Parochial history: Introduction

Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1814.

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Daniel Lysons, Samuel Lysons, 'Parochial history: Introduction', in Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall( London, 1814), British History Online [accessed 14 July 2024].

Daniel Lysons, Samuel Lysons, 'Parochial history: Introduction', in Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall( London, 1814), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024,

Daniel Lysons, Samuel Lysons. "Parochial history: Introduction". Magna Britannia: Volume 3, Cornwall. (London, 1814), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024.


The earliest topographical notices relating to Cornwall, are those in the itineraries of William of Worcester, who visited that county in the reign of Edward IV., and of Leland, who was there in the reign of Henry VIII. Next to these, in point of time, follows the brief sketch of the county by Camden, in his Britannia, first published in 1586, in octavo. The first regularly digested historical and topographical account of Cornwall, is the survey of that county, written in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Richard Carew, Esq. of Anthony, and first published in 1602. This survey, to use the author's own words, "containeth a description — General in the first book, respecting her accidents, elements, and inhabitants—Special in the second book, containing matters topographical, historical." The first book contains much valuable matter on general subjects, particularly relating to the state of the mines at that time, the tillage of the county, fisheries, &c; the Cornish gentry, eminent persons, trade, Saints' feasts, customs, games, &c. &c.; historical notices; temporal and spiritual government, &c.; and a transcript of some valuable records from the Exchequer. The second book consists chiefly of topographical notices, arranged according to the several hundreds, with a brief account of the principal gentry and their seats. This work was reprinted, without additions, in 1723, and again in 1769. A new edition was published in 1811, by the Right Hon. Lord de Dunstanville, with the notes of Thomas Tonkin, Esq. of Trevaunance, from a MS. in His Lordship's possession, which had been prepared for the press by the author, but never published.

Norden's "Topographical and Historical Description of Cornwall" may be considered as contemporary with Carew's survey; the "Perambulation of Cornwall," as he calls it, for the purpose of collecting his materials, appears to have been made in 1584: it was not written till after the publication of Carew's volume, from which he has evidently taken his general sketch of the county; and, from other circumstances, it appears, that he had, at least in many instances, brought down his account to the time of his writing. This survey, in which we have some notices of seats of the Cornish gentry of his time, not mentioned elsewhere, was not printed till 1728. Mr. Carew does not seem to have been aware, that Norden intended more than a map of the county; for, in a letter dated 1606, when meditating a new edition of his survey, he says, "if I wist where to find Mr. Norden, I would fain have his map of our shire, for the perfecting of which he took a journey into these parts." Mr. Tonkin observes of Norden's book, that "although a mean performance, full of egregious mistakes, with most defective and erroneous maps of every hundred, yet there were several things in it hardly to be met with elsewhere." (fn. n1)

About the year 1685, Mr. William Hals, a gentleman of an ancient Devonshire family (fn. n2), which had been some time settled at Fentongollan, in St. Michael Penkevill, began to make collections for a parochial history of Cornwall, which he continued for at least half a century: it was brought down by him to about the year 1736. Mr. Hals died in 1739; his parochial history being at that time nearly compleated. About the year 1750, the publication of this work was undertaken by Mr. Andrew Brice, then a printer at Truro, who afterwards removed to Exeter, where he published an useful geographical dictionary and other books. The account of seventy-two parishes arranged alphabetically, from Advent to Helston inclusive, was printed in folio in ten numbers, which are extremely scarce: the publication is said to have been suspended for want of purchasers; occasioned by the scurrilous anecdotes it contained, and reflections thrown on some of the principal families. It is probable, however, that the inaccuracies with which it abounds, and the tedious legends of saints to whom the churches are dedicated, which occupy at least half the work, would have operated more to the prejudice of its sale than the scandalous anecdotes which occasionally occur, many of which had been omitted by the editor. The most valuable part of the work is the account of families, and the descent of property; but in these he is frequently inaccurate; and, as Dr. Borlase observes (fn. n3), "what he says should not have too great stress laid upon it, when it stands upon his single authority."

Contemporary with Hals, as a collector of materials for a parochial history of Cornwall, was Thomas Tonkin, Esq. of Trevaunance (fn. n4), some time member for Helston, a gentleman of an ancient family, who had made great progress in preparing such a history for the press, and had completed several parishes. Mr. Tonkin began to write his parochial history in 1702, at which time he had the use of Hals's collections. Dr. Borlase (fn. n5) seems to have supposed that Hals's collections were brought down from 1702 to 1736 by Tonkin; the truth is, that they both brought down their collections to that period, without any communication with each other, which seems to have ceased soon after the first period above-mentioned. Mr. Tonkin himself says, speaking of Hals in the year 1739, "it is between twenty-five and thirty years since I have seen any of his collections, and, I believe, at least twenty, since I have seen him: I am told that he has greatly improved and polished them since that time; but as his method is quite different from mine, and that I have some other reasons not necessary to be mentioned for not corresponding with him, I can safely say, that in this present work of mine (fn. n6), I have not made use of one single line out of his compositions." Mr. Tonkin, in one of his MSS., dated March 27th, 1733, desires that, "if by death, or any other accident, his MSS. should fall into other hands, they would by no means publish them in the dress in which they then appeared, but be pleased to new-model them after the method followed in those few which had received his last corrections, such as St. Agnes, St. Piran in the Sands, St. Michael-Penkevil," &c. In 1737, he had made sufficient progress in his collections, to enable him to put forth proposals, in which he announced the plan of his publication. (fn. n7)

In the year 1739, Mr. Tonkin had completed his MS. of the first part of his work, which was to treat of the county of Cornwall in general; his epistle dedicatory of that date (fn. n8), is printed at the beginning of Lord de Dunstanville's edition of Carew, addressed to Sir William Carew, Bart. and Sir John St. Aubyn, Bart., then representatives in parliament for the county of Cornwall. In this letter, he recapitulates what had been done towards the topography of his native county. Besides the works of Leland, Camden, Norden, and Carew, he mentions the general collections of Hals and Anstis, and those of Beare and Gwavas on the Stannaries, the Cornish language, &c. Towards the conclusion of his epistle, he says, "I wish I could say that many more of my countrymen had assisted me with their kind endeavours. I do not yet despair of having several, for which reasons I have, in my proposals, enlarged the designed time of the publication of this part. I hope they will be so good as to send in contributions. If they persist in their refusal, they must be contented with such coarse fare as I am able to give them, which I will endeavour to make as palatable for them as I can; perhaps, when they come to taste of this, they may be prevailed on to supply me with something better towards the two remaining parts. All that I can promise them, is, that I will give them the best account I can, without the least partiality: neither shall any one person have a just occasion given him to charge me with any wilful omission or sophisticated truth. I shall likewise make it my particular care to avoid any personal reflections, and much more so, not to throw any scandal, pretended judgment, old wives' tales, &c. on any one family whatsoever; but where I cannot say all the good that I would wish for, be very careful at least to forbear the saying any ill, as keeping in mind that excellent advice of honest Andrew,
"Pray eat your pudding, friend, and hold your tongue."

In this he evidently alludes to what he must have observed in the MSS. of his contemporary Hals. Very little was done by Mr. Tonkin to the parochial department of his intended history after the date of this letter; he died in 1742, and "in the latter part of his life, being unhappily involved in pecuniary difficulties, grew less attentive to study and died without printing any part of his intended history."

The Rev. William Borlase, rector of Ludgvan, afterwards LL.D. published in 1754, "Observations on the Antiquities of the County of Cornwall," in one volume folio, and in 1758, another volume, relating to the natural history of the county; a second edition of the Antiquities was published in 1769. Dr. Borlase, whose works, notwithstanding he indulged some fanciful conjectures concerning the druidical worship, contains much valuable matter, appears to have meditated a parochial history of Cornwall; the few collections which he had made for that purpose, in addition to the MSS. of Hals and Tonkin, he digested in a folio volume, now in the possession of Sir John St. Aubyn, Bart. In 1775, the Rev. Mr. Walker, late rector of Lawhitton, projected the publication of a parochial history of Cornwall, by making additions to Hals, and issued proposals, but the publication never took place. In the year 1803, the Rev. Richard Polwhele, representative of the ancient family of that name, and vicar of Manaccan, who had been before engaged in the publication of a history of Devonshire, published three volumes of a general history of Cornwall, classed under the several heads of, civil and military transactions, religion, architecture, agriculture, mining, commerce, language, literature, population, manners, &c. and divided into periods: these volumes, which were brought down to the reign of Edward I., were followed in the year 1804 by "a Supplement to the first and second Books, containing Remarks on St. Michael's Mount, Penzance, the Lands-End, and the Sylleh Isles, by the Historian of Manchester;" and in the year 1806 by two other volumes, one of them containing the history of Cornwall, in respect to its population, and the health, strength, activity, longevity, and diseases of its inhabitants, with illustrations from Devonshire; the other, "the language, literature, and literary characters of Cornwall, with illustrations from Devonshire."

No detached histories have been published of any of the Cornish towns; a history of Launceston, written by himself, was among the MSS. of that industrious collector, John Anstis, Esq. some time Garter King of Arms, who was a native of St. Neot's, and resided chiefly in the latter part of his life on an estate which he had purchased in the parish of Duloe, where he lies buried. We have not been able to discover where this valuable MS. is deposited, nor who is the present possessor of a MS. history of the borough town of St. Ives, written by Mr. Hicks, some time an attorney at St. Ives, before the year 1756. (fn. n9)

In the year 1806, the Rev. Benjamin Forster, rector of Boconnoc, published a small tract, in quarto, intituled, "Some Account of the Church and Windows of St. Neot's." In the year 1804, the learned Mr. Whitaker, author of some much esteemed historical disquisitions, published a work in two volumes quarto, intituled, "The Ancient Cathedral of Cornwall historically surveyed," in which he has clearly proved, that the seat of the bishoprick of Cornwall was at St. Germans only, and never at Bodmin, as had been generally supposed.

In compiling the following parochial accounts, recourse has been had, as in other counties, to the Inquisitions post mortem, and other records in the Tower. We have occasionally made use of the printed part of Hals's works; and have been so fortunate, as to procure a sight of a considerable portion of that which has not been published, copies of detached parts of which are in the hands of several persons, but we have not ascertained that any perfect copy exists. We have, however, chiefly relied for the descent of property, in addition to what has been obtained from records, on the MS. of Tonkin, where there was an opportunity of choice; but there are some parishes for which Tonkin made no collections; as, on the other hand, there are others even of the printed parishes of Hals, in which there is scarcely any information to be obtained, except slight notices of the benefice, and a history of the saint to whom the church was dedicated (fn. n10). We had an opportunity of taking notes from a part of Tonkin's MS., the property of the Rev. Mr. Pye of Blisland, through the favour of Dr. Taunton, soon after we began to make collections for Cornwall: a copy of this has been since added to the remainder of Tonkin's MSS. in the possession of Lord de Dunstanville, to whose kindness we have been indebted for the use of the whole, as well as for much other valuable information and assistance in the progress of our work. To Sir John St. Aubyn, Bart. we have been indebted for the use of Dr. Borlase's unedited MSS. His volume respecting the Cornish families has proved extremely useful, not only for what we have written on that head, but in tracing satisfactorily, in many instances, the descent of property. Among Borlase's additions to what had been collected by Hals and Tonkin, for the parochial history, are notices of the ancient chapels in most of the parishes from the registers of the See of Exeter, which we have frequently quoted. We have been indebted to Rose Price, Esq. for the inspection and use of the collections made by his father, John Price, Esq. of Penzance, among which are a MS. history of St. Michael's Mount, and copies of some of Hals's MSS. The late Mr. Price had printed some part of his collections, consisting of pedigrees, deeds, and wills, in folio. The church notes, with notices relating to ancient architecture, &c. were collected during personal visits to every parish in the county in the year 1805, some of which were repeated in 1811. In our endeavours to continue the descent of landed property from the time when Hals and Tonkin finished their collections, we have experienced a considerable degree of success; and although our public applications for information were not more successful than Tonkin's, the result of several advertisements having been one solitary communication, yet many of the principal landholders have, upon our immediate application to them, though personally unknown, very obligingly furnished us with valuable communications. For much general assistance we have been indebted to Dr. Taunton, Charles Rashleigh, Esq., John Wallis, Esq. of Bodmin, and his son, John Wallis, Esq.; the latter has not only furnished us with such information as fell within his own knowledge, but prosecuted inquiries for us with much activity and intelligence. For much research and many valuable communications relating to the hundred of East, we have been indebted to the Rev. Francis Vyvyan Jago of Landulph, to the Right Hon. Reginald Pole Carew, for the immediate neighbourhood of his seat at Anthony; for similar favours with respect to the hundred of Stratton to Wrey J'ans, Esq. and the Rev. John King; for Fowey and its neighbourhood, to J. T. Austen, Esq.; and for the neighbourhood of his seat at Trelawney, to the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, Bart. The clergy, in general, have very kindly favoured us with satisfactory answers to our local queries relating to the present state of their parishes; which, among other advantages, has enabled us to ascertain the present owners of the several manors and bartons spoken of by Leland, Norden, Hals, and Tonkin; whether the old mansions, which have been seats of the gentry of former days, are standing; how they are now occupied; and whether there are any remains of the numerous chapels spoken of by Borlase and others. From the same sources, we have obtained an account of the situation of each parish, its principal villages, and charitable establishments. Among those clergy who have kindly prosecuted their inquiries beyond the limits of their own parishes, we have been particularly indebted to the Rev. John Rogers of Mawnan, the Rev. Anthony Williams of Treneere, vicar of St. Kevern, the Rev. Dr. Cardew of St. Erme, the Rev. R. G. Grylls of Helston, the Rev. R. Lyne of Padstow, and the Rev. Richard Polwhele.


  • n1. See Tonkin's dedicatory letter prefixed to Lord de Dunstanville's edition of Carew.
  • n2. Mr. Gough had been informed that he was rector of St. Iwern; but it is certain that he never was in holy orders, nor is there any such Cornish parish. Mr. Hals's residence, during the greater part of his life, was at Tresawsen, in Merther; at the time of his death, he resided at St. Wenn.
  • n3. In MS. notes on Carew, in the possession of Sir John St. Aubyn, Bart.
  • n4. In the latter part of his life he resided at Polgorran, near Tregony.
  • n5. In his MS. notes on Carew.
  • n6. Meaning the first volume, which was to have contained the general history of the county.
  • n7. Proposals for publishing three volumes of the history and antiquities of Cornwall in imperial quarto:— The first to be a complete work of itself, and a full natural history thereof and its antiquities. Also, the second volume will give a particular account of the four Western hundreds, after the method of Sir William Dugdale's Warwickshire. Maps of each; arms round the maps; draughts of the seats; prospect of Mount Bay; Falmouth harbour; Truro, with its river; Wadebridge, and river. The third volume of the five remaining hundreds in the same manner, with prospects from Mount Edgcumbe of Plymouth Stonehouse, and the docks; a second of Launceston, Newport, &c.; a third of Fowey harbour. Subscribers to send their names, and arms, and informations, to the author at Polgorran, near Tregony, at or before Lady-Day 1737. The price in hand to subscribers, one guinea; and 5s. on the delivery of the first volume, 16s. on the delivery of the second, and one guinea on the delivery of the third. Subscribers for six to receive seven copies.
  • n8. By an error of the press, it appears 1733.
  • n9. Mentioned in Dr. Borlase's Parochial Collections, 3.
  • n10. It may be observed also, that, in Tonkin's MSS., the descent of property is frequently copied from Hals's collections relating to parishes, of which Hals's MS. does not now perhaps exist.