Josiah Wedgwood's Visit to Cornwall 1775
It is well-known that Josiah Wedgwood was a meticulous note-taker, recording his experiments in great detail, sometimes even in coded form lest prying eyes should see them. But it was not only references to experimentation and manufacturing that Wedgwood committed to paper. His Commonplace Books are full of such oddities as how to shoe a horse and how to make sloe gin.
Something more substantive is the account of his journey into Cornwall during the early summer of 1775. This was through his interest in obtaining local clays and stone for use as raw materials in the production of his wares. As expected, the account naturally makes references to samples of rocks, stones and flints that Wedgwood either saw or collected.
But Wedgwood also took to recording other aspects of the journey. One should not, however, become over-excited as he was not a travel writer and this in not another John Leyland or Ceilia Fiennes, with idyllic prose describing the wonders he marvelled at. His descriptions are, for the most part, frustratingly brief. These include towns, villages, churches and other dwellings, from cottages and farmhouses, through to the seats of the gentry. Wedgwood did confess that ‘towns & houses are what I take the least notice in on this journey’ although he also mentions topographical features such as barrows, camps, tumuli and entrenchments, as well as the local industries he sees.
He does provide slightly more detail when recording soil types and condition of land, the quality of farming and the layout of fields with what he sees growing in them, plantations and inclosures, and the species of trees. Nevertheless, it is still possible to attempt to experience the 16-day journey with what he did commit to paper.
The journey to Cornwall was not unique. Wedgwood had undertaken several other excursions with the same objective such as the one into neighbouring Derbyshire, and a number of scenes he encountered on this journey he compared with those of Derbyshire and the Peak District.
The 300-mile journey from London to Lands End took eight days. The route took the course of the old A30 and passed through six counties – Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – or seven if you include the starting point of Middlesex. He was accompanied by Mr Turner of Lane End and Thomas Griffiths, Wedgwood’s agent, and who was to remain in Cornwall if necessary. For the leg of the journey from Plymouth to Lands End they were also accompanied by Henry Tolcher, another acquaintance of Wedgwood.
Not all the travelling was made during daylight hours. Sometimes they would journey through the night, or at least a part of it. Neither was it uncommon for them to rise early and travel a considerable distance before stopping again to take breakfast.
Wedgwood undertook the journey when there was a slump in the tin trade, which he acknowledged. It was not until reaching Killas near St Austell that he first saw miners at work having already passed a large number of mines standing idle.
The account was compiled as ‘an agreeable companion in any future journey into the same places.’ It was written after the event, from hastily scribbled notes made during the journey. Wedgwood confirms this at the beginning by saying ‘I took a few short minutes, in the chaises, of the various appearances of the country we passed through.’ The inclusion of transcripts of letters from Henry Tolcher, including one dated July 2nd, shows that the account was written at least three weeks after Wedgwood had returned home.
The party of three departed London on May 29th in two chaises (Wedgwood always used the plural when mentioning these, and stated two at Redruth). It was 17 miles before they crossed the Thames and a further 11 when Wedgwood mentioned the road parting from Farnham. Thirty miles into their journey they arrived at the village of Blackwater, which he described as having ‘two good inns, & but few other houses.’
After passing through Hartford Bridge and Hartley Row, Wedgwood admitted that ‘It is impossible to pass through these finely varied scenes, and comfortable haunts of men, without wishing to spend more time amongst them than these hurrying chaises will allow, and I often form hasty resolutions that the next time I visit such places, I will take more time to stop & indulge myself with a ramble amongst them; but the next time is like the preceding – every journey has its main object, & all others are sacrificed towards that – we must reach such a place at such an hour – and this leaves room for none of the pleasing episodes we have promised ourselves – and thus we continued to be cheated with vain & delusive promises as long as we live.’
Wedgwood noted the ‘good Inn’ at Merrel Green, although the first place he mentioned stopping at was 41 miles into the journey at Newnham, where they ‘take the view opposite the church.’ He did not describe the view itself but did mention the hop gardens and hop grounds he saw in the locality.
Continuing, the road became bordered by fields of corn before [at 55 miles] entering the largely uninhabited Downs, which Wedgwood referred to as ‘sheep land’, although confessed that the view was ‘enchanting.’ At Sainfoin he witnessed ‘making hay with a very full crop’, before reaching Salisbury after completing 82 miles on the first day. They slept that night at Salisbury and it is frustrating that he gives not even the briefest description of his accommodation.
The following morning [May 30th] they left Salisbury and had ‘a fine view of Sarum’, and travelling across the Downs saw numerous tumuli, camps and the occasional obelisk. They passed through villages, although the only one that Wedgwood thought worthy of recording was Tarnhinton with its ‘houses built of chalk mud, with a few bricks & flints – neatly thatched. The hawthorns have pink coloured blossoms.’
Arriving at the town of Blandford Wedgwood found ‘chiefly old buildings – till you come to the market place, which is tolerably smart – but the environs of the town are beautiful.’ Thirty-five miles into their journey they stopped at The Antelope in Dorchester. A couple of miles after leaving the town Wedgwood saw ‘A camp to the left, and several barrows – but the most extraordinary objects of this kind were a string of barrows for many miles, on the summit of a hill, and seen to the extremity of the horizon, with the sky only for the background.’ These were likely to have been Maiden castle and Maumbury Ring.
Six miles out of Dorchester he encountered ‘A small druid temple – a circle of stone, two of the largest are about 7ft high by 4½ broad.’ This circle was the Nine Stones of Winterbourne Abbas which stands by the side of the road. At Offwell he noted the ‘long straggling village, built of rough stone or mud, the houses thatched, not one brick wall in the village.’ A few miles further he described Honiton as ‘a pretty large town, & pleasantly situated in the midst of a beautiful country. It consists chiefly of one long street, well paved, with a small channel of clear water running through it. The church stands about half a mile out of town, on a hill, & the ascent to it on foot is so difficult that the gentry formerly went to church on horseback, or in coaches, & stables were built near the church yd. to accommodate them.’ He also noted that the manufacture of serges was begun in the town before any other in Devon, but that lace-making had now overtaken that business. It was here where the party spent the night.
The next day they he found that ‘the hedges are so high & the lanes rather narrow, that we can see little into the country.’ Seven miles before reaching Exeter he became aware of a local legend that ‘here a butter carrier was robbed & murdered, to commemorate which event a stone with an inscription (which I did not stop to read) is set up in the hedge bank.’ Before reaching the city he noted ‘we meet no carts or wagons, everything being carried on horseback…and a droll appearance the little horses make, scarcely any part of the horse being seen so that it looks like an animated stalking bundle of green vegetables…the gravel [for repairing the roads] is carried in round tubs, only with the side towards the horse a little flattened – when they come to that part of the road where they mean to discharge the load, they give a stroke to a peg, the bottom opens & the contents fall down.’
Exeter was the first place they stopped during daylight (presumably except for lunching) since leaving London. They took a walk in the upper part of the city where ‘the buildings are various, many of the houses being large, handsome & well built, and many others, the greater number in the part I saw, very indifferent. The shops in particular are very low, mean & dark. They are building a new bridge over the river, which when completed, will be a very handsome addition to the town. The cathedral is a most magnificent gothic pile; it seems much longer than most others in proportion to its height being near 300ft long, by 70 & odd broad. – I had not the opportunity of hearing the bells, nor the organ, the greatest pipe of which is said to be 15 inches in diameter. There are 16 churches within the walls of the city, & 5 meeting houses.’ He also commented on the ‘excellent fish market’ and the tenter grounds on each side of the river near the bridge used by the extensive clothing manufactory.
Leaving Exeter they went to see the pottery manufactory at Bovey Tracey, where a fireman and some other workers from North Staffordshire had previously been employed. When Wedgwood visited they were making cream-coloured ware which he considered ‘is a poor trifling concern, & conducted in a wretched slovenly manner.’
At Ashburton ‘which consists of one long continued street, the paving of which is bad, & the buildings very indifferent…are covered in slate’, he described the church as ‘a remarkably fine one, built in the manner of a cathedral, with a high tower finished with a small spire of lead.’
They arrived at Plymouth before dinner on the 1st of June. After dinner they visited a friend of Wedgwood’s – Henry Tolcher, a twice mayor and JP. ‘We paid him a visit at a cottage he has over the water, from whence he returned with us to see the marble or limestone works, the castle, the dockyards…after which we returned to the water again, & had the finest sunset scene [sic] over that beautiful spot Mount Edgecombe imaginable. We spent a joyous evening with another friend or two there, & the old gentleman agreed to accompany us into Cornwall for which we set off after breakfast.’
Now joined by Tolcher, they travelled across the Buckland Downs, witnessing houses built of mud, or cob walls. With Brent Tor visible 16 miles away they saw the first range of tin mines, and where Wedgwood confessed ‘I find it very difficult to understand the people in this part of the country’ referring to the either language, dialect or accent.
Of Sir Francis Drake’s birthplace, Tavistock, Wedgwood wrote ‘It is tolerably built, but the streets are all paved on a bad plan.’ They crossed from Devon into Cornwall and noted the ‘remarkably high bridge’ that spanned the River Tamar. They spent the night at the small market town of Kellington ‘poorly built, the houses chiefly stucco’d, a few are built of bricks or slate.’
The following day, on-route to Liskeard, Wedgwood noted that the farmers in the area were still ploughing with oxen. When they reached the market town he saw that ‘The town hall is built upon stone pillars.’ They then went to visit another friend of Wedgwood’s – Thomas Pitt – at his home Boconnoc House. Wedgwood commented on the 105ft high obelisk that Pitt had recently erected to the memory of Sir Richard Littleton. They found Pitt at home, and who ‘took us a walk before dinner, down a sweet valley, with hanging woods on each side, & a clear purling stream in the bottom. There are several miles of walks in this valley, & on the declivities of the banks, when we came to a fine old beech tree in the bottom, by the side of the brook, the roots of which were visible in various folds above the surface, Mr Pitt laid himself down & repeated those fine lines in Grey’s Eulogy – There at the foot of yonder nodding beech/that wreaths its old fantastic roots so high/His listless length at noon-tide would he stretch/and pour upon the brook that babbles by.’
After dinner they continued onto Lostwithiel, ‘beyond which is a charming country, full of fine hills & fruitful valleys, an arm of the sea running up between a chain of hills, which altogether conspire to compose one of the finest scenes a traveller can wish to pass through.’ They arrived at St Austell by evening and made enquiries into where they might obtain suitable clay and stone. This led to them visiting St Stephen’s and St Columb’s, where they slept that night.
The following day they departed for Truro where they stopped for a few hours. ‘The streets of Truro at this time seemed to be paved with tin, from the immense number of blocks which were strewed in the streets through the whole town. The sight was new & striking to us, but we soon learnt the occasion of it, being told that the Quarter Sale for tin was to be next day, & I was very glad likewise to hear that the price of tin was got up from 50 to 60 sh[illings] per cwt for I had been seriously advised by some of my friends before I left London not to trust myself amongst the miners in Cornwall, the tin trade then being so low, & they being persuaded that the use of Queen’s Ware was the cause of it, had already shown some instances of their displeasure at that manufacture. However we found them all very civil and a shill[ing] or even 6d. would command as much of their service as half a crown would do in the eastern or southern parts of this island. In one of our walks through the town we met a very numerous procession of females, all di-zened out in their best habiliments. We were much struck with such a troop of young women, marching in regular order, & enquiring into the occasion of it we were told that it was the annual meeting of two female clubs, who had associated for the same purpose that then men in this & other parts of the island do, to lay by a little bit of money whilst they are in health & can spare it, & receive it again in time of sickness. I am sorry I cannot say much in favour of the beauty of this groupe [sic] of fair sex indeed there were scarcely three faces in the two clubs that were tolerable.’
‘This is by much the handsomest town I have seen in Cornwall. There is a large market house, & a tolerable gothic church. The navigable river, & quay with various commodities upon it, gave it a good maritime appearance & the people are better dressed & more fashionable here than in any of the other towns I have seen.’
From Truro they went to Redruth. ‘We got to Redruth some time before it was dark, & having no particular object there, & being willing to push on, we determined to go to Penzance that evening, but we repented of our rashness before we got there. Being strangers we did not know that we had an arm of the sea to pass through with the chaises, & some time after it was quite dark, the open sea, as it appeared to us, presented itself right before us. When we came to the water edge, the boys who drove us said there was no other way but to go through it, that they did not know the tide would be in, nor did they know its depth now it was in, besides they said there were plunge holes made by the tide, which would take the chaise almost over head, in places where it was good sand before the tide.’
‘From this dilemma, we ordered our two chaises abreast, to call a council, & while we were debating this matter over, whether we should turn back to Redruth, or what we should do, a man came up on horseback, who said he was going to St Ives, & must cross the water, that he would go before the chaises as far as his way & ours lay together, & give us directions for the remainder of this water road, & wisely observed, that if we saw him plunge into very deep water we did not need to follow him. Upon this fortunate circumstance of meeting with a guide we determined to venture through, & followed the tract he led us, but more from the sound of his horses plunging in the water, than from any sight we had of him.’
‘At last however he stopt, & told us that we must then part unless we would go with him to St Ives, which was many miles out of our way, indeed the whole breadth of this part of the peninsula, for St Ives lies on St George’s Channel & Penzance on the English Channel. Our guide then left us, with directions to go straight on till we came to the opposite shore. We had not gone far before we discovered a vessel, I suppose a barge, right ahead of us. I did not like this appearance, as I thought it impossible for the barge and the chaise to live in the same water. I believe we all now wished heartily to be on either shore, though no one thought proper to express any fears, but suffered the boys to drive straight on as they had been directed, by which means we passed the barge, & to our great joy got safe to the opposite shore. We then made the best of our way to Penzance, but it was near 12 o’clock before we got to that place.’
The next morning, June 6th, they set off for Lands End. ‘As we approach near Lands End, the people come out of their little huts to see us, & droll figures, from their dress, & singing way of speaking, they appeared to us; & no doubt we were an equal novelty & entertainment to them. I believe most of them make their own clothes, & the little furniture they make us of, themselves. A pair of buckles on one of the old mens feet struck me very much, as I did not remember to have seen the fashion anywhere before. I desired he would let me look at them, which he cheerfully complied with. After admiring them for some time I took out a shilling & gave him his choice, either to take the buckles again or the shilling, he chose the latter, saying he could soon make himself another pair as he had made them. They are truly primitive buckles, & formed by beating out a piece of tin, then cutting them out of the flattened piece, of the shape he thought most convenient. They make very neat straw ropes here, which they tie over their thatched roofs in a sort of checker work to bind the thatch upon the roof & this they renew every year. They make these ropes with a small simple machine of wood, one of which I brought with me into Staffordshire.’
‘We loitered so much on the way that it was between 4 & 5pm before we got to the furthest point of the Lands End which terminates in large & rugged stones, upon which we clambered as far as we could with safety, to say we had been at the very farthest point, when we gazed for some time with a kind of silent awe, veneration & astonishment, at the immense expanse before us. The day was clear enough for us to have a good view of the Scilly Isles, after some time spent in this situation, so singular & new to us, we turned about, and it was with a transport of joy, that I cried. Now I set my face towards Etruria again; but we did not quit our station before we had got some of the samphire [sic], & a fine species of moss from the furthermost pike of stone we could reach to bear off with us as trophies, & witnesses of the extent of this our expedition.’
They returned to Penzance & slept at ‘a very comfortable good inn. The town in general is well built & is a pretty large market town for this part of the island.’ The following morning they began their return journey. This first part was, however, a different route from the one that had brought them into Cornwall as it was their intention to visit the soap-rock mines on the Lizard peninsula. This meant that they had to keep as near to the southern coastline as possible and they passed a long bridge leading to Ludgvan church. ‘This is a delightful little village on a hill, has a vine few of the sea & St Michael’s Mount.’ Ascending further up the hill they visited Treasso & Castle Andennis.
[They dined at Merazion, where ‘there is nothing extraordinary about the town…but the famous St Michael’s Mount…being so near [and] as the tide was out we took a walk to view this extraordinary place. Upon climbing up to the castle, or buildings on top of the hill, one cannot help observing that the building is so suited to the rock it stands upon, that one cannot scarcely tell where one ends and the other begins, & the tower of the church near the centre of the building, as well as the base of the mount makes an admirable finish for the whole pyramid: & the rough and craggy rock makes the finest contrast with the highly cultivated fields & pleasant villages which surround the whole base. The base of this rock is about a mile in circumference…We have an amazing view indeed from the top of the castle.’
Captain James, who lived there, related the story of ‘Sir John St Aubin and his boys.’ Wedgwood transcribed the sad tale of how one of the two boys was lost at sea while saving his master’s life in great detail in his account. ‘We passed from this extraordinary rock with some reluctance & journeyed on towards Helstone’ where they stayed at the inn. They departed at six the following morning and took a guide with them to The Lizard. Their intention to visit the soap-rock at Kynance Cove, 1½ miles north-west of The Lizard that was leased to the Worcester Company was thwarted, because ‘the way down to the rock was so very steep & bad, & the sea roaring at the bottom, that none of us durst venture down to it, except our guide, who run down like a goat, & after some time being out of sight returned & brought us up some of the soap-rock in his pocket handkerchief.’
They returned to Helstone through the Ruan Downs and after a late dinner departed for Redruth. There they slept and enjoyed ‘cheap & excellent entertainment.’ For supper they had ‘a small turbot & another dish of fried fish, with another dish or two, and all for about 9d. a piece.’
They left Redruth the following morning and breakfasted at Truro. They called in at the home of Lord Falmouth at Tregothnan although he was not there so they continued onto St Austell. Here they had a pre-arranged meeting with a Mr Yelland, whom the party had commissioned to seek out suitable land containing appropriate clay and stone that could either be leased or purchased. This Yelland had found on land belonging to a farmer by the name of Trethawy at St Stephen’s. Visiting the farm ‘We found his wife entirely averse to the selling of the estate, indeed she told him he should not sell it, for she said if the estate was in money he would soon drink it, but he should sell us the clay at the common price…the farmer then said he would lease us stone & clay in the estate for so many years & asked 20 guineas a year rent for them. I offered 10. He accepted it & we had Articles of Agreement drawn up accordingly, & left Thomas Griffiths there to conduct the business.’ Wedgwood, Turner and Tolcher left St Austell after dinner & slept that night at Liskeard. The following day they took Tolcher back to his home in Plymouth. Recounting Tolcher’s presence on the expedition Wedgwood paints him as being something of an 18th century Victor Meldrew. ‘The old gentleman was in general cheerful company, but not withstanding his age [mid-80s], had a good deal of spoilt child in him, for if he had not his own way in every thing, there was no peace with him either in the chaises or in the inns; and above all, his continued quarrels with the chaise boys for driving too fast or too slow, or over the wrong ground, & likewise with the waiters at every inn, & for every cause, made us often wish the old gentleman safe at home again.’
After dinning at Plymouth, Wedgwood and Turner once again had a look at Mount Edgecombe, the hospital, the island, harbour, docks and ships and left at 7.30pm. They slept at Ivy bridge but ‘were in the chaise soon after 4 o’clock’ and travelled 32 miles to Exeter before taking breakfast. From here they took the road to Bath, through the ‘tolerably built’ market town of Columbton, and Wellington ‘with a pretty good church…and has a pottery in it, it seems, but this I did not know at the time otherwise I might have paid a visit to my brethren.’ They took a ‘hasty dinner’ at Taunton and continued onto Bridgewater, Higham Hill and Tower, Weston church, Bathrup church, Morlinch church until having the Mendip Hills on the left and seeing Glastonbury Tor. Coming into Glastonbury the town ‘appears having, as it should seem, put itself under the protection of the tall majestic hill, which likewise serve as a backdrop for this picture. But the most truly magnificent scene was still reserved for our nearer approach to the town, which truly beggars all description. It was literally speaking, a heavenly one; for the clouds rose out of the sea like immense towers, battlements, rocks, and a thousand fantastic forms, to meet & hail the sun before he dipt into the Western ocean.’
‘One of them in particular, was an exact a resemblance of the Logan stone at ______ in Cornwall [probably either that at St just, or the better-known one at Treryn Dinas near to Lands End] as a painter could design; but when the last finishing was given to this truly August scene, when the fine lucid gilding was given to these airy forms, by the sun passing behind & shooting his rays through them, it was beautiful & sublime beyond conception. We enjoyed this scene to the last moment; after which he changed horses at Glastonbury & drove on in the dusk & dark of the evening to Wells.’
Unfortunately they arrived too late at Wells to be able to see inside many of the buildings. However, ‘the Bishops Palace & cathedral gave us lively ideas of the riches, power & dignity of the clergy in the time when these August buildings were raised.’ They left Wells the following morning passing through the Mendip Forest and entering sheep country before arriving at Chellcompton. The notes made on this part of the return journey were shorter, descriptions briefer, for passing near to Wokey Hole Wedgwood declared ‘We had been too long from home to think of stopping anywhere merely to indulge ourselves in seeing any sight, however strange or wonderful.’
They passed through Duncarton to Bath where they made only a short stop before continuing on to Gloucester, through Lansdown, Sedbury and Hampton. Wedgwood’s final entry was ‘A fine view of the Severn, with the Welch Hills beyond it. The top of Froster Hill from which we have a very extensive view, almost a birds eye view of Gloucestershire, bounded by, & finely contrasted with the Welch Hills.’
Here Wedgwood abandons the account. It is unlikely that he would have had sufficient knowledge of the topography between Gloucester and Staffordshire to take everything for granted and must have seen things of interest. Nevertheless Wedgwood’s account of his journey does provide a fascinating glimpse of the man as an observer of natural history, architecture, and landscape.