Cornish Cases:
Essays in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Social History

John Rule

Clio 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
John Rule begins this collection of essays on the social history of Cornwall with a historiographical autobiography. He describes his career as a student of E.P. Thompson's and proceeds from that to the changing approaches to Cornish history; he then gives a twelve-page history of his family, going back several generations. This sets the tone for his essays, which are scholarly and referenced but address accessible topics and are easy to read. Cornish Cases should appeal to tourists or locals after something more substantial than the mass of popular history books and pamphlets on offer.

Mining features in most of the essays, but four focus on it directly: "The Tinners are Rising: Food Rioting in Cornwall 1737-1847", "A Risky Business: Death, Injury and Religion in Cornish Mining 1780-1870", "The Perfect Wage System? Tributing in the Cornish Mines" and "The Misfortunes of the Mine: Coping with Life and Death in Nineteenth Century Cornwall". These concentrate on the features which made Cornish mining distinctive, such as the tributing system, where miners bid to work certain pitches in exchange for a share of the profits, the prevalence of early death, from accidents or lung damage, and the legacy of widows and maiden aunts.

There are two essays specifically on Methodism. "Explaining Revivalism: The Case of Cornish Methodism" describes the history of revivals in West Cornwall and argues that, with Methodism having a mass following, they were driven by local and internal dynamics rather than national leadership. "Methodism, Popular Beliefs and Village Culture in Cornwall 1800-1850" explores the relationship of Methodism to popular entertainments such as hurling, wrestling and drinking, and to "superstitions" and earlier folk-beliefs.

A third focus is on the Cornish response to Chartism and radical agitation, which is explored in "Richard Spurr of Truro: Small Town Radical", "The Chartist Mission to Cornwall" and "Configuration of Quietism? Attitudes towards Trade Unionism and Chartism among Cornish Miners". Rule suggests the "quietism" of miners had many causes, among them the degree of luck involved in the tribute system, the strength of Methodism, both as an opposing force and as an alternative "career path" for agitators, and the influence of landowners.

"The South-Western Deep-Sea Fisheries and their Markets in the Nineteenth Century" considers in particular the use by Cornish fishermen of other ports — North Sea and Irish — and the effects of the railways on distribution. And "Feasting and Gender in Nineteenth Century Cornwall" uses drolls (folk stories) to explore household behaviour during annual parish feasts.

These essays have not been rewritten and there is some repetition — the workings of the "tribute" system, for example, are explained three or four times, and several quotes appear multiple times. Cornish Cases is nicely laid out, with a small but evocative selection of halftones. There has, however, been a copy-editing failure, with many missing or disconcerting commas. There is no index, but a nice supplement to the individual essay references is a five page bibliographical essay.

August 2007

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%T Cornish Cases
%S Essays in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Social History
%A Rule, John
%I Clio
%D 2006
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0954265084
%P 294pp