Thursday Thoughts: Liskeard, my hometown!

So looking forward to visiting my native Cornwall with my daughter Sarah in July on a book tour with my historical novel The Miner & the Viscount. I was born and brought up in Liskeard so it will be a special treat to give a talk in the Liskeard Book Shop.

Liskeard Book Shop

Liskeard Book Shop

The shop is in Barras Street in the heart of the town. This handsome building houses the Liberal Club. My father was the president when I was a boy. I remember watching him play billiards.

I went to kindergarten at Miss Rapson’s school behind this building. Miss Rapson and Miss Wilkes were very strict but taught us to spell and add and subtract.

Liskeard was created a Royal Borough in 1240 so it had the privilege of having two Members of Parliament. And only 32 voters at the time of my story. Read how that worked in Chapter 3.


Thursday Thoughts: John Wesley

One of the most imposing and most important historical characters in The Miner & the Viscount is John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

John Wesley

John Wesley

He visited Cornwall 32 times. The horseback ride from London took 5-6 days. He often stayed at Diggory Isbell’s cottage at Trewint, near Altarnun — which is close to my birthplace at Liskeard.

One of his favorite preaching places is Gwennap Pit with its amazing natural acoustics. In his journal he writes of once preaching there to “two and thirty thousand people, the largest assembly I ever preached to.”

Chapter 68 tells of John Wesley’s first time at the Pit in 1762 when he spoke eloquently against slavery, and reminded his audience of his practical advice about money: “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.”



Thursday Thoughts: Stellar Review

Another heart warming review. This one from an old school friend with high standards of writing, and indeed scholarship:

“I’ve spent most of the last few days reading ‘The Miner and the Viscount’, here in Normandy looking out on the sea and across to Jersey.

“It is a splendid read.  A tour de force.  I can only guess at the hours of writing.

“The  Piran story starts it off with a real bang, and I found everything thereafter deeply absorbing and believable as a portrait of life in that place and at that time.  I especially enjoyed the details of mining and of community festivities, your pictures of justice and authority, the class society and position of women, the difficulties of travel, and much else, convincing and informative.  And at the end, while the goodies win and the baddie gets his come-uppance, and there are prospects of huge social and economic improvements soon to come, private tragedy reminds us that for most people life was to remain a struggle, full of pain.  An absorbing read.




Thursday Thoughts: Natural Amphitheater

The foreboding opening scene of The Miner and the Viscount is set in a magnificent natural amphitheater, Gwennap Pit, just southeast of Redruth. At the time the story opens, and into the early 19th century, Gwennap parish incorporated the great Poldice mine and was dubbed the “richest square mile in the Old World”. Stannary Rolls record sales of tin back in the 14th century. The intensive felling of trees for charcoal to smelt the ore has left a stark moorland landscape. Today Gwennap forms part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.

Gwennap Pit

Gwennap Pit


Gwennap Pit may have been formed by the collapse of a working mine. Mary Fryer is from Illogan in Cornwall, and she told me she had played in the Pit as a girl. Mary is a Tangye and her family is connected to mining. Her great great grandfather Sir Richard Trevithick Tangye manufactured hydraulic pumps used to drain the mines.  He was named after the great Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick.

My wife Penny and I went to Gwennap Pit during our research visit to Cornwall in 2012. I stood at the rim opposite her some 200 feet away and we conversed in normal speaking voices.  She said, “I can hear and understand every single word you say.”

I whispered to myself, “First time in years.” She shouted back, “I heard that!”

Gwennap Pit’s acoustic properties made it a marvelous place for meetings. John Wesley visited Cornwall 32 times and preached at the Pit many times. He wrote in his Journal of preaching there to  “two and thirty thousand souls.” Read Chapter 68 for a description of one of John Wesley’s great sermons, when he charged the gentry to pay heed to those in great need.

Gwennap was owned at one time by the Williams family of Scorrier House, respected Cornish mine operators, who gave it to the Methodist Church in 1978. The famous Lt. Col. J.H. Williams was a descendant who was born in St. Just. He served in World War II with the British Fourteenth Army in what was then known as Burma. He was skilled in training elephants and played a major logistical role in the campaign.  After the war he joined a teak company. I remember when I was a boy at Clifton reading his wonderful book “Elephant Bill” about his experiences.

Researching an historical novel turns up so many connections!



Thursday Thoughts: China Clay

Charleston Harbour, Cornwall

Charlestown Harbour, Cornwall

This is Charlestown Harbour, near St Austell in Cornwall. It was planned by the great engineer John Smeaton, who also designed the Eddystone Lighthouse. Readers of The Miner & the Viscount met him as the innovator of improvements in steam engines and water wheels for the hard rock mines.

Smeaton was helped by William Cookworthy, a Quaker and a pharmacist, who developed hydraulic lime, an essential ingredient in building the lighthouse.

The port was built to export copper from the nearby mines of Crinnis Hill, South Polmear and United Mines, Holmbush. However, it later became an important port for the export of China Clay.

William Cookworthy again played an important part. He developed a process for making china clay and built a factory to produce porcelain. One of his early backers was Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc (later the first Baron Camelford). It was on his land that deposits of saponaceous clay were found.

When I visited Boconnoc for research on my book, the present owner, Anthony Fortescue (whose family married into the Pitts), told me he had managed the family’s china clay pit when he was a young man.

Thanks to www.facebook.com/KernowPhotos for this photo and some of these notes.


Thursday Thoughts: Mystery unveiled at Lanhydrock

AN ANCIENT book has been discovered at Lanhydrock that helped Henry VIII to build his case against the Pope and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, first of his six wives.

We can connect threads here. As readers of The Miner & the Viscount know, Lanhydrock is the great house that is the home of my fictitious villains, the Trenances. Like Lanhydrock House and churchmany Cornish estates, there is a church right by the house. Why? Because it was originally a priory. When Henry VIII brought about the Dissolution of the Monasteries (the greatest real estate scam in history) many priories plundered from the church were sold to wealthy laymen.

The book (dated 1495) is a summary of works by philosopher and theologian William of Ockham who was a major figure in medieval intellectual and political thought. Its contents help explain the persuasiveness of the arguments Henry VIII’s advisers made against the Pope.

The book has been at Lanhydrock for many years, but what has just been discovered is its direct connection to the royal library at Westminster Palace. There is an inventory number inside which corresponds to the inventory prepared in 1542 for Henry VIII’s chief library.

To help  gather evidence to support an annulment to Henry VIII’s his marriage, his agents scoured the country for texts such as Ockham’s which questioned the authority of the Pope and argued for the independence of the monarch. The volume at Lanhydrock contains marginal notes and marks which were made by Henry VIII’s secretarial staff to draw his attention to relevant passages.

So was the Reformation at its root motivated to sweep corruption from the Roman Catholic Church? Or was it Henry’s cover story for schemes truly driven by sex and money? We know he wanted to get rid of his Spanish queen so that he could marry the lusty Anne Boleyn. He also created the opportunity to seize the property of the Church of Rome.

With Paul Holden at Lanhydrock in the Long Gallery

Richard Hoskin with Paul Holden at Lanhydrock in the Long Gallery

Lanhydrock is now in the National Trust. Paul Holden, house and collections manager, said: “To have such an interesting book in the collection is fascinating in itself but to find out that it was once owned by Henry VIII, and played a part in a pivotal moment in British history, is very exciting.

“It’s thrilling to discover that the book at Lanhydrock is from the Royal library. The book is important not only for its provenance but for the notes entered in it by Henry VIII’s advisers and no doubt intended for him to see. They draw attention to precisely the sort of issues that were so relevant to the King’s policies in the years leading up to the break with Rome.”

On a personal note, I owe much to Paul for the expert information he provided me about Lanhydrock and the Robartes family. He added much to the richness of my book.


Eclipse the Eclipse?

Here’s a new poem from Bert Biscoe, Cornish poet, songwriter, mover, shaker and getter of things done. Bert wrote it at the end of the day which had been heralded as one when we would experience a partial eclipse of the sun. Bert reports: “In Truro it was a bit of a damp squib; the light adopted a slightly steely quality, as if it was about to rain, and the gulls were stirred to great anxiety overhead. Many shops closed and staff stood around in the street. Then we all trooped off to our meetings and our counters and our commerce.”
     By way of background, Bert adds: “Passmore Edwards was a Victorian philanthropist who made a couple of fortunes and built libraries, convalescent homes and schools – many of which still stand and are much used throughout Cornwall today.”
     I remember as a boy spending hours in the Passmore Edwards Library in Liskeard, borrowing the adventure yarns of G.A. Henty, the “Biggles” stories by Captain W.E. Johns about the heroic air ace, and the Leslie Charteris tales of The Saint, dashing adventurer and doer of good. Art Snell was the librarian, and he told me that the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was often borrowed but the next 5 volumes stayed on their shelf.
     Edward Gibbon was Member of Parliament for Liskeard from 1774-80. This was thanks to Edward Eliot (the main character in The Miner & the Viscount) whose wife Catherine was Gibbon’s cousin.
     Here is Bert Biscoe’s poem:


A break in the monotonous day

From Eclipse Street we step through philanthropic doors

Flanked by grandly composed declarations in marble

Of generosities – we talk and think thanks under-tongue,

Inward, least spoken gratitudes, slight quips of breath,

Marked for Octavius and Passmore –

Such men may never grace the Lodge again!


Engineers wrought plastic art to break the great wall

Between Library and Education, Dream and Occupation,

And we stride past catalogued shelves,

Through carousels of earnest commendation –

A civilian copse of titles chanted –

Light from flourished stairwell glass defies eclipse

And austerity dries the lips of book-worn maids

Outcast by despots of digital modernisation –

I stand-to and seek a face, recognition,

A faded eye, one who,

From some distant exchange long-passed,

Mouths ‘Hello!’ over supervisory epaulette –

We each blink a question, resign

Response, accountants cluck, indicators

Flicker, Time consumes librarian-prey,

And marks threaten a second already

Blemished sheet ‘Upstairs!’ I turn away!


The stairs pass borough arms stained by donor’s will,

Each Cornish town’s tale etched in mystic creature

And Herald’s bridges, castles, harbours, fields –

At halfway first-floor-landing Cornish light illumines

Cornish cities set in Victorian glass, they flood ‘Old School –

Trurra Tech!’ and its young artisans’ technical minds –

Masterly voices echo times’-table and foreign verbs

Decline in shadow – outside, disappointment grasps eclipse,

Imperious spires disperse suited toe-capped officials

And coffee-chatty-patent-heeled shop assistants.


Still the fear of established church,

The faithless might again

Erect druidic stones and clasp

The star’s satanic hand and dance – but……

These boroughs’ stamps impress our cards,

A photographic light of pinhole failure

Brightens, order shrouds we sheep, our fold –

The town returns to cold stairs climbed,

Colleagues gather in the Medium Room:

We begin our essential discourse of process –

Lights in salaried hearts flicker, hangovers

Wash over brown memories between trees

Through tumbled inner woods, talk turns

To technicalities, we trade our bargained time.



Thursday Thoughts: Book Club

How stimulating it is to have an in depth conversation with enthusiastic readers!

I recently shared this pleasure with The Rosebuds, a long established group of widely read women who got together to discuss The Miner & the Viscount.

The Rosebuds take it in turns each month to choose the book they all read and to share dinner. Mary Beth Heil was our hostess and she put on a tasty spread complete with cottage pie and hard cider. So appropriate for a conversation about Cornwall!

And a lively conversation it was. Where did you get the idea for the story? Where did the fictitious characters come from? Were you or your family part of the characters? Were politics really like that? Sounds worse than today. We followed the map in the book, the places sound beautiful. What do they actually look like? What was it like growing up in Cornwall? What parts of the story were true and what parts did you make up? Did the story of the great diamond actually happen?

Gourmets that they were, they wanted a recipe for a Cornish pasty. They pronounced it “paysty”. I said “pahsty” is the proper way. “Paystyies” take practice: they’re what you twirl in opposite directions.

They so enjoyed meeting with the author and getting insights into the process of writing a big book. As Mary Beth wrote, “Richard, It was so wonderful for you to come to our book club.  Everyone enjoyed hearing the ‘story behind the story’ and how personal the book is to your life.  Thanks again and I will pass on the info right now to all the members.  We will spread the word.”

Let me know if you would like me to talk to your book club. I would enjoy it; such fun. I hope you would too.






Thursday Thoughts: Cornwall’s Trade with South Wales

Cornish Story www.cornishstory.com is the outreach program of the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter in southwestern Britain. It explores the story of Cornwall and the Cornish overseas in the past and present. They are developing a research project on the historic maritime connections between Cornwall and South Wales. This will be interesting to follow. Coal from south Wales plays an important part in my story. It fuels the new-fangled steam engines in the mines. In Chapter 52 the great inventor John Smeaton drives with the mine captain’s son, Jemmy, to get spare parts for the engine. By the way, Smeaton designed and built the lighthouse on the hazardous Eddystone reef off the southeast coast of Cornwall.

As they drove along the crooked track towards St. Just, they came across a large number of heavily laden mules in a train traveling towards them. They were carrying panniers strapped to their backs. The drovers gave them a cheerful wave.
“Look at all them mules, scores of them. What are they carrying?” asked Jemmy
“Mining coals,” said Smeaton. “Won’t be long before we get more steam engines installed, and there’ll be hundreds of them bringing coal from the Cornish ports, shipped by sea from south Wales. I’ve designed and built all kinds of contraptions for t’ coal mines, far away as Yorkshire. Coal’s being used more and more. Lot of money being made from coal. Dirty stuff to handle; still, where there’s muck there’s brass. That’s what we say in Yorkshire.”
Jemmy had to listen carefully when Mr. Smeaton spoke. He was quite difficult to understand, not like the Cornish. It must be because he was a furriner, from way up north in Yorkshire. Jemmy noticed that when Mr. Smeaton said brass it sounded clipped, short, not like his dad who said brass with a long a, took more time over it. Odd, and instead of saying “the,” Mr. Smeaton said “t”, but Jemmy was too polite to say anything.
“I wish I could be an inventor like you, Mr. Smeaton,” said Jemmy wistfully. “Must be very in’erestin’, thinkin’ up new things, tryin’ things out, and seein’ the world.”
Mule train

Mule train


Thomas Newcomen

I am pleased to welcome a guest blogger, Susan W. Howard, now of San Jose, CA., and a descendant of the illustrious Hornblower family of Cornwall. This link will take you to the biography of Joseph Hornblower  http://penwood.famroots.org/joseph_hornblower.htm

Susan gave a talk about her researches at the Cornish Gathering in Milwaukee. She has written this brief portrait of Thomas Newcomen, who is credited with being the inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, which would “do the work of five horses.” One was built at the Wheal Vor mine as early as 1710 and by the time my story opens in 1760 as many as 70 were at work in Cornwall. The engine worked by injecting cold water into the steam cylinder to create a vacuum. The later designs of the Scotsman James Watt and the great Cornishman Richard Trevithick used the energy of expanding steam.

              The Newcomen Engine

The Newcomen Engine

Thomas Newcomen, inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, was a modest and devoutly religious man who left behind few records of his life. Some eighteenth century scientists such as Royal Society member John Desaguliers had difficulty in giving Newcomen credit for his invention. Desaguliers wrote that the engine that began pumping water from the mines at Coneygree colliery near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712 came about “very luckily by accident.” Newcomen in fact did possess the intellectual capacity and practical experience to build the engine. He relied upon his close-knit circle of fellow Baptists to supply help and needed expertise. Among them were John Calley, Humphrey Potter, and Joseph Hornblower, who built Newcomen engines in Cornwall. Newcomen may have begun building an engine at Wheal Vor in Cornwall as early as 1710; the Royal Cornwall Museum gives him credit for a machine built there in 1716.

Thomas Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1664. He became an ironmonger and while in his early twenties he visited mining regions in the West Midlands and Cornwall to sell and to manufacture metal tools and small household items. No record of an apprenticeship survives, but bills for ironmongery and purchases of bulk iron have been found. Letters written by his contemporaries do contain references to Newcomen and the steam engine. Two of Newcomen’s own letters have survived, and as far as can be discovered, no portrait of him was made. Apparently he began experimenting with steam engines in the mid-1690s. The extent that the ideas of other inventors or scientists influenced his work is a matter of conjecture. Inventor Thomas Savery had already been granted a patent for a “fire engine,” so Newcomen joined in a partnership with him to build an engine suitable for pumping water from the mines. Eventually more than 2,000 atmospheric steam engines were built. Newcomen was also a lay preacher, a trustee of the Netherton Baptist chapel (near Dudley) and an Overseer of the Poor. After his death in 1729 at the London home of fellow Baptist Edward Wallin, Newcomen was buried in Bunhill Fields, a nonconformist cemetery in London; the location of his gravesite, like so many of the details of his life, remains unknown.

Note: Desaguliers quote from L.T.C. Rolt and J. S. Allen, The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen, (Landmark Publishing, Ashbourne, Derbershire, 1997) 46.