A POTTED HISTORY
NEIL J TITLEY & NIGEL F J SCOTT-MONCRIEFF
1540`s To 1595 – SEADOG`S AND SPANIARDS
Records of this early period are obscure, but it seems highly likely that The Angel began its extraordinary history around the 1540`s, not as an inn, but as the town house of the Godolphin family. Although their main home was at Godolphin Cross near Breage (four miles distant and now National Trust poperty), the tin mine owning Godolphins needed a base in Helston from which to carry out their transactions at the Coinage Hall (now demolished), and to provide a centre for their administrative and social obligations as Tudor gentry.
The Tudor house, the oldest stone building in Helston, would have been `L` shaped , with the present front area and the residents` rooms forming the front of the house and the passageway to the back door with the rooms above forming the extension. In those days the well and bar area would have been an open courtyard with stabling to the rear and the wide granite stairs behind the bar would have been the entrance to the upper rooms.
1549 – WITNESS TO MASSACRE
The Angel experienced a brutal beginning during the `Prayer Book Rebellion` when the strongly Catholic population of Cornwall objected to the imposition of the new Protestant prayer book as substitute for the traditional Mass. In 1548, a Crown Commissioner named William Body arrived to destroy the Catholic relics in Helston Church. A 3000 strong crowd gathered to oppose him. After vainly seeking refuge in a house, Body was dragged out and stabbed to death in the street by local men, William Kilter and Pascoe Trevian.
The ensuing trial of the assassins in April 1549 was halted when thousands of their supporters gathered in Helston to oppose it. The local presiding justice, Sir William Godolphin, was forced to retire to the fragile safety of his town house (The Angel) and abandon the trial. Despite this opposition, 28 Cornishmen were executed in response, including Martin Geoffrey, the priest of nearby St Keverne, whose severed head was displayed on London Bridge.
However, much worse was to follow. When armed rebellion broke out in Devon many Cornishmen marched east to join the siege of Exeter. Using an army consisting mostly of foreign mercenaries, the Crown destroyed the rebel forces and then swept into Cornwall to eradicate resistance. An estimated 15% of the Cornish population were killed in the repression; Helston suffered with the rest. The Priest`s Hole beneath The Angel`s front restaurant is a reminder of this savage period
1588-1595 – FIGHTING THE SPANISH
On the morning of July 20th 1588, it appears that Sir Francis Godolphin (1534-1608) and the Mayor of Helston, Thomas Bogans, were at `The Angel` when they received news that the Spanish Armada was `heaving many a mile` off Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula. Messengers scattered in all directions to rouse the county to the deadly threat of invasion and to alert Sir Francis Drake and the English fleet at Plymouth.
An even closer connection to the Elizabethan seadogs arose in 1591 as a consequence of the still amazing story of Sir Richard Grenville and HMS Revenge. Having been trapped alone in the Azores by a Spanish fleet, Grenville decided not on the obvious course of surrender but to fight on – one small ship versus 53 galleons. After an all night battle in which the `Revenge` caused much damage to the enemy (over a thousand Spanish slain), but with fifty of her hundred crew dead and having received a mortal wound himself, Greville called on his men to sink the ship rather than let it pass into `the hands of Spain`. The surviving crew persuaded him against this action and finally hauled down their colours. Sir Richard died aboard the Spanish flagship `San Philip`. The already badly damaged `Revenge` sank the following night during a ferocious storm.
However, the historian Richard Hakluyt reported that four survivors of the battle (seemingly Helston men) were returned home by the Spanish to be examined on their story by Sir Francis Godolphin “which Examination the said Sir Francis sent unto Master William Killigrew of Her Masjesty`s privy chamber”. Being Godolphin`s public base, this debriefing` of the famous battle presumably took place at The Angel. The story became the subject of a famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and its opening lines were know by every Victorian school child: `at Flores in the azores Sir Richard Grenville lay …. .` etc.
Sir Francis Godolphin, in his role as deputy Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, came much closer to the action in July 1595 when a force of 400 Spaniards landed in Mounts Bay, destroying the villages of Mousehole and Newlyn. Sir Francis heard the news while at Godolphin House and hurriedly gathered what aid he could from Helston and the surrounding area. Having marched to Penzance, he made a stand in the Market Place, but his force of Helstonians fled at the approach of the Spaniards. Sir Francis, left with only his servants and a few gentlemen, was forced to retreat to Marizion. As Cornish reinforcements poured in from the east, the Spaniards returned to their ships and left Cornwall.
1600-1660 – CIVIL WAR AND SLAVERY
1643- DEATH OF A HELSTON POET
Although there were some local adherents of the Parliamentary cause, in 1640 most of Cornwall, including Helston and the Godolphins, supported the Royalist side of King Charles I. During the Civil War that followed, The Angel, being the Godolphin town house, was plunged into mourning when the second child of Sir William was killed in action:
Born at Breage, Sidney Godolphin (1610-1643) was a considerable poet in his own right, as well as being an MP and one of the King`s favourite courtiers. Having helped drive the Roundheads out of Cornwall in January 1643, Sidney was shot dead on his horse while riding through Chagford, Devon, by what was described as `an undiscerned and undiscerning hand`.
1646 – THE ROUNDHEAD OCCUPATION
By March 1646, the Royalist cause was lost and, though among the last area to surrender, Helston was finally occupied by Sir Thomas Fairfax and his Cromwellian troops. Together with the rest of the townsfolk, the Godolphin family, at Breage and at The Angel, were forced to accept Parliamentary rule in the person of John Moyle and the Roundhead County Committee.
1648 – THE ROYALISTS` LAST THROW
Two years later, a desperate attempt was made to overthrow the new regime. In May, 500 Royalist captured Penzance and moved on to take Helston. John Moyle called for support and a Roundhead force under Colonel Bennet routed the `rebels`. In a separate development, another 300 Royalists gathered at nearby St Martin-in-Meneage also with the intention of capturing Helston. Colonel Bennet and his men arrived in time to prevent this and, in the following battle near Mawgan, the Royalist were again defeated. The remnants fled across Goonhilly Down, some preferring suicide by jumping from the sea cliffs rather than face capture.
1630-1660 -THE CORNISH SLAVES
However, civil war was not the only horror to encompass seventeenth century Helston. The people of West Cornwall were plagued by the attentions of pirates, most often from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. This had been a problem for centuries, (The Elizabethan Sir Francis Godolphin had kept a `body of light horse` at Godolphin House ready for the protection of the local coastal districts), but by the mid 1600s, the raids had become epidemic.
In one year, the `Turks` captured over 1000 Cornish mariners, and sixty men, women and children were seized from Penzance. In 1640, King Charles I received a petition for help on behalf of 5000 English subjects in Algiers, suffering appalling hardship in the galleys of the corsairs and as domestic servants. It is sometimes forgotten that over one million Europeans ended up as slaves under Islam, and many Cornish men and women were among them.
1660-1785 – GREATNESS AND GRAFT
1660 – THE RISE OF THE GREAT GODOLPHIN
With the Restoration of King Charles II, the fortunes of the Godolphin family improved greatly. Over fifty years, the next Sidney Godolphin (1645-1712) rose to a position of real importance in Britain. He became the financial brains behind four monarchs, from Charles II, through James II, then King William III, and finally rising to become the First Lord of the Treasury to Queen Anne (and the 1st Earl of Godolphin).
Together with John Churchill, the great Duke of Malborough, and his wife Sarah, (the ancestors of Winston Churchill), Godolphin dominated the government of Britain for the first decade of the 1700s. Between them, Churchill controlled the military, Godolphin controlled the economy, and Sarah controlled the Monarchy. Unfortunately, in 1710, Sarah`s influence over Queen Anne dwindled and the threesome finally fell from power.
Sidney was an obviously astute man – Charles II said of him: “he was never in the way or out of the way”. But it is a measure of his honesty that, in an age of raging corruption, when he died in 1712, he was a relatively poor man.
1690s – ENTER `THE ANGEL`
It was during this period that The Angel ceased to be the town base of the Godolphins and became a public `Inn and Tavern` (among other functions). The first landlord appears to have been Robert Trevethan, followed by John Trevethan. But the house remained in the ownership of Sidney`s son, Lord Francis Godolphin (1678-1766), who became Lord keeper of the Privy Seal between 1735-40.
In a dubious but useful arrangement, Lord Francis paid the Helston elector`s rates and taxes in return for the right to send his nominees as Members of Parliament to London. As an added inducement, voters were entertained at The Angel, where drink and guineas were distributed to encourage the reluctant. What Helston lost in democracy, it regained in beer.
1723 – A THEATRICAL CONNECTION
In 1698, Lord Francis married Henrietta Churchill (daughter of his father`seat friends, John and Sarah) who, on the death of her mother, became the 2nd Duchess of Malborough. Henrietta, however, was something of a marital liability as she soon took to acquiring various lovers: Queen Anne described her as `silly` and as `having lost her reputation`. Among her paramours was the famous Restoration playwright, William Congreve, author of the classic `The Way of the World`. Although he never married (he wrote the well known line `Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned`), he was the father of Henrietta`s daughter Mary (born 1723). Lord Francis, faced with a fait accompli, decided to accept the little girl as his own.
Thus, The Angel became the inheritance of the lovechild of one of Winston Churchill`s ancestors and one of England`s greatest playwrights.
1700-1770s -THE ANGEL IN DISREPUTE
Whether Mary Godolphin appreciated her legacy might be open to question. The Angel during the 1700s, as well as being an inn, was also used as an excise house, a temporary jail for smugglers (one of whom escaped by getting the jailers drunk) and a major centre for cock-fighting. In 1756, it was described as a `house of great business and good accommodations with a large cock-pit, built after one of the best models` (Cock-fighting did not become illegal in England until 1849). Helston became known as a hard-drinking town, and The Angel was at the forefront.
1785 – THE END OF THE GODOLPHINS
In 1740, Mary Godolphin married Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds. With the deaths of her father Francis, the 2nd Earl of Godolphin, and then his cousin (also Francis) in 1785, followed by her own death in 1764, the Godolphin family became extinct. From then on, their lands and property, including The Angel, passed into the hands of the Dukes of Leeds. For the next 130 years, the Dukes leased out The Angel to a series of tenants.
1780s-1880s – DANCING AND DECORUM
1783 – BREAKING THE STONE
Perhaps the most famous story connected to Helston is that of the legendary airborne battle between St Michael and the Devil, during which the Archangel hurled a stone at his opponent, resulting in Satan being knocked from the sky and drowning in the nearby Loe Pool. This event is celebrated every 8th May by the world renowned Flora Day (after the Latin floreat – literally `may it flourish`- presumably referring to the revelling associated with the day! And, incidentally, nothing to do with flowers or `floral` which being a common misapprehension). The focal event of the day is the midday `Furry Dance` believed by some scholars to be Pagan in origin, certainly pre-Norman.
For centuries, a large flat stone (called HELLESTON`S ROCK and alledged to be St Michael`s missile) lay in the rear courtyard of The Angel, having fallen there after despatching Satan. It was renowned as one of the town`s landmarks. Unfortunately, in 1783, one R. Thomas split the stone in half and used it as building material for the rear extension of The Angel which now incorporates the Georgian Ballroom on the firstfloor, above the restaurant and the beer cellar. The Hell Stone was presumably one of the first, if not the last, casualties of home improvements.
1780-1798 – WESLEY AND THE BENNETS
The end of the 1700s also saw the end of the more riotous days in the tavern`s life. This was mostly due to the influence of the religious revivalist John Wesley, who preached numerous sermons in Helston between 1755 and 1789. Prior to his arrival, the town was a byword for drunkenness and smuggling, the latter activity being regarded as honourable, and with the local anglican clergy aiding and abetting the activity.
Wesley`s appearances were not popular, and he was greeted by the notorious stone-throwing `Helston mob`. Wesley and his brother Charles described Helston as a `storm centre`, Charles referring to the town as one of `rebels and persecutors`. It was the most resistant to religious fervour and the last town in West Cornwall to convert. But, by 1780, the Weslys saw it as tamed and `godly`.
Possibly another factor was the arrival at The Angel of the redoubtable Bennet family, whose members, Richard, Joseph, Johnson, and finally Johnson`s widow, Mary Ann, managed the inn from 1798 until 1875.
1800 – THE AGE OF RESPECTABLITY
The Angel soon became a centre for the more sedate pursuits of the 1800s – a Bowling Club had already been established in 1760; this was followed by the establishment of a Freemason`s Lodge. Originally recruited from the Civil Dragoons, in 1800 it became a Civil Lodge, known as the True and Faithful Lodge that met regularly at The Angel until 1855.
The rear extension of the building included the magnificent first floor Georgian Ballroom with its Minstrels`s Gallery, (recently restored and flourishing today). In 1833, this hall was the venue for the first meeting of the Harmonic Society (the object of which was to `diffuse harmony and good feeling among those who patronise it`). The inaugural event drew 200 people for an evening of Beethoven and Mozart.
The Angel had not lost its political links, (and was still known as the heartland of the `Godolphin party`). In 1821, it became the headquarters of the Duke of Leeds` faction in a bitter political struggle with Sir Christopher Hawkins` party, whose headquarters were in the Star Hotel on the opposite side of Coinagehall Street; (now a job centre). Much baleful derision was relayed between the opposing taverns.
The Angel was also the main coaching and posting house of Helston, and doubled up as an Inland Revenue Office during the 1800s. When Henry Philpotts, Bishop of Exeter, stayed in the 1840s, The Angel even used as a temorary Ecclesiastical Court, (mostly for the proving of wills, etc).
1820-1860 – SOME LITERARY CONNECTIONS
Through the mid 1880s, The Angel played host to various characters with literary links. Probably the best known was Charles Kingsley, who was a schoolboy at Helston Grammar School, (the `Eton of Cornwall`), until he left aged 17 in 1836. He went on to write such books as `Westward Ho!` and `The Water Babies`. In 1835, the school Michaelmas prize-giving concluded with a Grand Ball at The Angel.
Derwent Coleridge, who, as headmaster of the Grammar School, presided over this event, was the son of the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When he left the Grammar School in 1864, the establishment declined and was eventually closed. (Coleridge was also the man who suggested building the Grylls monument at the bottom of Coinagehall St.)
Another well-connected figure to visit The Angel (in 1856) was Walter Arnold, brother of the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, and son of the Headmaster of Rugby School, Dr Thomas Arnold, (a major figure in such works as `Tom Brown`s Schooldays`, and the Flashman books).
The Cornish writer and critic, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, (1863-1944, and known as `Q`), although having stayed at The Angel at a much later time in 1931, referred to the horse-drawn Angel coaches in one of his books about 19th century Cornwall. In `Dead Man`s Rock`, (Chapter 2), he mentions:`Martha George`s husband, who was run over by the Helston coach, and she such a regular attender at the prayer meetings`.
The Flora Day celebrations continued to attract visitors. Mr J.D. Hosken recalled the celebration in 1870 when the mid-day Ball was held in the Assembly Room of The Angel with music supplied by a detachment of the Royal Marines Band. The novelist Wilkie Collins, writer of the book that later became a Lloyd-Webber musical, `The Woman in White`, was a little censorious about the event: `A sort of barbarous carnival where even the genteel residents allow themselves to be infected with the general madness`.
1875 – DEATH OF `MOTHER` BENNETTS
By 1875 the long `reign` of the Bennetts family came to an end with the death of the 74-year-old matriarch of The Angel, Mary Ann. Always known as `Mother Bennetts, she had given `forty years of personal supervision` at the inn. She made the reputation of The Angel `proverbial among tourists, travellers and the general public` and in her private life `she was kind and generous, and will be missed by a large circle`. During her funeral, the shops of Helston closed in respect.
1880 — PRESENT — MODERN TIMES
1882-1900 – SPORTING DAYS
Although most visitors to Helston at the end of the 1800s arrived by train, (the building of the Helston Railway in 1882 was celebrated by a Grand Luncheon at The Angel), the tavern became most famous as a centre for the new-fangled sport of cycling. The letters on the distinctive plaque still seen on the front of The Angel `C.T.C. headquarters` denoted a major meeting place for the Cycling Touring Club.
After the first mention of a cyclist at the hotel in 1889, the sports mushroomed until, in 1895, a huge gathering of cyclists attended the Flora Day events. With many cyclists wearing fancy dress, and led by Sam Brown of Coventry on his 15ft high penny-farthing bicycle, they paraded downhill to the valley below, where prizes were handed out to clubs from visiting towns with the largest entries. Walter Blackwell, The Angel landlord, presided over the occasion, (taking time off from his favourite sport, cricket, at which he was reputed to be first-rate.)
However, the sporting prowess of Helston was to appear on the world stage with the rise of the town`s greatest athletic hero, the boxer BOB `RUBY ROBERT` FITZSIMMONS, (1863-1917). Born in Wendron Street, 200 yards from The Angel, Fitzsimmons and his family immigrated to New Zealand when he was aged nine (and there is doubt as to whether he ever returned to his native town). He defeated such opponents as Jack Dempsey and `Gentleman Jim` Corbett, and in 1897 he achieved boxing immortality when he became the triple World Champion in three different weight divisions. On a minor footnote, one of Fitzsimmons` USA fights was refereed by the lawman Wyatt Earp!
1907 – THE LORD MAYOR OF LONDON
Another son of Helston, (born in nearby Wendron), achieved national prominence when in 1906 Sir William Purdie Treloar became the Lord Mayor of London. In 1907 he was invited back to take part in Flora Day and to receive the Freedom of the Borough. He arrived on the previous day and stayed overnight in The Angel, before enthusiastically joining the merry-making and leading the Mid-Day Furry Dance through the town on May 8th.
1918-1921 – END OF AN ERA
The First World War brought much sorrow to Helston with forty-four names being recorded on the town War Memorial. The conflict also had repercussions on social and financial life generally, and in 1921 the Duke of Leeds sold his property including, of course, The Angel (The 12th and last Duke of Leeds, Francis Darcy Osbourne died in 1964, rendering the title extinct).
1922-1975 – A MODERN TRAGEDY
The inn has come under various owners/landlords since 1921, the longest tenures being that of Mr and Mrs R.H. Fisher (1923-1947), and Capt H.Q.S. Pinfold (1949-1960). It wa in 1960 that a former Royal Navy Second World War MTB Captain, Valentine Ohlenschlager, became the new landlord. Fifteen years later he was to be victim of an appalling incident:
About 11pm, on the night of Thursday 24th April 1975, an employee of The Angel, one Michael John Lawson, an ex-Royal Naval armourer, who had been drinking heavily and after a furious argument had been sent to bed by the landlord, appeared in a doorway behind the bar waving an automatic pistol. `Looking drunk and wild` without warning, fired eight or nine shots around the crowded bar. Mr Ohlenschlager moved forward to protect the barmaids and was struck in the chest by five of the bullets. He died on the way to hospital.Two others were wounded, – including the landlady of The Beehive, Mrs Stiles, who made a long recovery and retired from the licensing trade.
A chronic alcoholic, Lawson was sentenced to imprisonment on a charge of manslaughter and served seven years. On release, he married and ran a pub in Devon – on his wife`s licence!
Soon after Ohlenschlager`s death, The Angel was sold to Stan Hudson and his wife Audrey. Hudson ran The Angel from 1975 to 1984 and sold the freehold to Courage Breweries. The first tenant landlords thereafter (1984 to 1992) were Barry and Julie Corrin, followed by David Nicholas who went bankrupt in 1994. The lease was then bought by Paul Hull who had been a chef in the establishment since the Hudson`s tenure. Together withe Karen Jones, he ran The Angel until 2007 when the current landlords, Dr Nigel Scott-Moncrieff and Lorna Misquita aquired the lease.
Thankfully, in the 21st century, The Angel Hotel has abandoned its more lurid connections with the past, but is still proud of its astonishing history that has spanned more than 450 years and has witnessed so much of England`s story.
NEIL J TITLEY and NIGEL F J SCOTT-MONCRIEFF