Helstonia – Two Lawmen of the Old (Cornish) West – Part One
James Fitzsimmons & John Wedlock – Peace Officers in Victorian Helston
During the decades surrounding the American Civil War, a myth-laden period of mass Westward migration, expansion and settlement, a number of legendary (“When legend becomes fact, print the legend”) law enforcement officers emerged. Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, Luke Short and Ned Buntline among others came to embody what the notorious Judge Roy Bean called “The Law West of the Pecos.”
Mining being as important an activity as ranching and farming in the Old West, there were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Cornish immigrants in the frontier territories. A number of them became peace officers and the fate of several indicates how dangerous the law and order business could be.
In the early 1870s – pre-dating the arrival of Wyatt Earp as Deputy U.S. Marshall – Sheriff Treloar was shot to death in the street outside a saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, by a man he was intending to arrest.
In October 1889 Sheriff Glen Reynolds and his deputy “Hunkydory” Holmes of Globe, Arizona, were murdered near Riverside by the Apache Kid and other Indians from the San Carlos Reservation while taking the Kid to the State prison in Yuma.
At 10:00pm on the 30th June 1893 Sheriff & Town Marshall William H. Pascoe of Grass Valley California was shot dead by a gunman he also had come to arrest.
Dick Williams had come from Cornwall as a child and after successfully prospecting for silver, became Mayor of Nevadaville, and later Sheriff of Gilpin County, Colorado. In the latter job his name was said to be “…a terror to evil-doers.” In April 1896, the then 48 year-old former Sheriff had recently retired as Mayor of Central City, when he was shot by Samuel Covington in an affray at the County Courthouse, dying four days later. Covington had a financial grievance against a local judge and firstly put his pistol to the man’s chest but the magistrate managed to knock the gun-barrel away as it was fired. Covington then shot both Marshal Keheler and Williams, before falling himself to the Winchester of a cattle-raiser from the local Corydon mine.
Contemporary in time with these purveyors (and victims) of six-gun law were two men responsible for the marginally less hazardous task of keeping the peace on the streets of Helston in West Cornwall. They were James Fitzsimmons and John Wedlock. Fitzsimmons, through his youngest son, was to have an indirect link – not always to that son’s perfect advantage – with several of the more renowned Wild West personalities.
THE PLAGUED POLICEMAN
James Fitzsimmons was born ca.1810 in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Many years later his son, the champion prize fighter Bob Fitzsimmons, said that his father was from Co. Cavan but this seems to be untrue, although he may have lived there. K.R. Robinson, author of “Lanky Bob”, a recent and definitive biography of Bob Fitzsimmons that includes much original research into James Fitzsimmons’s military and police career, relates that in November 1829 the senior Fitzsimmons joined the 6th Enniskillen Dragoons at Dundalk, identifying himself on his enlistment papers as a labourer. During his years in the army he was posted to a number of places in Ireland, Scotland and England. He apparently became both a skilled blacksmith and an excellent horseman although it was through injuries consequent on his having been thrown from a horse that his military career ended in October 1838, the accident producing a condition similar to epilepsy. One of his postings had been to Truro in Cornwall where, in October 1837, he married Jane Strongman, a domestic servant and the daughter of an agricultural worker from St. Clements. Following his medical discharge in November 1839 Fitzsimmons returned from Dublin to Cornwall and was eventually sworn in as Police Constable No. 2 for the Borough of Truro. In that year legislation was passed requiring local authorities to establish police forces more or less on the model of the Metropolitan Police introduced ten years earlier. It appears that in those early days of professional policing the Watch Committee of the borough council were either unaware of Fitzsimmons’s medical history or did not regard it as an impediment to him performing his duties.
The Truro Police Charge Book from 1846, held by the Cornwall County Record Office, contains many instances of P.C. Fitzsimmons performing those duties, mainly in dealing with cases of drunkenness and disorder. Showing neither fear nor favour, on two occasions he arrested his wife’s uncle on those charges. In one 1848 variation on the D&D routine he arrested one John Parry, aged 21, for selling indecent ballads in the street.
After serving as Police Constable in Truro for thirteen years, in March 1853 James Fitzsimmons was appointed Borough Policeman of Helston at salary of seventeen shillings per week, replacing James Broadbent who, according to town directories of the period, returned to his trade as carpenter. Fitzsimmons’s wage rose to £1 per week the following year.
After her marriage Jane Fitzsimmons became a midwife and also, it seems, an unofficial or voluntary district nurse. Her experience of childbirth was not entirely second-hand as she eventually presented her husband with twelve children. The family’s first home in Helston was in what is now Lady Street, known at the time of their residence as Pig Street. The Fitzsimmons’s third daughter and eighth child was born in Pig Street, also in 1853. A near neighbour of the family’s would have been William Clifton Odger, a prominent Helstonian who kept a highly respected school throughout the mid-19th century in the house now 8 Lady Street and called Old Schoolhouse. [see future Odger chapter]
The police establishment of Helston at that period consisted of the full-time P.C. Fitzsimmons, and three part-time constables: Thomas Richards, a carpenter by trade and also Town Crier; William Pappin, a shoemaker, and Joseph Jory, a wheelwright. Both Richards and Pappin served (as did James Fitzsimmons) at various times as Town Gaoler. In 1858 Jory was replaced as part-time constable by James Paull. This followed the establishment in 1857 of the Cornwall County Constabulary. In reply to a letter from the Home Secretary asking their intentions with respect to the new County force, the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses – conscious of Helston’s privileges as an ancient Borough established by Royal Charter, and with an eye to minimizing expense – replied: “That in the opinion of the Watch Committee & Council the peaceable character of the Borough renders any additional police force unnecessary.” Newspaper accounts and other reports seem to bear out the Council’s view. Most crime in the borough was of the drunk-and-disorderly variety, usually dealt with summarily by the local magistrates. There was a certain amount of theft – usually petty and opportunistic – but smuggling was on the decline and generally under the jurisdiction of the Excisemen. One continuing public order problem was the animosity between two roughly separate groups of miners: the Breage and Sithney miners who generally congregated in the pubs at the west end of the town, notably the Blue Anchor, Prince’s Arms and Seven Stars and the Wendron miners who frequented houses further east such as the Helston Arms, Six Bells and New Inn. Fights among and between these two groups were endemic. In one incident James Fitzsimmons is said to have been thrown out through the front window of the Blue Anchor by a gang of miners after interfering in an altercation between the miners and a naval press gang. This seems unlikely as naval impressment – formally abolished in 1857 – had not been widely used since the 1820s. K.R. Robinson suggests that the naval party was not a press gang but was rather searching for deserters; a proceeding that Fitzsimmons, as a former military man whose eldest son, moreover, was serving in the Royal Navy, would have supported.
On another occasion described in his reminiscences many years later by the prominent Helston builder William J. Winn, a brawl between some Breage and Sithney miners developed in the entranceway of the Seven Stars. In the middle of the ructions, trying to restore order, were James Fitzsimmons and the two part-timers William Pappin and James Paull. Thomas Rogers, then mayor of Helston, lived in a house opposite the pub and, according to Mr. Winn, “…Hearing and seeing the strife the old gentleman, hatless and with his white locks ruffled by the breeze, came across the street and standing on the pavement shouted at the top of his voice as he raised his hand “I require peace! Do you know who I am? I am the Mayor of this Borough.” One of the nearest combatants replied, “I don’t care if the’ert a hoss,” and levelled the old man…” Mr. Winn says that a number of the brawlers were apprehended and fined but was unsure if the perpetrator of the “brutal and unmanly” assault on the mayor was identified. The policemen apparently regarded the whole business as all in a day’s work.
A further episode described by Mr. Winn took place in the no-longer-extant Prince’s Arms adjacent to the Seven Stars: “It was a Wheal Vor payday and some of the tributers had had a good month which, of course, meant ‘money to burn’ and a good spree. My father was assisting my aunt who kept a refreshment house near the inn when a young man (John Best) rushed into the house in a very excited state saying ”William, William, they are killing poor old Constable Pappin in the Prince’s Arms. Father at once dashed into the inn and found that one of the men had laid hold of Pappin’s staff and was twisting the thong at the end around the constable’s wrist. Father hit the man a terrific blow under the chin with his fist and knocked him on the hot plate of the slab, which was hot indeed. The man yelled with pain and one of his ‘comraades’ snatched up the poker and was about to bring it down on father’s bald pate when Fitzsimmons dashed in and with an upper-cut with his staff under the man’s uplifted arm caused the arm to drop useless by his side and perhaps saved my father’s life…”
The incident ended with some “young townsmen” helping to quell the disturbance and a number of the fighting miners were locked up and heavily fined the following Monday and the ringleaders wound up in Bodmin Gaol without the option. [The John Best mentioned was a close friend of the schoolmaster, Mr. Odger, and is named on the death certificate as being present when Mr. Odger’s died. In his will Mr. Odger decreed that after his wife’s death his house and other properties should go nominees of John Best’s wife. Best had, like his father Benjamin, been a house painter and but he eventually became a considerable property owner in the town and served for some years as a Borough Councillor.]
Along with these attempts to keep the tipsy and obstreperous in line other duties consisted mainly of helping to enforce the abatement of various public nuisances to do with sanitation, slaughterhouses, regulation of fairs and markets and other such concerns. The truncheon or staff that seemed to suffice as the Helston constables’ substitute for the Wild West lawman’s Colt .45 was often embellished with the escutcheon of the Godolphin family. As previously related, until the Reform Act of 1832 Helston had been a classic “rotten borough”, returning two M.P.s to represent a population of just over 3,000. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries the Godolphin interest, usually in the person of successive Dukes of Leeds, undertook the entire municipal costs of Helston – a sum ranging £900 to £1,700 – in return for the privilege of nominating the two M.P.s. This process lay at the root of Helston’s traditionally acrimonious party political divisions, which were notably intense for a provincial town of that period. These divisions were to play a significant role in the last phase of James Fitzsimmons’s police career.
Reflecting quieter aspects of his duties, in January 1855 P.C. Fitzsimmons was ordered to take charge of the town fire engine and to see that it was kept in good order and ‘played’ every fortnight. He was a paid an extra ten shillings a year for this duty, over and above his £1 per week salary. At the annual November meeting of that year he was given a ‘donation’ of £4 for services during the year.
By November 1858 James Fitzsimmons was also Town Gaoler and he and his family lived above the Gaol, then situated in Shute Hill. In 1860 the post brought P.C. Fitzsimmons into conflict with his employers. At a Council meeting of 27th July that year, “James Fitzsimmons’s bill of £13.2.1. for maintenance of prisoners was produced and read and ordered to stand over.” One week later he was dismissed as Policeman and Gaoler as of the end of the month and it was resolved: “…that measures be adopted to secure an efficient and trustworthy successor.” However, on 24th August: “The Council having reconsidered the circumstances which induced them to dismiss James Fitzsimmons from the offices of Policeman and Gaoler are induced to reinstate him in the office of Policeman upon his expressing sorrow for his past neglect of duty and promising to be more cautious in future.” The Council resolved to advertise for a new Gaoler. William Pappin was appointed a week later. Fitzsimmons continued to be re-sworn into his office each November for the next twelve years.
Harrison Harrod & Co.’s Directory for 1862 lists Alfred Jarrett as being County (as distinct from Borough) Policeman based in Helston. This entry had been overtaken by events. Alfred Hipwood Jarrett was a native of Bristol. A bookbinder by trade, he had also served in the 2nd Dragoon Guards. He was appointed to the Cornwall County Constabulary shortly after its establishment in April 1857 and, having been previously stationed at Launceston and Truro, came to Helston as County Police Superintendent in October 1861. A year later he was called on to resign for drunkenness. Mr. Jarrett’s was not an isolated case. Of 39 C.C.C. policemen based in Helston over the first few years of the County Constabulary’s existence, nine were dismissed for drunkenness; one for being perpetually dirty and lying; one because his wife constantly abused his sergeant; one for having improper relations with a married woman in St. Day; and one for having impregnated his niece. It is a mildly curious coincidence that the Fitzsimmons’s fifth son and seventh child, born ca.1851, was named Jarrett.
Earlier biographers of Bob Fitzsimmons have speculated that his father was not the most efficient and effective of policemen, citing the Blue Anchor episode, at least one other assault on him from which he did not come out well, and his dismissal as Gaoler in 1860. It has also been suggested that his own drinking habits were less than rigorously Methodist. However, the official records of both his military and police careers quoted by K.R. Robinson attest that he was an active and conscientious soldier and policeman and of moderate habits. It may also be assumed that his wife of 60 years, a woman of strong religious convictions, would have taken a very dim view of any regular insobriety on her husband’s part. His fitness (at least initially) to be a police officer may also be argued both from his military background and the apparently stalwart character of his sons. There is Bob – said to have been a pugnacious youth before developing into a professional prize fighter of enormous skill and bottomless courage. Bob’s eldest brother, James Fitzsimmons the younger, served in the Royal Navy before ill health caused his early retirement and death at only 35. He is buried in St. Michael’s churchyard. Another brother, William, a carpenter and stonemason by trade, served in both the army and Royal Marines. He married his brother James’s widow and was a part-time Borough Constable in Helston before moving to America at his brother Bob’s behest. Jarrett Fitzsimmons (nicknamed “Charlot”) was said to have been a champion Cornish wrestler.
Whatever his employers thought of P.C. Fitzsimmons’s general performance, in 1866 the Borough Council decided that he could do with a new colleague. John Wedlock was a native [?] of Helston, born c.1816. He apparently followed several trades, including shoemaker and carpenter. The Census of 1861 lists him as “Pattern Maker to a Foundry”, and his formal appointment by the Borough Council refers to him as “Artificer”. He was then married to Ann(a) Wedlock and the couple lived in Lower Green with five children aged between four and nineteen. Ann Wedlock died in the autumn of 1865. John Wedlock remarried in the spring of 1866. His new wife was apparently a widow. The 1871 Census records the household as including John, aged 53, Police Constable; his wife, Jenifer Grace, aged 47, Tailoress; daughter-in-law, Gertrude Bromley, aged 15, Dressmaker; son, Joseph, aged 13, Printer’s Assistant; and mother-in-law, Grace Palamountain, aged 70, Blacksmith’s widow.
Borough Council minutes for 8th August 1866 contain the following: “Copy: Appointment of Mr. John Wedlock – Inspector of Nuisances. We the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Helston in the County of Cornwall in exercise of the powers vested in us under the Act of Parliament passed in the 23rd and 24th years of the reign of Her present Majesty entitled “An Act to Amend the Acts for the Removal of Nuisances and the Prevention of Diseases” do hereby appoint John Wedlock of the said Borough Artificer Inspector of Nuisances within the said Borough at a salary of £1 per week. Signed: Frederick Hill, Town Clerk.” His new post required Wedlock to make a weekly report to the Council and to execute its orders in respect of reported nuisances.
At the annual November meeting of 1866 James Fitzsimmons was re-sworn and John Wedlock was also appointed a part-time Constable. William Pappin and James Paull continued as part-timers. In January 1867 Mr. Wedlock was retained “…at present wages for another month or so long as the Mayor (Thos. H. Edwards) shall think proper.”
For the next three years the Council continued to employ John Wedlock in various capacities to be detailed in due course. The routine began to change in January 1870. A meeting on the 26th resolved: “…that the propriety of retaining John Wedlock’s services be considered at the next quarterly meeting.” That meeting, on the 24th March resolved: “…that Mr. John Wedlock’s services be discontinued, that the propriety of dispensing with the services of Policeman Fitzsimmons be considered at the next quarterly meeting & also that the Police arrangements of the Borough be taken into consideration at the same time.” Presumably this uncertainty arose from continuing – and politically charged – debates as to whether the Helston Borough Police should be amalgamated with the County force. The Home Office and H.M. Inspectors of Constabulary were in periodic correspondence with the Helston Borough Council about the matter; the Inspectors often noting what they judged to be the wholly inadequate police provision for a town of 4,000 population and 300 acres in area. There would also have been jurisdictional anomalies between the Borough and County police personnel. In 1871 Arthur T. Grant was appointed Superintendent of the County Constabulary for Helston. His tenure was much more stable than that of Mr. Jarrett. He remained as Superintendent until his retirement in 1892 and continued resident in the town as a grocer and tobacconist. He died in 1900 and is buried in Helston Town Cemetery. His children were also prominent in the town; daughter, Ann Elizabeth carrying on the tobacconist business; sons Walter, as a watchmaker, and Arthur T. jun. as a dentist and engraver.
The amalgamation question appears to have been resolved when the Council (Henry Rogers, Mayor), on 27th July, having decided that the Borough Police would remain independent of the County force, “…appointed John Wedlock Surveyor & Inspector of Nuisances and Additional Policeman at a salary of £1 per week and to devote all of his time to the duties of these offices.”
The annual meetings of 1870, ’71 and ’72 saw Fitzsimmons and Wedlock re-sworn as Co-Policemen and Pappin and Paull as part-time constables. However, by the end of 1872 all these arrangements were to be seriously upset.
During the winter of 1871-’72 West Cornwall, in company with much of the South West, saw the onset of a virulent smallpox epidemic and a degree of panic began to grow. The ramifications of the plague were soon felt in the proceedings of Helston Borough Council. The first hint of disquiet came in May 1872 when, citing “…much alarm being felt locally…” William Pappin was asked by the Council to make a room in the Town Gaol available for use as a hospital for smallpox victims. Despite this the Council seems to have remained fairly unperturbed as only four cases had been reported and there were hopes that the epidemic would be contained. Matters had not, however, improved by the autumn. The County Notes column of the November 7th Royal Cornwall Gazette commented: “Small-pox, it is said by two anonymous letter-writers, is very prevalent in Helston, and the Mayor and the Town council have not shown that they fully appreciate the magnitude of the evil. Mr. Rogers (Mayor), however, absolutely denies the truth of these statements. We are informed that the dreadful disease still clings in Penzance… although the town is well-drained and has a good water supply. We should like to know how the provisions of the Vaccination Act have been carried out in the district.”
On November 16th, following the annual municipal elections, Frederick Vivian Hill was chosen Mayor, succeeding Henry Rogers. Two days later a writer using the non de plume “I.C.U.” commented in the West Briton that despite the incidence of the disease in the vicinity the small-pox hospital in Helston remained unused and the Council sanguine, if not indolent, although there was some talk of the need to improve the town sewage system. In its November 23rd number the Royal Cornwall Gazette, while urging openness, honesty and action in Truro, added: “It appears almost impossible to impress Boards of [Poor Law] Guardians with the importance of strictly enforcing the Vaccination Act. Helston and Penzance are suffering terribly from the scourge of small-pox through the neglect of vaccination and yet other Boards of Guardians are supine.”
On 4th December 1872 the Council resolved “…to inspect William Pappin’s accounts in respect of [small-pox] victims, and that his salary be held at 12/6d at the present time.”
According to Bob Fitzsimmons’s printed recollections of his Helston childhood, at this period his mother became widely and warmly recognized for the kindness and comfort she extended to smallpox sufferers. Her activities might be guessed at when considering this item which appeared in the County Notes column of the December 12th 1872 Royal Cornwall Gazette: “DISINFECTANTS FOR SMALL-POX – The following instructions for disinfecting rooms and clothing from the virus of small-pox are communicated by a lady who has been a volunteer nurse: – About 1 lb. of chloralum powder sprinkled along the room and over soiled linen or any clothes that can be washed. Let them lie rolled up with the powder for a couple of hours and then let a tap of water run over the clothes until they are thoroughly rinsed. After which wash as usual. Feather beds should be thoroughly fumigated and the tick replaced. Straw beds must be destroyed. Any clothes or bedding that cannot be washed should be hung up in an empty room and sulphur burnt under them, or carbolic acid fumes produced by stirring some carbolic acid in an open vessel with a red-hot iron.”
With the New Year reports of the epidemic continued to be mixed. The West Briton of January 27th: “Clean Bill of Health – Helston is now perfectly free from small-pox, no new cases having been reported for several weeks, and the general health of the town is good.” A fortnight later the same paper reporting the previous year’s last quarter figures wrote: “30 [small-pox] deaths in Helston. Twelve in October, twelve in November, six in December and very few cases remaining in the sub-District.”
Between these two reports the Borough Council added to the burdens of Fitzsimmons and Wedlock when they resolved, “That the Policemen do 24 hours duty in succession instead of 12 as heretofore.”
The West Briton also printed a general article on the plague, citing the fatalism of the poor (many people were opposed to vaccination as an interference in the ways of Providence), the regulation of isolation and the use of public vehicles. In another plea for openness about the smallpox in Truro the February 22nd Royal Cornwall Gazette continued: “…On the other hand at Penzance and Helston the ‘hush up’ system was carried out to the fullest extent and not a word found its way into the newspapers. But what has been the result? Rumour, with its many tongues, so magnified what was really bad enough that timid people in those districts feared to enter the towns and avoided the shops as pestilence houses.”
The Registrar-General’s report for the first quarter of 1873 indicated a resurgence of the disease in Helston and the crisis now came directly to the Fitzsimmons household. The Council meeting of 23rd March 1873 resolved: “…to take into consideration the conduct of P.C. Fitzsimmons and the recent introduction of a Sufferer from Small Pox into the Borough.” A proposal was put by Henry Rogers and seconded by John Best: “That in consequence of the misconduct of P.C. Fitzsimmons and his disobedience to the orders of the Mayor and ex-Mayor he be dismissed from 3rd May next.” An amendment was put by R.H. Cade and seconded by Richard Kerby: “That the charge against P.C. Fitzsimmons of bringing a Sufferer from Small Pox into the Borough has not been proved and that he not be dismissed.” The proposal was passed against the amendment by nine votes to seven, the Mayor, F.V. Hill, voting for the amendment. One week later at another meeting it was proposed that: “…James Paull be appointed P.C. in the room and place of James Fitzsimmons at a salary of £1 per week.” An amendment was put: “That no policeman be appointed in the room and place of James Fitzsimmons but that one P.C. be deemed sufficient for the requirements of the Borough.” The amendment was defeated in favour of the original proposal by nine votes to six, the split replicating the one over James Fitzsimmons’s dismissal.
Between these two meetings another article appeared in the West Briton: “HELSTON GUARDIANS – Some of the Helston [Poor Law] Guardians were wishful that a gratuity should be given to Mr. W. Wearne, the Medical Officer, in consideration of his exertions during the late small-pox epidemic. He attended upwards of 100 pauper cases making 900 visits and out of these were 13 deaths, four of children not vaccinated. There was a large majority against his having anything. So much for the liberality of the Board.”
From a historical perspective this division is intriguing as British local government and municipal business during that period – especially in rural areas – was not usually marked by extreme partisanship or factionalism. Helston Borough Councillors at the time (some were also Poor Law Guardians) tended to be lawyers and other professionals who, in the main, served the interests of the several local landed families – to whom they were often related – and who employed them to look after the business of their estates and enterprises. Together with these were a leavening of merchants and master tradesmen. Mayors and Deputy Mayors were often elected on the principle of “Buggin’s Turn”, and such municipal disputes as arose would have been fairly parish pump in nature and concerned with the shillings and pence of local expenditure rather than larger issues of political economy and philosophy. However, in contrast with, say, Penzance, where almost all local councillors described themselves as Independent, party political feeling in Helston had been traditionally intense and undoubtedly the smallpox outbreak and the attendant public panic it caused – combined with the continuing arguments about the Borough’s policing arrangements – exacerbated the partisanship. In votes concerning P.C. Fitzsimmons’s dismissal, and the related amendments, those voting for his dismissal and the appointment of James Paull as replacement were the then-ruling Liberals and those against the Conservatives. In this there may be another enigma in James Fitzsimmons’s relations with the Councillors. He was known to be staunch and vocal advocate of Irish Home Rule which opinions, one might think, would have made Gladstonian Liberals view him more sympathetically than the strongly Unionist Tories. On the other hand, many people with Dissenting views were more sympathetic to the mainly Protestant Unionists than to the predominently Catholic Irish Nationalists.
Why then was James Fitzsimmons singled out as a scapegoat in the midst of the prevailing hysteria, and in what did his “misconduct” consist? Here we very probably come to his wife’s activities in attending smallpox victims. According to Bob Fitzsimmons’s later recollections, in addition to his mother’s outside ministrations, the family took in a smallpox sufferer who apparently had no other refuge. This act, in the context of the witch-hunt atmosphere present among some local people and the Mayoral order banning smallpox victims from entering the Borough, seems be what ended James Fitzsimmons’s police career. In any case, within months of his dismissal as Helston Borough Policeman James Fitzsimmons had emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and five youngest children, including Bob, then aged ten.
Over the past thirteen-plus decades there has been an accretion of myth and misinformation concerning Bob’s life and the Fitzsimmons family’s time in Helston. Some of this may be attributed to Bob himself as he was a man with whom no tale lost in the telling. There is, for instance, the locally held doubt as to whether the house at 61 Wendron Street was actually – as the blue plaque on the façade with its misspelling of his name claims – the one in which he was born. Some older Helston people maintain that he was in fact born in one of a row of four cottages, now demolished, that stood some yards away on the opposite side of the road at a right angle to Wendron Street in what is now Windsor Court. The 1861 Census – the last before Bob’s birth – merely places the family in Wendron Street. The 1871 Census records the family as living in Silver Hill, further east along Wendron Street. In any case, the question seems to be unproven either way. The misapprehension that Bob was born in June 1862 rather than on the true date of 26th May 1863 appears to have come from Bob, the earlier date having been inscribed in the family Bible. The various tales of Bob’s schooldays and supposed apprenticeship to a Helston blacksmith [at age nine?] may be filed under folklore. The real, smallpox panic related reasons for James Fitzsimmons’s dismissal as Borough Policeman and the subsequent emigration to New Zealand have come to light only comparatively recently. Bob Fitzsimmons’s biographers prior to K.R. Robinson, being already convinced that the family left in 1872, seem not have gone into the Helston Borough Council Minute Books for 1873, in which the story and some of its ramifications become clear. There is also the idea that James went out to New Zealand in answer to recruiting advertisements for the local police. It should be remembered in this context that James was 63 years old, although, as K.R. Robinson relates, both he and his wife knocked ten years off their ages in their emigration documents. More convincing reasons for the choice of destination are to be found in the facts that two of the Fitzsimmons’s older daughters had already gone out to New Zealand; that John Williams, the son of a Helston blacksmith and iron founder to whom Jarrett Fitzsimmons had been apprenticed was by then established in New Zealand in the same business; and that an embryonic Cornish community was already forming in the South Island coastal town of Timuru. All these palpable and possible motives make the move to New Zealand entirely rational and predictable.
It can only be guessed what the feelings of the plagued policeman and his family were concerning his dismissal after 20 years service to the Borough. Bitterness and resentment, certainly: perhaps mixed with some furtive inkling of shame or disgrace in the eyes of the town. It is impossible to know for sure as neither Bob (one fleeting reference in his memoirs apart) nor any of the others appear in later life to have publicly detailed the precise reasons why seven Fitzsimmons family members left Helston and the country when they did. It is rather suggestive that, while Bob visited Britain and Ireland twice during the period of his boxing celebrity, and often spoke proudly of his Cornish roots, there is no record of his ever going back to Cornwall.
The dust had certainly not settled when the annual November municipal elections came round, by which time, it appears, James and the rest of the emigrants were gone. One press report of the election led: “MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS – …The result is highly disgraceful to the town, and has been brought about by wholesale bribery in the shape of money, meat and drink. Open houses were plentiful…” Another report read: “HELSTON. The principles involved in this election were entirely of a political nature and, therefore it was natural that a considerable amount of feeling should be excited between the rival Liberals and Conservatives. There was a chance some time ago of the question of the amalgamation of the borough with the county police forming the most conspicuous point in the elections; but this seemed to have died out, no doubt because such an event would never take place. Add to fervid political feeling, the fact that Saturday was the market day, and that Helston was crowded with agriculturalists, the town was more than ordinarily lively. In fact, more than lively, because now and then some bad blood would rush to the head of some susceptible human being, and infecting another equally susceptible being, the two would settle their differences with anything but smiling faces and nothing less than an all round pugilistic display. There was not a great deal of this, but there was a considerable amount of chaff and banter among the crowds assembled at different points, and it was with the best possible intention that the borough policemen acted the Good Samaritan by dragging these fiery members of society out of the surging and excited crowds. Of course everybody enjoyed the fun, and rumour said that a great many of these pugilistic worthies had greater liking for the cup that inebriates, rather than the cup that cheers. In truth, it appeared in many cases as if this were the case. However, nothing serious came of these incidents, and they only afforded amusement for the crowds… Of course, all the interest was centred around the Town Hall, and throughout the day that was the chief point of the gathering. There was, of course, the customary worrying, coaxing, and entreating, perhaps in some instances bullying, of those who had the misfortune to be voters. On the other hand there was the secrecy of the Ballot to put against that; and as in more important elections secret voting proved to be of successful result to the Conservatives. They had four candidates, Messrs G. Lanyon, J.W. Curry, C. Wakeham, and Capt. Daniell. Mr. Lanyon and Capt. Daniell sought re-election. The Liberals nominated Messrs T. Rogers, T.H. Edwards, who sought re-election, and Messrs T.Williams and C.J. Cunnack. The Conservatives were all Churchmen. The Liberals, with the exception of one, were Dissenters, and being total abstainers, reckoned upon the temperance vote, which is rather strong in the borough. The polling commenced at nine o’clock, the Mayor (Mr. F.V. Hill) presiding, and went on very steadily. Although the greatest interest was taken in the result there was no rush at any particular time, but one voter was sufficiently interested to come all the way from Plymouth to record his vote. The crowds waited patiently beside the Guildhall… and when the result was announced there was a considerable amount of cheering. The result as announced was a decided victory for the Conservatives… The Conservatives [thus] carried all their men except one. The successful Liberal, Mr. Rogers, went into the Corporation at the first municipal election nearly forty years ago and has been Mayor several times. The Council now consists of eight Liberals and eight Conservatives.”
In contrast, the report below this one began: “PENZANCE. The Election passed off with quietness and decorum…”
In Helston – where P.C. Wedlock and his part-time and County colleagues had obviously enjoyed a rumbustious Election Day – the excitements and high feelings were only beginning. The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported the first meeting of the new Council: “HELSTON. Mr. Richard Kerby, auctioneer, has been elected to fill the civic chair for the ensuing year. On being proposed by Capt. Daniell, Mr. Henry Rogers wished to know whether Mr. Kerby was in favour of the ejection of certain borough officers, but Mr. Kerby refused to reply. Thereupon all the Liberals refused to vote, and no other person being proposed Mr. Kerby was declared elected.” The report concluded by noting: “The meeting was largely attended, party feeling running high.” The West Briton’s report of the same meeting was rather more graphic: “HELSTON MAYORAL ELECTION. At this election… some most extraordinary and discreditable proceedings took place… The election of the Mayor took place on Monday… The hall was densely crowded and the excitement great. The recent election having given the Conservatives the casting vote in the Council, they used their power in a most arbitrary manner as will be seen from the following report.
“There were present the following members of the Corporation: – Messrs F.V Hill, H. Rogers, C.L. Daniell, H. Roberts, F. Penberthy, R. Kerby, Robert Cade, R.H. Cade, R.J. Cunnack, P.G. Hill, J. Best, T.N. Curry, G. Lanyon, W. Penrose. Mr. J. Woolcock was unable to attend through illness, and Mr. T. Rogers was not present at the earlier part of the proceedings.
“Capt. Daniell proposed Mr. Kerby as Mayor for the ensuing year. This was seconded by Mr. P.G. Hill. Mr. H. Rogers wished to ask if Mr. Kerby intended being party to the dismissal of certain officers, as was rumoured.
“Mr. R.H. Cade said he rose to order (a most unwarrantable liberty, the Mayor being in the chair). – Mr. Rogers complained of the interruption, and again asked Mr. Kerby if he intended to be party to ejecting men without trial who had worthily filled their offices; he wished to have a unanimous election, but if Mr. Kerby refused to reply he should decline to vote. – Mr. R.J. Cunnack deprecated the state of party feeling, and hoped that the members of the Corporation would do their best for the interests of the borough, and not descend to such bitter partisanship. On the clerk calling on Mr. Penberthy to vote, he asked Mr. Kerby if he proposed voting for the dismissal of officers appointed by the Liberals, but Mr. Kerby refusing to reply, declined to vote, and in this he was followed by the whole of the Liberals. The Conservatives being in the majority by one, and no other person being proposed, Mr. Kerby was declared elected. Mr. Kerby thanked the Corporation for the honour conferred upon him, and promised to carry out the duties of the office to the best of his ability.
“Mr. H. Rogers proposed that Messrs R. Paul and R. Libby should be elected town sergeants for the ensuing year. Mr. Robert Cade said that Libby had voted contrary to Act of Parliament, and he proposed his dismissal and H. Beagleholle should be appointed in his stead.
“Mr. Libby, against whom no charge was laid, indignantly threw his cloak and hat on the table, amid cries of “You’re a dirty lot.
“J. Wedlock and J. Paull were proposed by Mr. H. Rogers as Policemen. – Mr. R.H. Cade thought that one policeman was enough for the borough, and would propose Wedlock only. – Mr. H. Rogers asked the inhabitants present whether one policeman was enough for a borough of 4,000 inhabitants, and whether they wished their windows broken and their trees cut down. “”Yes, yes,” from Mr. A.C. Cade. Cries of “You’re a dirty lot” “’Tis a dirty job” and great excitement.) On being put the amendment was carried by a majority of one.
“P.C. Paull wished to say a few words but was commanded to be silent by Mr. R.H. Cade (who, with is brother, Robert, seemed to have most to say), but Mr. T. Rogers manfully claimed a hearing for him as an Englishman. Paull complained of the ill treatment he had received for no offence, and, pointing to Mr. Robert Cade, charged him with being “the great briber.” The effect was magical – Cade looked like one who had received a home thrust. Wm. Pappin, Richard Banfield and Richard Gluyas were appointed constables. The watch committee is to include the whole of the council.
“The bill for the borough expenses required a heavy call on the poor-rate. On leaving the Town-hall not a single Liberal accompanied the Mayor to his house. The annual dinner was held at the Angel Hotel, about 30 being present.”
This accusation – echoing the previously quoted charge – that the Conservatives had “bought” the election was vehemently denied, and there might well have been an element of pots and kettles in the whole business. It may also be noted that the West Briton of that period was a broadly Liberal-supporting organ, while the Royal Cornwall Gazette generally took the Tory view. The Liberals, led by Henry Rogers, immediately organized a testimonial subscription for Mr. Libby and P.C. Paull and quickly raised £20.
A few days later Charlotte Williams was found guilty of being drunk and disorderly on the day of the election. She claimed she was being victimized by Liberal magistrates for having voted Conservative [would she have had a vote?] and left the court crying “Tories forever.”
NOTE: Part Two – “Lawful Wedlock” – will give a more detailed account of the police career of John Wedlock.