Helstonia – An Incomer’s Miscellany
“Local history? Why local history?” is a question occasionally asked of those who indulge in this fascinating but, to many, marginal field of study. For myself – in addition to the general historian’s desire to know something about the past in order to make a little more sense of the present – the answer is made up of three parts curiosity and one part pure ego. I take the view that anywhere I live must be intensely interesting and worthy of serious study simply by virtue of the fact that I live there.
I grew up in New York City, on the Lower West Side of Manhattan – part of the area known to the world as Greenwich Village. Until I was nearly 50 years old I never lived anywhere that wasn’t a capital city – New York, you will understand, as viewed by those native or otherwise attached to it, being the capital of the world. Anyone with a grasp of big city living soon realizes that such places are essentially large collections of villages that happen to be geographically contiguous. In my later years of living in provincial English and Cornish towns I’ve found that – the greater cosmopolitan, cultural, economic and political opportunities of metropolitan life apart – the day-to-day ethos of the smaller towns I’ve experienced is not fundamentally different from what in my youth we thought of as “the neighbourhood”. The same sense of belonging, community and rootedness obtains, along with the less positive aspects of jealous territoriality and an often petty-minded parochialism. I have never been greatly impressed by people who declare, “I’m American [or Irish or British or Cornish or whatever] and proud of it”, as if one partakes in some mystical collective virtue simply because of one’s antecedents. My view is that one takes people as one finds them, one at a time, and that no points should be awarded or taken away from anyone just for being something or coming from somewhere. To chest-thumping chauvinists of my own ethnic background I am inclined to say, “An Irish saint or an Irish genius is still a saint or a genius: an Irish fool or an Irish scoundrel is still a fool or a scoundrel.”
As the title suggests, the pieces collected here are a miscellany. Some of the subjects have been researched and written about as a result of professional commissions; others have been pursued through a personal interest given impetus by the admitted combination of self-importance and Nosey-Parkerism.
The unifying theme (if any there be) is simply the town of Helston and its environs: some of its buildings and some of its people and how they have shaped the social history of the town and, in some cases, the wider world.
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN NOW
No. 53 Wendron Street is a double-fronted, two-storey-plus-loft, cottage-style house on the right-hand side of the road as one faces east, standing at a point nearing the top of a gentle hill rising from the centre of the ancient Cornish Royal Borough of Helston. The street is one of four radiating from a crossroad marked by the town’s Guildhall: Wendron Street going east; Coinagehall Street west; Meneage Street south; and Church Street more or less north.
At one time the site now occupied by No. 53 possibly comprised two smaller cottages that were at some point conjoined into the present building. There is no available documented record of when these older cottages might have been built. Modern day surveys date the whole from the mid-19th century, although the merging of the old cottages may be of a later date. It is quite probable that materials from previous buildings occupying the site – cut granite blocks especially – were recycled into the newer structure. The putative older cottages would originally have had thatched roofs and shown façades of local stone with granite quoins. The existing roof-line is somewhat higher than the original and the thatch has been gone for a century or more. The present house shows three sash windows facing from the upper floor, and two similar ones on either side of a generously proportioned front door set back above a heavy granite doorstep. At some time the frontage – expanded to forty feet through the joining of the two older cottages – was rendered with Gunwallow pebbledash. The house was among the earliest to undergo this process, designed to cover the original stone, thought by some people with social aspirations to be “common”. The modern interior is of double depth with two ground-floor rooms divided by an entrance hall – possibly marking the division between the older cottages. A kitchen opens from one room and looks out on a garden area that rises by some thirty feet over its ninety-foot length from the rear of the house. The upper floor consists of three rooms and a bathroom, all opening off a landing. The interior has undergone periodic rearrangement over the years. There is nothing architecturally remarkable about the house. Including its serial alterations, it remains of a vernacular style not much changed between the 17th and 19th centuries, using traditional methods and materials and, if the estimate of its present form dating from c.1850 is accurate, it is probably a decade or so younger than the house, built in 1836-‘37 – quite old by New York standards – in which I spent my childhood. We have recently uncovered a very worn and weathered date-stone that is part of the boundary wall between No. 53 and No. 55. It reads “T.H. 184-“, the last numeral be indecipherable.
In company with a number of houses on the south side of Wendron Street – some considerably older than ours – No. 53 was once part of the property appertaining to the Godolphin Estate. Until the early 1890s Wendron Street ran continuously from the Guildhall crossroad to the Turnpike confluence formed by the top of what is now Godolphin Road with the roads leading to Redruth, Falmouth and The Lizard. The section between Penrose Road at the western end and Turnpike was renamed Godolphin Road in grateful recognition of the 9th Duke of Leeds’s beneficence in giving the land – from 1835 until 1885 the site of Helston Grammar School – on which the building that now houses the Godolphin Club was built in 1888-’89. From 1819 a silver mine – the adit of which was sited at Well Moors near the present corner of Godolphin and Station Roads – was apparently a contributor to the wealth of the Godolphin Estate. The modern residential court called Lower Silver Hill takes its name from the old mine and the area on the opposite side of the road (then still part of Wendron Street and connecting with Sanctuary or Sentry Lane) became known as Higher Silver Hill. Some of the older cottages surviving on the north side of the road may well have been homes for mine workers.
In the years immediately following the 1914-’18 War the 10th Duke of Leeds, in company with much of the British landed aristocracy – largely due to the wartime devaluation of sterling – found himself to be land rich and cash poor. In consequence, beginning in 1921, there was a huge sell-off of some 250-plus properties belonging to the Godolphin Estate. Among these were No. 53, which was sold, along with Nos. 51 and 49, to the Polglase brothers
The Polglase family were established in Helston by the early 19th century as stonemasons. During the 1870s William Henry Polglase established a serpentine works located in and at the rear of the cottage at No. 49 Wendron Street. The business was known consecutively from at least 1878 through 1939 as William Polglase; William Polglase & Sons; and Polglase Brothers and apparently thrived through the late Victorian period when the serpentine quarried on The Lizard enjoyed a considerable vogue as a substitute for marble. Fireplaces, shop fronts, stair-posts, pedestals, lamp-standards and other pieces, small and large were popular. Queen Victoria herself was a notable patron of serpentine products; several examples are among the objects kept at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Eventually it was found that serpentine did not weather particularly well, and certainly not as well as marble. After the Great War the material was used almost exclusively for ornaments and other small objects primarily intended as souvenirs for sale to visitors to The Lizard and other places of resort in West Cornwall. According to the late Mr. Reg Jenkin, author of The Book of Helston, the brothers William Charles and John Toy Polglase both served during the Great War in the Royal Navy before returning to continue in the family’s serpentine business. Their younger brother, Richard, died during the Great War when the transport ship on which he was sailing as a soldier on the way to the Dardanelles was sunk by enemy action.
A narrow strip of land, which with the garden of No. 53, to which it belongs, forms an L running along the rear of what were Nos. 51 and 49 Wendron Street. The L is dominated by fifty-foot high, multi-trunk, ivy-choked sycamore. Its near neighbour is a venerable apple tree that in good years still bears copiously. The fruit is a cooker variety, similar to but not identical with a modern Bramley. [The sycamore is no more. It was felled on the 8th of august 2016. There remains a stump that makes for an ideal seat; another large lump of trunk that will, doubtless, eventually be turned to some useful and/or artistic purpose; and about £100-worth of neatly stacked logs, scheduled for use as wood-burner fuel during the winter of 2017-’18.]
In our household my wife is the head gardener. I am the gardener’s labourer, required to dig holes, shift stones, sift soil, level beds and perform such other work as is deemed suitable for one combining a weak mind with a weak back. Groundwork undertaken over the past few years has uncovered traces of what was almost certainly a spoil heap connected to the serpentine works. Forty-plus pieces of lathe-turned serpentine – discarded turning bases and damaged rejects – have been found. I am indebted to Kathryn Atkin, nee Polglase, great-grand-daughter of William Henry and grand-daughter of Richard and her son, Robert, for information about their serpentine-working forebears. Some idea of the firm’s output may be gathered from an item appearing in an 1894 edition of the Cornishman newspaper reporting a testimonial given to Rev. R.D. Purvis, departing curate of St. Michael’s. Among the gifts were “… a serpentine font, in an oak case, lined with velvet, a pair of serpentine study-candlesticks, a baptismal shell with silver mountings, in morocco case lined with silver…” The report adds “The serpentine articles reflect great credit on the manufacturer – Mr. W.H. Polglase, of Wendron-street, Helston.”
Our backyard archaeology has turned up a neck-less bottle from the old Sleeman & Co. Meneage Street brewery; the corroded remains of dead and gone motorcar parts; the blade of a long-handled Cornish spade, various other bits of ironmongery and several generations of discarded children’s toys. These include a fairly well preserved cast-lead figure of a railway stationmaster dating from the late 1940s. It has also revealed the top of what appears to have once been the north-south boundary wall between our present property and the rear of the cottage that was No.51. This wall would have been superseded – probably between the Wars – by the later wall forming part of the commercial structure that took the place of the previous cottage. In ground covering the old wall and the six-inch gap between the two walls various bits of old china and other debris have been found. These include part of an earthenware bottle, also from the Sleeman & Co brewery; a fragment of a china souvenir from St. Michael’s Mount; and another, in two pieces that fit perfectly together, depicting a sweetly fetching young girl painted and coloured in the manner of the Millais-inspired Pear’s soap advertisements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Another object dug up during this period is a brass and pewter domestic gas lamp wall fixture, probably of French manufacture, its design midway between art nouveau and art deco. When found it was bent out of shape and encrusted with earth and verdigris. In its partially cleaned and restored appearance, it seems to date from the early 20th century. For a time it was attached to a newel-post and cast a shadow on the stairwell wall that appeared like an image from an early-30s Alfred Hitchcock film. The piece may have been installed during the sojourn of the earliest residents I have yet been able to trace.
The Census of 1901 was the first to feature Helston house numbers and it records the following occupants of No. 53: John Henry Downing, aged 40, General Labourer, born at Penryn; Susan Jane, 47, Wife, born at Germoe; William John Downing, 15, Son, General Labourer, born at Germoe; Lillie Downing, 12, Daughter, Scholar, born at Helston; James Thomas Downing, 10, Son, Scholar, born at Helston; Julia Downing, 7, Daughter, Scholar, born at Helston. The Downings are recorded as occupying four rooms. Also resident were: Elizabeth Ann Williams, 47, married, Charwoman, born at Camborne; William John Williams, 23, Son, Mortar Mason, born at Germoe; Mary Lavinia Williams, 14, Dressmaker, born at Germoe.
The 1891 Census places the Downing family in Well Lane, Wendron Street, recording: John H. Downing, 31, Road Labourer; Susan, 37, Wife; Elizabeth, 8, Daughter, Scholar, born at Germoe; Mary A., 7, Daughter, Scholar, born at Helston; William J., 4, Son, Scholar; Lily, 2, Daughter.
It seems possible that the house in Well Lane occupied by the Downings in 1891 may have been demolished to make way for the new County police station opened in 1902. This, combined with Mr. Downing’s upward progress as an employee of Helston Corporation, may explain the family’s move to 53 Wendron Street, a house larger than the cottages in Well Lane. Although no record exists that would testify to the fact, it is not unreasonable to suppose – considering J.H. Downing’s profession – that some work joining the two smaller cottages may have taken place during the Downing’s tenure. It might also be guessed that the two oldest Downing daughters had left home by 1901 making room in the new house for Elizabeth Williams and her two children. The families, considering the Germoe connection, may well have been related. The birth dates and places of the Downing children suggest that the family moved to Helston sometime in the mid-late 1880s.
The Helston Museum holds a letter from Mr. Eric Busby, grandson of Elizabeth Downing, in which he relates that by 1906 the Downings were living at the Old Prison in Shute Hill. He goes on to quote the report of his great-grandfather’s funeral which appeared in the West Briton of February 2nd 1925: “Mr. John Henry Downing, who died at Shoot Hill [sic], Helston on Thursday Jan 29th age 64, was in the employ of Helston Corporation for 36 years and many years as the foreman. He was a prominent member of the Court “Penrose” Helston, Ancient Order of Foresters having once occupied the proud position of Chief Ranger. He was a member for over 40 years. He was buried at Helston cemetery on Sunday and the large number at the funeral was a signal mark of esteem for the departed and sympathy for the family. The coffin was covered with the Foresters Insignia.
“As well as the family mourners 39 members of the Foresters followed the coffin, as well as the public followers: The Mayor (Mr. W.T. Johns), Councillors W.J. Rogers, J. Ould, J.B. Martin, J.P., W.R. Beaglehole, R.J. Williams, W.J. Crute (surveyor), W.J. Winn (late surveyor), Inspector Lee. 46 other members of the public were also listed, the committal having been conducted by Rev. J.G.B. Corin.” Mr. Downing’s death certificate records his occupation as Road Foreman Borough Council; that he died of pulmonary tuberculosis and myocarditis (certified by R.J. Brooks LRCP); and that his son, W.J. Downing was in attendance, his address being given as 3 Godolphin Road. [Dr. Brooks was then Helston Borough Medical Officer and resided at No. 1 Cross Street, an account of which will feature later in this Miscellany.]
Mrs. George Pascoe, nee Sylvia Upex, grew up in No. 53, and relates that following the departure of the Downings, and prior to the sale of the house in 1921, it was occupied by members of the Balsdon family. The Balsdons were originally from Devon and a Mrs. Balsdon – a widow – lived in the house with her daughter, Joyce, as well as her sister and one parent. Edgar John Balsdon, the brother of Mrs. Balsdon’s late husband, was at that period landlord of the New Inn, Church Street.
Almost immediately after buying the three houses – one of which, No. 49, they had rented from the Godolphin Estate – the Polglases sold them on. No. 49 was sold in February 1922 to William Thomas for £260, the Polglases continuing as tenants.
Although no document survives attesting to the transaction, according to his granddaughter, Nos. 53 and 51 were acquired, also in 1921, by Edwin Upex, for his son, Wilby, who was to marry Grace Bowden. The couple had two children, Sylvia (later Mrs. Pascoe) and Gerrard. According to Mrs. Pascoe, during the 1920s “No. 53 was restored to a great degree… a new loft was built and the height of the bedrooms raised.” Recently, upon visiting her childhood home for the first time in many years, Mrs. Pascoe related to the current residents that her grandfather, in addition to the above-mentioned raising of the roof, had laid the stone tiling in the entrance hall and that he had also lowered the level of the ground floor rooms by twelve inches. He also had laid the pine-block parquet flooring that remains to this day. Both the tiling and the herringbone-pattern flooring are typical of the locality. A large floor area of the Gurnard’s Head Inn is laid with identical tiling. During Mrs. Pascoe’s childhood the kitchen featured a Cornish range, subsequently replaced by an Aga cooker, gone, to the sadness of my wife, by the time we moved in.
Edwin Upex was born in 1873 and came to Helston from his native Grimsby, Lincolnshire, in the early 1890s as a member of the Salvation Army. Among the deeds that came into our possession when my wife and I acquired the house was an agreement, dated 4th March 1882, between “Mr. William Henry Oliver (now builder of St. John’s Hill, Helston) and the Rev. William Booth (founder and General of the Salvation Army)” to build and lease a premises for use as a “barracks” for the Salvation Army – terms: 21 years at £30 per annum. [This document is on permanent loan to the Cornwall Record Office in Truro.] Sylvia Pascoe relates that Edwin Upex was expelled by General Booth from the Salvation Army for having accompanied his future wife (born Emily Grace Hocking and also a Salvation Army member) back from their duties in Scotland to her native Helston without a chaperone, the General apparently taking a stern view of such unseemly conduct. Edwin Upex subsequently removed his religious loyalties to the Wesleyan Chapel, Coinagehall Street, becoming a lay preacher prominent on the circuit for many years. His wife, however, continued to attend services at the later Salvation Army Hall, located behind cottages on the south side of Wendron Street, until it closed.
Subsequent to his arrival in Helston Mr. Upex set up in business as a boot and shoe factor with premises at 20 Church Street. The Helston Museum holds an example of Edwin Upex’s memorandum cards. Dated March 16th 1908, it features a photograph of his elaborately lettered goods carriage with Edwin Upex standing proprietarily at the front of the conveyance and his eldest son, Wilby Trengove Upex – then aged eleven – posed with legs crossed and a hand on the rear of the wagon. In 1911 Mr. Upex moved his business to No. 4 Coinagehall Street.
The widowed Mrs. Balsdon had a son, James, who came to Cornwall from Devon after serving during World War I. He studied at the Camborne School of Mines and spent long periods in the African Gold Coast mining areas, often returning for long periods of leave occasioned by the ill effects of the African climate. He subsequently married Edwin Upex’s daughter, Ella.
By the end of World War I Edwin Upex had expanded into the motor trade, primarily in premises in and to the rear of No. 36 Wendron Street, the site of the by-then-disused Salvation Army barracks. At one time this area had contained a slaughterhouse described in 1875 as “recently demolished” and was variously called Lime House Yard and Cade’s Yard – not to be confused with a later Cade’s Yard located for many years off Meneage Street. Following the demolition of several cottages that once stood facing a passage leading at a right angle off Wendron Street, and the refurbishment of Nos. 42 and 44 Wendron Street this area gave access to the rear of the motor business and now constitutes the present Windsor Court. Between the two World Wars the garage of Upex & Son – primarily under the management of the son, Wilby – moved across the street to No. 51 Wendron Street. Prior to this move No. 51 was shop selling paraffin, candles, brushes, brooms and other household goods, operated by Horatio Richards who probably rented the premises from the Upexes. Edwin Upex subsequently bought No. 45 Wendron Street for Wilby’s brother, Kenneth, who joined their father in the boot and shoe business at about the same time.
During the mid-1940s the Upex motor operation was acquired by Saltash Garages Ltd., although Wilby Upex continued for a time as manager. Through various transactions the firm acquired properties – then eight to ten cottages on and behind the site of what is now Windsor Court, including Nos. 42 and 44 Wendron Street. In July 1947 W. T. Upex – trading as Saltash Garages Ltd. – acquired No. 49 from Mrs. V.M. Leverton – daughter and heiress of William Thomas – paying £900 while John Toy Polglase remained as tenant apparently still dealing in serpentine ornaments as well as operating as a greengrocer. Eventually the garage business expanded to include No. 49. In addition to the motor and shoe trades the Upex familiy also dealt in electrical goods with premises in Wendron Street and Market Place, Coinagehall Street.
Wilby Trengove Upex, lived in No. 53 for over thirty years and his daughter, now Mrs. Pascoe, spent her childhood in the house and was married from it in 1945. Her intended, George Pascoe, was on active war service at the time but was given two week’s embarkation leave for his marriage before being posted to the Far East. The couple were married from No. 53 in the Wesleyan Chapel, Coinagehall Street, the bridesmaids wearing outfits painstakingly cobbled together in best wartime “make do and mend” fashion using material unpicked from portions of one of her mother’s ball gowns. Prior to their marriage the couple repaired to Fowey for the purpose of scouting out a suitable place to stay for their brief honeymoon. They called unsuccessfully at several hotels and other accommodation establishments but all were filled with military personnel. In desperation they then knocked on the doors of several private dwellings, including that of Arthur Quiller-Couch. The noted Cornish author was not at home and his housekeeper proved unhelpful, indignantly asking, “Do you not know whose house this is?” However, a kindly gentleman was leaning on the front gate of his nearby house and, hearing that the couple were to be married shortly and would have nowhere to sleep on their wedding night, said: “Why, my dears, you come and stay wi’ we!” When the honeymooners returned to the house of this Good Samaritan they brought with them a fresh chicken, butter and a dozen eggs, much appreciated in the light of wartime shortages.
In addition to his commercial activities Edwin Upex served for some years as a Helston Borough Councillor and Alderman and was elected Mayor in 1944. I’ve been told by at least one older Helston resident that he was known on occasion to direct traffic through the town centre. He and his wife had two other children in addition to Wilby. They were his younger sister, Ella, and brother, Kenneth, both mentioned previously. Her Aunt Ella is said by Mrs. Pascoe to have been a notably astute individual from a young age and her surviving photographs do nothing to contradict that judgement. Edwin Upex died in 1963, aged 90, having outlived his wife by two years. He also outlived his son, Wilby Trengove Upex, who died at Sea View, Grylls Parc in March 1958. His wife, Thomasine Grace Upex – Sylvia Pascoe’s mother – died on December 16th 1998, that day being her 100th birthday.
Sadly, Sylvia Pascoe passed away in December 2015, aged 92.
During some recent internal alterations a combination of studwork, plywood and wallpaper was ripped out. Written in pencil on the plaster underneath was the inscription “Percy Williams 15th January 1953.” Subsequent enquiries around the town turned up a number of possible Percy Williamses but the likeliest appears to have been a gentleman employed by the long-established Helston painting and decorating firm of Eddy & Sons.
A conveyance dated 5th November 1954 records that No. 36, the row of cottages referred to in the conveyance collectively as No.42, together with Nos. 49, 51 and 53 Wendron Street, were sold by Wilby Trengove Upex, trading as Saltash Garages Ltd. to Wincanton Garages Ltd. The consideration was £7,958 10/ 3d. By this time the Upex garage concern was a multi-faceted business including a milk lorry fleet, a heavy-duty truck fleet serving building sites and similar work, a hearse and hire car service for funerals and weddings, car and lorry repairs, as well as selling petrol and spare parts. The parent company of Wincanton Garages was the dairy products firm of Cow & Gate, whose primary motive in buying the Upex motor business was the acquisition of the extensive milk round operated by the garage firm.
Sylvia Pascoe worked in the Upex Garage office between 1943 and 1947 – the period of the Saltash Garage Company’s involvement and worked with a Mr. Goldrick who had been sent down by Saltash to oversee the transitional take-over period. Mr. Goldrick and his family took up residence in No. 53 following the departure of the Upex family. The house was subsequently occupied by a Mr. Hatcher, who was the manager of the garage through the 1960s and, apparently, until the motor garage business ceased to exist in Wendron Street. The firm did continue as a garage at St. Johns, Helston, Mr. Hatcher apparently moving his home a few doors away to No. 41 Wendron Street.
When W.T. Upex finally left the firm he moved his radio business to the old boot & shoe premises at 4 Coinagehall Street where it continued as a thriving electrical goods concern for many years until his death, when Mrs. Pascoe’s brother, Gerrard, took it over. Until fairly recently the ETS Electrical Centre outlet continued in the same premises. Following the closure of the ETS branch the premises is presently occupied by the b’gorgeous hair and beauty salon. Edwin Upex’s footwear emporium subsequently moved to 6 Wendron Street where his daughter, Ella, and her husband occupied the building’s living accommodation, also assisting in the shop as Edwin grew older. He later lived with them following his wife’s death.
In July 1975 Wincanton Garages Ltd. sold all their properties on the north side of Wendron Street – the present Nos. 36, 42 and 44, along with the area behind them – to the printing firm of P.S. Brewer. In July of the following year Wincanton Garages Ltd. sold Nos. 49 and 51 to Trago Mills (West Cornwall) Ltd. Trago Mills traded on the site for several years until it was acquired by the motor parts supplier, Mill Auto, who remained until 2007 before removing to the Water-ma-Trout trading estate. The site is now occupied by a block of flats called Mill Court.
At some time in the late 1970s No. 53 became the property of David and Christine Edwards. Mrs. Edwards – born Christine Darby – was for some years Matron of the Helston Cottage Hospital in Meneage Road. Following her divorce from David Edwards she retained ownership of the house, living there with her second husband until her untimely death from cancer in 1996. Her widower, Mr. Peter Stuart Snell, died not long afterwards and the dwelling continued to be occupied by Mrs. Snell’s father, Mr. Jack Darby, who died in 1998. The present residents acquired the house from Mr. Darby’s heirs and remain as owner-occupiers to the present day.