that, to give them sufficient confidence to act in a mob. Innkeepers and beer-house owners were ordered to close; most of the shops in the town were closed voluntarily. Since this was the normal Market day for the town, it filled with many women and children, intending to conduct their normal business, but who could not, which further obstructed the narrow streets. Butchers at first refused to open, but very shortly thereafter decided to hold their market as usual, after being made aware of these preparations.


Soon large bodies of men were spied on the hills outside of St. Austell. Attempts to dissuade the mobs failed. “As well to be shot as starved,” Faull said to Mr. Thriscott, owner of Candletown and Hensbarrow china clay works, who warned him of the dangers of a clash with the soldiers. Captain Bassett shortly afterward met a number of men from the Charlestown United mines, and as their Captain persuaded them to drop their staffs and clubs, saying that if they felt they must go into town, they should go peacefully.


Elias Martyn, another mine owner, fearing the mobs would attack his general store at Carthew, stopped the vans and asked that troops be dispatched there to protect his property. The soldiers had been transported from Bodmin quite rapidly, and were ready to do their duty. When the mob saw the soldiers arrayed in front of their march, many faded away. Indeed, during the ensuing trials it was held that only a few miners actually went into the town, the miners who originated the movement deciding it was better not to venture into town, leaving the china clay men to make their point.


Throughout the day, people had been drifting into town from various directions. Small bodies of miners appeared, without any attempt at mischief. Then, about 2 p.m., a large group of men entered St. Austell from the Bodmin Road. Among them was a man named Ruben Rowse of Mollinnis, who carried a “double pick hilt”. Reaching Blowing House, some of the leaders of this mob entered the cramped bake-shop of Mrs. Hannah Rowe, and demanded she give “give us some crib”. She managed to push Ruben Rowse out, but he returned and threatened to ‘scat out her brains’ if she didn’t yield to their demands. Soon they were tossing bread and cakes out to the cheering mob. They then ventured on to Seccombe’s shop, the fellow with the pick hilt marching in front, brandishing it over his head. When they reached the shop, he struck the door and broke it open. They moved on to the shop of Miss Trudgian, who gave them all the bread she had, then swept down the Western Hill, with the intention of pillaging the better-stocked Warne’s Mill. Warne’s premises, and those of John Badge, flour dealer, were forcibly entered, and, with their womenfolk hurling abuse at the tradesmen, the rioters soon forgot that their intention had been merely to lower the price of food. “We’ll have it cheaper,” the crowd called out to Badge, when he told them his price, but emboldened by their early success they were by now more intent on looting than protest.


In the meantime Lieutenant Drew and seven Coast guardsmen had arrived just after one, with a column of 55 soldiers and two officers of the 5th Fusiliers arriving shortly thereafter. Followed by a jeering rabble, they made their way directly to the Town Hall to await the orders of the magistrates. Estimates were that over two thousand people were in the town by that time, forming various shifting mobs. Thomas Coode, Under Sheriff, and Nicholas Kendall, the High Sheriff, protected by the Coast guards, intercepted the crowd near Mr. Hodge’s foundry, and addressed them. Mr. Coode, a well-known and highly respected lawyer in the community, had a quieting effect on them as he advised them to return home.. Mr. Kendall then asked the crowd to send a deputation to meet him in the National School an hour later, where they could discuss their concerns (although the newspaper pointed out there didn’t appear to be any leaders, as such.). They agreed, and Kendall then said “mind, my good fellows, don’t you keep up a row during that time.” and the men agreed to be of good behaviour. The High Sheriff then returned to the Town Hall to await the meeting.


When the High Sheriff heard the mob had attacked Pedlar’s Bake Shop in Fore Street shortly after this, he rushed to the shop with only one special constable, Edwin Stephens, by his side. Howls of derision greeted Kendall when he arrived on the scene, and all his well-intentioned attempts to settle the situation came to naught. Fortunately, troops soon arrived to back him up. He admonished the crowd “Do you call this being quiet? In the Queen’s name, I order you to disperse.” In response, the rioters brandished their sticks, hooting and jeering.. When a nearby miner named Matthew Roberts attempted to strike the High Sheriff with his staff, the Coast Guard immediately seized him, and the constable took him to the gaol. The High Sheriff adamantly refused to release the prisoner, saying he would sooner lose his right hand than set him free.


When the meeting with the deputation was held, the Sheriff explained that no one present could control the price of grain, but he would convene a meeting of ‘persons of influence’ in the parish to discuss what could be done to alleviate the suffering. The men all said they could not earn enough to buy bread for their families. He elicited the information from one man that he worked at the China Clay works, earning 10s. a week, but with over-time, he could earn 12 s. each week. He also had a child who worked at the mine, who earned 1s. a day. The Sheriff exclaimed he should be ashamed to have come there, with so good an income. China clay salaries had been increased in January; previously, the men earned 1s.6d a day; now it was 1s.8d , while the average miner earned £ 3.10s, a month, and many earned as much as £ 5. After the meeting had ended, the deputation members were seen trying to disperse the mob, but to no avail.


By late afternoon, the central crowd was gathered by the gaol, demanding release of the prisoner. The Sheriff once again remained adamant. He withdrew into the Town Hall, after saying he would soon have to read the Riot Act if the crowds did not disperse. At 5p.m., he was left with no alternative; the soldiers were paraded outside the Town Hall, and he formally read the Riot Act.. An hour later, the soldiers were ordered to load their rifles, then were brought out, whereupon the crowd fell back, leaving a gap which the Sheriff and Coast Guards used to reach and arrest the ringleaders. The special constables swept through the streets, searching for leading participants of the riot, and warning others that the Riot Act had been read. 14 people in all were arrested. Soldiers then marched through the streets, clearing them at the point of their bayonets. There was no resistance and no notable injuries. By ten that night, the town was quiet.


By eleven p.m., the magistrates had heard the evidence and bound the prisoners over for trial at the next Assizes. The prisoners were immediately loaded into Kellow's vans, and, escorted by the Sheriff's coach, were transported to Bodmin via Launceston, with nary a problem or incident, and delivered to the gaol by four a.m.




On the Monday, when the mine owners and other notables of the neighbourhood met in their promised assembly, their first resolution was to express their sympathy with the plight of the needy (although some doubted any of the rioters were truly needy, as they were all young men), and vowed to increase employment and allow them to shop where prices were lowest. Several decried the practice of having a "truck system" of paying clay workers. They also opened a fund, to which £ 250 was pledged on the first night, to aid in purchasing food stuffs for the truly needy. One gentleman warned that people earning 16s. weekly paid rates, and the poor "mustn't be raised above the ratepayers". Another gentleman assured the meeting that the riot was fomented by the women, and had it not been for their encouragement and greed, the men would never have behaved in this manner. (He had been 50 miles distant at the time of the riot.)


16 men were tried at the next Assizes in Bodmin. Six were acquitted, while the others received sentences up to 18 months. Reuben Rowse escaped to America, where he remained for four years. Upon his return, Sir Joseph Sawle wished to arrest him, but no one would identify him as being ‘the fellow with the pick-hilt’. Kestle and Faull were sentenced to two-years of hard labour, but this did not prevent Faull from later being made Captain of Buckler’s mine.


Every parish set up systems to help the needy, without resorting to the Unions, which were seen as a permanent expense. Bodmin took up a subscription, with tickets being given to donors; the tickets were then distributed to needy persons by these donors. Flour was brought in to be sold at a very low guaranteed price to all ticket holders. Locally, several landowners in St. Austell at their own expense employed out-of-work persons to reclaim wastelands, plant trees, and build roads. The clergymen and gentlemen of St. Columb Minor took up a collection, and bought 6 lbs. of bread which was distributed to the needy poor; they continued this practice weekly until the price of grain reached an affordable level.


Within the month Falmouth harbour filled with ships carrying Indian corn, which news caused the price of grain to drop dramatically.


Further note: in today’s U. S. dollar, the equivalent salaries would be $507 to $595 monthly for miners, and $338 monthly for china clay workers. (that’s the AVERAGE salary) Children earned $8.45 daily. (Based on one pound in 1850 being equal to $169.00 today.)


The Truck System (or Tommy shop/system) of payment to miners - whether coal, iron, or "the working or getting of stone, slate, or clay..."[1] was made illegal by the Truck Act of 1831. Before then, mine owners such as Elias Martyn could pay in script or by tokens which were only usable at their stores or shops. Of course, prices were higher than the normal amounts charged in St. Austell. Accounts were kept by the shopkeepers, as miners and their families did not receive change as such for any purchase; if questions arose regarding purchases or payment, the worker was asked to prove where the mistake occurred. Most, having little or no education, could not do so, especially since receipts were not given. If they protested too much, they were fired.

Evidently, some mine owner or owners were still using the truck system in 1847, since it was specifically mentioned by the rector and the Board Chairman of the Poor Law Union as a contributory cause for the riots.

The book mentioned below states "It is questionable whether a labourer, who is employed to make a cutting on a railway, and who for that purpose removes clay which is used for making bricks, is employed 'in or about the working or getting of clay,' within the Truck Act, 1831." [pg 733]

One Cornish railway worker, who worked constructing tunnels and bypasses, filed suit in 1851, as he couldn't buy medicine for his ill child - the designated store didn't carry it, and wouldn't give him cash with which to buy it in St. Austell; the baby died. They then wouldn't allow him 1d. to buy a stamp, to let his family in Devon know what had happened, as the store itself did not sell postage. His employer allowed as how his evidence was true, but added they gave him 5s. to bury the child, and half a day off. He lost, as it was held that he had agreed to the terms of employment when he accepted the job, and one of the terms was being paid in script!

Transcription of the Trial of the Rioters

[1] "The Law of mines, quarries, and minerals" by Robt. Forster MacSwinney chptr xxv, pg 730

[2] "The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser"




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