Foreign House Names in Cornwall: A Vanishing Socio-Cultural Heritage
Unless otherwise stated, all content is © Sharron P. Schwartz, 2022, and may not be reproduced without permission
In this article, I revisit a theme that I wrote about almost two decades ago: the unusual stock of foreign house names that appear on some Late-Victorian and Edwardian properties in Cornwall’s former mining communities. I attempt to trace the origin of the names, who named them, when, and why. I argue that foreign house names are an important and overlooked aspect of Cornish socio-cultural heritage, illustrating the transnational nature of Cornish life over a century ago. Yet, the steady attrition of the names means that this vital aspect of our heritage is threatened. To ‘gather up the fragments that are left, that nothing be lost’, I have compiled a table to record the history and current status of every house (and street) with an obvious foreign name that I have been able to locate. Go to the end of this article to access my database.
What’s in a name?
A house is the most significant investment most of us will make during our lives. If we opt to bestow a name upon it, it is likely to be something to which we attach great significance. House names, like given names, are carefully chosen and convey deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections. They also give us a sense of who we are, the communities to which we belong, and our place in the world. But when and why did naming houses become fashionable for the majority of people?
Postman James Foley, who delivered the mail throughout the Gwennap District for 40 years, recalls there being no proper addresses when he started his rounds in 1875 – just a name and village/town of residence on an envelope. This made local knowledge crucial in delivering letters to the correct person (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 6 June 1912). A correspondent to a local newspaper bemoaned the lack of names on streets and houses in Newquay in 1881, remarking that it was impossible for visitors to find people or places there (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 9 September 1881).
Yet this was to change across Britain during the late-Victorian period, as the burgeoning railway network led to the development of new suburbs containing streets of suburban houses. Names were easier to ascribe to such properties, as sequential numbering could only occur once all the houses along a road had been built. Moreover, a new class of people had become householders, and the convention of naming residences, once the preserve of the upper classes, became more widespread, including in Cornwall.
Laura Wright, author of Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names (1), notes that during this period house names were selected from a variety of sources. Drawn from the various name categories that Wright has established, a selection from turn-of-the-twentieth-century Cornwall includes the following: British placenames (Colchester Villas); commemorative (Inkerman House); associated with nobility (Grosvenor House); popular culture (Cedric House); nostalgically rural (Myrtle Cottage); whimsical (Ye Hive); and invented, what she terms ‘pick and mix’ (Elmleigh).
However, in Cornwall we have another class of house names (and street names), which are perhaps not as prevalent in other parts of Britain: those which are of highly unusual foreign derivation. Drive through any former mining community and you can still spot them.
I’m not alone in noticing this, as a 1930 newspaper article demonstrates. Entitled ‘Rolling Through Cornwall: Mining Engineers’ Busmen’s Holiday,’ Herbert Thomas, the well-known journalist of the Cornishman newspaper, wrote of how his eye was caught by two things near Redruth: the engine house of Wheal Peevor, where he had cut his teeth in the mining business over 50 years ago, and the name in gold letters on the door of a house on the hill “Silver Bow”. ‘To thousands of passers-by it would have no interest and certainly no significance,’ he stated.
‘But I knew that the man who thus named his house must have toiled in Silver Bow County, Montana, which includes Butte City (the great copper camp); and I remembered my first newspaper work and interview with Mr Lloyd, the Sherriff of Silver Bow County, more than forty years ago. It was from Scorrier station which we skirted that I had started almost at dawn in 1887 to try my fortune in Butte City, and then in San Francisco by the Golden Gate’ (Cornishman, 17 July 1930).
Herbert Thomas was unerringly correct in his assumption, as a little research enabled me to confirm. Silver Bow, Mount Ambrose, was the former residence of Matt Old and his wife, Mary Jane (nee Waters). He was described as a retired miner on the 1911 Census. A native of Sithney, he was employed as a tin dresser living at Sparnon Gate near Redruth, when he married Mary Jane at Treleigh Church in February 1881.
Two sons were born before he migrated to the USA from Liverpool on the City of Chester in July 1886. In May 1892, his wife and sons joined him in Montana, sailing on the Teutonic from Liverpool to New York. In 1900, the family is shown on the US census as resident at South Butte, Silver Bow County, Montana, where Matthew was working as a miner. In 1902, he was employed by the Farrell Copper Company at Shaft One and his residence was noted as 58 Silver Bow Boulevard, Silver Bow Park.
Although he became a naturalised American in August 1894, he returned periodically to visit his relatives in the Redruth area. One such trip was in 1903, and another occurred in 1905/6:
‘Matt Old and wife arrived in Butte on Monday last after a year’s sojourn at Harris Mill, Cornwall, England. Mr. and Mrs. Old are well-known old-time residents of Butte and their many friends will be glad to welcome them again in their midst’ (from the Tribune Review reprinted in the Cornishman, 17 January 1907).
Matt and his wife were heading for their home at Silver Bow Street, and like numerous other Cornish mining families of the time, were living what can only be described as a transnational way of life, with strong ties simultaneously anchoring them to Montana and Cornwall.
In 1908, he and Mary Jane returned to Cornwall for the sake of Matt’s health, hoping that the ‘bracing ozone of old Cornubia would improve his condition’. However, a report in Butte’s Tribune Review noted that he had not much improved since leaving there (Cornishman, 22 October 1908).
Matt and Mary Jane settled at Mount Ambrose in an architecturally unusual single-storey granite-built bungalow with imposing bay windows, perhaps a stylistic echo of the clapboard homes popular in America? This they named Silver Bow, a reminder of their onetime American home, and where both of their sons eventually settled.
Matthew died at his home at Mount Ambrose on 29 October 1911 aged 51, most probably of miner’s phthisis (Cornubian and Redruth Times, 5 October 1911). His death was reported in his former home city in Montana (The Anaconda Standard, 15 October, 1911).
Etched on stone and painted in gold
But Matt Old’s story is by no means unusual. Many house names of foreign derivation first appear in Cornwall in the decades either side of 1900. This coincided not just with the fashion for naming houses, but also considerable urban growth and increased mobility due to cheaper and speedier travel by rail and steamer, and heightened migration caused by the declining fortunes of the Cornish mining industry.
In the 1880s and early-90s, Cornwall witnessed a building boom, particularly in the twin mining towns of Camborne and Redruth and the constellation of mining villages surrounding them. In this region referred to as the Central Mining District, elegant semi-detached 5-7 roomed houses were being built in what were fast becoming middle class suburbs.
During the 1880s, the population of Redruth rose by 10 per cent and the number of houses went up by 11 per cent (2). In 1888, Redruth builder John Hodge, who had taken a piece of land on a 999-year lease, was reported to have erected 77 houses on it, creating a smart street of terraced houses with downstairs bay windows named Bellevue. These were rented out at £6-11 per annum, while one costing £7 yearly could be purchased for £120. He was also constructing two villas at South Downs and five at Carnkie by private contract (Cornubian and Redruth Times, 24 August 1888).
The prolific Mr Hodge also built a number of dwellings at Clinton Road, which rapidly became Redruth’s most sought-after address, and its highly desirable new residences were dubbed ‘Clinton Castles’. Builders, Charles Gray and Arthur Carkeek, were also busy constructing villas in other parts of the town.
Great credit is due to Mr Arthur Carkeek for his enterprise and taste in laying out Claremont-road in this town. The road is quite new being formed within the last two years. Notwithstanding the marked improvement in various other parts of the town and the terraces and villas which have suddenly sprung into existence, Claremont-road loses nothing by comparison. It is not so pretentious as Clinton-road, and the villas are much smaller. But it stands alone in its air of quiet suburban gentility; and the planting of trees along each side of the street makes it altogether unique. (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 28 October 1887).
At nearby Illogan Highway, Thomas Kistle was building eight villas at Barncoose Terrace and five at nearby Chariot Road (Cornubian and Redruth Times, 13 September 1889). In Camborne, the elegant new villas that had sprung up at Pendarves Road were reaching completion in early 1881 and were expected to be fully occupied by summer (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 18 February 1881). In ‘fashionable’ Enys Road, which still boasts houses with fancy wrought iron-work canopies and bay windows, 5-roomed houses were advertised for sale in 1893 (Cornishman, 11 July 1895).
Redruth’s middle-class suburbs continued to grow into the 1890s, with the creation of villas and ‘respectable cottages’ in new streets such as Raymond Road, Adelaide Road, Trefusis Road, Albany Road and Park Road, which were laid out on reclaimed mining ground.
Redruth newspaper, the Cornubian, picked up on an apparent paradox in 1896, noting how the number of men leaving Cornwall for South Africa alone had been over 2,000 during 1895, and that the number departing for there during the first quarter of that year was already over 500. ‘Yet strange to state, the populations of Camborne, Illogan, Redruth and St Agnes are not decreasing and nearly all the new houses erected have tenants.’ The report added that the keeping up of the number of inhabitants in those parishes could easily be accounted for: ‘In every passenger ship returning from South Africa, America and Australia, there are Cornishmen who are on their way to the homes of their nativity to spend the evening of their days’ (Cornubian and Redruth Times, 24 July 1896).
Although many new houses in the abovementioned areas and indeed, throughout the rest of Cornwall’s mining districts, were purchased by, or let to, those from a professional, commercial or trading background, some became the homes or investment properties of return migrants. At the height of the building boom, architect, Silvanus Trevail, noted that greater progress would be made in Cornwall if land for building could be more readily obtained. He knew of a number of mine managers and others who had gone out to Chile, Peru and elsewhere, and who wished to return home and build if they could obtain freehold land (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 17 May 1888).
A newspaper article of 1905 notes that there were Cornishmen overseas who made extra money by playing in bands and orchestras, or singing in choirs, and thus managed to save enough money to purchase properties back home in Cornwall. One musician stated that nearly thirty semi-detached villas had been built in his native parish ‘out of the savings of men of the band or the church choir’ (Cornishman, 27 July 1905).
Indeed, it was reported in the press in 1909 that Redruth ‘owes much to old inhabitants who, returning from the colonies or foreign countries, desire nothing better than to settle down among old friends there, spending the interest of the little hoard acquired, often purchasing their houses instead of renting them’ (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 27 August 1908).
Some properties in the mining districts, embellished with elegant transom windows, carved granite gate posts, bay windows and ornate iron railings, were given foreign names by their occupants which announced to their neighbours that they had ‘arrived’ by achieving financial security in some distant town, city, or mine. An article entitled ‘A Visit to Camborne’ from the Mining World, which was republished in 1901, highlights this:
Though Camborne is, perhaps, not the place that one would choose for his abode, yet it possesses many attractions, and particularly so to the Cornish miner, who, after several years’ residence abroad, becomes possessed solely of one burning desire, which is to return to the place of his birth, and spend there some years of his life, as well as some of its savings. Hence we may see many of the dwellings called by such names as “Pretoria House”, “Taquah Villa”, “Johannesburg Cottage,” and the like – the name indicative of the spots upon which the owners have conducted their professional avocation, with more or less success to those who have employed them, and to themselves (Cornishman, 14 March 1901).
For example, Enys Road in Camborne still contains a rare example of neighbouring houses displaying names in their original transom windows: Robinson Deep and Pennsylvania, the former after a famous gold mine in Johannesburg, South Africa, the latter for a place in Iron Mountain, a city in Michigan, USA.
Other properties were purpose-built for wealthy return migrants, such as Selangor Villa at Carallack Terrace in St Just in 1907, and Rand Fontein at Hendra Road, St Dennis, in 1909.
Moreover, it was not just the new suburbs in the old industrial areas eyed as potential places of residence for return migrants of means. The burgeoning and highly desirable seaside resorts served by rail such as Wadebridge, Newquay, Perranporth, Falmouth, Carbis Bay and St Ives, also have a fair smattering of unusual foreign names. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Carbis Bay was dubbed ‘Camborne-by-the-Sea’ because it was so popular in the summer among people from that town who came to holiday there (The Cornish Telegraph, 14 August 1901). Then there were those who aspired to own land, who retired from mining and settled on farms which were given a foreign name.
‘Gather up the fragments that are left, that nothing be lost’
But of pressing concern is that these house names are rapidly vanishing. When I first explored this topic back in 2004 in an article for Old Cornwall (3), I noted that foreign house names were fast disappearing, a process that had clearly been occurring for some time.
In his seminal work The Cornish Miner, published in 1927, A.K. Hamilton Jenkin remarked on the ‘outlandish’ names given to modern houses by return miners, and quotes three examples: Geldenhuis Deep, Katoomba and Esperanza (4). This quotation had been lifted directly from a lecture given at Redruth by Mr H. Pascoe of Truro, entitled ‘The Adventurous Cornish Miner’, and published in sections by Herbert Thomas in the Cornishman in 1924:
‘Essentially a workingman, he rarely amassed a fortune and when he did finally settle down, it was often in a little house to which he gave an outlandish name like “Katoomba” or “Esperanza” or “Geldenhuis Deep”, or with three acres and a cow’. (Cornishman, 30 January 1924).
Scrutiny of the Cornish newspapers has revealed a Geldenhuis at West End, Redruth, the home of a former mining engineer, and while there was a Katoomba in Truro and an Esperanza in Gorran Churchtown, neither seemed to have any obvious connection to return mining migrants. Either there were other houses with these names which have not survived in any official documentation, or Mr. Pascoe had resorted to a degree of artistic license!
What is certain, is that a comparison of the 1948 Electoral Register (5) with an address gazetteer from 2004 (6), revealed to me that the stock of foreign house names was nowhere near as large and diverse as it had been around half a century ago, and had probably fallen by almost 50 per cent across Cornwall.
The process of attrition has continued apace. Kolar Villa at Druid’s Road, Illogan Highway, recalling the Kolar Gold Fields in the former state of Mysore in southern India, was sold in 2007. This large detached house was consequently renovated, during which process the transom window bearing the name in gold lettering (see top) was unfortunately removed when a new double-glazed door was installed. The historic house name was consequently dropped in favour of its number (27). Globe Villa at North Country near Redruth, named for an Arizonian mining town, has suffered a similar fate.
Double-glazing is undoubtedly responsible for the physical disappearance of foreign house names, but so too is the pressure for off-road parking. As gardens are taken back for car parking space, granite gateposts with house names inscribed in lead lettering are sometimes removed.
Moreover, the pressure for holiday lets in one of the most sought-after regions of Britain, has only served to fuel the drive to renovate houses in the former mining districts that were once deemed not quaint or ‘bijou’ enough to attract holidaymakers. The concern is that the historic house names bestowed upon these properties by return migrants will prove unattractive to prospective property investors (Mysore/Eyesore Villa anyone?), and this unique aspect of our Cornish heritage could be further eroded.
Who lived in a house named like this?
As well as ensuring that there is some record of these historic house names, I noted in my previous article that it was ‘… very important to try and discover who originally named these houses and record the story, as this can help us to gain a clearer picture of the links that once bound Cornish communities with those overseas.’ As more historic records have been digitised and made available online, this task is now far easier. The name Kolar Villa at Druid’s Road might unfortunately be consigned to history, but I have unearthed and recorded the story of who named it thus for posterity.
Below is a link to a database containing details on the location and history of all of the house and streets with a foreign name which I have been able to locate throughout Cornwall. I have only included those which I feel have a real possibility of a connection with a return migrant.
A note of caution must be sounded, as some house names that seem to be associated with an overseas mining camp turn out to be anything but! Silverton Villas at Mount Ambrose are a case in point. These two semi-detached houses were built by Frank Williams, a native of Silverton, Devon, and are not related to Silverton, Colorado, USA.
Likewise, a name such as Kimberley isn’t always associated with the famous diamond metropolis in South Africa; it might just as easily be associated with the Earl of Kimberley, who lent his name to Kimberley Road and Kimberley Gardens in Falmouth, which were laid out in 1873 (Cornish Echo and Falmouth & Penryn Times, 14 June 1873). Kimberley, rather like Adelaide (after the Queen Consort of King William IV and not necessarily the South Australian city which was also named after her), is ubiquitous simply because it became fashionable.
Talana is another name to which some circumspection must be afforded. This is an isiZulu word for a shelf made of itala grass placed around the central pole in a Chief’s home where amulets, precious items and valuables are put. Hence it means ‘the place where treasures are kept,’ which makes it a rather apt house name.
However, it is also quite possibly a commemorative name, referring to the battle of Talana Hill. This took place in the Province of Natal, South Africa, on the 20th October 1899, and marked the first major clash of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Across Britain, Talana Day was held on the date of the battle to commemorate those friends and loved ones who fought and died there. In Cornwall, where the Boer War was closely followed due to the financial importance of the Transvaal gold mines to the Cornish economy, there are at least half a dozen houses named Talana, but not all of them have an obvious mining connection.
In many cases, there is a strong trail of evidence that has enabled me to piece together dozens of quite remarkable stories. But in some instances, the house-namer has remained stubbornly elusive, and in that situation I have noted the earliest known recording of the name. If you have relevant information about any of the house names, or know of ones that should be added to the database, then please contact me so that the table can be updated or amended.
The stories of these return ‘Cousin Jack’ mineworkers and their families illustrate that Cornwall was incredibly well connected to mining communities in every habitable continent. Some return migrants were very successful, and the presence of house names is therefore a source of continuing pride in the knowledge that Cornwall once lay at the very heart of the international mining industry which has indelibly shaped the communities we live in today.
(1) Wright, L. Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names, Oxford, 2020.
(2) Perry R. and Schwartz, S.P., ‘James Hicks, Architect of Regeneration in Victorian Redruth’ Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 2001, pp. 64-77.
(3) Schwartz, S.P., ‘Foreign House Names in Cornwall: A Vanishing Heritage’, Old Cornwall, Vol. x111:2, 2004, pp. 2-11.
(4) Jenkin, A.K.H., The Cornish Miner, 1972 reprint, p.328.
(5) 1948 Electoral Register for various constituencies, Cornish Studies Library, Redruth.
(6) GIS Address Point Gazetteer (accessed in 2004), Cornwall Council.
My grateful thanks to Ainsley Cocks for photographing some of the above house names