A-Z of Truro by John Husband
I am not Truro born, nor do I live in the city, and my knowledge is confined to its most iconic buildings and celebrated sons. A survey of the many books about the city, websites and a walking tour with a city guide helped me to compile my list, and the challenge of coming up with entries for every letter of the alphabet proved not too difficult. Topics for X and Z were no problem, but Y turned out to be a long time coming (I eventually discovered Yew Tree Court). There was also a surfeit of ‘C’ s which needed some imaginative retitling.
I resolved to include some new discoveries (for me), as well as the familiar, so Richard Lander, explorer of West Africa, whose statue atop a Doric column adorns Lemon Street, rubs shoulders with Thomas Keam, who has no public memorial. I discovered Keam’s grave in Kenwyn churchyard, on which he is described as a lieutenant of the US Army and Keams Caňon, Arizona. It turns out his life was an interesting one, sailing round the world and jumping ship in San Francisco in 1862 aged nineteen. This was at the height of the Civil War, and he joined the California Volunteers, travelling through the south-western states and mainly encountering Apache raiding parties. Later, he served under Colonel ‘Kit’ Carson, setting up reservations and eventually becoming an interpreter for the Navajo and Hopi tribes. He married a Navajo woman, who bore him two sons, but this stymied his career and, after returning to Truro to see his sick mother, he returned and set up a trading post at what was to become Keams Caňon. Here he and his brother William built up a thriving business in native art and craft work, selling huge volumes to the Peabody and Smithsonian Institutes in the US and further afield to Europe, including a small collection of Navajo silver he donated to the Royal Institution of Cornwall Museum in Truro. It was a two-way process as he guided the development of craft pieces to improve their saleability, and his fairness in business meant that he was trusted enough to represent the Navajo and Hopi in their negotiations with Washington, in what the government termed the ‘civilising process’, dealing with US presidents and their representatives. He also offered a home to Alexander MacGregor Stephen, the Scottish anthropologist, whose papers he archived after his death. In 1904 he returned to the ‘old-fashioned but picturesque little city of his birth’, where, lodging at 21, Lemon Street, he died from angina. Keam’s obituary described him as a man of the highest integrity, widely read, cultivated and accomplished. All the more surprising then that save for a few pieces of Navajo silver, he is almost unknown in his home city, surely deserving of a statue or even just a blue plaque.
Another Truronian about whom little was known is Thomas Bickle Percy. In 1862, he set up a factory in Truro to manufacture rennet, an extract of calf’s rumen, used in cheesemaking and in the making of a famous Westcountry dessert, junket. Percy claimed to be the world’s leading manufacturer and advertised it with testimonials from members of the aristocracy, which he also did with his other potions manufactured in Truro. Most Cornish people of my generation grew up with a bottle of his rennet in the kitchen. His Pectoral Balsam was sold in an elegant octagonal blue glass bottle and endorsed by music hall comic James Fawn as the best patent medicine he had ever tasted. The aristocratic-sounding Duc de Montabor apparently wrote from France to praise his Balsam of Aniseed, which he claimed had completely restored his health. Another best-seller was dandelion coffee, extracted from dandelion root and recommended for weak digestion, nervous and dyspeptic affections, and flatulence. At the same time Percy had a lucrative side line as a lessee of tolls, a family business, bidding at auction for the right to collect harbour and roadside dues, including the Torpoint ferry. He died in 1921 aged 84 in Plymouth, where he had business interests in property companies. His son James took over his rennet business which continued into the 1970s.
A notable first for Truro was the first ever appearance of a band named Queen at the City Hall on the evening of 27th June 1970. Roger Taylor, the band’s drummer, grew up in Truro, and had joined the band Smile at university in London after answering an advertisement from astrophysics student Brian May. Smile frequently played in Truro, but when a new singer, Freddie Bulsara, joined the line-up in June 1970, the band’s name was changed to Queen. A momentous moment in rock history, you might agree, so why has no blue plaque been affixed to the City Hall?
It was also surprising to find that compared to today’s equal opportunities society, nineteenth century Truro was not so backward either. A former African slave ended up as a leading society musician in the town, a deaf-mute architect designed many of its best buildings, and a confectioner’s daughter graduated from Cambridge and became one of the first female members of the British Astronomical Society. It is a shame that Truro City Council is so modest in celebrating her finest sons and daughters.
John Husband's new book A-Z of Truro is available for purchase now.