It’s a safe bet that, if asked to list Cornwall’s most celebrated sons or daughters, most Cornish people would place Sir Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick at the top of theirs... though not necessarily in that order.
And while both stand tall in our history, the latter is perhaps the taller of the two.
Born in Illogan in 1771, if ever a man led “a two pasty life” – as he describes it in a letter to his daughter Elizabeth during the last year of his life – it was Richard Trevithick.
Based on a bundle of 25 “lost letters” (apparently stumbled upon by a certain Dr Eric Charles in the back room of a book shop in downtown Tokyo in the 1950s), Horses Stood Still – a new book and CD – gives voice to this Cornish giant. they were all written from . Through the device of imagining Trevithick’s last days at the Bull Inn in Dartford in 1833, author Simon Parker presents us with an absorbing account, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, of Cap’n Dick’s many adventures.
Brilliant as he was at most things, Trevithick was not formally educated beyond the village school and found written English difficult, particularly spelling. Parker, to his credit, has resisted the temptation to correct the letters and wisely allows them to appear as “written”. It is a fact which adds to their apparent authenticity and for the first time enables us to “hear” the voice of this great Cornish inventor and engineer in both book and double CD format.
The double CD has been recorded as a drama, with none other than Ben Luxon CBE playing Cap’n Dick – a stroke of genius this – with Dorothy Bricknell as Lizzie and Steve Jacobs as Dr Charles.
Married in 1797 to Jane Harvey, who became mother of their six children – Elizabeth, Francis, Little Dick, Annie, Jack and Fred, – although he was to describe his marriage as “a union of equals: mee and Jane against thee world”, Trevithick’s behaviour was, to say the least, reprehensible. Away from home for long periods, apart from the frequent journeys he made to various places in this country it was the 11 years he spent in South America that seem unforgivable.
Just what his wife thought about it all we shall never know but, as Trevithick writes to Lizzie regarding his return: “Then I saw your mother. She had no expression I cod name. ‘Well, Richard?’ she says. ‘What treasures have you brought us?’ Your mother’s look mocked mee. ‘What abt my dress – fit for the Queen of Peru, you said.’ I hadn’t a word of defence. Eleven years away and this was my prize: a watch, a compass, a pair of spurs and a sour welcome.”
Rather like Humphry Davy, Trevithick was no business man. Wealth eluded him and he was to die and be buried a long way from his native Cornwall. But, as these letters remind us, from his “puffing devil” that caused the horses to stand still while “goin’ up Camborne Hill” to all that he achieved in the mining industry, Richard Trevithick was, in every sense, a Cornish giant.
With regard to the letters in Horses Stood Still, one must agree with his daughter who, in writing about them from her home at Hayle in 1869, had this to say: “I urge you to read them and be amazed.”
A Cornish Mining World Heritage and Blue Puma Music production, it was recorded in Cornwall and America by Martin Turner and John Sellew, with incidental music by Simon Dobson.
Excellent value, the book and double CD are pure Cornish gold.
Horses Stood Still by Simon Parker is published by Scryfa at £5 (including p&p). Both book and CD are available, separately or together, from Scryfa, Halwinnick Cottage, Linkinhorne, Callington. PL17 7NS or via scryfa.co.uk