Ertach Kernow - On the edge of memory
Cornwall has its share of large and grandiose monuments commemorating events and men famous in their day, most of their achievements now mainly forgotten outside vintage books.
Passing along the A30 one might catch a view of the Gilbert Memorial overlooking Bodmin. The monuments itself was completed at a cost of £1,500 in 1857 by John Eva & Sons of Helston to a design by William Pease of Boconnoc as a memorial to Lieutenant-General Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert. It is inscribed on all four sides this work being carried out by a Bodmin mason William Buscombe. The whole of the beacon had been designated a public recreational area by Bodmin Town Council in 1854 covering an area of 17.5 acres. The monument itself is 144 feet high and made of granite. Walter Raleigh Gilbert was born in Bodmin on 18 March 1785, third son of the Reverend Edmund Gilbert, vicar of Constantine and rector of Helland. Gilbert made his career in the military of the British East India Company. Joining The Bengal infantry aged in 1800 by 1810 he’d been promoted to Captain rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General by 1851. During the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Sikh Wars he fought with distinction and was mentioned in dispatches. Gilbert received honours and a Baronetcy in 1850. After falling seriously ill he hurriedly returned to the UK, dying in London on 12 May 1853 unable to fulfil his wish of returning to his home in Cornwall.
Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert’s newspaper obituary on 12th October 1853 began; ‘We deeply lament to announce the death of the most distinguished Cornishman of our day, and the sorrow is much increased by the melancholy consideration that he lived only to reach his native land, and was denied the privilege he desired, to see his home once more, and die amongst the scenes he loved.’
High on Carn Brea is the De Dunstanville Memorial, another huge edifice towering over the surrounding countryside, albeit at 90 feet tall, some 54 feet shorter than Bodmin’s Gilbert memorial. Grade II listed the inscription reads ‘The County of Cornwall in memory of Lord Dunstanville and Basset AD 1836’ and was built and paid for by public subscription. Born Francis Basset he was heir to an immense fortune and the fourth largest estate, with huge mining interests in Cornwall. He dabbled in politics, all part of the corrupt system of the day and was considered a good businessman. In 1779 Francis was created a baronet by King George III for taking his miners to help defend Plymouth against a French & Spanish fleet. After a lengthy period of cajoling and political manoeuvring he was raised to the peerage in 1796 as Baron de Dunstanville and in 1797 Baron Basset, of Stratton. Both he and his first wife Harriet were philanthropist and involved with supporting his workers, widows and children through founding schools. He was described as a great and good man, nobleman, patriot and a Christian philanthropist, a benefactor friend and advisor to the poor. His obituary in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on Saturday 14 February 1835 spoke very highly of him.
On Francis’ death and his return from London to Cornwall, the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported ‘The funeral procession was on an uncommonly extensive scale of sombre grandeur and consisted of outriders and ten pages on horseback.’ The journey was carried out at a walking pace, and with its passage through towns lined by silent crowds along the streets. The day of the funeral saw over 20,000 turning up to show their respects for someone who was it would appear on his death appreciated and esteemed.
A memorial was quickly suggested with estimates to it costing some £1,500. The public subscription opened to build the monument raised approaching £4,000. The excess was used to help poor mining families by way of annuities for those disabled through their work. Begun on 27th June 1836 the monument was completed in March 1837 three months ahead of schedule. The builder was a local man, Joseph Prior who was later asked to complete the work on the Lander monument in Truro following a construction accident.
The 19th century monument to the Lander brothers standing at the top of Lemon Street in Truro, commemorating their exploration work in Africa, was covered by this column in the 9th February 2022 edition, this can be found on this website.
The Helston neo-gothic monument erected to the memory of Humphry Millet Grylls who died in 1834 was not the size of these two earlier monuments but is outstanding in appearance. This too was constructed through funds received by public subscription from thankful people who especially appreciated the work Humphry had done to safeguard jobs when the Wheal Vor mine had collapsed financially in 1819. Here was a man whose contribution to the welfare of Helston and its inhabitants was most appreciated by people of all classes. The cortege left Grylls home at Bosahan to the church in Helston where an estimated 8,000 people attended the funeral. The day following the funeral at the town hall a committee was rapidly set up and the public asked to contribute to a memorial, to which 2,386 people did so, including miners at Wheal Vor all offering to contribute one shilling each. The cost of the monument was £324 and was built by local building contractor John Eva & Sons, who would later go on the build the larger Gilbert Memorial overlooking Bodmin. The Humphry Millet Grylls memorial now acts as a stunning town centre gateway to the bowling green. A sad finale, Humphry who was only 45 when he died in April had a wife who gave birth to a daughter in October, the following year his house and possessions were being auctioned off.
We are all used to seeing war memorials throughout our towns these days, but prior to the end of World War One these were little known. No memorials mentioning the ordinary men who fought and died in the Napoleonic wars exist and in Cornwall for those who died in the South African Boer Wars monuments are found in just a few places. The Boer War did not cover Britain with glory being remembered as the first use of concentration camps. However, there were many soldiers and sailors who died for the British Empire from throughout Cornwall, perhaps the most senior and best known being Major-General Sir William Penn Symons who has a memorial in Saltash
Penzance has a Boer War memorial situated in the Morrab Gardens close to the Morrab Library and Madron a Lychgate dedicated to those who died from that area. There is a monument in Truro Cathedral commemorating all the Cornishmen who died in the South African conflict between 1899 and 1902 with 192 names included. The inscription reads ‘Sacred to the memory of the officers and men of the county regiment and all Cornishmen who died for their country in South Africa 1899-1902 faithful unto death’. The monument is constructed in Cornish polyphant stone, carved wood and bronze. Of those listed 16 were officers and 174 NCO’s and enlisted men. This can be found on the southwest wall near the entrance. It was unveiled on 7 March 1905 by the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe.
Major-General Sir William Penn Symons of Hatt near Saltash, was mentioned in the report of Lieutenant-General Sir George White, from Ladysmith on December 2nd 1899 to the Secretary of State for War. This was shared in the London Gazette of 8th February 1901; ‘I cannot too strongly record my opinion of the energy and courage shown by this distinguished General Officer in the exercise of his command, until he was mortally wounded in the action on the Talnna Hill, near Dundee, on the 20th October last. In him the country has lost an Officer of high ability and a leader of exceptional valour’. The monument erected in Saltash to his memory was unveiled by the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe on 18th September 1901.
A somewhat older and virtually unknown memorial relating to the English Civil War can be found at Stratton. This Grade II listed monument was erected by Lord Lansdown in 1713 to commemorate the Battle of Stamford Hill, which took place there in May 1643. It consists of a granite stone archway supported by granite and stone rubble walls surmounted by a re-used pinnacle from a church tower. The Royalist Cornish Army under Sir Ralph Hopton, included the heroic and charismatic Cornish leader Sir Bevil Grenville, won the day in spite of being said to have been outnumbered by more than two to one. Sir Bevil died in battle later that year on Lansdown Hill near Bath, Somerset. George Grenville a grandson of Sir Bevil on being elevated to the peerage in 1712 took his title as Baron Lansdown from the place of his famous Cornish ancestor’s final battle. Further monuments memorialising Sir Bevil by George include a scheduled Grade II* monument on Lansdown Hill where he fell and a magnificent mural monument to him in Kilkhampton parish church erected in 1714.
This is a small selection of monuments commemorating once famous, now largely forgotten, Cornish people and war hero’s, and events where Cornishmen died their names lost and unrecorded. Perhaps one of the outcomes of World War One is the tradition that we now publicly memorialise all those who have fallen in the line of duty.