Towns and cities don’t tend to commemorate the more unsavoury events of their past, and Camborne is no exception. There is no annual “Riot Day” every October, to rival Camborne’s “Trevithick Day”, where the town’s most famous son, Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam locomotive, is remembered and celebrated. (See: https://trevithickday.org.uk/.)
The Camborne Town website includes details of the town’s heritage trail (https://www.cambornetown.com/about-camborne/camborne-today/heritage-trail/). The Riots of 1873 aren’t mentioned. A similar trail is outlined on the Cornwall Maps site (http://cornwallmaps.org/cms/camborne/discover-camborne/camborne-town-trail/), and this does however mention the Riots, and the one remaining piece of visual evidence in the town that the riots ever took place at all.
This is, of course, The Red Jackets Pub, formerly The Reynolds Arms.
But even this hardly remembers the Riots. It more recalls the fact that the militia were billeted here briefly after the tumult had subsided. The ordeal of William Newming, the destruction of the tavern, the graffiti, the drinking of ale in the street, indeed the whole story of the events, are afforded little or no mention.
Indeed, for a long, long time after the riots, the pub was still known as The Reynolds Arms. When exactly its name was changed I have been unable to ascertain, but The Cornishman of August 31, 1950 makes mention of the pub on Trevenson Street, Camborne. It was still called The Reynolds Arms (p7). Its name must have changed some time between 1950, and 1976 (see below).
Online and print articles collapse the whole story of the riots into the anecdotal nugget about The Red Jackets. In 1976 Clive Carter produced a brief article for The Old Cornwall Society (http://camborne.wikidot.com/riots); this confuses events somewhat. Carter has it that the Bawdens were arrested on Tuesday night, when it was Saturday, and that the riots occurred on Wednesday, also incorrect. The soldiers billeted at The Reynolds Arms are noted as the reason why the pub is now, in 1976, called The Red Jackets.
A Grim Almanac of Cornwall, by John Van der Kiste (History Press, 2009), grants the Riots two paragraphs (p146-7). Camborne & Around Through Time, by Ivor Corkell and David Thomas (Amberley, 2013) mentions the Riots obliquely in its introduction, and, of course, that a pub changed its name to The Red Jackets (p4).
David Wilson’s Cornish History blog post from 2014 (https://djwilson22.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/camborne-riot-of-1873/) conflates the various newspaper articles concerning the Riots, and is a comprehensive narrative but lacks analysis. Naturally, it does mention how The Red Jackets got its name though. Lee Trewhela’s article on the Riots in March 2021 for Cornwall Live https://www.cornwalllive.com/news/cornwall-news/clash-between-police-thousands-miners-5045416 is based largely on the contemporary reports available on Wilson’s blog. While a thorough account, his article omits the fact that James Bryant was charged with rioting – so does Wilson’s post, and is more a local interest piece giving background on how The Red Jackets pub came to be called such.
It could be argued, then, that the story of the Riots is only ever mentioned, and understood, in relation to the name of an insalubrious Camborne boozer. My website’s intention has been an attempt to rectify this.
The Camborne of 1873 is obviously not the Camborne of 2021. Its preoccupations and concerns were very different. Though on the slide, the town was still at the centre of the European mining industry; the question was, how long would the good times last? What will happen when the mines are emptied out?
Camborne in 2021 has no industry. No mines, no Holmans, no Bickford, Smith & Co. And none of the other things that Cornwall regularly relies on to bolster its economy: attractions. No coastline, no beach, no picturesque cottages. Instead there’s unemployment, drugs, and crime. Watch the BBC documentary Cornwall with Simon Reeve. His visit to Camborne sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead of the biggest mine in the country, Camborne now boasts the biggest Food Bank in the country.
The tensions prevalent in the town in 1873 were very different. An exploited working class – the miners – whose ways of life were under threat from several areas. Firstly, the nature of mining itself was inherently hazardous – death or serious injury was faced practically every shift. Secondly, as the mines got deeper and more expensive to run, the miners earned less, and the mines made less money too: it was cheaper to mine overseas, where the minerals were closer to the surface. This led to rising unemployment, which led to emigration, which led to the breakdown of family units and traditional social relations. Thirdly, the loss, or perceived loss, of the miners’ customs and privileges as upheld by the Cornish Stannary system. Fourthly, Methodism: Wesley’s disciples had long viewed the mining areas as cesspools of ungodliness ripe for reform, whether the inhabitants of these areas wanted reforming or not. Many didn’t. (See Allen Buckley, The Story of Mining in Cornwall. Cornwall Editions, 2007, p118-131, Cornwall: A History, by Philip Payton, Cornwall Editions, 2004, p84-6, 197-206, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, by John Rowe, Second revised edition. Cornish Hillside Publications, 1993, p43-7, 67.1-67.40, 261.1-261.48, 305-26, and The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson, Penguin, 1980, p385-440.)
And, of course, the nature of Victorian bourgeois society itself provided its own tensions. Simply, a capitalist system requires a cheap, obedient labour force. To ensure this labour force remains obedient, and to keep more respectable methods of business – and people – safe, you require a police force. In other words, the police force is reliant to some extent on the complicity of the middle and upper classes to realise its duties.
This system broke down in 1873. Take the mines, the industry, away from Camborne and you take away the wealth, the success – witness the Camborne of 2021. The townspeople in 1873 realised this: they identified, and sympathised, with the miners, more than the town’s police force. Remember the prominent tradespeople of the town submitted a petition recommending an investigation into police conduct, and not, considering the recent disturbances, recommending stricter policing methods. Thus it was that, in the wake of the riot, the entire Camborne force was removed from the the town, its superintendent was forced to resign, and absolutely no one was convicted of rioting.
The Camborne Riots of 1873 are not just about how a pub got its name. They’re also rather more than a brutal anti-police punch-up. They’re about a group of people looking to protect their ways of life against forces they barely understood. They’re about a maligned group of law enforcement officers that, in attempting to assert themselves, make bad decisions. They’re about an industry and culture on the wane, yet going down, literally, fighting. They’re about mob rule and popular protest. They’re about long-forgotten, long-dead people, and how they lived, worked, and fought, in a town barely recognisable to the one which bears its name today.