Thursday Thought: Our Gang and Other Warfare

I am currently giving my lecture series “CORNWALL: History, Mystery, Mansions, Mines and Modernity” to OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Cincinnati).

They are fascinated with what it was like growing up in England during the Blitz in World War II. You can read my “Memoirs While Memory Lasts”  of a little boy in Cornwall getting through this troublesome time here. My story is titled “Our Gang and Other Warfare”.  Read more here.

Barrage Balloons

Barrage Balloons


Thursday Thought: Nadelik Lowen Ha Bledhen Nowyth Da!

“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” Now that is a very useful phrase, if not in everyday life at least at this festive time of year.
I had fun describing Christmas traditions in The Miner & the Viscount, and the insatiable curiosity of the miner’s young son Jemmy.
“Why do us put ‘olly in the ‘ouse at Christmastide, Mum?”
“Us be rememberin’ the birth of the baby Jesus,” explained Lizzie, “an’ people saythe red berries be ‘is drops of blood when ‘e were crucified.”
“But why do us put up stuff loike the crucifixion on ‘is birthday?” Jemmy asked.”Don’t make sense. Wouldn’t put a coffin on my birthday table.”
“That’s just what people say,” said Lizzie.
“What people?” pressed Jemmy.
“Well, I ‘spect it says so in the Bible,” Lizzie tried.
“Where in the Bible?” Jemmy persisted.
“You’ll ‘ave to ask Reverend Perry when you see ‘im down chapel; he’ll know for sure,” parried Lizzie.
Read more of Chapter 37 here.

Thursday Thought: Rebellion & Reform

This week I attended an excellent lecture at the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute of the University of Cincinnati. It was about The New Jersey Campaign in the Revolutionary War when, after many setbacks, General George Washington defeated the British army sent to bring the colonials to heel. It was presented in fascinating detail by my friend Steve Appel, an enthusiastic student of American history.

General Charles Cornwallis

General Charles Cornwallis

I was interested. I am working on the sequel to my historical novel The Miner & the Viscount. The working title is Rebellion & Reform. It is set in my native Cornwall at the time of the ministry of the great William Pitt the Younger, whose family’s country seat was at Boconnoc in Cornwall.

The first part of the title refers to the rebellion of the American Colonies against George III and his British government. The second part refers to the early efforts to reform the corrupt British electoral system of “rotten boroughs”, where seats in parliament were owned by landowners who controlled the few voters – including my protagonist Edward Eliot of St. Germans. Little remote Cornwall had 44 Members of Parliament – about the same as all of Scotland!

One of the delights of doing my research is coming across connections. Charles Cornwallis was one of the abler English generals. He was an aristocrat. He was the first Marquess Cornwallis and became the 2nd Earl of Cornwallis when his father died. He is remembered by American historians mainly for his inglorious defeat at Yorktown, although in fairness he was hampered by poor management from his superiors. Prior to that he had voted in the House of Lords against the Stamp Act in sympathy for the American colonists.

However, defeat did not end his career. Lord Cornwallis went on to fill important government posts, including serving as Governor-General of India, where he initiated important reforms; Master of the Ordnance in England; Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he facilitated the Act of Union; and negotiator of the peace with Napoleon.

Cornwallis house St. Germans

Cornwallis house
St. Germans

The connection to Cornwall? William Eliot, Member of Parliament for my hometown Liskeard and the 2nd Earl of St. Germans, married Cornwallis’ granddaughter Jemima. She became the Countess of St. Germans.

Cornwallis inscription in St. Germans

Cornwallis inscription in St. Germans

There is a Cornwallis house in the village, with a tablet dedicated to their descendant John Granville Cornwallis, who became the 6th Earl of St. Germans. So many connections. Cannot imagine why the writers of the American constitution were convinced of the separation of powers!







Thursday Thought: The Story Behind the Story

Among the joys of writing The Miner & the Viscount was weaving in stories from my growing up in Cornwall and about bygone customs and how things were invented. During my book talks people ask where the stories came from and how I imagined my fictional characters. These are the stories behind the story.


Chapter 26 – “Christmas Goose”

I must confess that Jemmy Penwarden has a resemblance to a little boy in my family, which comprised one little boy with two big sisters. The little boy was very inquisitive. He pestered his mother with questions all day long and always saved one to ask his father when he came home from work and tucked him into bed at night. A special one was, “Dad, how long is a whale?”

In Chapter 26 the Penwarden family celebrates their first Christmas in their new home after Addis has been made captain of the Wheal Hykka mine. Lizzie decorated the house and prepared a traditional roast goose dinner with all the trimmings. I describe her baking a saffron cake. Young Jemmy is unstoppably inquisitive and distracts his mother with questions.

“Why do us put ’olly in the ’ouse at Christmastide, Mum?”

“Us be rememberin’ the birth of the baby Jesus,” explained Lizzie, “an’ people say the red berries be ’is drops of blood when ’e were crucified.”

“But why do us put up stuff loike the crucifixion on ’is birthday?” Jemmy asked, “don’t make sense. Wouldn’t put a coffin on my birthday table.”

“That’s just what people say,” said Lizzie.

“What people?” pressed Jemmy.

“Well, I ’spect it says so in the Bible,” Lizzie tried.

“Where in the Bible?” Jemmy persisted.

“You’ll ’ave to ask Reverend Perry when you see ’im down chapel; he’ll know for sure,” parried Lizzie.

When I was researching work in the tin and copper mines and the tools and methods used, I learned about the danger of blasting with loose gunpowder. It often resulted in fatal accidents. An ingenious miner invented a safer fuse, called the Rod of Quills. I tell the story as if Jemmy had discovered it. On Christmas Day, when his mother was not keeping an eye on him, Jemmy made his own toy. His father sees promise in it and later adapts it to test it successfully down the mine.

Addis had been experimenting with gunpowder, wrapping up small amounts in twists of paper, trying to work out a safe way of detonating it. Jemmy had found the almost empty tin, taken some of the quills plucked from the goose wing, cut off the tips and filled them with the powder. Then he threw them in the stove where they smoldered and sizzled and then burned with a satisfying whoosh, filling the kitchen with a dreadful smell of burning feathers. Addis to Lizzie’s surprise did not scold Jemmy for his mischief. Rather, a look came over his face that signified that he had an idea.

“That lad will be a real somebody some day,” Addis said to Lizzie, when they were out of earshot of Jemmy.

One summer when my family was on holiday at Tregrill Farm, Colin Hocking the farmer’s son and I made charcoal and ground it up, then mixed it with sulphur and saltpeter to make gunpowder. We exploded it on the old-fashioned cast iron kitchen stove with a satisfying whoosh. Not very safe!

When my wife Penny and I visited Cornwall on a research trip in 2012 we stayed at Tregrill where the milking barn had been converted into guest cottages. I’m glad to report that the stove in the farmhouse kitchen is still intact.

During my book tour of Cornwall in July with my daughter Sarah I gave a talk at The Book Shop in Liskeard, my home town. A young woman came up to me at the end with The Miner & the Viscount in her hand and asked me to autograph it. She said, “Colin Hocking is my grandfather, and my husband and I farm Tregrill.” We gave each other a big hug.

Oh, the joy of writing!




Read all Chapter 26


Thursday Thought: Cornish Connections!

Another wonderful connection that has come from my book tour of Cornwall in July! Last week there was a comment on my website from Thomas Angear. His sisters went to school with my sisters in Liskeard! They played field hockey for Cornwall on the team my sister Pat captained. I spoke on Skype today with Pat in England (she will be 93 in a few days). She showed me her copy of that issue of The Cornish Times and she remembers the Angear sisters!

Here is Thomas’ message:

“My sister in Liskeard, Susan Trundle, sent me the article in The Cornish Times (October 2, 2015) about your book and your Cornish heritage.  We have a lot in common? I was born in Looe in 1936 to a family of builders, carpenters and Dissenting Ministers originating in East Cornwall in the early 17 hundreds.

“I had one term at Liskeard Grammar School before moving to another grammar school in the Midlands with my parents. This was followed by three years in the Army as an Instructor with the Brigade of Gurkhas in Malaya and Hong Kong.  This service also required four years in the Territorial Army as an officer with the South Staffordshire Regiment. My business career encompassed six years with Lever Brothers(1963-1969),  Warner Lambert, management consulting, and finally running my own M&A business for 25 years which I sold in 2000.

“Your sister Pat may remember my Aunt (Violet Mabel Angear) and my cousin, (Mary Angear)who were contemporaries at Liskeard Grammar. I remember Mary – who married Harry Bonson, Mayor of Looe – telling me about a schoolfriend who went to Girton!! Both Violet and Mary played hockey for the school and for Cornwall.

“From one Cousin Jack to another!”


Thursday Thoughts: Characters!

My book tour in Cornwall in July brought up a lot of memories. Here is one that I have added to my  “Memoirs While Memory lasts” about some wonderful characters in my boyhood.


Liskeard Guildhall

Liskeard Guildhall

When I was a little boy my favorite aunt was Aunty Betty. On second thoughts she was one of my favorites. There were lots of aunts to choose from and they were all pretty nice and inclined to spoil small nephews. My mother was one of ten children, five boys and five girls. Like many of their generation two were spinsters, their fiancés killed in the Great War. My father had one sister, Hilda, who was very interesting but lived a long way away in Wadebridge where my father was born. You had to hire a car to drive the twenty miles. Rarely done. However, they all lived in Cornwall.

Part of the reason why Aunty Betty was a favorite was that she always gave me £5 at the beginning of every school term. That was in the days when £5 notes were bigger than £1 or 10 shilling notes and printed on one side of crisp white paper, the kind called banknote. £5 was worth so much then that whenever a note changed hands you signed your name on the back. My mother said that Aunty Betty was comfortably off and could well afford it. She had been widowed twice and both of her husbands left her quite a bit of money.

She had a stepson with one of them, Uncle Rodgy. He was a retired tea planter from India, a bachelor, and lived in rooms with Mrs. May at the end of Manley Terrace. He had a gimpy leg and walked with a cane but went down every day to The Stag just before lunch. My mother said he drank. He was a dry old stick and used to tell me stories with a raspy smoke rough voice. He gave me some serious advice. “Don’t marry for money, my son, but be near where ’tis.”

However, Aunty Betty was a tough old bird and she made her feelings known, especially when I slipped into the habit of only seeing her three times a year, once at the beginning of every term. She was used to being frank with her opinions. She had retired as matron of the Bristol Royal Infirmary and she was not persnickety about dealing with little boys who needed to pee and poop. Apparently she had terrified the young nurse probationers at the hospital. She was still in charge when my big sister Pat went there to qualify as a physiotherapist. Pat admired her. The war was still on and during the blackout Aunty Betty used to walk her home at night through the rougher city streets, protecting her from the young servicemen keeping themselves cheerful with too much beer.

Before we moved, we used to live next to Aunty Betty. My Uncle Dick built our houses. My father thought Aunty Betty was bossy, although he usually kept that to himself. The nice thing about her house was that it had concrete paths. These were much better for my little red pedal car than our gravel paths, so I spent a lot of time there. She lived alone upstairs and rented the ground floor to a retired farmer and his wife. When I visited her she would give me a Jacob’s Cream Cracker with butter, scraped thin because it was rationed.

I especially enjoyed sitting at her front window looking out and waiting for Ernie Penna to arrive. Poor old Ernie didn’t have very good jobs because he wasn’t right in the head and couldn’t speak clearly. He was a well known local character. Every day he would walk down to the railway station to pick up the evening newspapers from Plymouth and come back up Station Road with them in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He also carried a long pole and lit the gas lamps along the street as he went. Ernie would call out, “Eeran Errol”. If you were in the know, you knew that was Evening Herald. Aunty Betty would give me a penny and I would run out across the street to buy her paper from Ernie.

Just a month or two after the war ended the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition government. Parliament was dissolved on June 15 and there was a general election. We were all very excited. People expected Winston Churchill and the Conservatives, the Tories, to win in gratitude for his inspiring war leadership. Our family was Liberal. My father particularly admired the great Isaac Foot who had been our M.P. before the war. Mr. Foot’s father had been a humble carpenter. Isaac educated himself and became a lawyer, a solicitor, in the nearby city of Plymouth, although he lived in Cornwall. He was a student of Oliver Cromwell, a Methodist lay preacher, and an ardent teetotaler. He became lord mayor, was elected to the House of Commons and rose to being the Secretary for India in the last Liberal government.

Isaac Foot had five sons and every morning at breakfast each son had to make a one minute speech. That practice stood them in good stead. They all went to Oxford and three became presidents of the Union, the debating society. Hugh went into the Colonial Service and triumphed as the last Governor of Cyprus. His brothers said that he loved dressing up in fancy uniforms. However, he settled the intractable Cypriot civil war between the Greeks and the Turks. His reward was a peerage and he retired as Lord Caradon, named after the Cornish tin mine near his father’s home.

Dingle Foot went into law and was elected M.P. for North Cornwall. After the death of his father, and indeed virtually the Liberal Party, Dingle joined the Labour party, became the Solicitor General and was knighted. John was the Liberal Candidate for Southeast Cornwall in the 1945 election, of which more anon, joined the family solicitor’s practice and later became Baron Foot.

Michael was Isaac’s secret favorite. He was strongly anti-fascist and a rabid socialist, taking his father’s progressive politics a big step further. As a young man he was a hard-hitting and widely read London journalist. He was elected M.P. for Devonport and became an effective and passionate orator in the House of Commons. He rose to become the parliamentary leader of the Labour Party and would have become prime minister had Labour won the election. True to his principles he refused the peerage offered him upon retirement.

The youngest son, Christopher, led a private life spent with the family firm of solicitors. His reputation is that of a delightful man, an able lawyer and of the highest integrity.

When I became president of the Oxford University Liberal Club, charged with putting together a program, I invited both Dingle and John Foot to come and speak. Both were kind enough to accept. John was even kinder and gave me a speaking tip. I had been asked to be a paper speaker at the Union and was a bit nervous about introducing the debate. John told me to soften up the critical audience with humor and gave me his father’s favorite joke. As I later stood at the dispatch box, I intoned with what I trust passed as originality, “One must not think that the Church of England is the Tory party at prayer.” Appreciative chuckles reverberated through the debating hall.

One of my proudest possessions is the cut crystal fruit bowl given me as a wedding present by Isaac Foot. These memories were in my mind when I visited Liskeard, my home town, during my book tour with my daughter Sarah in July. Then one of our daily synchronicities happened. Being from Boulder, she was tickled to see a car with Colorado license plates. That afternoon I gave a talk at the Liskeard Public Library, complete with a Cornish cream tea. The enthusiastic librarian introduced herself as Tracee Foot. She turned out to be the owner of the car.

“Foot?” I asked. Her husband proved to be Jesse Foot, grandson of Michael. They met at university in Colorado and decided to settle in Cornwall after they married. We arranged to have tea the next day, a delightful opportunity to get to know them and learn of Jesse’s political ambitions. It must run in the family.

Well, speaking of elections, my first campaign was supporting John Foot in 1945. He and his supporters had to move fast with the campaign lasting only three weeks. As a boy I was more enthusiastic than valuable but my biggest sister Pam was fantastic. When she was at Cambridge (which we Oxonians disparaged as a technical college in the fens!), like Michael Foot she strayed to the left of traditional Cornish liberalism. She had been impassioned by the Spanish Civil War when Cambridge undergraduates had fought against Franco’s fascists. For a while she thought that Karl Marx made a lot of sense.

She campaigned for John Foot all over the countryside, warming up the crowds in the towns and villages with eloquence, erudition, passion and humor. She was particularly effective in attacking the Tory candidate, Commander Douglas Marshall, R.N. He was a novice and not yet an imaginative speaker. His speech was a variation of three repeated themes delivered in a plummy accent that my sister parodied with barbed wit. “I believe in a strong navy, a strong army, and a strong air force. Furthermore, I am convinced of this country’s need for a strong air force, and a strong army as well as a strong navy. To which I would add . . .” And so forth.

I should not be too hard on him. He did get elected. Later when he came to speak to the Conservative Club at Oxford he was kind enough to invite me to dinner. I seized the opportunity to ask him for advice. “Commander Marshall, what is the secret of success as a Member of Parliament?” Without hesitation he replied, “Constitution of an ox, Richard my boy, constitution of an ox.”

On one memorable evening during the campaign Commander Marshall gave his familiar speech from the balcony of the Conservative Club at the end of Fore Street in the center of Liskeard, just below the Guildhall with its imposing clock tower. My sister Pam was part of the crowd listening below. The crowd was not spellbound by the oratory and grew restive. Among the distinguished supporters on the balcony behind the candidate Pam spotted none less than Ernie Penna, with his bag of newspapers slung over his shoulder. She also spotted an opportunity. She started a chant, “We want Ernie, we want Ernie!” The crowd picked it up. “We want Ernie, we want Ernie, we want Ernie,” drowning the speaker who simply gave up.

When a grinning Ernie stepped forward and spoke in his incomprehensible garble the crowd hooted and hollered. Commander Marshall never regained his composure or control of the crowd. The meeting broke up. John Foot’s supporters sensed victory.

Unfortunately, however, a Liberal victory was not to be. On election day on July 5 a Labour interloper had split the vote and the Conservative won. Cornwall once again ran against the national tide. The Conservatives were defeated, Labour won in a landslide and the Liberal Party was in tatters.

Aunty Betty, Uncle Rodgy, the Foots, my sisters, Douglas Marshall, Ernie Penna. What characters! What a boyhood.


© Richard Hoskin 2015


Thursday Thought: How 45 Minutes Took 5 Years

I was asked to contribute a guest blog for the prestigious Historical Novel Society. It is about how my novel came to be written.

Click here: http://awriterofhistory.com/2015/08/18/the-miner-the-viscount-by-richard-hoskin/

Although I did not realize it at the time, the birth of The Miner & The Viscount began when a professor friend asked me to contribute a Cornwall segment to his lecture series on aspects of the history and culture of Great Britain. I was recently retired and glad to embark on a new career as a lecturer, holding engrossed audiences in thrall.

“How many lectures would you like?” I asked. “Eight? Six?”

“Actually, one,” he replied, “and no more than 45 minutes including Q & A.”

Not quite what I had in mind but at least it would not take much effort, since I knew all about Cornwall having been born and bred there. I did some research to flesh out details, realising that stories from my childhood only skimmed the surface. The result was Cornwall: History, Mystery, Mansions and Mines. It proved a lot of effort for 45 minutes but at least I got them singing a rousing “Trelawney” at the end.

It seemed a pity to leave it at that. My New England wife suggested that since I loved Cornwall and enjoyed history, I should use the material to write an historical novel. She would help with editing. I was convinced. It would be a big project, imagined it would take at least a year. Moreover, I was passionate about telling the story of my Cornwall to a wider world.

The timeframe I settled on was the late 18th century. Widespread change was emerging: the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the invention of the steam engine, social unrest and the rise of Methodism, popular education and the influence of women, political corruption at home and expansion of empire overseas, the beginnings of the Enlightenment.

I assembled sources. Steven Watson, my tutor at Oxford, published The Reign of George III. My brother-in-law, Dr. J.R. Ravensdale had written the volume onCornwall for the National Trust. Lewis Namier devoted an entire chapter to the machination of the 44 Cornish MPs in his breakthrough work The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. There were biographies of William Pitt the Elder (whose grandfather bought Boconnoc), the journals of John Wesley, books on mining, scores of articles to be woven into a coherent pattern. And then there was John Allen’s History of the Borough of Liskeard published in 1856 by John Philp, founder of The Cornish Times.

But above all were my personal experiences of growing up in Liskeard, living in those beautiful places, knowing those sturdily independent people, absorbing their legends and their story. This is what got my imagination surging.

Following expert advice, I planned to begin with an outline. I decided to build my story around Cornish gentry in great houses and miners and farm labourers in tiny cottages. I picked famous historical figures to mingle with my fictitious characters. I thought up a title, The Miner & the Viscount. I picked a start date, 1760. I typed the title and “Outline” on a fresh document. Then I got stuck.

The only outline I ever created was one summarising what I had already written, to keep things straight. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my good man.” “But my lord, you already had me flogged in Chapter Six.”

I just started writing drafts. Fortunately, as I got into it the characters magically took over. Their loves, their hates, partnerships, rivalries, joys, sufferings, doings: their story became my story. I would finish a chapter and stare at my computer. What ever would happen next? And Willy Bunt would come into my mind. “Us just ’as to get on with it, zir, Oi’ll tell ’e what Oi’d do if Oi were ye.”

Location Research

Location Research

After three years and six rewrites I had a finished manuscript. A research trip to Cornwall would enable me to fill in a few details, add a little local colour. We visited Liskeard, Port Eliot, Boconnoc, Lanhydrock, Bodmin Moor, the tin and copper mines down west, absorbed the countryside, heard more stories about the people who lived there in the 18th century. We met Maureen Fuller, Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh and she agreed to translate some dialogue into the ancient Cornish language, adding so much authenticity.

Back in Kentucky an experienced member of my writers’ group offered to burnish the final version, a little tweak here and there. After three more rewrites, 25,000 more words, and two more years we sent the manuscript to the publisher.

The story of Cornwall was finally mine to tell. Well, perhaps with a little help from Willy Bunt.


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: Megaliths

Cornwall is rich in neolithic monuments. The famous Cheesewring is near the village of Minions, which was once a tin and copper miming center. The village is some 3 miles from Liskeard, my birthplace.

How was this extraordinary structure created? Was it an example of the engineering feats of our ingenious Celtic ancestors? There is a simpler explanation. The Cheesewring was formed when the saints and the giants were both inhabiting Cornwall. The giants had lived there longer and were annoyed by the saints moving in and ‘taking over’; putting more stone crosses up, making wells holy and taking too many tithes (taxes) from the harvest.

One day St. Tue heard the giants discussing the best way of ridding the county of the saints so he decided to challenge the leader (Uther) to a trial of strength. This took the form of a rock throwing contest and if the saints won then the giants would have to renounce their wicked ways; but if the saints lost then they would have to leave Cornwall, never to return. Uther was a champion rock thrower whose specialty was balancing larger rocks on top of smaller ones, and St. Tue was very small so in theory there should have been no doubt about the result.

After gathering twelve flat rocks of varying sizes Uther took first throw. The rock landed about 100 feet away towards Stowe’s Hill. St. Tue picked up a rock, looked to the skies and suddenly the rock felt as light as a feather in his hand. He cast it toward the first thrown rock and it landed neatly on top. So they continued until there was only one rock left and it was St. Tue to throw. This too landed perfectly on the pile and, not wanting to admit defeat, Uther suggested that they throw ‘one more for luck’.

He picked up a huge stone and using all his strength threw it. It fell short of the pile, rolled back down the hill and landed at the saint’s feet. As the saint prayed for holy intervention an angel, visible only to him, appeared and carried the stone to the pile. Placing it neatly on the top the angel then vanished and the saints had won.

Uther promised to mend his ways and so did most of the other giants, although some went into the hills muttering about revenge.