Effigy Burning in Nineteenth Century Cornwall

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Have you ever been caught having extra-marital sex? Ever been a community leader, or public figure, and gone against your community’s wishes? Ever withheld pay from your employees? Ever been a ‘blackleg’? Ever brought shame on your kin, and/or your neighbourhood? If, in 1800s Cornwall, you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of the above questions, something very much like the following might happen to you. This occurred in Camborne, in 1884:

On Friday the effigies of a couple who were supposed to have misconducted themselves, were taken in procession through the streets, and afterwards burnt at Wheal Gerry in the presence of thousands of persons. [1]  1

The Wheal Gerry Gate, Camborne Cricket Club, Roskear. The site of the mine has long been built over

The crowd would doubtless have created a fearful din through the streets on improvised musical instruments, and all present would have had prior knowledge of who was being effigised and why. For the person or persons whose effigies were being burnt, they would have been horribly aware that they were being subjected to

…a terrible community judgement, in which the victim was made into an outcast, one considered to be already dead. It was the ultimate in excommunication[2]

The community was purging itself of its undesirable elements, through a symbolic cleansing by fire.

Effigy burning has been identified by historians as one element of what is known as ‘rough music’ in 18th and 19th century societies. In England the ritual could be known as a ‘skimmington’ or ‘riding the stang’, but the purpose was the same. In an era of inadequate policing, people sought to regulate each other’s behaviour by means of loud, crude, and often violent, public acts of shaming. Burning an effigy of the person(s) who had offended the body politic was a frequent feature of 1800s rough music, which of course had its roots in the popularity of Bonfire Night and, going back further, the burning of heretics during the time of the Reformation.  [3]

Rough music, Warwickshire, 1909

In Cornwall, effigy burning and rough music is not to be confused with the tradition of a shallal, meaning ‘making an almighty din’. [4]  This custom, though equally abhorrent to the authorities, [5] was a community’s raucous, drink-fuelled celebration of a new marriage, “a way”, wrote A.L. Rowse, of “keeping up a wedding”. [6.]  A procession of rough music, culminating in the firing of an effigy was, as we shall see, the polar opposite of a shallal in 1800s Cornwall.

From 1800-1899, there was approximately 81 reported instances of effigy burning (or instances involving an effigy – eight were halted before firing) in Cornwall, from Callington, [7] down to Penzance and beyond. [8] Curiously, as the century progressed, so did the frequency of reported burnings: a total of 63, or 77%, occurred between the years 1870-99. Burnings that happened in these years will be the main focus of this post, and the reasons behind this perceived increase in effigy burnings will be discussed later.

Taking these 63 burnings, I’ve broken down the motivations behind a person(s) effigy going up in flames into the following categories:

Reason  Total
Committing a crime     3
Labour-related     3
Public nuisance   12
Personal relationships   32
Political     7
No reason given     6

Of course, all these instances would have been viewed by the authorities as a public nuisance; to this day it’s still a felony to start a bonfire within 50ft of a highway, and yet many burnings took place in the centre of towns. For example, in Falmouth, in 1888, a protest against the activities of the local Sewerage Board culminated in an effigy being burnt on the Moor. [9]  Indeed, any culprits of effigy burning who were caught – and there were very few – could expect a fine. [10]

 The Moor, Falmouth, 1800s [11]

The most frequent category, ‘personal relationships’, covers a very broad church: adultery, elopement, desertion, battery, unsuitable partnerships (such as a vast disparity in age, or one partner being considerably wealthier than the other), or often a combination of two or more of these. At Mylor in 1877, an elderly, married, and wealthy man, described as an “ancient Adonis”, eloped with a local teenager. The happy couple’s effigies were consumed by fire that same evening. [12]

Of course, not every crime or misdemeanour in 1800s Cornwall was celebrated with the guilty parties having their likenesses turned to ashes in their hometown. Any occurrences perceived to be truly out of the ordinary, or utterly beyond the pale of decency, were likely to be dealt with harshly.

For example, in Porthleven in 1882,

There is a fellow here in the habit of sculking [sic] about in the remote corners of our thoroughfares, where little children are playing, and there indecently exposing himself to them… [13]

The Porthleven Flasher was never caught, but his sordid career was mercifully brief. To “demonstrate disgust”, a crowd burnt two effigies in the town one Friday night, and lynched another. The exposures ceased. [14]

In 1892, a wife-beater in St Dennis was left in no uncertain terms as to how his heavy hand was viewed by the community:

‘To show the public feeling on the matter, an effigy was hanged to a tree, and afterwards cut down and burnt, and the ashes were put in a coffin and buried’.  [15]

The word then went about the village: anyone else caught treating their wife in “such a disgraceful manner”, could expect a “similar experience”. [16]

In both these instances, the forces of law and order are conspicuously absent: they never apprehended the Porthleven Flasher nor, to the best of my knowledge, investigated the goings-on at St Dennis. And they certainly never called a halt to the subsequent rituals in both these places. Mob justice ruled. All this raises some interesting questions about the levels of policing in that era

Trelowarren Street, Camborne, top end

The Camborne area in the 1880s was a hot-bed of effigy burning and rough music. Matters were so out of hand that a lively march through Trelowarren Street of the local Salvation Army Band was believed to be “another effigy procession” and drew an attendant crowd of thrillseekers. [17]  The perpetrators of effigy burning acted with seeming impunity. In 1886

Two effigies, representing a man and woman…were carried through Tregajorran and Pool on Thursday evening…they were afterwards burnt at Carn Brea. [18]

Carn Brea

Consider the distance covered. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the march began at East Hill, Pool, went to Chapel Hill, Tregajorran, and then enjoyed a fiery termination atop Carn Brea. That’s two miles, give or take. That’s a two mile stank for a substantial, aggressive crowd, making all manner of loud, tuneless commotion, with two effigies at their head, and probably carrying a barrel of tar, kindling, and possibly even lit torches. And no officer of the law stopped them. Cornwall Live would have had a field day. This kind of thing happened regularly, and went unchecked, equally regularly. Why?

Firstly, 1800s Cornwall was sparsely policed, even after the formation of the Cornwall Constabulary in 1857. In 1873 the Superintendent for the whole Penzance borough was stationed at Camborne, and the town itself was manned by only five officers: little wonder that, during the October riots in Camborne of that year, the militia had to be called in. [19]

To take a further example, at Treen in 1887, PC Oliver was on the spot, preventing “violence by stones” as a mob of two hundred locals subjected a wife beater to some rough music. Oliver single-handedly dispersed the crowd but, the next night, with Oliver absent, violence broke out again, with windows broken and effigies burnt.

Oliver’s non-appearance is more understandable when you’re aware that he was the only policeman for the parishes of St Buryan, St Levan, and Sennen. That’s a lot of ground to cover. [20]

Obviously, when PC Oliver was around, his presence must have carried a certain authority. In contrast, PC Grose, of Tintagel, was brutally assaulted when trying to stop the burning of an effigy of a man alleged to have got into “ill repute” with his neighbour. [21]. Rural policemen in this era were regularly dealt such harsh treatment by the populace. [22]

Of course, law enforcement officers effectively and quietly doing their jobs have never really been very newsworthy, but any shortcomings are likely to be closely scrutinised. Thus it was in Launceston in 1882, when plainclothes officers were unable to quell a riot and effigy burning, one disgusted townsman noting a constable promenading about the streets carrying an umbrella, rather than wielding a pickstaff and arresting hooligans. [23]

The police being remiss as regards disturbances related to the concerns of the working classes is one thing, but what of the interests of the middle and governing classes – the very people a Victorian police force would surely look to protect from crime?

Penrose Walk, Helston to Loe Bar

On Guy Fawkes Night in Helston, 1885, thousands of people paraded the streets with an effigy “dressed in military costume” and bearing a placard reading “We want our rights”. The effigy was protected by a menacing bodyguard of cudgel-bearing men as it was borne through the town to Lower Green (now Coronation Lake), where a baying mob a thousand strong was waiting. Blue and red lights were burned, and the effigy was fired, to much celebration, over a barrel of tar. [24]

Lower Green, Helston


Coronation Lake, Helston. Lower Green was submerged for the lake in 1912

While all this was going on, the Town Council were sitting to decide who should be Mayor for the forthcoming year. The present incumbent, Frederick Vivian Hill of Penhellis House, knew full well the effigy was to be burned, and why. A couple of days earlier, Captain John Peverell Rogers of the Royal Artillery, who resided at Penrose House, had written to Hill, requesting that he keep the peace on November 5, and that his effigy not be burnt. [25] Rogers had blocked the public right of way along Penrose Walk, a move which had made him detested in the town.

Hill ignored Rogers’ pleas – after all, it was Bonfire Night, and the fire on Lower Green was legally beyond 50ft of any highway. No policemen intervened, and the people’s outrage was sated. Hill was elected Mayor for the forthcoming year that same night.

As the above events suggest, even authority figures and/or their representatives were not safe from the ire of the public. At Paul, in 1888, the parishioners opposed the enforced tax for a new road, and burned the effigy of a local collector. [26] In St Ives in 1875 the losing candidate in the mayoral elections was effigised and burnt, along with those of his supporters. It was hoped that none of the victorious party had taken part, for if so it would mean the “political doom of the borough”.[27]

Politicians were not the only people in danger of a taste of Cornish rough music and the bonfire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the working classes had their differences with their employers, which sometimes boiled over.

St Just mining district, Levant [28]

A pay dispute at Boscaswell Downs Mine, St Just, in 1874, went badly for Captain Williams. One evening, the mine bell rang, calling the miners to grass, and there to greet them on the yard wall was Williams’s effigy, with a lighted candle in its mouth. The effigy was then roasted over a barrel of tar. The “stupidity” of such “illegal” practices was noted in the ‘papers, and that the actions of the miners “cannot help the payment of what is due to them”. Perhaps so, but the issue was now in the public eye, and Captain Williams must have been under no illusions as to his standing amongst the men. [29]

Illegal or not, effigising the supposed wrongdoers in a labour dispute could serve as a powerful deterrent to further perceived malpractices. In Truro in 1886, the effigies of two bargemen were lynched from a mast at Lemon Quay, and then torn to pieces in the streets. The bargees had – foolishly, on reflection – agreed to work at reduced rates. [30]

We can now see that effigy burning and rough music in late 1800s Cornwall could take place in practically any location, from the relatively remote, such as Crowlas [31]. or Piece, [32]  to the more populous mining districts, such as Redruth. It was here, in 1875, that the town was subject to weeks of effigy burning at East End, West End, and Redruth Highway (nowadays the A393), one instance involving the effigy being paraded through the streets on a donkey. [33]

As noted earlier, by far the most frequent cause of an effigy burning was what I have chosen to call ‘personal relationships’: 32 out of 63 instances. And it is these incidents which can lead us to attempt to answer the following:

Why did the enthusiasm for effigy burning increase, rather than decrease, through the 1800s? Why, paradoxically, when the great advances of the Industrial Revolution sounded the death-knell for so many ancient rituals and feast days, did effigy burning, described in 1896 as an “old custom”, [34] not just survive but apparently flourish?

As AK Hamilton Jenkin noted, in 1800s Cornwall

…any amusement of the working classes which was not discouraged by the gentry as tending to idleness was condemned…as incompatible with the Christian calling…the old national pastimes of Cornwall…were discouraged almost to the point of extinction. [35]

Obby Oss, Padstow, 2022. One tradition to have survived for centuries

Effigy burning certainly fits the bracket as ‘old’. A ‘skimmingham’ (surely a reference to a ‘skimmington’, an alternative name for rough music) riot is described as having occurred in Penzance in 1749. [36] If rough music was around then, it’s reasonable to assume that effigy burning was around too.

A burning at East End, Redruth in 1891 was described as according to the “rudeness and superstition of a century ago”. [37] Furthermore, in 1892, a lady in her 70s from Black Rock, near Crowan, told of how her mother would recall that the villagers would get up “effigies” if “people’s moral character was bad”. [38] When we remember that rough music was also a part of English rural life from the late 1600s, [39] it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that rough music, and with it effigy burning, enjoyed a similar vintage in Cornwall too.

East End, Redruth

If effigy burning was probably a very old practice, it was certainly ‘incompatible’ with modern society and was definitely discouraged: governors did not like the governed to take the law into their own hands. A Redruth burning in 1885 was described as one of the “relics of barbarism”. [40] Similarly, at Camborne in 1877, effigy burning there was said to be indicative of ignorance “so rife”, and superstition “so prevalent”, that it was a wonder civilisation, and the law and order that went with it, had progressed at all .[41] “Is there”, complained one pained letter-writer on the subject, “no authority to relieve us?”[42]

Yet reports of effigy burnings continued, and this is the crux: with the increased media coverage, and the increased literacy levels, of the 1800s, reports of burnings rose, whereas in previous times burnings may have been deemed either not worthy of reporting, or simply weren’t recorded, anywhere, at all. Newspaper coverage in the early 1800s was sparse in Cornwall; before 1829 there were only two such organs, the Royal Cornwall Gazette (launched in 1801), and the West Briton (1810), with the Falmouth Packet rolling off the presses in 1829. By 1880, there were a dozen newspapers in Cornwall, [43]. all reaping the benefits of the Industrial Revolution’s improvements of the printing process. Likewise, more people were able to read: in 1885, 83% of Cornwall’s population had some degree of literacy, whereas in 1845 it was only 67% for men, and 46% for women. [44] This new reading public, [45]. hungry for news, was actively sought out as an untapped market for the new journalists. Witness this shameless piece of self-promotion from The Cornishman. It’s a supposed conversation between two St Buryan ladies:

Martha: Lor gwane to git the Cornishman fer sumthen wurth reeden…

Jane: …The Cornishman do prent so much good things lately…[46]

And what better ‘good thing’ to print than a juicy sex scandal, with some effigy burning thrown in?


Penponds village, near Camborne

To give one example of many, in Penponds, in 1883, a married man and woman were known to have become “enamoured” of each other. 47. One night, accompanied by a crowd of thousands singing hymns and backed by a tuneless accordion, their effigies were paraded from Penponds, to Treswithian, and back to Penponds, where they were burned before the woman’s house. This story was covered by the Cornish Telegraph twice, [48]. and the Royal Cornwall Gazette. [49]. To put it bluntly, sex sells.

Or, to take an alternative argument, it might just be that, as media coverage increased and journalism improved, so effigy burnings relating to personal relationships increased also. From 1857, adultery was no longer a crime, [50] and it’s possible that, as adulterers could no longer be tried in court, a rougher form of judgement was wrought on them by their communities. The increasing influence of Methodism, too, with its heightened morals, would have meant many converts would have taken a very dim view of any ‘compromised’ parishioners. Maybe it’s significant that, shortly before the burning in Penponds, many of the village were converted to the teachings of John Wesley. [51]

Whether or not effigy burning increased in late 1800s Cornwall as a reaction to a perceived sense of loosened morals, or whether reporters merely gave them better coverage, is unknowable. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the answer, to be burnt in effigy was a thing to be feared, and was conclusively viewed by the authorities as a public nuisance, that could harbour serious consequences. In 1888, the body of a man was found in a field near Terrace Hill, Lostwithiel. It was discovered that he had originally come from Lanivet, but had left due to the “unbearable conduct” of the people there. The villagers, for an undisclosed reason, had held a procession against him, and burnt his effigy. Unable to cope with the brutality of his community’s verdict on him, he had taken his own life, cutting his throat with a razor. The coroner concluded he was of “unsound mind” at the time of his death. [52]


Notes and References

1.Cornish Telegraph (hereafter CT), 24 January 1884, p.5

2. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, Penguin, 1991, p.480

3. Ibid,pp.480-2.

4. As used by Cornwall’s art-based charity: https://shallal.org/

5. People were fined for holding a shallalin St Ives in 1864. SeeCT, 22 June 22 1864, p.3

6. A.L. Rowse, A Cornish Childhood, Truran, 2010, p. 5. Shallals were also surveyed in the Cornishman, 14 December1927, p.4, and the West Briton, 17 October1996, p.33

7. West Briton, 2 February 1870, p.11

8. Cornishman, 31 March 1881, p.4

9. Lake’s Falmouth Packet, 26 May 1888, p.4

10. Two youngsters from Long Rock out of a crowd of 60 had their pockets lightened in 1885. Cornishman, 14 May 1885, p.5

11. From Falmouth Poly: https://thepoly.org/whats-on/event/772/falmouth-history-archive-the-history-of-the-moor

12. Royal Cornwall Gazette(hereafter RCG), 28 September 1877, p.4

13. Cornishman, 20 April 1882, p.4

14. Cornishman, 11 May 1882, p.6

15. St Austell Star, 14 October 1892, p.4

16. Ibid.

17. CT, 19 July 1883, p.5

18. Cornubian and Redruth Times(hereafter CRT), 25 June 1886, p.7

19. See my website on the riots: https://camborneriot1873.com/

20. Cornishman, 2 February 1887, p.4

21. Cornish and Devon Post(hereafter CDP), 16 July 1892, p.4

22. See: Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing From the 18th Century to the Present, Quercus, 2009, pp.50-6and84-90

23. CDP, 11 November 1882, p.3

24. CT,12 November 1885, p.5

25. Kresen Kernow, RH/9/7/3/57

26. Cornishman, 25 October 1888, p.5

27. CT, 14 April 1875, p.4

28. See: https://www.masarnenramblers.com/swcp-day-21—lower-boscaswell—porthcurno.html

29. CT, 6 May 1874, p.2

30. CRT, 26 November 1886, p.7

31. CT, 16 April 1885, p.8

32. Cornishman, 23 August 1883, p.4

33. RCG, 16 June1875, p.4, and 3 July 1875, p.6, CT, 23 June 1875, p.3

34. Cornish Post and Mining News, 19 November 1896, p.4

35. K. Hamilton Jenkin, The Cornish Miner, 3rd ed., Allen & Unwin, 1962, p.129

36. Morrab Library Archive, Penzance, BOR/192

37. RCG 10 September 1891, p.5

38. Cornishman, 13 October 1892, p.4

39. EP Thompson, Customs in Common, Penguin, 1991, p.467

40. CRT, 11 September 1885, p.2

41. RCG, 20 April 1877, p.4

42. RCG, 27 April 1877, p.6

43. For the record: Commercial Shipping & General Advertiser, Cornish and Devon Post, Cornish Echo, Cornish Post & Mining News, Cornish Telegraph, Cornish Times, Cornishman, Cornubian and Redruth Times, Lake’s Falmouth Packet, Royal Cornwall Gazette, St Austell Star, West Briton.

44. See: https://bernarddeacon.com/2020/07/19/how-literate-were-our-victorian-ancestors/

45. See: Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Chatto & Windus, 1961, p156-213.

46. Cornishman, 12 October 1893, p.7

47. RCG, 9 March 1883, p.4

48. 3 March 1883, p.5 and 8 March 1883, p.5

49. 9 March 1883, p.4

50. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrimonial_Causes_Act_1857

51. Cornishman, 1 February 1883, p.7

52. RCG, 20 December 1888, p. 7


The cover photograph for this article comes from Derry, August 1913. It shows Nationalists preparing to burn the effigy of Sir Edward Carson. With thanks to Chris McKnight, Old Photos of Derry People, Facebook


Francis Edwards was born and raised in Camborne. His website and blog (https://www.the-cornish-historian.com) mainly covers the 1800s, crime, social unrest and riots, and the Industrial Revolution. He is available for freelance research and presentations to local history groups.

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