Poldark’s Cornwall: the history behind the hit series
Romantic scandals, political shenanigans, smuggling – Hannah Greig explores how themes in the Poldark novels and BBC TV series reflect key concerns of the Georgian era...
Winston Graham’s Poldark novels (and the popular television adaptations of his books) are set in Cornwall during the turbulent years of the late 18th century. The first novel in the series sees Graham’s hero, Ross Poldark, returning to the region in 1783, carrying scars from his time fighting in the American War of Independence. He finds a county and a country rocked by the economic impact of war and by rapid political and social change.
As it is today, 18th-century Cornwall was regarded as distinct from the rest of Britain. Geographically remote, it was characterised as a place of arcane traditions and unconventional people. Georgian visitors were fascinated, for instance, by the elderly Dolly Pentreath. Lauded as the last native Cornish speaker, she could be found muttering local slang in Mousehole until her death in 1777.
At the same time, travellers marvelled at the ports and industry that distinguished Cornwall as a place of modernising innovation and made it economically vital to the rest of the country. The region was at the forefront of the technological changes that drove the industrial revolution. Richard Trevithick, Cornish mine manager and prize-winning wrestler, was the inventor of the first passenger steam engine, building on a wave of improvements in steam technology stimulated by the need for deeper and more efficient excavation of the region’s tin and copper mines.
Natural harbours and bustling ports ensured that Cornwall was a gateway to a wider world of exotic goods and people, with its extensive coastline facing out to busy and immensely profitable shipping and trading routes that spanned the globe. Though full of local variety, then, Cornwall’s history was not merely local, and it felt the full force of the contradictory experiences wrought by late 18th-century change.
Graham utilises this historical context as both background and foreground in his novels. He does not indulge in the extraneous detail or lengthy expositions commonly found in many historical fictions anxious to reinforce their claims to ‘accuracy’. Yet Graham’s lightness of touch testifies to his deep understanding of Cornwall’s past, and his novels pay homage to the county’s very real 18th-century dramas.
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Mining: a perilous business
Tin and copper had long provided Cornwall’s economic bedrock – but mining could bring fortune or abject failure
Travelling through Cornwall in the late 1790s, writer George Lipscomb described the county thus: “though rugged the surface, the interior is fraught with the richest treasures”. He was, of course, referring to the natural reserves of tin and copper that had long made mining essential to the county’s history. The significance of mining meant that 18th-century visitors found an industrial landscape littered with mine shafts, buildings and processing floors.
In Graham’s novels, soon after Ross Poldark’s return to Cornwall he reopens his family’s mine, Wheal Leisure, at a time when the economics of mining were especially perilous. Both domestic and international economies were being rocked by global war, and the prices of copper and tin were even further depressed by the unscrupulous practices of smelting companies attempting to control and monopolise the trade. Yet riches still lay beneath the Cornish landscape for those brave or foolhardy enough to seek them.
Contemporary estimates suggested that on any given day some 40,000 men worked below ground in the Cornish mines, with women and children sorting and processing the tin and copper at the surface. The majority of workers lived close to the margins of life. Collapsing shafts, poor working conditions, mining-related diseases and unrelenting poverty were responsible for the premature deaths of many fathers, mothers and children.
For others, though, mines could provide routes to new fortunes. The huge profits made rapidly by merchant and mine adventurer Thomas Daniell in the second half of the 18th century earned him the nickname ‘Guinea-a-minute’ Daniell. His son, Ralph, was said to be the richest man in Cornwall, with a seat in parliament and a sprawling new estate, Trelissick, to prove it. But the family’s fortunes were short-lived: Thomas’s grandson blew the lot. Having inherited everything in the 1820s, within about a decade this profligate heir was declared a bankrupt, forced to leave the country to flee his creditors. The fall was as fast as the rise, and the Daniells’ riches, so hard-won underground, were irreversibly squandered above it.
Stories of wealthy men enjoying trysts with low-born women were far from confined to fiction in 18th-century England
Love and marriage across a class divide is a key theme in Graham’s earliest Poldark novels, in which the well-born, estate-owning Ross Poldark shuns social protocol and marries Demelza, a young, illiterate kitchen maid. Given the great stock placed on social status, property and propriety, such unconventional matches were incredibly rare in Georgian Britain. However, thanks to a bestselling novel of 1740, Graham’s plot line would not have seemed unfamiliar to Georgian readers.
In Samuel Richardson’s tale Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, the eponymous 15-year-old maidservant becomes the focus of her master’s desire and attention. After she rebuffs his improper advances her master, unable to contain his ardour, proposes and weds her. Pamela became a hit of Poldark proportions. The book raced through multiple editions and Richardson capitalised on that success, publishing a series of sequels that followed Pamela’s struggles as she navigated the etiquette and pitfalls of her newly elevated status and gentry life.
Such matches were not the sole preserve of fiction: a handful of 18th-century marriages were similarly unconventional. Leading Whig politician Charles James Fox married his mistress, the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead, who counted many aristocratic and royal men as clients. From the mid 1780s she cast aside her array of lovers and settled into monogamous domesticity with Fox. They wed in secret in 1795, the marriage being revealed only in 1802 to permit Elizabeth to accompany her statesman husband abroad and to be treated with the respect due to a wife but denied a mistress.
Fox and Armistead’s was undoubtedly one of the century’s greatest romances, and also one of its most shocking marriages. Others who thumbed their noses at social protocol included the Duke of Bolton who, after the death of his wife, married a lowly actress, Lavinia Fenton, who had been his mistress for more than 20 years. The Earl of Derby followed suit in 1797, marrying the actress Elizabeth Farren a mere six weeks after the death of his estranged wife.
Cornwall had its share of scandalous matches. In the 1770s, Town and Country Magazine, purveyor of society scandals, claimed that the wife of Hugh Boscawen, 2nd Viscount Falmouth, was a low-born milliner’s apprentice when they met. According to the gossip, Boscawen kept multiple mistresses and was eventually cuckolded by his wife, who took a much younger lover. The viscount died leaving no legitimate children (though plenty of illegitimate ones) and was succeeded by his nephew, George Boscawen. George features in the Poldark novels, though as a landowner and political power-broker, rather than by virtue of his family’s chequered past.
Smuggling and Cornish contraband
Trafficking brandy and tea was a way of life in the west, with large profits to be made by the boldest smugglers
Smuggling, or ‘free trade’ as it was known, was rife in 18th-century Cornwall, as it was in other coastal regions. In his Poldark series, Winston Graham describes the Cornish smuggler as “a clever fellow who knew how to cheat the government of its revenues and bring [in] brandy at half price”. Even the fair-minded Ross Poldark was not above a spot of smuggling. Indeed, his military service in the American War of Independence was a deal struck to avoid punishment for smuggling, and his involvement in smuggling rings did not end there.
By 1770, an estimated 470,000 gallons (over two million litres) of brandy and 350,000 pounds (nearly 160 tonnes) of tea were being smuggled through Cornwall each year. The losses of tax revenue were so substantial that the government increased the use of professional, state-funded customs officials, revenue officers as well as militia troops, in an attempt to curb the practice. However, Cornwall’s long coastline pocked with secluded coves was difficult to police, and the tempting profits and busy shipping routes that passed so close ensured smuggling was almost impossible to quell.
Certain villages were especially notorious for trafficking. Little Cawsand sits on a bay just south-west of Plymouth harbour, perfectly placed to receive contraband goods from vessels sailing in and out of the port. One visitor recorded that: “we met several females, whose appearance was so grotesque and extraordinary... They were smugglers of spirituous liquors; which they were at that time conveying from cutters at Plymouth, by means of bladders fastened under their petticoats; and, indeed, they were so heavily laden, that it was with apparent difficulty that they waddled along.”
Near the opposite end of Cornwall, in the far south-west, was Prussia Cove, headquarters of a celebrated gang of smugglers led by brothers John (self-styled ‘King of Prussia’) and Harry Carter. Somewhat incongruously, the brothers were devout Methodists as well as smugglers and seamen. In later life Harry retired from smuggling to become a Methodist preacher, and wrote a remarkable manuscript memoir of his smuggling adventures that was eventually found and published long after his death.
Money and the new aristocracy
Banking entrepreneurs and nouveau-riche landowners flaunted wealth accumulated from a burgeoning economy
Brash, rich and getting richer, George Warleggan is described by Winston Graham as part of a “new aristocracy” who had “pushed their way up from humble beginnings on the crest of the new industries”. In the Poldark novels, banking is at the heart of the Warleggan family’s local influence and growing wealth. At the time the novels were set, high-street branches of national banks had not yet developed, and entrepreneurial businessmen provided provincial banking services to meet local need.
The widespread shortfall of cash in a burgeoning but often rapidly fluctuating 18th-century economy meant that many local banks issued their own notes and bills of exchange to facilitate business transactions in their area; it also gave rise to the widespread use of tokens, clipped coins and fake currency.
There were bankers aplenty, especially those with West End premises, who were rolling in cash. Many built shimmering palaces around the country to prove it, from the Hoare family’s estate at Stourhead in Wiltshire to Osterley Park in west London, the seat acquired by Sir Francis Child, head of Child’s Bank.
But it was not only bankers who were able to flash their new wealth. Whole ranks of people profited from emerging commercial opportunities and innovations. Actor-turned-manager David Garrick made enough money from the theatre to equip an expensive town house and a more rural estate with the latest fashionable goods. Etruria Hall in Stoke-on-Trent is testament to the wealth accumulated by Josiah Wedgwood from the manufacture of the pottery that bore his name, and which has come to represent the style of the Georgian era.
Cornwall had its share of rapid social climbers – the ‘real’ Warleggans who, over the course of the Georgian era, rose from labouring professions to financial and political power. Like others in the locality, the Lemon family raised a fortune from mines and spent much of the 18th century buying land and extending their estates. Reputed to have been mere labourers in the late 17th century, within three generations the family secured landed wealth, a seat in parliament and, in 1774, a baronetcy, commissioning celebratory portraits from the fashionable society painter George Romney.
Politics and power plays
Cornwall’s absurdly distorted boroughs made it a hotbed of political manoeuvring and electoral corruption
Political themes recur throughout the Poldark novels. From the start we find Ross Poldark influenced by his experiences in the American War of Independence, and after his return home the 1789 French Revolution soon looms large in the background of his world.
But it is not only such large-scale political dramas that inform the fiction. In the later novels in the series, Graham leads us deep into the complexities of local and often esoteric county and borough politics as leading families wrestle for power at election hustings and through the channels of local government.
In navigating the century’s complex local political infrastructure, Graham’s novels dramatise a fundamental characteristic of Cornwall’s 18th-century past. The region was famously overrepresented in parliament. In 1790 it was returning 44 MPs to Westminster (of a total of 558 members) – far more than anywhere else in the country, and “a melancholy proof of the present great inequality of representation” according to one contemporary visitor.
Among these seats were many so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ that had only a handful of voters, and ‘pocket boroughs’ that were entirely under the control of a local patron. The village of Mitchell returned two members of parliament but by 1821 had only seven voters (down from a peak of 39 in the 1790s). Launceston came under the tight control of the Duke of Northumberland after he purchased estates in 1775, and the small number of tenants who had the franchise were guaranteed to support their landlord’s candidates.
By contrast, elections in the borough of Penryn (a ‘scot and lot’ borough that extended the franchise to all those who paid poor rates) were famously open to whichever candidate had the most money to burn. “Tis said money is drove about in wheelbarrows,” claimed one observer in 1761, while a newspaper report of 1825 suggested that wealthy candidates arrived periodically “to scatter gold and purchase their suffrages”.
Though they offered dramatic variety in terms of local political experience, the complex borough system of Cornwall’s official political representation became a focus of later electoral change. The wide- ranging boundary and franchise reforms enshrined in the 1832 Great Reform Act abolished most of these seats, slashing Cornwall’s representation by almost two-thirds to a mere 14 elected MPs.
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.
Hannah Greig recently appeared on our podcast to discuss the growing popularity of historical fiction on TV and accuracy in historical drama. You can listen here, and read more about the interview here.
This article appears in BBC History Magazine's 'The World of the Georgians' bookazine