Thursday Thought: Cornish Creativity

Here’s a new song from Bert Biscoe, Cornish poet, songwriter, entertainer and radio personality who lives in Truro — “When I Played a Red Guitar”.

With Bert Biscoe

Photo with Bert Biscoe

Bert is also a politician, an independent. He is a member of both the Cornwall Council and the Truro City Council. I met him when he starred (and I spoke) at the International Gathering of the Cornish American Heritage Society in Milwaukee in 2014.

Bert is an amazing facilitator and connector with energy and vision. He was the key champion in bringing about our book tour of Cornwall last summer, sparked by an insightful review he wrote of The Miner & the Viscount. Bert introduced us to the people with whom we arranged book talks and media interviews. And as a result we are now having to arrange a reprint in England!

This photo is of my daughter Sarah with Bert and his daughter Molly and me at dinner in Truro. Food in Cornwall these days is delicious!

Amazing comment from Cornish poet and story teller!

Read Bert’s review.



Thursday Thought: Rabbiting

Questions that always come up when I talk to book groups are where did you get your stories and why did you put them in?

Before I started writing historical fiction I wrote stories about my own life in Cornwall. I called them Memoirs While Memory Lasts. This stimulated remembering so many experiences and these stories have been a rich source of material for my novel writing.

I don’t want to give away too much if you are still looking forward to reading The Miner & the Viscount, but anyway you would quickly learn that the Honorable James Trenance is a bit of a rotter. In my early drafts the feedback from my writing group was that I needed to set up the psychological cause of his nasty nature and to explain his conflict with the miner. So I used a story of my own childhood.

In Our Gang and other Warfare I told about life as a boy in World War II. 15e169There were food shortages and stringent rationing. Proteins were in short supply. Each week we were allowed 4 ozs. of bacon or ham, about 8ozs. of other meat, one fresh egg and one packet of dried eggs. In Cornwall we were fortunate to get fresh fish and could also hunt wild game. I went into the fields to catch a rabbit or two to feed my family. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a successful hunter.

However, I had a story to tell that I used in my book in Chapter 9, entitled VillainyGo to The Story Behind the Story to read it. And here is an extract from my memoir  that tells of the real life experience that I drew on for the story that enriches the character of James Trenance. (If you would like to read the whole story, read more here.

Our Gang and Other Warfare

I did have quite an adventure with Raymond Hocking. He was allowed to go even beyond the fourth field, and he had a pet ferret that he had trained and carried in a burlap sack. He could ride a bicycle, and he knew lots of swear words. He took me rabbiting. We used to eat quite a lot of wild rabbit, because with all the rationing there were only about eight ounces of meat a week, and that didn’t go very far. Rabbit pie with parsley and pastry was my favorite. Once I made a pair of mittens with fur I had skinned off two rabbits, nailing them stretched out on a board and rubbing alum on them to cure them and olive oil to make them soft. I had meant to make fur gloves, but they were too difficult, and actually my mother had to help me finish making the mittens.

Anyway, I went off rabbiting with Raymond Hocking. He said that you had to find a rabbit burrow and put a snare or a net at all the holes except one. The snares were like a lasso made of thin flexible wire with a noose. The nets had pegs to fasten them around the openings to the burrows. Then you put the ferret into the remaining hole, and it would chase the rabbits into the snares or nets. Raymond tied a piece of string around the ferret’s muzzle in case it decided to eat the rabbit itself. Pretty soon we would have rabbit pie! Or several!

When most of the holes had snares or nets over them, he put the ferret into the remaining open hole. It quickly disappeared and we waited. We waited, and we waited. No rabbit. Actually, no ferret. Raymond Hocking began to look a bit anxious. He said he had spent a lot of time training that ferret and it was the only one he had. He didn’t know if his father would buy him another.

We went on waiting. Still no rabbit. Still no ferret. At least it meant we didn’t have to kill the rabbits that we caught. After a long while, probably at least five or six minutes, we gave up and walked home rather dejected. Raymond Hocking never took me rabbiting again.



Thursday Thought: Historical Fiction

Every time I give a book talk people come up to me afterwards and describe how much they enjoy reading historical fiction. Of course, some readers simply enjoy a jolly romp in four-poster beds where the heroine is divested of her elegant eighteenth century gown.

Others say that they find an historical novel an enjoyable way of learning about history and the way people lived in the past. This view is very much in tune with the current search by educators for ways to teach history in a more engaging way, including notions of “big history” where students are challenged to think about the fundamental issues of human existence by learning about the distant past. After all, as the cliché tells us, those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

It gives me endless pleasure to talk to readers of The Miner & the Viscount and hear about their fascination with the amazing progress accomplished by their ancestors with tools that we consider primitive and systems that to us are cumbersome.

Just think of the ingenuity of Thomas Newcomen, the inventor of the steam engine, and the imagination of John Smeaton, the engineer who linked water wheels to steam engines to ensure plentiful power whether it was raining or the sun was shining. Then there is John Williams, the powerful mine captain who designed and built the Great County Adit, the ambitious drainage system that linked 60 mines across Cornwall. Imagine the strength and energy of the

Dangerous work

Dangerous work

miners who dug deep shafts through hard rock and under the ocean with hand tools to extract the tin and copper they had the skill to find. And picture the sheer brilliance in mathematics it took to make the essential scientific calculations by hand with standards that varied from place to place.

Here is an example and the story behind the story. To make my story authentic I dug up fascinating information, including a contemporary textbook on arithmetic for mining captains and engineers.

The following passage shows Edward Eliot’s determination to understand the numbers. He is attending his first cost book meeting after becoming an “adventurer” (an investor) in the Wheal Hykka mine.

The cost book system was characteristic of the management of Cornish mines before the limited liability company. The adventurers would meet every quarter and the Purser would present the accounts and share out any profit or loss. The disadvantage was that typically no reserves were maintained.

Eliot is a man after my own heart. He wants to dig into the details and understand how things work so that he can make intelligent management decisions. He quickly learns how much he has to learn, and is impressed by how much his underlings understand. Eliot is different from his partner Viscount Dunbargan whose only interest is the money coming to him.

How do you arrive at the correct weights and measures?” He dipped his quill into the ink and prepared to resume making notes.

John Williams gathered up the thread. “For one thing, the smelter won’t pay for wet tin stuff. So we accurately weigh out a sample of one pound of ore, then dry it over a fire and weigh it again. This gives us the neat weight, the percentage of reduction. Then we weigh the whole parcel wet in pounds and calculate the neat weight of the total by taking the percentage reduction.”

“What would be the weight of the whole parcel of tin stuff that you send off?” asked Eliot.

“It varies. We’ll give you a recent example. Look in your Assay Book, Penwarden, that’ll tell you,” said Williams.

“The last sample came from several kibbles, sir,” Addis said, reaching into his desk, pulling out the leather bound ledger and thumbing through the pages covered with his assistant clerk’s neat copperplate penmanship. He was not very quick at reading words yet but he could readily discern figures. “’Yes, ’ere ’tis. This last lot was one ton, five ’undredweight, three quarters, seven pounds and eleven ounces.”

“I see,” said Eliot, raising his eyebrows.

John Williams warmed to his subject. “The rule of thumb is that every pennyweight of black tin produced from a sample of one gill of ore, wine measure, will give a hundred pounds avoirdupois in one hundred sacks. Of course, that would be eighteen-gallon sacks, beer measure. Did I say avoirdupois? That’s tin. Copper produce is weighed in troy.”

“I see,” said Eliot again, scratching his chin. “At least I think I do. Wine measure, beer measure?”

“Oh yes, sir,” said Williams. “There’s thirty-two gills in a gallon, but a wine gill holds twenty-two percent more than a beer gill. Course, if you were asking about noggins, I’d say there are sixteen in a pint.” Eliot put down his quill and stared at Williams.

Willy Bunt’s jaw dropped. He was about to ask a question when Polkinghorne caught his eye and put a finger to his lips. Bunt kept his counsel but wondered whether someone clever enough could devise a simpler system. Bunt realized he must be educated, learn reading, arithmetic; he needed education to earn more responsibility in his job, get better wages. But how would he ever understand all the different standards and customs for different materials, even different parishes?


Read the Chapters

To read more about the challenges overcome by the mine managers every day, go to LINK and see Chapter 49 “Management” and Chapter 50 “Inventor”.


Book Talk

If you would like a talk for your group about the book or life in 18th century Cornwall, email me at cornishchronicle@gmail.com.





Thursday Thought: The Road to Hell

Welcome to the first edition of The Cornish Chronicle newsletter!

At the back of the top shelf in the supplies cabinet in my office is a box that once held letter size stationery. These days it holds mementos that should be thrown away when I get organized. Specifically, they are newsletters telling the stories of past enthusiasms.

Look closely and you will see that they have a feature in common. At the top left hand corner of each one there is a notation: “Volume I, No. 1.”

Christmas Goose

Christmas Goose

My mother told me that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. That box is the tomb of several of mine. This time will be different. Today I announce with pride the launch of a long cherished project, my new newsletter The Cornish Chronicle.
It will tell stories of my native Cornwall . . .  its history, mystery, people, culture, beauty, and about the making of my historical novel The Miner & the Viscount and its sequels.
This first edition tells of quaint Christmas customs of bygone days. It includes the delightful conversation in Chapter 26 “Christmas Goose” where inquisitive little Jemmy pesters his mother with questions.

Listen to a snippet.

  •     Christmas Goose

Thursday Thought: The Story Behind the Story

Among the joys of writing The Miner & the Viscount was weaving in stories from my growing up in Cornwall and about bygone customs and how things were invented. During my book talks people ask where the stories came from and how I imagined my fictional characters. These are the stories behind the story.


Chapter 26 – “Christmas Goose”

I must confess that Jemmy Penwarden has a resemblance to a little boy in my family, which comprised one little boy with two big sisters. The little boy was very inquisitive. He pestered his mother with questions all day long and always saved one to ask his father when he came home from work and tucked him into bed at night. A special one was, “Dad, how long is a whale?”

In Chapter 26 the Penwarden family celebrates their first Christmas in their new home after Addis has been made captain of the Wheal Hykka mine. Lizzie decorated the house and prepared a traditional roast goose dinner with all the trimmings. I describe her baking a saffron cake. Young Jemmy is unstoppably inquisitive and distracts his mother with questions.

“Why do us put ’olly in the ’ouse at Christmastide, Mum?”

“Us be rememberin’ the birth of the baby Jesus,” explained Lizzie, “an’ people say the red berries be ’is drops of blood when ’e were crucified.”

“But why do us put up stuff loike the crucifixion on ’is birthday?” Jemmy asked, “don’t make sense. Wouldn’t put a coffin on my birthday table.”

“That’s just what people say,” said Lizzie.

“What people?” pressed Jemmy.

“Well, I ’spect it says so in the Bible,” Lizzie tried.

“Where in the Bible?” Jemmy persisted.

“You’ll ’ave to ask Reverend Perry when you see ’im down chapel; he’ll know for sure,” parried Lizzie.

When I was researching work in the tin and copper mines and the tools and methods used, I learned about the danger of blasting with loose gunpowder. It often resulted in fatal accidents. An ingenious miner invented a safer fuse, called the Rod of Quills. I tell the story as if Jemmy had discovered it. On Christmas Day, when his mother was not keeping an eye on him, Jemmy made his own toy. His father sees promise in it and later adapts it to test it successfully down the mine.

Addis had been experimenting with gunpowder, wrapping up small amounts in twists of paper, trying to work out a safe way of detonating it. Jemmy had found the almost empty tin, taken some of the quills plucked from the goose wing, cut off the tips and filled them with the powder. Then he threw them in the stove where they smoldered and sizzled and then burned with a satisfying whoosh, filling the kitchen with a dreadful smell of burning feathers. Addis to Lizzie’s surprise did not scold Jemmy for his mischief. Rather, a look came over his face that signified that he had an idea.

“That lad will be a real somebody some day,” Addis said to Lizzie, when they were out of earshot of Jemmy.

One summer when my family was on holiday at Tregrill Farm, Colin Hocking the farmer’s son and I made charcoal and ground it up, then mixed it with sulphur and saltpeter to make gunpowder. We exploded it on the old-fashioned cast iron kitchen stove with a satisfying whoosh. Not very safe!

When my wife Penny and I visited Cornwall on a research trip in 2012 we stayed at Tregrill where the milking barn had been converted into guest cottages. I’m glad to report that the stove in the farmhouse kitchen is still intact.

During my book tour of Cornwall in July with my daughter Sarah I gave a talk at The Book Shop in Liskeard, my home town. A young woman came up to me at the end with The Miner & the Viscount in her hand and asked me to autograph it. She said, “Colin Hocking is my grandfather, and my husband and I farm Tregrill.” We gave each other a big hug.

Oh, the joy of writing!




Read all Chapter 26


Thursday Thought: Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! What a wonderful time for families and friends to get together and to celebrate. Celebrate what?

Many of us tend to simply celebrate our togetherness or express our gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. The tradition originated as gratitude at this time of year for the harvest. In Britain when I was growing up it was called Harvest Festival and was centered around the churches. Parishioners shared their bounty, decorating the church with sheaves of corn (the generic term for grains including wheat and oats and barley), home-made bread, fruits, pies, jams, jellies, all kinds of good things. Often the congregation would partake in a great communal feast.

Crying the Neck

Crying the Neck

In my native Cornwall there was an older tradition, “Crying the Neck”. Some say this stemmed from ancient Egypt. The people gather in a cornfield where the harvest is almost finished. The farmer cuts the last stalks of corn, typically with an old fashioned scythe, and binds them into a sheaf.

Turning to the east he raises up the sheaf and cries three times, “I ‘ave ‘ee, I ‘ave ‘ee, I ‘ave ‘ee.” The crowd responds,  “What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee? What ‘ave ee?” The farmer shouts, “A Neck! A Neck! A Neck!” The crowd chants,”Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” In many parts of Cornwall the ritual is repeated in the Cornish language.

They all leave the field and go to the church or chapel for a service giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. The Neck is left in the church until the following spring when it provides the seed for the next planting.

I give special thanks this year for the joy given me by my historical novel The Miner & the Viscount. The pleasure has been beyond my fondest imagination. Researching the history added to my knowledge and understanding. I grew enormously as a writer through working on the manuscript. In the first six rewrites, my wife Penny helped me understand deeper character development. In the next three edits, my editor Mo Conlan helped me weave a more compelling story. What I anticipated to be a chore turned out to be the joy of incremental improvement.

On top of all that, through the interest and enthusiasm generated by the book I have made new friends, not only in America and Britain but around the world where the Cornish have emigrated through the centuries. Marvelous people with a profound interest in their origins and the world around them.





Thursday Thought: One way to deal with Bullying

Another memoir while memory lasts

I feel embarrassingly left out of conversations about unhappy childhoods and their devastating effects upon our adult psychology. I was the youngest in the family, the only boy spoiled rotten by three mothers, if you count my two adoring older sisters as sharing the maternal role. It was a perfect existence. I have no complaints.

There was one upsetting moment when I was four years old. I overheard my eldest sister Pam making a comment about me to our mother as she was helping her in the kitchen. It sounded disparaging and I stormed indignantly to my own defense.

“I am NOT a kizzling doney child!”

My sister reassured me. “No, no, I was just saying to Mummy that with Pat and me being ten and thirteen years older than you, you are equivalent to an only child.”

Well, what was so bad about that? I got lots of attention, and I had playmates close to my age all around. And I had just spent three months in Copenhagen alone with my mother with her undivided attention except when my father took us over and then came to bring us back. The stormy North Sea crossing from Harwich was horrible and my mother and I were seasick most of the way. However, she had to go to Denmark for specialized medical treatment that was not available in England. She had contracted lupus though careless dental surgery. The dangerous infection was in her jawbone and face and could only be eradicated with cauterization. The Danish doctors were kind as well as skilled and saw her through a grueling experience that would end her beauty, although that loss was much more important to her than to us children or our father.

The food in Denmark was disgusting and smelled foreign. I so looked forward to jam and clotted cream and the saffron bun my father promised to bring when he came to bring us back. And there was a young woman in the rooms next to ours where we were staying. She was an aspiring soprano and she practiced shrill scales and arpeggios hour after hour, day after day. My father telephoned and said I should just stuff an onion in her mouth.

Anyway, after we got home to England my parents decided it was high time for me to go to school. I was close to the compulsory school age of five. So at the start of the new school year in September my mother dragged me on the short walk, about a mile, to the small private school in the center of Liskeard.

Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any of my friends on the way. It would have been really embarrassing. You see, actually the full name of the school was Highwood House School for Girls. My sisters had gone there but I did not want to go. A few boys were admitted to kindergarten and thereafter until they were old enough at ten to go on to the secondary school. Older pupils were girls only. I imagined that only soppy boys went to the school and I did not want to be perceived as one of them. However, I was soon to learn that there was a nasty little tough among my schoolmates.

Liskeard Book Shop

Liskeard Book Shop

Memories of the school were among the many brought back during my book tour of Cornwall in July. I gave a talk at the Liskeard Book Shop. It is on Barras Street, just a couple of buildings along from Highwood House. John Rapson, a nephew of the headmistress was in the audience and shared professional photographs he had taken of me as a boy.

Miss Rapson was a precise no-nonsense teacher as was her companion Miss Wilkes. The school was in their house. They were both formidable disciplinarians with acerbic tongues. To start the day each of us had fifteen conduct marks, which were whittled away with each passing infraction of studiousness or behavior. In the first form we sat in rows on long benches attached to long wooden desks. There were grooves along the top to stop our pens and pencils rolling down and ink wells at every place. There were individual lids so that we could keep our pencil boxes and exercise books and pen wipers and spare nibs inside our own desks. There were still one or two slates in the room but Miss Rapson had decided to get up to date and provide her pupils with exercise books and paper.

I was a good little boy and hated getting into trouble. I usually sailed through the day with conduct marks intact. I paid attention in class and avoided the sarcastic scolding that some pupils endured. I memorized the multiplication tables, right up to twelve times. My sisters helped me practice spelling so I did well in the daily tests and quickly learned to read. My handwriting was not very tidy and was abundantly decorated with ink blots, like my fingers, but I was careful to make the loops upright. I hated drawing and painting and had trouble not going over the lines. Fortunately, we boys were not made to do needlework like the girls.

Every day there was recess. When it was really wet and cold, Miss Wilkes would make us play singing and rhyming action games indoors. I remember the one about the bells of London’s churches.Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s. When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey. When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.”

Pamela Raymont kept choosing me as a partner, which was pretty embarrassing and I avoided her. She was a farmer’s daughter and lived in the country. She was very pretty with blonde hair, blue eyes and a beautiful pink and white complexion. After we both went to the secondary school she really blossomed and I wished I had paid her more attention but by then it was too late. Vivian Danners was the son of one of the local butchers and he got pretty rough when it came to the bit about “Along came a chopper to chop off her head!”

On fine days recess was outside. There was a big upper playground for the girls and a smaller playground for the boys. Vivian Danners always wanted to play rough games, like fighting, and wrestling. He was a lot stronger than me and always beat me. I did not like that but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I tried to avoid him but he always found me. You couldn’t tell Miss Wilkes because that would be sneaking. My father said I should punch him on the jaw but I was afraid he would just punch me back harder. I would think of something eventually.

Most of the time school was pretty enjoyable. One term my sister Pat came to teach part time while she was waiting to start her training as a physiotherapist. She tried to be strict with me so that the other children would not think I was her favorite, but she could not help being pretty nice. And once every term there was a special treat.

The whole school was invited into the private part of the house to sit in the big front hall where Miss Rapson would show us her museum. Her father had been a Methodist missionary in Africa and she would tell us lots of stories about converting the heathen and persuading them to give up being cannibals. I thought I would like to be a missionary but then I learned it was pretty dangerous and very poorly paid. Anyway, Miss Rapson had a marvelous collection of things her father had brought back from Africa and we loved looking at them and even holding them. There were masks, costumes, sculptures, primitive art, assegais (those sharp short stabbing spears), shields made of rhinoceros hide, knives, elephants’ tusks, stuffed animal heads, beads, pots, and letters and old photographs about the missionaries.

We learned a lot at Highwood House. We certainly got a solid grounding in the three Rs. We learned manners and good behavior. We learned about the world and developed an interest in geography. Those were innocent days. It never occurred to us to wonder exactly what were the living arrangements for these two spinster ladies living all their lives in the same house. Our parents never brought up the subject. We just assumed it was convenient and perfectly natural. Sometimes when we are nostalgic for the good old days it is that kind of innocence that I most miss.

There is one more memory. Vivian Danners went to the secondary school at the same time as me. We were not in the same form but we had recess at the same time. He was still rough and strong and liked wrestling and fighting and I was still unable to avoid him. But then the war started. The whole British Empire came to the aid of the home country. My father had cousins in New Zealand and George Rawstron came and stayed with us for a few days. He was in the RNZFAA, the Royal New Zealand Fleet Air Arm, and I think he had come over on convoy escort duty.

George had just taken a course in unarmed combat. He gave me the booklet and taught me how to knock a man down with two fingers, but you had to be careful if you didn’t want to kill him. We practiced until I could even knock George down. The next day at recess Vivian Danners grabbed me with a hard squeeze around my neck. I tried the two finger trick. It worked! Vivian Danners lay in a heap at my feet. He never bullied me again.


Richard Hoskin © 2015


Thursday Thought: Tin!

West Cornwall, 1895. A once-glorious tin mine, on which the whole town has depended for generations, is on its last legs.



A weather-beaten opera company arrives to give a performance of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in the town hall and finds itself tangled up in a scam to offload worthless shares in the mine. When the mine unexpectedly yields up new treasures, melodrama starts to spill over into everyday life, reputations crumble and any notion of fair play is abandoned.

The fate of the whole community rests on the courage of one feisty young maid.

Benjamin Luxon

Benjamin Luxon

Made in Cornwall and based on a true story, Miracle Theatre’s highly anticipated feature film stars Jenny Agutter, Dudley Sutton and Ben Luxon alongside Helen Bendell, Ben Dyson, Steve Jacobs, Dean Nolan, and Jason Squibb.

Ben Luxon enjoyed an international career as an opera star. He was a main attraction at last year’s International Gathering of the Cornish American Heritage Society. He lives in Sandisfield, MA, where he leads community theater.



Thursday Thought: Cornish Connections!

Another wonderful connection that has come from my book tour of Cornwall in July! Last week there was a comment on my website from Thomas Angear. His sisters went to school with my sisters in Liskeard! They played field hockey for Cornwall on the team my sister Pat captained. I spoke on Skype today with Pat in England (she will be 93 in a few days). She showed me her copy of that issue of The Cornish Times and she remembers the Angear sisters!

Here is Thomas’ message:

“My sister in Liskeard, Susan Trundle, sent me the article in The Cornish Times (October 2, 2015) about your book and your Cornish heritage.  We have a lot in common? I was born in Looe in 1936 to a family of builders, carpenters and Dissenting Ministers originating in East Cornwall in the early 17 hundreds.

“I had one term at Liskeard Grammar School before moving to another grammar school in the Midlands with my parents. This was followed by three years in the Army as an Instructor with the Brigade of Gurkhas in Malaya and Hong Kong.  This service also required four years in the Territorial Army as an officer with the South Staffordshire Regiment. My business career encompassed six years with Lever Brothers(1963-1969),  Warner Lambert, management consulting, and finally running my own M&A business for 25 years which I sold in 2000.

“Your sister Pat may remember my Aunt (Violet Mabel Angear) and my cousin, (Mary Angear)who were contemporaries at Liskeard Grammar. I remember Mary – who married Harry Bonson, Mayor of Looe – telling me about a schoolfriend who went to Girton!! Both Violet and Mary played hockey for the school and for Cornwall.

“From one Cousin Jack to another!”