Town and Police
Camborne in 1873 was a boomtown, the Wild West minus guns and Hollywood glamour. Between 1841 and 1871, its population expanded dramatically by 5,000 residents, making a total population of just under 15,000 by 1873. To illustrate the lack of growth since, Camborne’s population was only 20,000 in 2011 (source: https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/CON/Camborne#Population). People came to Camborne for work, the town’s economy being supported by Holman Bros Ltd, the internationally-renowned manufacturer of industrial equipment; the fuseworks of Bickford, Smith Co. in Tuckingmill; and, of course, the tin and copper mines. At the time, Camborne was “the richest mining area in the world”, according to its Wikipedia page. Dolcoath, Crofty, Grenville, Pendarves…Camborne looked very different in 1873. No library. No Camborne School of Mines. No Fire Station. No fountain in Commercial Square. No statue of Trevithick. Lots of mines:
And, you might think, lots of work. In the 1850s this was true, with around 50,000 miners employed underground in Cornwall, according to Joanna Thomas (p55). However the Camborne riots occurred during the first bleak years of mining collapse in Cornwall, which of course resulted in the great years of Cornish emigration (see Joanna Thomas, Lost Cornwall: Cornwall’s Lost Heritage. Birlinn, 2007, p67-69, John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, Second revised edition, Cornish Hillside Publications, 1993, p305-326, and Allen Buckley, The Story of Mining in Cornwall. Cornwall Editions, 2007, p118-131).
Between 1871 and 1881, Camborne’s population fell by 1,500.
Not only were the mines slowly closing and the jobs drying up, but the nature of the work was of course incredibly hazardous and poorly paid. Notes Joanna Thomas:
But while the shareholders and landowners, mine captains and financiers may have benefited from the industrial economic boom, the miners themselves saw fairly modest return for their labour (p54-5).
“Fairly modest” is an understatement. The life expectancy of a miner in this era was 45 years, chest complaints and lung disease causing 50% of deaths. Cornwall’s infant mortality was horrifying: 64% of males and 45% of females died before the age of 5 (see John Rowe, p312-3). Conditions underground were appalling. Dolcoath Mine’s Wikipedia page states that in 1903 over 90% of its workforce was suffering from a disease known as hookworm, caused by poor sanitation and low haemoglobin levels. Infected miners defecated in the shafts, expelling the worms in their faeces, which inevitably contacted the skin of their co-workers.
Despite all the hardships, the miners themselves identified completely with their chosen occupation, and to be a miner, or a tinner, was to be part of an insular culture or way of life. It might have been the fact that many faced serious injury or death on a daily basis that camaraderie grew through adversity. Or alternatively, this sense of insularity may have been caused by the Cornish Stannary system, and Stannary Parliament, both of which had long been viewed by miners as protective of their traditional customs and rights. (The Stannary system was phased out after the Great Reform Act of 1832 – and indeed, when Cornish mines entered decline in the later nineteenth-century. Stannary Parliament had last met in 1752; Stannary Courts were abolished in Cornwall in 1896. See John Rowe, p43-7 and 192-6.) As Joanna Thomas puts it: “Mining was in the blood” (p55).
So, Camborne in 1873. Disparities of wealth. Overcrowding. Cramped. Economic uncertainty. Unemployment on the rise. Low life-expectancy. High infant mortality. Poor sanitation, housing, and diet, especially amongst the working classes. Methodists and prostitutes. Dangerous, life-threatening working conditions in the mines. Disease. Low wages. Illiteracy. Hard men and hard women, living hard lives. Insular, proud, tight-lipped miners, identifying with their own, mistrustful of outsiders. Mansions and slums. Taverns and chapels. Hard drinkers and temperance unions. Hellfire preachers and fistfights.
Now, all this Wild West town needs is a good lawman to clean it up…
An established police presence in Camborne at this time was still an unwelcome novelty. The policing system was still described as “new” in 1873 (CT1). Although from 1835 Penzance Borough Police Force had its HQ at Camborne, it only had seven officers to cover such a vast area. It wasn’t until the forming of Cornwall County Constabulary in 1857 (Penzance Borough HQ remaining in Moor Street) that a more visible police presence became apparent. (See Ken Searle, One and All: A History of Policing in Cornwall: the Cornwall Constabulary, 1857-1967 Halsgrove, 2005, p13-14.)
The new officers of law enforcement had it tough. Instead of preventing crime, their presence, especially in rural areas, seemed to incite it. Seen as a provocative symbol of authoritarian oppression, they were often attacked and assaulted by gangs of locals. Subsequently, the recruits who were able to make a decent fist of this occupation came from the same school of hard knocks as their tormentors, and patrolling armed with staves and coshes became the norm. Periodically, these raw policemen would overreach their new-found authority, taking out their frustrations on suspects in custody with the odd beating. Such an atmosphere of mistrust and the threat of violence is pertinent when considering the background of the Camborne riots. (See Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: a History of British Policing from the 18th Century to Present. Quercus, 2009, p50-6, 84-90.)
In 1873 Camborne’s Superintendent was Alfred Stephens. It’s hard to form a positive view of this man, as all the contemporary ‘papers are unanimously negative concerning his character: “sustained, over-bearing conduct” (RCG2), “too strict” (WB1), eliciting “considerable antipathy” (RCG1), an “exceptional officer in his arrogance and tyranny…a great coward” (WB2), and a “petty tyrant” (RCG2).
His men received a pretty bad press too. The Camborne force was noted as taking “arbitrary, severe, and frequently illegal action” concerning suspects (WB2). They rendered themselves “very obnoxious” to the town’s inhabitants (WB2). WB1 notes the “great dislike and almost hatred” of the police force by the townspeople, at worse “a blind prejudice”. LFP too observes the “popular animosity” many inhabitants felt toward Stephens and his force.
And this animosity wasn’t a relatively recent development. A year before the outbreak of the riots, in 1872, two miners, Alfred Rule and Thomas Phillips, were convicted of “Assaulting the police on duty at Camborne”. Both endured sentences on the treadwheel. (Source: All Cornwall, England, Bodmin Gaol Records, 1821-1899, ref AD 1676/4/10. From Ancestry.co.uk.)
On Tuesday October 7, 1873, “this strong feeling reached its climax” (WB1).
Is this journalistic vitriol justified? And, if so, were the townspeople justified in rioting against the police? How can we judge? The eminent historian E. P. Thompson considered rioting to be the last resort of any social group in righting perceived wrongs, as the act of rioting often caused a “calamity, often resulting in a profound dislocation of social relations in the community, whose results could linger on for years” (Customs in Common, Merlin, 1991, p239). Furthermore, wrote Thompson, “Miners and tinners were archetypal male rioters, yet also it is notorious that whole communities shared in their movements” (p310). The people of Camborne reckoned times were hard, and maybe thought the only way to make things better was to first make things temporarily worse. Were they right? Consider the case of Elizabeth Bennetts, seen by all the broadsheets as a significant event leading up to the riot.
The ‘papers were slightly confused over Elizabeth Bennetts’ actual name: LFP and WB1 have her as Elizabeth Bennett, CT2 calls her Rebecca Bennetts. We’ll call her Elizabeth Bennetts. The marriage records for Camborne in 1869 lists Thomas Bennetts, a Methodist Preacher, of Stray Park Lane marrying Elizabeth Andrew (see the parish register database https://www.cornwall-opc-database-org). CT2 also has the Bennetts’s as residents of Stray Park Lane. She was discharged from prison for lack of evidence on Friday October 3 to great cheering and excitement from the Camborne multitude. Bennetts had been arrested a week before on suspicion of theft from the house of a neighbour, W. H. Wearne (RCG1). The ‘papers are inconclusive as to the amount, CT2 makes it 18 sovereigns, WB1 and LFP insist it was £15 in gold. Several stories, some scandalous, some apocryphal, abounded regarding her incarceration, and the conduct of the police, with Supt. Stephens in particular, coming in for much opprobrium. So much so that Colonel Walter Gilbert, Chief Constable of Cornwall from 1857-1896, heard her complaints in person, these being reported in RCG2. There is little doubt that Stephens acted in a highly arbitrary manner. As noted by RCG1, WB2 and CT2 he
(i) arrested Bennetts without a warrant, on minimal evidence;
(ii) influenced the magistrates to such an extent that they refused to grant bail before the hearing, even though Bennetts had recently given birth;
(iii) acted against the advice of the Police Doctor, Harris, and refused to provide a conveyance to transport the unwell prisoner from gaol to court (a distance of under half a mile).
However, RCG1 notes sternly that any ill-treatment in prison, that Bennetts was naked in Stephens’s presence, was pressured into a confession, or that she was suffering from milk-fever, are “exaggerated rumours”. Although CT2 notes she was “visibly ill” when walking from gaol to Town Hall, similarly it dismisses as fantastical (“we hope”) the tale that Stephens had visited Bennetts in her cell to elicit a confession.
Problem was, these wilder tales found lots of sympathetic ears. Female suspects were indeed assaulted by police officers in the 1800s (see See Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: a History of British Policing from the 18th Century to Present. Quercus, 2009, p44-5), and many of those in Camborne believed Elizabeth Bennetts had received unwelcome attention when in gaol. As RCG1 observes:
No story to discredit the police is too absurd to obtain belief, and the inference is that this exceptional state of feeling could not have been created without a good deal of provocation.
Put bluntly, Camborne in early October 1873 was on a short fuse. Enter the Bawden brothers.
James Bawden, Joseph Bawden, PC Osborne, PC Harris, and a Saturday night punch-up
Joseph Bawden’s first name may in fact have been Thomas; WB1 and LFP identify him as such, but the other ‘papers call him Joseph. So will we. Him and his older brother James were local miners, living on Trelowarren Street. They’re described in CT2 as “bear[ing] good characters…are a little rough in speech, but [are]…decent, honest, hard-working fellows – just the sort of men who can be easily led but are hard to drive.” Completely unexceptional, then, except, perhaps, for one thing, not mentioned specifically by any contemporary journalist but is readily apparent when reading the reports: the Bawden brothers were streetfighters par excellence. (For more on the Bawdens, see the “Key Characters” page.)
James Bawden literally ran into PC Osborne (or Osborn, the reports differ) on the evening of Saturday October 4, around 7pm. It started innocently enough, but rapidly deteriorated.
It was early evening on that Saturday. Osborne was on his beat in Market Place (now Commercial Street), talking to a local carpenter, John Bailey. James Bawden suddenly lurched up and, “wilfully and intentionally” (WB1), gave Osborne a shove in the back. Understandably, Osborne asked Bawden why he had done this, to which Bawden replied,
You are not vexed, are you? (WB1)
Osborne said no, he wasn’t vexed, but asked Bawden to move on – “there’s a good fellow” (WB1). Something in Osborne’s manner and speech must have offended Bawden, or he was looking for trouble. Or he was pissed. He then tried to trip Osborne up, crying out,
I don’t care for you, you _______ (RCG1)
Bawden missed with his trip, at which point Osborne had had enough. He charged Bawden “with the assault complained of” (WB1), and made to grab him. Bawden dodged, telling Osborne in no uncertain terms that
No damned policeman would take him into custody (WB1)
At this instant, PC Harris materialised to assist Osborne, and James’s brother, Joseph Bawden, appeared to lend a hand to his elder sibling. There was “a scuffle” (CT2), the armed constables having much the worst of it. James slugged Osborne a good one over the eye and, when felled, Joseph weighed in with a few hard kicks to the officer’s body. Harris got given similar treatment, both men later displaying bodily evidence of being “severely punished” (CT2). In short, they got scat down, and were then booted about the filthy street.
Whilst the Bawdens were dishing it out, an enraptured crowd had formed, totalling between 400 and 500 locals, who were revelling in the brothers’ display. They shouted such helpful advice as
Kill the b_____s (CT2); or
Murder the _____ (WB1)
On the rapid cessation of hostilities, this crowd spirited the Bawdens away – one can imagine the cheers, the congratulations offered, or the hearty slaps on the back. In the face of such a hostile and overwhelming multitude, the groggy Osborne rightly decided to retreat to Moor Street for reinforcements. Harris, still prone, was dragged to Webster’s pub, The White Hart. Had Harris not been removed, “they would have murdered him” (WB1).
But this is only one version of events, that of PC Osborne’s, given at the trial, on Tuesday October 7, of James and Joseph Bawden, who were accused of assaulting PCs Osborne and Harris that Saturday night. WB1 and CT2 reproduce Osborne’s testimony verbatim. Alas, it’s the only version we have of events: what the Bawdens thought and said happened is not reported.
Surely Osborne’s testimony (backed up, naturally, by Harris (WB1, CT2)), cannot be taken at face value. Both policemen would have been mindful of the force’s lack of popularity in the town, to say nothing of the fact that accusations of brutality had been latterly put to the police regarding the arrest and internment of the Bawdens (see below), and also that of Elizabeth Bennetts – remember, it’s only Osborne’s version we have, given in court on Tuesday 7th, three days after the events described above. Basically, he and Harris tried to paint as positive a picture as possible of their actions whilst correspondingly incriminating the Bawdens.
That Osborne claimed the Bawdens were rescued by five hundred people is absurd. The area where the fight took place could never fit such a multitude, and certainly not be filled to such a level of humanity in such a short space of time: it’s obvious the scrap was over in minutes. (And it appears the Bawdens were coping quite well on their own – maybe it was the constables who were in need of rescue.) But, to be a policeman thwarted in your duty by half a legion of angry locals sounds better than being savagely beaten by two unarmed miners. Lest we forget, both Harris and Osborne would have carried cudgels of some sort, and would have surely used them, if the Bawdens gave them a chance.
Crucially, maintained Osborne in his testimony, James Bawden pushed him first.
But did he? Several witnesses saw things differently. At the trial, Mary Hodge “swore that the policeman pushed James Bawden”, Richard Goninan swore “very much to the same effect”, and Elizabeth Luke “also saw Osborne push Bawden in the chest” (CT2). Hannibal Sowden, William Retallack, and Thomas Richards also claimed that the Bawdens “did not first strike the police” (WB1, also RCG1): they acted in self-defence.
An alternative version of events that Saturday night are tantalisingly out of reach.
The other witnesses called on, William Bailey, Joseph Stephens and B. Libby, spoke in favour of the prosecution: according to them, the Bawdens drew first blood (WB1).
But Saturday night was still young. At 10:30pm PCs Osborne, Harris, Burton, Bartlett and Nicholls apprehended and arrested the Bawdens at their house on Trelowarren Street. The brothers resisted, WB1 euphemistically notes, “considerably”.
After returning to Moor Street for backup, Osborne collected Harris from Webster’s, and he and his cohorts trawled the pubs searching for the Bawdens, yet found them at their home. Coming quietly was obviously not an option for the brothers, James apparently hollering at the arresting officers:
You b____r, I’ve a good mind to smack your chacks in! If you summon me I’ll murder you afterwards! (CT2)
However, the five policemen then “went to work” (CT2). So did James and Joseph. Joseph landed another haymaker on Osborne’s forehead, and belted Bartlett in the face as well, whom he also tried to bite, Bartlett retaliating. Both brothers then went for Harris, who got yet another kicking, in the legs and bowels. James was administering this punishment on Harris whilst the other officers were trying to clap the irons on him in the passageway of his home. Both handcuffed, the brothers still managed to throw Harris to the ground twice on the way to the station, to the delight of those watching, and possibly much more besides.
According to Osborne, the officers merely “apprehended” the Bawdens, but were greatly “kicked and knocked about” for their trouble (WB1). They certainly were. Harris testified to having his shirt torn off and being “most shamefully maltreated” (WB1, RCG1), and he and Osborne were examined by a doctor after the melee’. Osborne was bruised to the head and face, and Harris, with “severe bruises” on his body and a lacerated knee, was declared unfit for duty and sent to bed for several days (WB1).
No one bothered to mention if the Bawdens were injured. Bartlett claimed to have struck Joseph “slightly” (CT2). How you can hit a man in a no-holds-barred ruck “slightly” with a wooden stave is beyond me. You have to ask if the officers were downplaying their own violent intentions somewhat.
It must have been a hell of a fight. One wonders what damage the Bawdens would have done to five unarmed policemen.
“There would have been no riot”, observed CT2, if Osborne had shown “a want of forbearance and moderation” in his duty and treated Bawden’s jostling of him “as a mistake and passed it over”. It was “accidental and apologised for at once”. RCG1 dismisses Bawden’s jostling and sharp words on Market Place more as “badinage than a determined attempt to pick a quarrel”. Maybe, maybe not. But what supposedly happened at Moor Street after the Bawdens’ arrest is what the Camborne men “speak fiercely of” (CT2).
Rumours quickly spread that James and Joseph Bawden were given a good going-over in their cells that weekend. CT1 reports
…on Sunday and Monday, that cries were heard from the Bawdens while in the police station and that defenceless and arrested men were punished.
WB1 also tells of “rumours to the effect that the prisoners were illused”. Emotions in the town were, to put it mildly, “very strong” (WB1).
So what happened? The ‘papers reproduce the testimonies of Osborne and Harris, who as usual both try and present themselves – and their colleagues – as the injured parties. Osborne states that James Bawden
…tried to throw me, and we both went to the ground. I fell on him, but I did not use my staff (CT2)…James Bawden tried to get at the superintendent [Stephens], but fell…Prisoner struck his head against the grate (WB1).
How much of this can be believed? One man in Camborne was believed by all however.
The defence’s star witness for the “cowardly” (CT2) assualt on the Bawdens in the station was Anthony Cock. To great “sensation” at the trial he stated to seeing the unresisting Bawdens being put into the station and the police then “strike” them “with their staves” (RCG1). CT2 reports on Cock (and other witnesses) swear to hearing the police say “give it to the b_____s!” inside the jail, the Bawdens crying “Murder!”, and the grisly sound of staves striking flesh.
Anthony Cock’s reputation and standing in Camborne is important here. According to RCG1, he
…has a reputation for being a man whom no amount of pressure could induce to tell a lie. He devotes a good deal of his time to visiting the families of the poorer miners and affording them all the assistance and consolation in his power, and they have, one and all, the greatest possible faith in his integrity.
Also, the 1871 census has him residing on Moor Street, surely within earshot of any mischief emanating from the nearby station. Plus, he wasn’t the sole source of the accusations of brutality: the ‘papers tell of more witnesses than just Cock insisting there was an assault.
Perhaps, going on what had been dished out to Osborne and Harris that night, the long arm of the law may have felt justified in a bit of revenge on the Bawdens. On this the ‘papers are either neutral (CT2 states a “Court of Justice” is the “best judge of conflicting statements” – ie. Osborne/Harris versus Cock), or dismissive (“we do not believe this” in CT1). Crucially though, the
public believe Anthony Cock and disbelieve the police (CT2).
This belief in police brutality had the “desired effect of rousing a very strong sentiment against the county force” (CT1).
Before the alleged events in the station after their arrest, it appears the Bawdens and the police had each given as good as they’d got. What inflamed the populace of Camborne, however, was the supposed beating the Bawdens endured after their arrest, handcuffed and defenceless – this was, sadly, not uncommon in the period.
The wheels of justice cranked into motion, and a date for the Bawdens’ trial was set…