The Camborne Riots of 1873 - Clive Carter, 1976


by Clive Carter

Author of Cornish Wrecks, the North Coast and The Blizzard of '91.

Although the mining of copper and tin created industrial Cornwall there was inevitably another face to success and prosperity, especially so in the county's own "Black Country," the swathe of mines, foundries and industries which embraced Camborne and Redruth. By the mid-nineteenth century the two drab and dirty towns were the "Sodom and Gomorrah" of despairing Cornish evangelicals and temperance crusaders. Crime, drunkenness and low morals were endemic and like the mill and colliery towns of the North were the direct result of decades of poverty, ignorance and gross overcrowding. These bad home conditions were responsible for a horrifying death rate, particularly among infants and children, and all the big mining parishes averaged a funeral a day throughout the year. In the mines themselves, the accident rate was very high, while the innate conservatism of miner and cap'n, and the ruinous system of management barred innovations that might have saved the industry from ultimate collapse, and more importantly, prevented a miner from becoming "old at thirty and dead at forty."

Life was consequently rough enough even in good times, and in the late 1860s Cornish mining was in dire straits. The old copper mines were failing under massive competition from the Great Lakes, and the outbreak of the American Civil War cut off the largest market for Cornish tin; mines closed, wages fell and unemployment soared. Scores of Camborne miners promptly emigrated to the States, the Cape or Australia and others went to the Northern collieries or enlisted as "Blacklegs" in the bitter labour disputes raging in the Scots and Yorkshire coal pits. Many miners lacked the resources to take their families, or to send for them later, and they remained behind in near destitution, poised between starvation and the workhouse.

To worsen everyone's lot the 'sixties were notorious for the bad weather in Cornwall; crops were ruined, harvests failed and in the spring of 1866 "Rinderpest" decimated Cornish herds and there were outbreaks of cholera.

Despair and discontent ran through the mining districts and drunkenness increased as men sought solace in what was regarded as the downfall of the British Army and the Victorian working man. Drinking was invariably heavy amongst the miners as they tried to replace the sweat lost in the deep hot levels of West Seton or Dolcoath; most court cases stemmed from drunkenness and now in the wretched 1860s it turned small incidents into something much more ugly. Two small villages tore each other apart over the result of a cricket match, and a fight outside Peace pub, near Four Lanes, became a battle when the miners turned on the police ordered to disperse them.

The police in Camborne and Redruth were still far too few to be effective, and were again powerless in November 1867 when a vicious brawl erupted between a "hundred toughs and abandoned women" in Buller's Row, Redruth. Some weeks later a young miner was stabbed to death outside Redruth market house and there were further incidents, any of which would keep the present Packet or West Briton busy for weeks.

To compensate for lack of numbers the police took a "hard line" with most offenders, which began to work quite well on their turbulent beats. But they did make mistakes, and gradually from being just a nuisance to be tolerated at closing time, they became objects of a real enmity, which exploded on the evening of Tuesday, 8 October, 1873.

Around seven o'clock, James Bowden, a tipsy Dolcoath miner, bumped into P.C. Osborne outside the Camborne Market House. He was quietly and firmly told to go home, but became argumentative and was seized by the constable; P.C. Harris arrived, then Bowden's brother, Joe, and the ensuing scuffle drew a very large and hostile gang of miners, who forced the constables to retreat. The two Bowdens got away, but were arrested after a free fight at their home that night and taken to the police station in Moor Street followed by a very angry crowd.

By next morning the town was tense and excited, and shutters went up and bars down when at 11 o'clock the Bowdens were escorted down Trelowarren Street by twenty-one grim-faced constables. Apart from ribald cheers there was no movement until the crowd spotted and grabbed P.C. Harris, who as a Camborne man enjoyed special odium. He was rescued by other constables and this was the signal for battle. They retreated into the public buildings under a hail of rocks, mud and bottles, many thrown by children who gleefully copied their elders.

Inside, the magistrate, Captain Bickford-Smith, blood on his face after being hit by a rock aimed at P.C. Harris, held court, his words lost frequently in the noise of another window shattering. He acquitted of larceny a lay preacher's wife because of the lack of police evidence, and then gave the Bowdens five and six months respectively at Bodmin. News of the sentences goaded the mob, which filled the square between Tyacks Hotel and the town clock, into fresh fury and the bombardment increased.

The Bowdens were glad to escape by a side door in a closed carriage, evidently appalled by what they had started. They were followed by Inspector Stephens who, as the most heartily disliked of all the police, was advised to fly for his life leaving Inspector Pappin in command. He ordered the crowd to disperse and was greeted by boos, catcalls and a barrage of sticks and stones; finally he led his men in a baton charge and there followed a violent and bloody battle. A burly constable hewed his way deep into the throng before he was up-ended by an even bigger miner, and Pappin himself was hit by a lump of masonry and was carried off to the surgery of Dr. Harris. His men were scattered all over the town, two hid in the goods shed at the railway station, others in the churchyard and one who sheltered in "Davey's Van" was driven out and badly beaten.

With the police defeated, the mob ransacked their station in Moor Street, where Inspector Stephens's dog cart was smashed and dragged away up Trelowarren Street. They did not harm P.C. Osborne, the only constable to get back to the station, who had then refused to escape and leave the wives of his comrades unprotected. Osborne, who was apparently quite well liked, watched powerless as the only prisoner, a Gwinear girl, was released and the files and ledgers were ripped up or had paraffin and paint poured over them.

Word soon arrived that a policeman had taken shelter just up the road in the "Reynolds Arms," which was instantly besieged by a huge crowd. The landlord, William Newming, rushed upstairs for his revolver, failed to find it, and ran down to grab up a poker in each hand. A dozen miners broke in and, not finding the wretched constable, contented themselves by flinging decanters and glasses through the windows and wrecking the bar and stock.

By evening Camborne had neither law nor order and gangs roamed the streets kicking policemen's helmets around the gutters. Several hundred gathered in front of Mr. Bickford-Smith's villa, but dispersed after a harangue by Lt. George Smith, pausing only to uproot the iron railings around the house of another magistrate. This demonstration was enough for the authorities and at midnight a telegram was sent to Plymouth for the military. The 11th Regiment of Foot were roused from their cots in Raglan Barracks, and at two o'clock one hundred and twelve officers and men piled on board a G.W.R. special. Each soldier had been issued with forty rounds on departure and as they slumped together in full battle kit, the general opinion was that they were being rushed out as reinforcements for the Ashanti War, but the train rolled over the Albert Bridge and at 4.30 arrived at Camborne. With bayonets fixed and rifles loaded the infantry patrolled the town or stood guard at trouble spots like the public buildings and "Reynolds Arms," their sojourn earning the latter the now familiar name of the "Redjackets." But Camborne was peaceful; the miners had returned to work, shops had re-opened and there was little for the troops, the police reinforcements and the hurriedly sworn in "Specials" to do, except view the debris-littered streets.

Very surprisingly nobody had been killed during the riot, and nobody was punished; three ringleaders were brought to court but lack of identification led to their acquittal.

The original article appeared in Camborne Festival Magazine, November 1976, pp19-21.