Canon Diggens Archive
Introduction.To people continuously resident in places that boast centuries of history, the antiquities that meet their eyes every day do not always appeal as they appeal to persons who have long dwelt in newer lands. Thus the average Londoner takes little interest in the historical monuments of Westminster Abbey, while our friends from the States positively revel in them. The writer, though associated in his early life with places of peculiar archaeological interest had, up to the time that he went abroad, no proper appreciation of their attractions nor any particular desire to learn their several histories. But after a sojourn of seventeen years in the newly settled lands of Australia and New Zealand where the convict settlements and the Maori wars of the early nineteenth Century were matters of ancient history, he returned to the 'old country' to discover by contrast, a charm and fascination in these objects which hitherto had failed to impress him.
To a returned emigrant like himself, St. Keverne was a place peculiarly calculated to stir up interest in the past. As he entered the noble Church with its beautiful arcades of vari-coloured stones with its three curious rood-loft stairways; with its frescoes and carvings and monuments; as he examined the tomb stones, tablets and registers with their pathetic records of shipping disasters; as he came upon Menhir or Barrow or Cromlech in his walks; as he listened to the old men recounting their experiences of shipwreck or relating smuggling stories that they had learnt from their parents; as he came on occasions within the mystic circle of old world superstitions or listened to surviving fragments of folk-lore; he was seized with the 'cacoethes srcibendi'. He longed to write the history of the parish, as he felt with an ever increasing conviction that the annals of a place so rich in incident ought not to be lost in the ruck of forgotten things. So, while acutely conscious of his own lack of archaeological knowledge, the author resolved to do his poor best, to make some sort of record of St. Keverne.
As soon as he had arrived at this decision, he found many who were glad to render him invaluable assistance. The Rev. T. Taylor, Vicar of St. Just and sub-editor of the Victoria History of Cornwall, Mr. Thurston Peter, author of several historic works, the Rev. W. Jago of Bodmin, Dr. Rowe of Bradford, Mr. Howard Fox of Falmouth and other antiquarians placed what materials and advice they could at his disposal. Thus encouraged, he began his work. First he consulted the divers works well known on Cornwall from ........ downwards, and which perhaps need not here be specified. In the British Museum and different libraries he consulted and made extracts from Rolls, Journals of Learned Societies, Episcopal Registers and other works likely to throw light upon the subject in mind. He was greatly assisted in this work by his sisters, who have been indefatigable in their searches for materials out of which to fashion a parochial history and whose patient labours cannot be too gratefully acknowledged.
Documents of rare value have been freely lent by Parishioners and friends which have enabled him to correct in one or two instances mistakes made by writers who had not access to these sources of information. One notable instance is that of the involuntary voyage of Mr. John Sandys and others to the coast of France. Hal's romantic but very inaccurate version has been incorporated into more than one history of Cornwall.
The minutes of Parish meetings and Church wardens and Overseers accounts for the past 150 years, which the writer has carefully studied have not apparently been hitherto exploited. From these much information has been obtained as to Parochial doings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Upon some matters of supreme interest such as the designing and building of the present Church he has unfortunately been unsuccessful in discovering records.
It would seem that none of the mediaeval Bishops ever ventured so far off the beaten track as to visit St. Keverne. Consequently there are few references to the Church in their Registers.
It must be remembered that the Parish is not only situated on a remote county, but in a part of that county that is right away from the highways and traffic. With its great sea frontage to the East, with Crouza and Goonhilly Down to the South and West with Gillan Creek, an estuary of the Helford River to the North, it is so effectually cut off from the surrounding world as to be civilly and socially, if not geographically, practically an island. For centuries it has been a little 'imperium in ineperio' a place in which the inhabitants managed their own affairs and resented anything in the nature of interference from the outside. An ex-parishioner coming to St. Keverne was, and indeed is today, termed a foreigner. The people might quarrel amongst themselves but are agreed in resisting the counsel of the intruder. They mostly settled their differences at least in later days, with a vote, taken by means of black and white beans. But dictation from outsiders they abhorred. Even the great St. Kearian himself, who planted the Church in the parish, is traditionally said to have been treated with such scant respect that he laid the ban upon the plan to which further reference will be made. When, in the days of Norman Kings, the old Dean and Canons were abolished in order that the Church might be affiliated to the Abbey of Beaulieu, St. Keverne people appear to have given the intruding Monks anything but a welcome.
At the Reformation, in the days of Edward the sixth, when an emissary was sent down to the Helston district to destroy certain images in the Churches, St Keverne men would not submit to such an outrage upon their religious liberties, and took the speediest way of giving effect to their intentions. They went into Helston and killed the Commissioner.
In the days of the Commonwealth they initiated an armed rebellion in defence of their spiritual privileges.
Coming to more modern times they offered strenuous opposition to the Poor Law Amendments Act, stoutly alleging that they could manage their own affairs and look after their own poor. Exposed as they were to 'perils of the sea', and in some periods, to invasion of pirates and marauders, driven by the stern force of circumstances to rely upon their own resources, living in a little world of their own, St. Keverne men naturally developed a sturdy and independent spirit and became defiant of outside authority. Any government officers who ventured so far a field as to visit this isolated parish, mostly came for the purpose of exacting tribute and disturbing the even tenor of the people's ways. So if the latter were unable to resist them, then they tried to outsmart them and this developed the smuggling instinct. All through their history they have been, as compared with the rest of the county, a people apart. The political and religious movements which overwhelmed and engulfed other people only remotely touched them. But when that happened they were roused to the bitterest and most vehement opposition.
If any proof were needed of the very unique and isolated position of the parish in relation to the rest of England, it may be found in the fact that, possessing as it does one of the finest Churches in the county and having, for an agricultural and fishing district, a large population, yet not only did none of the mediaeval Bishops of Exeter find his way here, not even the Wesleys, who made so many itineraries in West Cornwall, were seen to have got sufficiently 'per pan' the main thoroughfares as to visit St Keverne.
It is of this little world so far removed from the crowded haunts of men, self-reliant, self centred and self-governed, as it, almost alone of the parishes of England, could be, that the author presumes to give an account. Yet he is more an editor than an author for his task mainly lies in compiling and utilizing the considerable mass of material that he has been able to collect.
The very isolation of the parish and its communal entirety and independence lend to its history in the writer's judgement, a freshness and charm that are not always found in differently situated localities.