When you approach Shepherds House you cannot help but wonder for who and when the house was built. And whilst renovating, we went on a voyage of discovery which did not disappoint. Under the stairs on the back of each tread, in beautiful ‘copperplate’ handwriting are signatures of the carpenters and masons who built the house dating back to 1798. It was that glimpse through time that inspired an ongoing search to find the heritage of this proud property and its former occupants.
First we’ll set the scene. The house was built in the early 1800s at a time when Cornwall was a hot bed of mining. Fortunes were being made and lost as men, women and children went hundreds of feet underground with timbers, picks and shovels following the winding veins of precious minerals wherever they may.
The land Shepherds House stands on was once owned by Sir Christopher Hawkins a wealthy and powerful land owner, politician, member of Parliament and master of Trewithen Estate. An estate so large he was reputed to ride his horse from one coast to the other, never setting a hoof on another man’s land. His fortune was to be both challenged and swelled by the mines of St. Newlyn East.
Set in these heady historic times, we start to see the novels of Winston Graham and the wonderful characters of ‘Poldark’. Graham lived in Perranporth and Shepherds House is in the heart of Poldark country. Winston Graham wrote Poldark in the 1930s. He travelled by train to London from his home in Perranporth. The remains of that old rail track are at the end of the garden at Shepherds House and it’s not by chance that the BBC chose Holywell Bay, Crantock and Perranporth, our nearest beaches, to film Poldark’s latest incarnation ‘Aiden Turner’. Shepherds Halt, the station where Graham would have stopped on his journeys to see his publisher in London has long gone but the old ‘weigh house’ is still there and there are plans to open the old railway for walking and cycling. Graham was inspired by the historic characters of mid 1700s, to late 1800s and the rich social and financial world of Cornwall, where fantastic wealth could be made. With that wealth came power, politics and intrigue… the stuff of novels you might say?
As the mines thrived, however there was a growing problem. Ore from the mines had to be smelted to separate the lead and silver. The closest smelting houses were in Bristol and Swansea, so a lot of profit was lost to Sir Christopher and other owners. As Sir Christopher struggled with huge outgoings across his estate he ventured to build his own smelting house. And that is where Shepherds House began. By 1812 the house had been constructed and gifted to its first owner Mr. John Giddy. A self-made man of considerable intellect, his renowned brother Davies Giddy wrote: “in matters of chemistry and practical science few excelled him”. He oversaw the construction and operation of the smelting house built to service the mines and vastly improved the profits of Sir Christopher Hawkins. Giddy died in January 1835.
Shortly after the death of John Giddy, we first find reference to our hero Captain Middleton. And here we discovered the connection to the fictional Poldark begins…
Much of Cornwall’s famed wealth lay in tin, a trade that has existed since the Bronze age. But the locale of St. Newlyn East became famous for something else. Lead was discovered a valuable and saleable resource and within that lead, silver. A single mine at St. Newlyn East reputedly delivering 30.5 ounces of Silver for every ton of lead and in 1821 Wheal Rose Mine at St. Newlyn East produced 36,696 ounces of Silver. That’s a current market value of nearly £420,000. With the accompanying lead value worth a further £1,047,000. It’s easy see why Cornwall was like the Wild West.
Middleton was renowned as a worthy man. A man who cared for his workers and fought for their care. Captain Middleton, a former military man, like Poldark, educated in mineralogy, like Poldark. An adventurer and mine Captain who became known across the World.
Middleton and another captain, Captain Champion, partnered up in a venture to salvage the spilled silver and lead from Giddy’s old smelting house just after he died in 1835. And this became the stuff of scandal and the first signs of the colourful future Middleton would hold. “Men working bare-chested at night in secret tapped the furnaces and replaced the stoppers as though they had never been broken”. A large sum of money was had from the secret venture and when discovered in 1836 it created a huge scandal. Middleton and Champion, however, were held in such regard that they managed to avoid any prosecution. No one knows quite how? No mean feat at a time when the theft of a candle would see you deported to hard labour in the colonies. But the powerful men that kept Middleton from deportation were to be handsomely rewarded. Middleton, soon became Captain at East Wheal Rose Mine, a mine which had seen boom and bust for Sir Christopher Hawkins. Just after John Giddy’s death a Mr Michell, a lesser member of the “Warleggan” like Michell family, moved into Shepherds House, worked the smelting house and quickly left leaving large local debts and was never to be seen again… Perhaps the missing link in the smelting house scandal?
Captain Middleton soon advanced to the senior Captain at East Wheal Rose with Champion at his side and is thought to have lived near by in Fiddlers Green in a humble house. That was all to change though when Captain Middleton discovered the biggest lode of silver and lead in Cornish mining history. A landslide of riches. By April 1841 this huge strike at East Wheal Rose was making the mine owners millions. Christened ‘Middleton’s Lode’ the mineral vein was talked of in mining communities across the World. The mine adventurer/owners wrote at the time, “upwards of 300 people are now employed at this mine and the ‘adventurers’ are very desirous for Captain Middleton to occupy Shepherds House”. And so our own Poldark moved into Shepherds House in “1841. A happy and prosperous five years followed where now over 1200 were employed at the mine until…
“The East Wheal Rose Mine was struck by a disaster in which 39 men died.. On 9th July 1846 a thunderstorm caused a flash flood. The mine was in a natural bowl, and the flood waters had nowhere to go, except into the mine. Captain Middleton organised 300 men to pile up earth around the collars of the shafts but the volume of water pouring down was so great that soon torrents of water poured down the shafts. This caused a wind to blow that extinguished the candles that the miners used underground. So when the water hit them, they were in utter darkness. Captain Champion somehow managed to climb the slippery ladders against the tremendous weight of down-rushing water. A timber-man, Samuel Bastion, went down into the mine to lie across a manhole, diverting the flow of water and saving eighteen lives. The beam engines were put to work in raising men to the surface, clinging to the kibbles and chains ‘like strings of onions’. Forty-three men and boys were missing but four of them were brought up alive next morning. The lower levels of the mine were completely flooded. But, by November 1846 all the debris and water had been cleared and the mine was in full production again”.
The disaster made World news and Captain Middleton was cemented into Cornish mining history. A scandal, a rise to riches against the odds, a man of the people and then ‘the’ mine disaster of Cornwall. The stuff of feature films. If ever there were a candidate for the ‘real Poldark’, Captain Middleton is on the list.
Like all men of myth and renown Middleton died young;
“The Great Lode in this mine, the foundation of so many fortunes, the scene of so many disasters, was called after this eminent miner, who literally fell a sacrifice to his devotion to his duties, perishing at a comparatively early age of that curse to mining, consumption…. Much credit was justly due to Captain Middleton for his humanity to, and care of, the people in his employ, by whom he was beloved; and is even now spoken of by East Wheal Rose men in terms of affectionate regard, by whom his memory will be respected to the end of their lives”….1857 And now over 150 years later we are re-discovering the amazing real life stories that inspired the novels of Poldark… and shining a torch under our stair way at Shepherds House, we discovered Captain Middleton’s own signature on the under side of the wooden treads.