Thursday, October 02, 2014

David Mudd - Cornwall In Uproar

As a former, but long standing Conservative MP in Cornwall, David Mudd is an unlikely author for this blog to review. Nonetheless this short book, one of a number he wrote for Bissiney Books is a useful one because it highlights several forgotten periods of revolt and rebellion in the South West of England. The accounts need to be read carefully. Despite the reports of strikes, rebellions and protests often involving hundreds or thousands of Cornish people, Mudd invariable puts the origins of the outbursts in the hands of a few "well known" troublemakers.

But there are some fascinating stories here. The story of the 1912 China-Clay strikes will be known to some labour historians. The miners in this industry, notoriously low paid and in dangerous conditions, hadn't struck previously. But (according to Mudd) under the influence of a troublemaker mass meetings voted to strike, and then reject a paltry offer of 4s (20p) a week from the mine-owners. While Mudd is frequently careful to make sure he describes the police in glowing terms, even he cannot hide the violence with which they met the pickets, who drew "their truncheons and waded into the demonstrators with gusto."

Typically, the author sums up the story of the strike negatively, though the quote from the union organiser tells a different story, "Nothing has been gained except that the membership of the Workers' Union has been increased and trade unionism is stronger in the district than ever."

Oher stories are more complicated. The tale of the battles between the Cornish fishing communities and their compatriats from East Anglia who fished on the Sabbath, known as the Newlyn Fishing Riots and the accounts of anti-Irish riots in other small villages in the 19th century are interesting in that they combine class struggle, scapegoating and the influence of the strong religious beliefs of much of the Cornish community.

Concentrating as he does on the more unusual tales, there are two chapters which at first seem to merely tell amusing stories. One, dealing with the 1932 attack on a High Anglican Church by a mob because the vicar used theatre, art and displays to tell his Christian message and another looking at riots in Newquay against the building of a luxury hotel, appear at first simply to be expressions of anger from small groups.

But they tell more complex stories, that the author doesn't seem able to (or willing) to explore in detail. The removal of stones in the wall on the Newquay headland, for instance, seems to this reader to be part of a collective response to the enclosure of a small plot of common land by business people interested in catering to well-off tourists, not the local community. A story that may well have resonance in Cornwall today. The tale of the church damaged in religious riots, is actually a more complex one about communities trying to understand and make their religion more relevant. Its much more than a simple outburst of anger.

Mudd's short book makes it absolutely clear that there is a rich tradition of struggle in Cornwall. Ordinary people fighting for the right to decent jobs, the right to worship and organise, to live as they want to. On occasion, in his desire to tell a story, Mudd downplays some events. So the Prayerbook Uprising of 1549 which involved the massacre of 1000s gets only a short retelling. And the 1497 Cornish Uprising, despite shaking the Medieval Regime to its foundations, gets no mention. Perhaps these reflect the prejudices of a Tory MP. The book is also weakened by having no over-arching history, and the episodes (frequently out of chronological order) are simply presented to the reader.

But the book, while flawed, contains much of interest and is a good starting point for a part of the country whose history often gets overlooked. The rebellions, mutinies, riots and uprisings mentioned within tell a very different story to the sleepy history tourists often get.

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