History and Heritage

The Night of the Cintra Gale – 130 Years Later

Today marks the 130th anniversary (17 November 1893) of a notorious night/early morning in St Ives Bay when five ships were wrecked on what became known as the Night of the Cintra Gale. A crankshaft broke loose in the engine room of steamer Hampshire, tearing a massive hole in the hull. The ship went down within an hour 10 miles north of Godrevy Head with the loss of the captain and 14 crew. Cintra, Bessie, Vulture and Rosedale came to grief on Carbis Bay and Porthminster beaches.

This awful night would be a largely forgotten footnote in the story of Cornish maritime disasters but for reminders visible to this day – as seen in the video below – and an incident featuring one of St Ives’ most famous artists. At the lowest tides you can walk around what’s left of the three ships that met their end at Carbis Bay.

St Ives lifeboat Exeter II was launched but conditions meant that it could not go farther than Pedn Olva before giving up, oars broken. Eyewitness Sam Cleave observed, “they’ve got the lifeboat out but they won’t do nothing against that sea.” The wind brought the morning train from St Erth to a standstill as it approached the dunes in front of West Cornwall golf course, with the fury of the gale causing immense damage throughout Cornwall. As reported in The Cornishman, around 1,000 lives were lost at sea and on land.

The anchor of 418 ton collier Cintra of Liverpool was recovered from the seabed in 1959 and installed on Smeaton’s Pier in 2003. A nod to this is just 100 yards away, as the premises formerly trading as Caffé Pasta became Cintra Seafood Bar in Spring 2023.  

Cintra ended up near the Porthminster Point end of Carbis Bay Beach. Captained by Henry Green of Brixham, the huge seas had already buckled stanchions and destroyed its ventilators but at 2 a.m. the windlass seized up, jamming the anchor chains solid. As dawn broke, the gale changed to NNE. As the ship was about to sink at anchor some crew tried to cut the fouled chains with hammers and chisels, only to be driven back to the shelter of the bridge.

Captain Green hoisted a distress signal and ordered the lifeboat to be lowered but it capsized on meeting the water, causing Chief engineer Rogers, fireman Summers and two able seamen to disappear in the surf. Cintra lurched onto the sands and it was every man for himself. Captain Green, steward Jones, two engineers and a fireman jumped overboard, but able seaman Ash of Brixham, though handed a lifebelt by the captain, stayed behind, hoping the collier would ebb dry. The rest were dragged ashore by coastguards and rocket men. Cintra suddenly broke up, drowning Ash, one of seven of the 12-person crew to perish.

The remains of Bessie and Vulture lie near Carrack Gladden, a few yards from the headland which divides the beach from Porthkidney Sands. Vulture’s crew, all from St Ives and Hayle, were landed by breeches buoy. All aboard Bessie were also safely rescued. The photo below shows 287-ton SS Bessie broadside to the surf, with the boilers of 345-ton Vulture of Cardiff beyond.

Bessie has the unusual if melancholy distinction of being wrecked on both her maiden and final voyages. Built in 1865 for the busy Hayle – Bristol trade route and launched by Harvey and Company of Hayle, the collier ran aground on Hayle Bar in a heavy north-easterly gale on 11 January 1866. In mountainous seas, St Ives’ first RNLI lifeboat ‘Moses’ was unable to reach the casualty so a telegram was sent to Penzance requesting help.

Drawn by eight horses through Canon’s Town and Lelant, Penzance lifeboat ‘Richard Lewis’ and its crew of 12 met ‘Moses’ in St Ives and both boats set off together. After a long struggle Bessie’s captain and crew of eight were brought ashore. The Silver Medal was awarded to Penzance Coxswain Thomas Carbis three weeks later with the following citation: “The long struggle of both crews to reach the wreck and their coolness and judgement in the actual rescue were beyond all praise”. Additional payments were awarded to both crews.

The 936-ton cargo steamer Rosedale wound up at Porthminster, broken beyond repair. Out of Southampton en route to Cardiff, the captain had no option but to try and ground on the beach. Sam Cleave stated that he did this with some skill but correctly assessed that the ship was “leaking water at every hole it can find and will be fit for nothing but scrap”.

The next day, Richard Taylor and James Stevens, aged 12 and 13 took brass fittings lifted from the ship to marine stores dealer Alfred Wallis (his business a few yards from Quay Street closed in 1912, after which he started working for a local antiques dealer. It was not until his wife’s death in 1922 that he took up painting “for company”). The boys grudgingly accepted Alfred’s meagre offer and boasted of their windfall in The Sloop. Word spread, resulting in Sergeant Jones paying Alfred a visit to enquire if he had recently acquired any brass. It was well hidden in a bag of bones so the policeman found nothing but Alfred knew he had to shift it – fast.

The following day he cycled to Penzance, feeling “more relieved the further I got from St Ives”. Sadly, his confidence was misplaced for on arrival at Denley’s (the intended purchaser), he was greeted by none other than Sgt Jones. Soon in the dock at the St Ives Borough Police Court, Alfred was fined £10 for receiving stolen goods. This was a large sum for a man who would end his days penniless at Madron workhouse but he was (just) able to pay, avoiding time in Bodmin jail. The lads were less fortunate. Unable to raise their fine of 25 shillings each, they spent a month at Bodmin.

The photo of Rosedale below shows the high sandbank that forms on the beach after high tides with a strong northerly wind, and New Pier, built in 1866.

Article and video by: Tony Mason

To learn more about the maritime history of St Ives, visit us at the Archive Centre in Carbis Bay. You can find our opening hours here and book your visit in advance by filling in a form here.

History and Heritage News

2024 St Ives Archive Calendar – Preview and How to Buy

Featuring images from the St Ives Archive’s large photography collection, our 2024 calendar showcases photos of St Ives from the past and the present. Each month is a different scene around town — from the Harbour to the High Street — taking you on a nostalgic trip through time.

Calendars are £13 each including postage and can be ordered through the Archive’s online shop here. You may also pick up a calendar the next time you visit us in person for £10, or if you live in a TR26 postcode, we are happy to deliver and collect £10 cash on delivery (card payments not accepted). Email or phone 01736 796408 to place your order for local delivery.

We hope you enjoy the ‘Now and Then’ theme of the calendar as much as we do! For a preview of what to expect, you can find the cover images along with an example of one month below.

Front cover of the Archive’s 2024 calendar.
A feature image from the 2024 calendar which has a ‘Now and Then’ theme.
Back cover of the Archive’s 2024 calendar.

Bonus Content:

A film made by Alban Roinard is the perfect companion to the Archive’s 2024 calendar. Roinard superimposes old photographs of St Ives on top of modern scenes around town, creating a fascinating step back in time and revealing memories from a bygone era. Watch the film below and to have your own ‘Now and Then’ memories of St Ives, consider getting one of our calendars here.

Events History and Heritage

The History of Halsetown: An Illustrated Talk by Tony Liddicoat

Join St Ives Archive volunteer Tony Liddicoat for his illustrated talk on the history of Halsetown at the Balnoon Inn on Thursday 16th November.

The talk is free to attend (no booking required) and will begin at 7.30pm with food and drinks available on the night. Donations to the Archive will be collected at the end of the presentation.

We hope to see you there! See below for the event’s full details.

History and Heritage

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History: Part 2

16th century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims

Smallpox and Cholera with Particular Reference to S.W. England

By: Dr John Sell


For a long time, it was thought that smallpox was one of the most devastating diseases of mankind for over 5,000 years, the earliest known cases being in Egypt or India. More recently doubt has been cast on the antiquity of the disease, some thinking it did not appear until the early 16th century A.D. The Antonine plague of 165 – 180 A.D., which broke out in the Roman army during the Marcomannic Wars, was thought to have been smallpox but this is now contested and Measles has been promoted as an alternative diagnosis. In the 16th century, Europeans inadvertently carried the disease to the Americas where the indigenous populations had no innate resistance and mortality among them was so high that by the late 1700s, their populations were less than 10% of pre-colonization levels.

In more recent times it is estimated to have killed between 300 and 500 million people worldwide in the last 100 years of its existence. It is a viral infection caused by the Variola major virus. Symptoms begin with fever and vomiting up to three weeks after exposure, leading to ulceration of the mouth and the characteristic skin rash which starts with blisters with a central dent, then scab over and eventually fall off leaving scars that can be very disfiguring. The mortality rate is 30% but usually higher in infants.

During the course of history, six European monarchs, including Louis XV of France, Queen Mary II of Britain, wife of King William III and Ulrika Eleanora, Queen of Sweden, have succumbed to smallpox, one as recently as 1967. Queen Elizabeth I survived smallpox but, like many, carried the scars for the rest of her life.

The U.K. was by no means immune. Decade by decade between 1629 and 1830 in London the effect of smallpox grew to become responsible for 9 – 10% of total deaths by the second half of the 18th century. After vaccination took off, the smallpox death rate gradually returned to what it was in the mid-1600s. 

Progress towards eradication began as far back as the 1500s in China where the technique of inoculation was developed. This involved scratching the skin of the arm with a small blade loaded with pus from a smallpox blister. It was a relatively dangerous business as it could result in a fatal infection rather than the desired object of a mild infection followed by immunity, and even more alarmingly, if the subject of the inoculation was not kept in quarantine for an appropriate time they could infect those around them with the possibility of starting an epidemic.

Nevertheless, inoculation was popular in the far and Middle East and in the early 18th century a redoubtable woman called Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, who had lost a brother and nephew to smallpox, and survived it herself, had her son and daughter both successfully inoculated. As a result, inoculation achieved a moderate vogue and was, in 1754, even endorsed by the College of Physicians. But the problem of contagion from inoculated subjects still persisted and its popularity soon waned.

A major step forward came in 1796 when Dr Edward Jenner, of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, who had been the favourite pupil of the famous surgeon, John Hunter, and remained a lifelong friend, decided to put their old much discussed hypotheses to the test. Having noted that milkmaids seldom caught smallpox if they had had the much milder disease Cowpox, he followed his old mentor’s advice of “Don’t think, try it,” and so with as much record keeping and caution as he could manage, vaccinated a young boy, James Phipps, with Cowpox pus from a milkmaid called Sarah Nelmes. Several weeks later he inoculated him with smallpox pus, and he did not develop the disease. After numerous more successful vaccinations, two years later he published what was to become one of the most influential publications of all time, his Inquiry into the Cause and Effect of the Variolae Vacciniae. Like many new medical innovations, it sparked heated controversy in the profession and the nation. Opinions were polarised, many critical and dismissive but many approving. One such was Dr Richard Reece, M.D. author of the widely consulted, Medical Guide for the Use of the Clergy, Heads of Families, and Practitioners in Medicine and Surgery, who wrote in his 1813 edition in its section “Of the Cowpox”:

This disease was first introduced by Dr Jenner as a preventive of smallpox contagion…..Cowpox, like all other discoveries in medicine, has met with the opposition of those professional characters who, from motives of lucre and jealousy, act as enemies to their own species…..In consequence of the late recommendation of the Cowpox by the legislature, I resolved to embrace every opportunity to put it to the test of experience. For this purpose I inoculated with smallpox matter about 30 children whom I had vaccinated within the last 10 years, the whole of whom resisted it. The result of these and other experiments has induced me to recommend vaccination.

Would that all medical practitioners were as assiduous in determining the truth before making sweeping pronouncements! (My words).

Eventually, after much debate and argument in medical circles, and the press, vaccination was adopted as the procedure of choice to prevent smallpox in the population. But it took a long time and several acts of Parliament to ensure that vaccination was widely practised. There was an unusually large epidemic in London in 1837-38 which spread to Europe. Following this, Parliament passed the Vaccination Act 1840 which made vaccination free and banned variolation. A second act was passed in 1853 which made vaccination available to babies in the first 4 months of life. When this was not adopted widely enough, a third act in 1867 brought in harsher penalties for non-compliance. 

In 1870 – 75, a smallpox pandemic called the “Great Pandemic” swept across Europe, including Britain, claiming more than 500,000 lives. It originated from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 71 where French P.O.Ws infected the German civilian population, leading it to spread across Europe. In England, thanks to compulsory vaccination, the death rate was only a third of that in Prussia, Belgium and Austria, being 1,000 per 1m. in 1871 and reducing to 250 per 1 m. in 1873-4.

After the Great Pandemic, many countries introduced compulsory vaccination, or stricter penalties where already compulsory. Austria and Belgium were exceptions and despite having among the highest infection rates did not apply compulsion.

Opposition to vaccination was quite common in the U.K., much of it based on ignorance or misinformation, as we have seen in Britain with Covid vaccination. In the early years of the 19th century, the Royal Cornwall Gazette carried several articles by prominent Cornish physicians including Drs Borlase and Isaac Head of Helston in 1802 and Dr C. Carlyon of Bodmin in 1812 to try to encourage the population to embrace vaccination, i.e. the safer preventive, instead of the much more dangerous technique of inoculation i.e. the use of “raw” smallpox pus. But as time went on it became apparent that things were not quite as black and white as it had been hoped, as a letter to the Royal Cornwall Gazette from Dr John C. Sleman of St Austell in July 1830, illustrates. 

Dr Sleman states that between 1820 and 1830 he personally saw over a thousand cases of mild smallpox after the inoculation technique, and there were no fatalities and over an extended period, no reinfections. On the other hand, he says, he has seen many cases of natural smallpox in vaccinated children and adults, as many as one in three, with a significant death rate. His work included cases seen in a local Smallpox Hospital. What seemed to be emerging was that vaccination with Cowpox gave a high degree of protection against smallpox for 10 to 12 years but that after that it wained dramatically, and re-vaccination of children was not effective, but revaccination of adults usually gave good and long-lasting protection. As a result of these observations, the vaccination policy was reconsidered to advise vaccination of infants soon after birth and revaccination after puberty. This approach gave very long protection but was not nationally introduced quickly enough to avoid another national epidemic in 1837-38. All this was summarised in an article in the Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal on 23rd February 1839 which had been taken from The Lancet of 26th January 1839. Slowness of government legislation meant that the Vaccination Act, making vaccination free and banning variolation was not passed until 1840 and availability to the newborn was not strictly legal until 1853.

Low take-up of vaccination remained a national problem for several more decades and although Britain escaped the full force of the Great Pandemic which swept across Europe in 1870 – 75 we did not escape entirely. But gradually vaccination against smallpox became almost a mark of passage as those of us from the wartime and post-war N.H.S. generations will remember.

On the brighter side, smallpox was officially declared by the World Health Organisation to be eradicated across the world in 1980 and there have been very few occurrences since then.


Another infectious disease which has caused devastating pandemics is cholera which first appeared in European literature in 1642 in the Dutch physician, Jakob de Bondt’s book, De Medicina Indorum, The Medicine of the Indies. Cholera is a Greek word meaning bile or gall, in Old English, gealla. The ancients were rather confused about the physiology of bile and anything that was yellow was called cholera or choleric. The yellow diarrhoea of early stage cholera was therefore called cholera, but this did not distinguish it from the many other intestinal disorders that caused yellow diarrhoea. It soon became clear that what we now call cholera was a much more severe disease capable of killing many people very quickly and so the name cholera morbus was used from the 1830s to differentiate true cholera from Asiatic cholera, or common diarrhoea. By 1817, cholera morbus had spread by trade routes to Russia and thence on to the rest of Europe and from there to the U.S.A.

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine which causes watery diarrhoea (rice water stools) and vomiting ranging from quite mild to life-threatening without rapid, adequate treatment. The cause of death is severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Cholera is caused by a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae, of which there are numerous different strains, some causing more severe disease than others. The seventh pandemic in 1961 which arose in Indonesia featured a new strain, the El tor strain, which still persists in developing countries today.

Cholera is spread through faecal contamination of food and water from infected persons. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, this was not realised, the miasma theory of disease i.e. bad or noxious air, propounded by Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C. being still widely accepted, but the famous English doctor, John Snow, curtailed an outbreak in the Broad Street district of Soho in 1854 by removing the handle of the pump used by most of the inhabitants to draw water.

There have been seven cholera pandemics between 1817 and 1961 covering most of the globe and killing millions of people. 

Due to the great growth in trade and travel, cholera became widespread in the nineteenth century and has killed tens of millions of people. Currently, it affects 3 – 5 million people worldwide and causes 30 – 130,000 deaths per year, especially in Africa and S.E. Asia.

Recognition of the importance of clean water and efficient sewage disposal gradually became more widespread and, aided by the developing germ theory of disease between the 1850s and 80s due to the work of people like Pasteur in Paris and Koch in Berlin, led to an enormous growth in the provision of clean water and efficient sewage disposal. In places that acted on these discoveries and improved their local water and sewage systems, cholera outbreaks diminished greatly. St Ives was relatively late in inaugurating an adequate fresh water and sewerage system and it wasn’t until 1895 that work on a comprehensive scheme was begun.

In Cornwall, there were many outbreaks of cholera during the 19th century and most of the large and mid-sized towns lost people to the disease. The local papers reported the situation and local medical men made their recommendations for treatments and prevention which ranged from the sensible to the ridiculous. Dr T. Hingston M.D. of Truro wrote to the Royal Cornwall Gazette on 22nd September 1832 at great length recommending common sense measures like cleanliness of person and home, good ventilation, regular exercise, and temperance of habit, but completely failed to mention the importance of clean water and efficient sewage disposal because the medical profession as a whole was still ignorant of the vital importance of these in avoiding the disease. 

1832 appears to have been a particularly bad year for Cornwall. In St Ives, the local Methodist chapels held prayer meetings for the sick and deliverance from the scourge. During the latter half of the year, Penzance, Newlyn, Mousehole, Hayle, and St Ives were all badly affected. In some places, new ground had to be found for the increased number of burials. By the autumn of that year, the outbreak seems to have been abating, as the following excerpts from the Royal Cornwall Gazette show, R.C.G. 22nd September 1832:

This pestilential disease raged with great violence in Newlyn claiming 30 – 40 victims. Much praise is due to the medical gentlemen of Penzance for zeal and skill at risk of their own lives. Real accommodation from the Lord of the Manor of Mousehole and Mr Halse who granted a meadow for internments, the old ground being full.

In Penzance, only one death – of a person imprudently visiting Penzance to visit a sick brother.

And the R.C.G. of 28th September continues the theme: “Cholera at Hayle”. To the editor R.C.G. from St Erth Board of Health, Foundry 26.9.1832:

Amid general alarm which prevails from cholera having appeared at Hayle, I beg leave to state for the information of your readers, that so far as this parish is concerned, the last death was on the 9th inst., and through divine mercy we have had but one case since (in the person of a woman attacked at St Ives) who has since recovered: so far, therefore, we may reasonably infer that the disease has disappeared from within the precincts of St Erth, Thomas Rawlings (Sec to Board).

Around the time that Local Authorities were improving their sanitation, the doctors began work on an injectable cholera vaccine. Louis Pasteur was the first in this area, but his attempts were shown to be ineffective. In 1884 a Spanish physician, Jaume I Clua produced a live vaccine isolated from cholera patients in Marseilles and tried it in over 30,000 people in Valencia during an epidemic. Although having partial success in preventing disease, its mode of administration and side effects led to its rejection by the medical profession. A few years later, in 1892, Waldemar Haffkine, developed an effective vaccine with less severe side effects and tested it in 40,000 people in Calcutta between 1893 – 6. It is accepted as the first effective human cholera vaccine. This was a little later superseded by Wilhelm Kolle’s heat-treated vaccine in 1896 which was easier to prepare and was put to large-scale use in Japan in 1902. 

This injectable vaccine remained the main preventive treatment until the development of an oral vaccine in the 1990s. This is now the treatment of choice for people in cholera-infected countries and for travellers. There are two main brands on the market, Dukoral and Vaxchora. Both use inactivated strains of Vibrio cholerae, while one has the addition of part of a cholera toxin as well. Both are licensed for use in humans of 2 years upwards. Two or three doses of either give up to two years of protection in adults but only six months in children aged 2 – 5 years, so quite frequent repeat doses are necessary for continuing protection.

Lest anyone should think that cholera is a disease of the past, very recently I received a request from UNICEF asking if I would make a donation to help combat a recent “Deadly Surge” in cholera in countries ranging from Syria to Africa and the Caribbean particularly affecting children and claiming that over one billion people are currently at risk. UNICEF’s aim is to greatly increase supplies of vaccines, water purification tablets and rehydration salts.

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History’ is a four-part series written by Dr John Sell. ‘Introduction and the Black Death with Particular Reference to S.W. England’ is Part 1 in the series.



World Health Organisation online article

Wikipedia online article

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention online

The Reluctant Surgeon (biography of the surgeon John Hunter) by John Kobler pub. Heinemann

The Medical Guide for the use of Clergy, Heads of Families, and Practitioners in medicine and surgery. Dr R. Reece, M.D. pub. 1813 Longman

Royal Cornwall Gazettes for 1802,1812,1832,1839

Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal 1839


Cholera – vibrio cholerae infection, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention online.

Cholera – World Health Organisation online

Cholera – Wikipedia online

Royal Cornwall Gazette 1832 various articles.

Featured image: 16th-century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims (Wikimedia Commons)

History and Heritage

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History: Part 1

Introduction and the Black Death with Particular Reference to S.W. England

By: Dr John Sell

The first living things on earth were single celled organisms from which all other life forms developed. What many people have still to realise is that we are still totally dependent on them to produce an environment in which the higher forms of plants and animals can flourish. Single celled organisms can be divided into different categories and those which are relevant to disease in humans and animals are certain viruses, bacteria and fungi which have developed lifestyles which can cause harm when they grow in animal and plant bodies. Of the many potentially disease causing organisms it is certain bacteria and viruses which have caused greatest havoc among humans, but most of these have been transferred to mankind from animals, when habitats and lifestyles have overlapped. 

Infectious disease has been a hazard of life for millions of years and would have affected all hominids as soon as they came into existence. Because the human population was so small and people lived in quite isolated social groups it wasn’t until relatively late in the history of humanity, when larger tightly packed centres of population appeared and facilitated spread, that large epidemics and pandemics appeared. One of the earliest recorded pandemics was the so-called Antonine Plague which broke out in A.D. 165 and lasted until A.D. 180. It was widely believed to have been Smallpox but more recently Measles has been suggested. It appeared in the Roman Army which was besieging Seleucia in Mesopotamia and quickly spread to Gaul and the legions stationed along the Rhine. The death count has been estimated at 5 – 10 million or approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. The first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the so-called Justinian Plague of 541 – 549 A.D. which continued sporadically until c. 750 A.D. It afflicted the Mediterranean, Near East and Europe wreaking havoc throughout Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Recent discoveries from Edix Hill in Cambridgeshire indicate that it reached Britain, possibly earlier than it affected the Byzantine Empire. It has recently been suggested that it reduced the population of Britain from 4-5 million down to around 2 million.


The Justinian Plague is the first known pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was to cause the Black Death six hundred years later and the Hong Kong plague of the late nineteenth century and which still occasionally causes death today. Y. pestis is capable of causing three types of plague, the best known being Bubonic plague, spread by the bite of carrier rats, of which there were many in ancient times, living in close proximity with humans. The bacteria infected the body and became localized in lymph nodes causing painful swelling, putrefaction and gangrene, called buboes, hence the name Bubonic plague. The other two types of plague are Pneumonic plague where the bacteria enter via the lungs. This type causes an even quicker death than the other two and is now thought to have been the main method of spread from person to person. The third type is Septicaemic plague where the infection enters more directly into the blood stream. In the Black Death most cases were at one time thought to be of Bubonic plague but more recent experiments based on droplet spread, as in the studies of Covid, have led to the conclusion that the Pneumonic plague probably accounted for at least as many deaths as the Bubonic plague.

Yersinia pestis was first identified by Dr Yersin at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1894 and was originally called Pasteurella pestis or Bacille de la peste, but its name was changed in 1944 to honour its discoverer. Paleogenetics, a branch of science which enables the genetic analysis of molecular material, was used in 2011 to produce a complete sequence of Yersinia pestis from a Black Death cemetery in central London, used exclusively to bury victims of the 1340s plague and then closed when the plague had passed. In 2015 this technique was used to identify Y. pestis in Bronze Age samples. The oldest known sample found from a human body is 5,000 years old.

These Neolithic and Bronze Age samples are from N. Eurasia, modern China and Russia. The strains alive today most closely related to the Justinianic plague and Black Death are from the Tian Shan mountains and the Junggar Basin between China and Kyrgyzstan. Marmots there have strains of Y. pestis closely related to strains from historical plague victims.

How the Black Death travelled from central Asia to north west Europe is a question that has exercised historians and epidemiologists for a long time, but we do seem to be closer to answering it and it is linked to large population movements particularly those related to the spread of the Mongol Empire and the provisioning of its armies in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

In 1345 plague appeared and quickly spread in the Mongol army while it was besieging the city of Kaffa, (modern day Feodosiya, on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea) In desperation they catapulted plague infected corpses into the city so infecting the population. There had been a flourishing trade link in grain between Kaffa and Europe, particularly with Genoa in Italy, which was embargoed during the siege and the plague, but the embargo was lifted in 1347 so allowing infected rodents, attracted to the rich pickings of sacks of grain, to hitch lifts in grain shipments destined for much of Europe. So the seed of the Black Death was literally sown and carried by rats, spreading rapidly among the tightly packed populations of N. Europe, killing victims in hundreds of thousands.

The English Channel has often been a line of defence between Britain and the continent in matters of war and disease, but in 1348, just one year after plague hit the rest of Europe, it made its unwelcome presence felt in southern England. In August 1348 plague appeared in Weymouth, Dorset, clearly brought from Normandy, either on a merchant ship, or possibly with a returning military expedition to Calais. Summer and autumn that year were very wet, possibly causing people’s resistance to infection to be lowered and motivating them to shelter together more than usual to avoid the incessant rain.

The Black Death spread rapidly, and killed quickly, many dying in days or even hours of infection. In the west country in October 1348, ecclesiastical processions to entreat the Almighty were ordered in the diocese of Exeter. In 1349 it was so widespread that the law courts were suspended from Hilary until Michaelmas, January to September. Even parliament was suspended for a time. All classes of society were affected from royalty to serf. The clergy, who tried to minister to the sick, paid a particularly heavy toll, some establishments losing all their personnel and hence their support of the parishes disappeared when most needed. Even ships at sea did not escape, with reports of whole crews succumbing and unmanned vessels drifting. Town populations suffered most, but the countryside did not escape and animals died in great numbers when there was no one left to look after them.

Although maps of the spread of plague would suggest otherwise, the population of Cornwall was as severely affected by the Black Death as the rest of England. It had peaked in the late 13th century at around 107,000 but following the Black death was reduced to around 65,000. More than half the clergy had died from their close contact with their dying parishioners. In the Deanery of Penwith 12 of 14 priests died. By 1378 Truro was reported to be entirely desolate and waste. Half the farms and smallholdings had no tenants and between 1349 and 1352 harvests were disastrously poor and little had improved by the 1370s.

Bodmin was also particularly badly hit. Between 1348 – 50 1,500 persons are said to have died, approximately half the estimated population. The county’s economy suffered. Between the 12th and 14th centuries there had been growth in population and the economy, with settlement of upland areas. Many of these moorland hamlets were abandoned. Tin production, important since pre-Roman times, was reduced by 80% by 1351, but had recovered by the 1380s, as shown by examination of the Stannary records. Moresk Manor, at modern day St Clements near Truro, had half its farms with no tenants, and Wendron near Helston, had only a third of its former population. The relative variety of the Cornish economy did however cushion the county from the extreme losses experienced elsewhere.

This drastic loss of life radically changed the economic and social structure of the country and county. The old feudal and manorial system ended and the survivors were in such demand for their labour that they could almost name their price and object to working conditions previously accepted as normal. With the breakdown of feudalism, labourers, even serfs,  were more able to move away from their old masters, and new masters, in need of labour, were less inclined to ask searching questions about their previous work records. The landholding class was reduced in size and holdings increased in size as ownerless holdings were taken over. The balance of livestock changed, sheep farming increasing because it required less labour than cattle farming.

Although the Black Death had mostly abated by the 1350s smaller outbreaks of plague continued, starting in 1360 – 62 and continuing into the 17th century, particularly in cities and urban areas. In Tudor England plague made its presence felt most summers in cities and large towns necessitating the closure of gathering places like theatres and pleasure gardens.

There is little information about the Black Death in the St Ives locality in the 14th century, but it is unlikely that the region escaped unscathed. Certainly St Ives had several visits by the plague during the 17th century. John Hobson Matthews, in his History of St Ives, records episodes in 1603, 1629, 1646, and 1710 – 11.

In September 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth I’s death, herself scarred by smallpox earlier in her life, but who avoided the plague: Regulations for prevention of the plague which was raging throughout the country. No inhabitant may receive a stranger coming by land or sea from an infected district. Persons arriving by sea at St Ives from an infected district are to remain in their ships.

Matthews 170

In 1629 the borough accounts record: deliued the constables to make puision for the companie of an Irishe barke that came from ffraunce havinge the sicknes abord her 3s 4d.

For bread and drinke to the ffishermen  that went abord her being shutt upp 8d.

Matthews 189

In 1646 – 7 i.e. during the Civil War, plague followed by famine returned. 535 people, about a third of the population of St Ives fell victim. (? died) Food brought from neighbouring parishes had to be laid beside the streams that bounded the infected district and townspeople placed their money in the streams at Polmanter and Carbis Valley. Each parcel was ticketed with the price to be paid and purchasers were not to approach the place where the money was laid for several hours. The market was closed for a considerable time. The Stephens shut themselves up in their country house at Ayr and escaped infection. Hicks, the historian, said that more would have died from famine than plague if a ship belonging to Mr Opye of Plymouth, had not come to harbour laden with wheat and some butts of sack (a fortified white wine imported from Spain or the Canaries, very similar to sherry) which was bought for £196 by the mayor and other gentlemen and distributed to the hungry population.

Matthews 195

The plague continued intermittently in the town into the 18th century. In 1710 the borough council paid 1s 1d for a proclamation to be made about the plague and other matters. 

Plagues, Pandemics and Epidemics Through History’ is a four-part series written by Dr John Sell. ‘Introduction and the Black Death with Particular Reference to S.W. England’ is Part 1 in the series.


When the Black Death arrived in Europe. Interview with Monica H. Green in BBC History Magazine June 2022

Cornwall in the Thirteenth Century, Dr James Whetter

Cornwall, Philip Payton

Mediaeval Cornwall, Elliott-Binns

Parochial history of Cornwall, Peter Thurstan

A History of St Ives, Lelant, Zennor and Towednack, John Hobson Matthews

Featured image: The Depiction of Death Sweeping Through a Crowd (Wikimedia Commons)

History and Heritage

Just Where Is Chitta?

Map of Cornwall - Christopher Saxton, 1579

Here at St Ives Archive we take an interest in anything connected to the history and life of the town and area. So when our attention was drawn to an article in the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries which claimed that Lelant was probably the target of a Spanish raid in 1405 which left the village in flames and killed numbers of the inhabitants, we pricked up our ears. None of us had ever heard of such a thing in this area, although we were aware that it had happened to coastal towns along the south coast from Cornwall to Kent over the centuries of hostilities between Britain and the Continent.

The perpetrators of this particular raid were a combined flotilla of Spanish and French galleons and galleys under the command of Don Pero El Nino, Count of Buelna, and were made in revenge for the raids of an English privateer called Harry Paye, whose base had been Poole in Dorset. He had terrorised French and Spanish shipping for years and in 1398 had also stolen a valuable crucifix from the church of St Mary in Finisterre. An apology for this ancient crime was made by the churches of Poole and Parkstone in May 2008, when a specially crafted cross was sent to the mayor of Gijon.

The story of Pero El Nino’s life and exploits are written in a biography of him by his servant, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, published between 1431 – 1449, called El Vitorial. There have been several English translations of this including one by Dame Joan Evans, in 1928, called The Unconquered Knight. This translation states that after sailing up the west coast of France the party attacked and burnt a coastal town in Cornwall called St Ives. But the name of the place in the original Spanish is Chita or Chitta. So, why St Ives? There are no known historical records of St Ives being sacked and burned any more than Lelant, and the geographical description does not match either place more than many other Cornish ports.

The important factor here seems to be the name Chitta, which appears to have been the name that Cornish fishermen, captured by the raiders, told them the place was called. Lelant comes into the picture because some think that the word should be Chanta not Chitta, and that Chanta could be a corruption of the ancient name of Lelant, Lananta. At a very long stretch that might be so, but it would be very difficult to make an argument like that for St Ives which in Cornish is, Porthia, as we all know, and in Latin, Santa Ia.

Another problem with both of these suggestions is why would a raiding party heading for Poole, on the south coast, deviate around the notoriously dangerous Land’s End, to St Ives Bay, unless they were lost? And there is no hint of that in the account. They would also have had to make the return journey to reach their main objective of Poole.

What we do know from independent historical accounts is that after Chitta, the raiders attacked Dartmouth, Looe and Poole, also ventured a try at Plymouth and Southampton, but decided they were too big and well fortified to take on easily.

So where was Chitta? One strong clue to my mind is at Looe. It is in Cornwall and its geography fits the description in Gamez’s account far better than St Ives or Lelant. What’s more its present inhabitants believe that it was raided in 1405, and this is recorded in the town’s museum and in Philip Payton’s “A History of Cornwall.” The story is included in a fictionalised form by Carrick White in his book, Wrecks, Raids and Ambuscades. But the strongest evidence is in the ancient name for Looe which is Shutta. If you put Shutta into your search engine you will be presented with “Wikipedia – Shutta is a Northern suburb of Looe, Cornwall, or Ordnance Survey, Shutta, Cornwall – area information; or numerous advertisements for holiday accommodation in Shutta, Looe. There are street names like Shutta Lane, and Shutta Road in Looe.

The Cornish dictionary published by the Cornish Language Board, edited by Dr Ken George, has Shuta – a water conduit, and then the interesting comment: Included by Nance to explain plural noun Shutta, but no evidence of this word in Cornish. Origin Middle English, Old French a chute. So Shutta seems to be the plural of Shuta meaning more than one water chute. This would fit well for Looe as Shutta Road passes down hill towards the harbour in the salubrious district of Shutta. Incidently St Ives used to have a street called Shute Street into the 19th century but at some time its name was changed to Street an Pol.

If you were a Spanish sailor interrogating a frightened Cornish fisherman about the name of the port you were standing off and he told you Shutta, it’s not too unlikely that with the noise of wind and sea in your ears, that what you heard sounded more like Chitta, it’s certainly the nearest I’ve found so far to Chitta.

So all things considered, it seems that it wasn’t St Ives, or even Lelant, that was sacked that day in 1405, but Looe, where it’s an accepted fact of local history. Jolly narrow escape, St Ives, you probably wouldn’t have been in such a good position to petition the Pope for a new church to reduce your dependence on Lelant in 1408 if you had been rebuilding the extensive destruction of a 1405 sacking and burning.

By: Dr John Sell


Devon and Cornwall notes and Queries Spring 2021. 1405: The Spanish Destruction of Lelant, Cornwall – Andrew Breeze. Page 285

The Unconquered Knight: A chronicle of the deeds of Don Pero Nino, Count of Buelna by Gutierre Diaz De Gamez. Translated and selected from El Vitorial by Dame Joan Evans, B.Litt., F.R. Hist.S. published by the Boydell Press

Wrecks, Raids and Ambuscades, around and about Looe, by Carrick White. Published by Carrick-White Ltd. 2016

A History of the Parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor, by John Hobson Matthews 1892

Featured image: Map of Cornwall by Christopher Saxton, published in 1579 (Wikimedia Commons)

Events History and Heritage News

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of John Passmore Edwards

The Archive Centre was asked to put together a display to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of John Passmore Edwards. Over the past few months, two volunteers sifted through the information and photographs held in the archives and put together a display to be held at the St Ives Library. 

From humble beginnings, Passmore Edwards worked to establish a successful business and dedicated 90% of the money he made to fund buildings to enrich the lives of others. Over a space of 14 years, 70 major buildings were established as a direct result of Passmore’s bequests. These buildings included 24 libraries along with hospitals, schools, orphanages, museums, gardens, and drinking fountains. Twenty of the seventy buildings are in Cornwall, with one of them being the library in St Ives, opened in 1896.

John Passmore Edwards display at St Ives Library.

To learn more about the life and legacy of John Passmore Edwards, visit the Greta Williams Room in St Ives Library. The Passmore Edwards display will be on view until the 30th March and throughout the month, visitors will be encouraged to share their own memories of the library.

A video by Tony Mason about the great Cornish philanthropist John Passmore Edwards.