Helstonia – No. 1 Cross Street
Helston’s Cross Street takes its name from what the relevant Ancient Monuments Listing describes as a “Preaching cross. Probably pre-Conquest. Wheel-based granite monolith with incised flared Latin cross set into a roughly hewn granite base.” Some feel that this cross may date from the earliest period of Christianity in Cornwall and perhaps reflect echoes of an older religion. The cross stands beneath a raised hedge fronting No. 1 Cross Street and it certainly predates the town’s period as a royal manor in Saxon times and designation as a Borough by the first of its several Royal Charters, given by King John in 1201.
There is an often-reproduced illustration done by the Helston printer and bookseller William Penaluna and dating from 1815 that depicts a panoramic view of the town as seen from the southwest at a point approximately adjacent to the present Coronation Lake. The view shows Cross Street as sparsely built up and the church above it to be surrounded by open fields. Also standing alone is the present No. 1 Cross Street. Located at the corner of Cross and Church Streets, the house is of generous proportions and for over two hundred years has presented a gracious façade, nine windows and a porch with pillared portico to what is generally agreed to be the most architecturally varied and distinguished street in the town. Along No. 1 Cross Street’s eastern gable end Church Street slopes up some fifty yards to the steps leading to St. Michael’s churchyard and the solid church itself, rebuilt with funds provided by the Godolphin family in 1754 and named for the patron saint of the town.
The main style of No.1 is Georgian – the portico is an early 19th century addition – but in the absence of documentation it is difficult to date the house with precision. Most expert estimates place the building as mid-18th century. There are, however, interior features including stone flagging, masonry and beams in the basement that are a century or more older, indicating that a previous structure stood on the site. There is a broad stairway identified by members of the Georgian Society as being Queen Anne. This may be evidence of the fact that architecture in provincial towns tended to lag a decade or so behind the latest building modes of more metropolitan areas.
A similar lack of records makes the early ownership of the house a matter of speculation. There is some evidence that it may have belonged to the Borlase family who were prominent in Helston for over two centuries, holding ecclesiastic, legal and medical positions in the town. Among these was the Reverend William Borlase, a nephew and namesake of the noted 18th century Cornish antiquarian, William Borlase. It is recorded that land between what were the stables at the rear of No. 1 and the churchyard did belong to the Borlase family.
In common with many provincial towns Helston has historically been host to a relatively small but tight-knit group of families who for periods dominated the commercial, professional, social and political life of the Borough and its environs. Some of these were related to the landed families of the region and their propensity for inter-marriage could and did lead to some complicated genealogy. More than a few of these families had long-standing connections with Cross Street in general and No. 1 in particular. It is unclear which, if any, of them resided in the house prior to the turn of the 19th century. By the time recorded occupants may be identified a pattern seems to have emerged that saw the house being let to gentlefolk with the means to afford the rent and the social position to maintain the prestige of the property. The first of these verifiable as a resident of the house was a woman who had been born Elizabeth Farquharson, daughter of John Farquharson Esq. of Invercauld in Scotland. She almost certainly had a close and particular connection with one of the most remarkable interior features of the house.
Immediately to the left as one enters the front hall of No. 1 Cross Street there is a spacious parlour reception room graced with fine ornamental plasterwork and floor-to-ceiling panelling. The dominant feature of the room, however, is a marine painting let into the wall above the fireplace, itself surrounded by elegant plaster scrollwork. After examining photographs of the painting Mr. Roger Quarm, curator of art works at the National Maritime Museum, gave the following opinion: “The painting appears to show an action between a British naval 2-deck ship and what may be a Spanish ship on the right, although I cannot see the flag which appears to be whitish (this is quite an important detail). The British ship’s flag is pre-1801, that is without the St. Patrick’s cross. …I wonder if it might depict an action of the early 1780s… I do not know who the artist [is], but it is a little like Robert Dodd – though at this period there would be a number of possibilities.”
In February 1789 Elizabeth Farquharson married Captain James Trevenen late of the Royal Navy. The Trevenen family had become wealthy in the early 18th century through mining interests. From the family home, Rosewarne, near Camborne, the Rev. John Trevenen and his wife sent forth six children: four boys and two girls. Of the boys, John, the eldest and heir, lived at Bonythorn, Cury and was for a time deputy under-sheriff of Cornwall. Thomas, like his father, took Holy Orders. James went to sea as a youth, and the youngest, Matthew, also intended for the Church, died of consumption, aged 25. A portrait of Matthew by the renowned Cornish artist, John Opie, survives in the possession of Ann Trevenen Jenkin, a descendant of the Trevenen family. Jane, the older daughter, married John Penrose. Their daughter, Mary, married Dr. Thomas Arnold, the noted headmaster of Rugby School, making them the grandparents of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Jane’s sister, Elizabeth, married her brother-in-law, Sir Charles Vinnicombe Penrose, who had distinguished naval career. James, the third son and fifth child, was born at Rosewarne on January 1, 1760. From an early age he attended Helston Grammar School until removing to the Royal Academy at Portsmouth in 1773 where, it was remarked that he was “…a boy of great generosity of character, eager and active in all plays and exercises, and excelling in most of them. He was a favourite with the masters, and, though a boy of high spirits, never incurred any punishment during his stay in the school.” Decided on a naval career, in 1776 James Trevenen sailed with Captain King on Resolution under Captain James Cook on the final voyage of the great navigator whom James later referred to as “Our good genius and safe conductor.” In a letter to his brother Matthew he reported that a combination of “…melancholy from separation, and with insufficient activity to fill the hours and engage my energies and intellect during the long voyage I fell into habits of torpor and indolence.” He gave thanks, he said, for his rescue from such idle courses by the example and counsel of Captain King and that of the sailing master, Mr. Bligh. James Trevenen witnessed the murder of Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay and the fall of his native assassin to the arms of a marine guard. Mr. Quarm reports that sources at the National Maritime Museum record that Lieutenant James Trevenen served, still under Captain King, in the Conquistador in 1781 (a Spanish prize broken up in 1782) and, in 1782, the Resistance, a 5th rate of 44 guns. These vessels were engaged against French and Spanish ships in the Caribbean toward the end of the American War of Independence during which they were allies of the Americans. It seems most probable that the painting in the wall of No. 1 depicts a naval engagement of this period. It was also at this time that Lt. Trevenen first encountered Horatio Nelson of whom he did not form a high opinion, regarding the future Hero of the Nation as rash and vainglorious.
During the 1780s Trevenen became increasingly frustrated at the failure of the Admiralty to offer him a command that he felt suited his experience, abilities and ambition. In 1787 he was considered for command of the Bounty but was appaently passed over in favour of Captain Cook’s old sailing master, William Bligh, with well-rehearsed historical and dramatic consequences.
Finally, Trevenen entered the service of Catherine The Great and became engaged in Russia’s war against Sweden. Catherine gave him a gold sword and shortly afterwards created him Knight of the 3rd Order of St. Vladimer. In June 1790 he was in command of the Natron Menea at the battle of Wyborg Bay when a shot stripped his thigh from the hip halfway down. He died six days later, aged 30. The day before the battle he addressed a letter to his wife, then expecting their first and only child. Dated June 21, 1790, on the Swedish Coast, it read in part: “My Dear Wife, if ever you receive this, most probably I shall be no more. To-morrow it is likely we shall again meet the enemy. You have represented to yourself the happiness we might have enjoyed if we had retired to live happily in the country in poverty. You have imagined that if you had pressed me you might have prevailed, and that from the want of a little perseverance you have lost all your earthly happiness. No such thing, my love. God has ordained it otherwise and therefore upbraid not yourself; let my words be engraven on your memory, for they are those of reason cited at the tribunal of death… I have often since our marriage, reflected on the happiness of my situation, and that it was in my power by quitting the service, to make it durable and secure but found it otherwise. I cannot flatter myself that we shall ever enjoy ourselves in peaceful tranquillity, for that would be too great a happiness to fall to the lot of any one in this world and I am first to be called to the next. Grieve not then, my love, but say to yourself, ‘God has done this…’ Therefore add not to your distress by needless reproaches, for, my love, you could not have altered one jot from the dispensations of the Most High. James Trevenen.”
Following his death Captain Trevenen was warmly remembered by Sir Sydney Smith, who had fought against him for the Swedes, saying: “…Poor fellow! I ever admired his character, and revered his abilities, although my junior in age and naval rank…” A friend, Mr. Samwell, drew up an account of Trevenen’s life and character that was printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1790 and into which was inserted an extract from a letter by another friend, a M. Picot, in the journal of Geneva: “Several persons must have known at Geneva a few years ago, a young Englishman whose name was Trevenen. He had performed the last voyage around the world with Captain Cook, and united the most distinguished talents in his profession as a seaman, the most striking modesty, the greatest sweetness of manner, and the keenest sensibility, clothed with a reserved and calm exterior. The valuable qualities of M. Trevenen gained him in a short time many friends in Geneva.”
In the wake of her husband’s death Elizabeth Trevenen was left with little or no money and an infant daughter. However, through the generosity and good offices of her in-laws and relations among the Trevenen, Penrose, Grylls and Borlase families she was enabled to return to Cornwall and take up residence, quite possibly with her mother-in-law, in No. 1 Cross Street, Helston.
Among the many relations was a niece, Emily Trevenen. Born in 1786, Emily was the only child of James Trevenen’s older brother, Reverend Thomas Trevenen M.A., who held livings in Cardinham, Poundstock and finally St. Mawgan-in-Meneage, and who had married Emily’s mother, Cordelia Grylls, in 1784. She was the daughter of Reverend Richard Gerveys Grylls who was several times mayor of Helston. While living at Cardinham Emily became acquainted with James and Elizabeth Trevenen’s daughter, Elizabeth Farquharson Trevenen, who subsequently lived as a companion for Emily at Mawgan, four miles from Helston, where Thomas Trevenen was Rector. The two cousins, both single and only children, remained close and devoted friends until Elizabeth Farquharson Trevenen’s death in 1823 at age just 33. Ann Trevenen Jenkin recounts that, “Not long before her own death Emily arranged and published The Notes and Letters of Elizabeth Farquharson Trevenen, “as a mark of her affection and admiration of that dedicated lady.”
In 1806 Elizabeth Trevenen married for a second time. Her new husband was Thomas Bowdler. He had qualified as a medical doctor at Edinburgh although he did not practice. Rather, having private means, he lived on the Isle of Wight where – with the aid of his sister, Harriet – he devoted his time to rendering the works of William Shakespeare suitable to, in his own words, ‘…with propriety be read aloud in a family.’ Dr. Bowdler is one of the few people in history whose names have become the root of a verb in common usage. Whether the memory of her first husband was too verdant, or if there was a general incompatibility of temperament (Dr. Bowdler was not, by most accounts, a particularly agreeable personality) the marriage did not prosper and the couple separated, Elizabeth returning to Helston. The now Mrs. Bowdler survived her second husband and died at Bath in 1845 at an advanced age.
Thomas Trevenen was made a Freeman of Helston in 1803. His wife, Cordelia died in 1812, the same year in which the Reverends Grylls and Trevenen became involved in a political dispute that rumbled on for several years and culminated in a parliamentary enquiry. Helston in that pre-Reform period was a classic “rotten borough” returning two MPs for a population of 2,500. At that time the Duke of Leeds, absentee landlord of the Godolphin estates, paid the entire annual municipal costs of Helston – a matter ranging between some £900-to-£1,700 – for the privilege of having his own nominees returned as Members for the borough. In the General Election of 1812 the nominees running under the patronage of the Duke of Leeds were returned but a rival candidate, Sir Christopher Hollis, challenged the result, maintaining that the mayor and aldermen of the borough had been effectively bribed into voting for the Duke’s nominees. Thomas Trevenen and Richard Gerveys Grylls were included among those named as voting under the Duke’s corrupting influence. The Rev. Trevenen’s brother-in-law, Admiral Sir Charles Vinnicombe Penrose, wrote of him that, “He was the most yielding in all matters in which the wants and wishes of others were concerned, coupled with the most inflexible adherence to right [I] ever met with. To this meekness he had subdued a great and even passionate quickness of nature.”
In the wake of his wife’s death and as a Committee of the House of Commons was being convened to consider the Hollis petition Thomas Trevenen suffered the first of a series of strokes that left him speechless and paralysed until his death in 1816. Emily Trevenen faithfully nursed her father until his death. She was to write: “His affectionate daughter, the untiring nurse of his long and trying illness, is able to testify that, although she has seen him strongly moved and keenly pained, she never saw his temper overcome.”
Following her father’s death Emily Trevenen became a woman of some wealth and, for a time, independence. In 1817 she took advantage of her new freedom to undertake an 1,100-mile tour of the country, spending significant amounts of time in the Lake District and parts of Scotland. She was accompanied by two of her Penrose relations, both, like herself, unmarried ladies. Emily Trevenen kept a remarkable journal, “Meditations and Reflections”, of this tour that reveals her to have been a well-read and, for a daughter of her era, well-educated woman of wide interests whose judgements, both literary and in general, show considerable sensibility, insight and acuity.
Not long after returning from her travels Emily – ever the dutiful unmarried relation – was called upon to nurse two ailing aunts for several years in Bristol. When their deaths freed her from that obligation, Emily – in about 1824 – came to reside at No.1 Cross Street. She continued to live in the house for the rest of her life. As might be expected of a woman of her social status she kept servants, most notably William Lampen, his wife, Alice, and a maid, Withers. Lampen was Miss Trevenen’s coachman and they appear to have had a close and – considering their respective social positions – affectionately cordial relationship.
Emily Trevenen’s journals are stored with the Coleridge Papers at the University of Texas, Austin. The reason for this is explained by the most important friendship of Emily’s life. In 1827 the Reverend Derwent Coleridge – son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – arrived in Helston with his wife, Mary, to assume the headmastership of Helston Grammar School. Although the exact date of the foundation of Helston Grammar School is unclear, it is thought to date back to the mid-16th century and was certainly in existence by 1610. When the Coleridges arrived the school was housed in Coinagehall Street in or on the site of the building now occupied by the Borlase & Company firm of solicitors.
The acquaintance of Emily Trevenen with the Coleridges ripened quickly, becoming sufficiently intimate for Emily to confide to Mrs. Coleridge that while, as single maiden lady living alone, she found the keeping of her journal useful and comforting, Mary would understand her admission that there were certain dangers involved. Emily stood godmother to the Coleridge’s son and wrote for him a book of improving tales called Little Derwent’s Breakfast.
So close had Emily’s friendship with the Coleridges become that when the Rev. Derwent’s sister, Sara Coleridge, married in 1829 Emily travelled to Keswick for the marriage as her brother and sister-in-law’s representative.
As recorded in an article for the West Country Magazine entitled “Emily Trevenen’s Album” by Anne Treneer, Derwent and Mary Coleridge accompanied Emily as far as Plymouth on the first leg of her journey to the Lake District whereupon they returned to Helston by coach. Lampen, it seems, overslept himself and was not present when they departed at six o’clock in the morning. Miss Trevenen, however, was up and about early enough to hear the loud “All’s Right” and to see the coach off. Her own carriage, she said, creaked and rattled as she drove on alone, having “discoursed” with Lampen for staying in bed. During her journey Emily stayed with Thomas and Mary (her cousin) Arnold at Rugby, the visit occasioning several additions to her album in the form of verses, sentiments and sketches. The album was a blue and gold affair acquired from the aforementioned Mr. Penaluna. She later stopped at Barnack where the author Charles Kingsley’s father was Rector. It was during this visit that Emily recommended that Charles and his younger brother be placed under Derwent Coleridge at Helston Grammar School. Following another stop at Fledborough with Mary Arnold’s parents, the Penroses, and at the end of a journey that had taken the better part of three months, Emily finally arrived at Keswick in time for Sara Coleridge’s marriage to her cousin, Henry Nelson Coleridge, on 3rd September. Miss Trevenen’s carriage – driven by the now-forgiven Lampen – helped convey the wedding party to the church at Crosthwaite, where the ceremony was conducted by William Wordsworth’s son, John. Again, new additions were made to Emily’s album. The most amusing was a seventeen-line jeu d’esprit by the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, concluding with the lines. “Baited with these vile books [albums!] my very den in, I say – that I forgive you, Miss Trevenen.”
Over the next few decades Cross Street saw dramatic developments. The town itself was enjoying a period of comparative prosperity. The economic depression that followed the ending of the Napoleonic Wars was waning. Mining entered something of a boom period, and agriculture – always prone to great seasonal and other fluctuations, particularly during the “hungry ‘Forties” – was, on the whole, flourishing. Those families of the Helston elite who had steadily accumulated wealth through their professional and commercial activities expended some of their money in building and/or expanding business and residential houses, many in Cross Street. Through this period Emily Trevenen – still living alone but for her servants – initiated and continued many activities that established her reputation as a local lady bountiful. She subscribed to several dozen charities and institutions. She gave an endowment of £5.5.0 per year to the new National School, built in 1828 and still standing as the Andrew Hall in Church Street. Apparently, she also gave the land on which the school was built, the tract, between the rear of No. 1 and St. Michael’s churchyard, corresponding to that said to have belonged to the Borlase family. In 1837 she gave the Borough a loan of £2,000 toward the building of a new market hall – now occupied by the Helston Museum – being repaid at an interest of £8 per annum. In 1838 she gave £100 toward improvements in St. Michael’s church. She kept scrupulous records of her various subscriptions, as well as her personal income and outgoings. Although in 1841 her great friends, the Coleridges, left Helston for London where Derwent took up the post of principal at St. Mark’s, Chelsea, the first Church Training College for schoolmasters, she remained in regular contact and correspondence, particularly with Mary. She had already made provision for them in her will, but in 1855 she wrote a letter to her solicitor (and relation), Glynn Grylls, directing that £100 per annum be paid to Derwent and his wife and if either should desire to visit her at any time, whatever her condition, they were to be accommodated at her expense.
The West Briton of 25th July 1856 carried the following: ”DEATHS: At Helston on Saturday last, much regretted, Miss Emily Trevenen, aged 71 years. By her decease, the poor of the neighbourhood have lost a kind and liberal benefactor. She was always among the first to promote and to carry out all kinds of charitable societies and to form free libraries for the poorer classes.” A similar notice appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette. In a final act of charity, reflecting her continuing interest in education, Emily’s will bequeathed £500 to fund an annual Exhibition with the aim of enabling a suitably qualified Helston Grammar School pupil to attend Oxford or Cambridge. This Exhibition Fund still exists and its founder is remembered in the present Helston School’s Trevenen House.
From 1863 onward it is possible to document successive owners of the freehold of No. 1 Cross Street and its residents. By that time the owner was the Reverend Michael Nowell Peters, Vicar of Madron. After serving in the Royal Cornwall Light Infantry, Mr. Peters was ordained in 1822 at the relatively late age of 32. In 1818 he had married Anne Borlase, seven years his senior, and the only daughter and heiress of Rev. William Borlase. It seems possible that Mr. Peters came into the Cross Street property as part of his wife’s wedding portion. A second possibility is that it descended to him through his great-uncle, Sir Michael Nowell. Sir Michael was knighted in 1785 after giving an address to George III following an assassination attempt on the king in that year. He was lord of the manor of Penwarne near the village of Mawnan several miles distant from Helston. Mr. Peters inherited the manor and other Nowell property in 1858 and the Cross Street house may have appertained to that estate. The Reverend Mr. Peters died in 1880, aged 90. The funeral cortege at Penzance numbered sixteen carriages and a number of Helston worthies were in attendance.
For several years following Emily Trevenen’s death No. 1 Cross Street was occupied by the household of the Reverend Thomas Trentham, Vicar of Wendron. The Census of 1861 recorded occupants as being Rev. Trentham, his wife, their three children, two of his sisters and four servants. Two of these were Tom Cobb, a footman, and Mary Blewitt, a maid.
In 1863 No. 1 Cross Street was demised to a surgeon, Joseph Williams, for his life and that of John James Borlase, aged ten, son of William Henry Borlase, also a surgeon. Dr. Williams was to be the first of a line of medical men who would occupy the property over the following century. This may have been coincidental but Helston at that time was about to endure a period when it would need all the healing it could get. In the winter of 1871-’72 the entire South West was devastated by a virulent epidemic of smallpox. [The effects and some ramifications of this plague on Helston and West Cornwall generally are described more fully in the Chapter of this Miscellany, “Two Lawmen of the Old (Cornish) West – Part One”.]
The freehold of No.1 Cross Street was acquired in 1888 by Dr. C.T. Bullimore, who had been tenant of the property for the previous ten years. The vendor was the late Rev. Peters’ son-in-law, the Reverend J. Tonkin. Another doctor, Bernard Charles Kendall, became tenant following Dr. Bullimore’s death.
By 1902 the tenant was Dr. Mark Taylor. Dr. Taylor was a staunch Conservative and a churchman of high Anglo-Catholic views. He was an enthusiastic sportsman, never leaving home without rod or gun, depending on the season. He had a local reputation for flamboyant exuberance bordering on the eccentric. In 1903 he acquired what was said to be the first privately owned motorcar on The Lizard Peninsula. An incident later recalled by Dr. Taylor’s son occurred on the day of the 1906 General Election. On that occasion Dr. Taylor was to utilize his automobile to ferry electors from outlying areas around Helston into the town to vote. Upon setting off westward from No. 1 Cross Street he found the road blocked by a wizened, beshawled, pipe-smoking old lady. She was a travelling woman called Granny Boswell who had a reputation for being able to “ill-wish” folks’ crops and houses if they displeased her, or refused to contribute toward her liquid refreshment. When Dr. Taylor sounded his horn to encourage Granny Boswell out of the road she erupted into a geyser of ripe language and refused to budge. When the car was finally steered past her, Granny Boswell followed it with an evil eye and further imprecations whereupon the vehicle ground to a halt with a broken torsion bar in front of the entrance to Penhellis – home of the prominent Helston Hill family – having gone less than 50 yards. Initially venting his frustration with some language to match the gypsy woman’s, Dr. Taylor was last seen pushing his car back to No. 1 in fits of laughter at the absurdity of the episode. His humour would not have been improved by the result of the General Election, a landslide for the Liberal Party. In the Truro-Helston Division the sitting Conservative M.P., Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was defeated by the Liberal candidate – 40 year-old barrister, George Hay Morgan – by a majority of 504 from a poll of 7,870. It was said that when the story of Dr. Taylor’s “ill-wished” motor got around Granny Boswell never had to buy another drink for the rest of her life.
Measures taken by that 1906 Liberal government may be regarded historically as laying the foundations of the modern welfare state. However, in the early, pre-National Health Service, decades of the 20th century doctoring remained a private affair, with medical practices being bought and sold, much as were other businesses. Dr. Taylor served as Helston Borough Medical Officer and was replaced during the Great War both in that position and as resident of No. 1 Cross Street by Dr. Reginald J. Brooks. His successor was Dr. T.J. Willis who, in 1929, acquired the freehold from the trustees of the estate of the late Dr. Bullimore. Dr. Willis continued in practice until 1963, his tenure seeing the transition between the eras of private medical practice and the introduction of the NHS in 1948. He is still clearly remembered by older Helston residents.
In the 50-plus years since Dr. Willis’s tenure No. 1 Cross Street has been the residence of a series of five owner-occupiers.
One tradition involving the house goes back at least to Emily Trevenen’s time and that is its part in Helston Flora Day. No. 1 Cross Street is one of the houses through which the Flora Day dancers – particularly those in the Midday Furry Dance – pass. This year, as every year, the dancers and the Town Band will enter No. 1 Cross Street from the Church Street side-door and pass over the polished wooden floor of the front hall and past the parlour with its evocative marine painting. As they come through the front door and out to the porch the present owners – one a doctor it should be said – will remind the ladies in their spring frocks and elaborate millinery and the gentlemen in their morning dress and top hats to “mind the step, mind the step.”
NOTE: Much material on the history of No. 1 Cross Street and the personalities connected with it was gathered as research for an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series Bricks & Mortals broadcast on 30th March 2008. The factual commentary on the history of the house was presented in the programme by Martin Matthews, formerly Curator of the Helston Museum.