At his very first Council, Trevail made his presence felt. Quickly on his feet to claim his right, as a junior member, to support a motion to elect the new mayor, he followed with an unsuccessful demand to be placed on key committees of the Council, such as finance, and then made a seemingly innocuous request for more information on the duties and salary of the Town Clerk. It was soon clear why he had raised this issue. He had spotted an irregularity in Council affairs, and, as he demonstrated time and time again in his career, once he had discovered an anomaly of any kind, he did not rest until he had resolved it to his own satisfaction, no matter how much time and effort it took, nor how much trouble it caused.
The town Clerk, a local solicitor, received £120 per annum for his duties, and a similar amount as Clerk to the Truro Sanitary Authority. Since Councillors doubles as members of the Sanitary Committee, he was paid handsomely for work which only occupied him for one day a week. To put this into perspective, a labourer was expected to bring up a family on less than a pound a week. This, however, was less than half the story, for Trevail discovered that the Clerk charged the Council for every item of legal or quasi-legal work he carried out for them, as well as making the public pay for all their financial contracts with the Council. What is more, he drew up costly legal documents to cover routine arrangements, which, Trevail found out, were dealt with in other Councils by simple standard forms costing only a few pence. As a result, the Council owed the Clerk over £1,000 for services rendered.
Faced with these revelations, Trevail’s longer serving colleagues seemed loath to take action. His modernising zeal had disturbed the comfortable lethargy of municipal life. The Clerk, they argued, had served them loyally for twenty-two years, and they had rewarded him by steadily increasing his salary from £50 to £120 a year. Any stricture on the Clerk was a reproach to them. The Mayor cautioned Trevail more than once for his continued criticism of the Clerk. The Senior Alderman E.G. Heard, proprietor of the West Briton newspaper, declared he had never, in all his time on the Council, heard anything as disagreeable. The Town Clerk protested at Trevail’s ‘disgraceful, distorted and cowardly’ slurs on his character. ‘We had no unpleasantness until you came here’, he told Trevail. Only Councillor Henry Buck (later to be Trevail’s implacable enemy) gave Trevail wholehearted support.
However, such was the interest aroused by Trevail’s discoveries when reported in the local press (including the West Briton), that the Council felt obliged to agree to look into the matter, and proposed a sharp reduction in the duties for which the Town Clerk could make a separate charge on the Council. They also offered him £800 in full settlement of the money he claimed which by now amounted to £1,091. When the Clerk refused this offer, Trevail suggested taking him to court, but the Clerk retorted by discovering more unpaid bills and increasing his claim to £2,000. Buck protested that he was now inventing bills for work which he had never done.
Over the next few months, this pattern of threat and counter threat continued, for every time the elders of the Council seemed to be nearing a compromise, Trevail would confront the Clerk with fresh allegations. The Clerk, he contended, was acting illegally in handling Council finances, and should be fined £20 for this breach of local government regulations. Trevail next accused him of ‘dereliction of duty’ in a ‘monstrous decision’ to sell some Council property at a suspiciously low price. Again, when the Council proposed to appoint a School Attendance Officer to deal with truants, Trevail argued that this was already part of the Town Clerk’s duties which he had totally neglected.
Unruly scenes followed, inside the Chamber and in the Clerk’s office, where the Clerk complained that Trevail had told him, ‘I suppose you think you are a great man. Let me tell you, Sir, you are merely a servant, and, before I have done with you, I will teach you what your position is.’ Then, according to the Clerk, Trevail invited him to ‘step outside into the street where he would give him satisfaction’. When Trevail heaped new duties on the Clerk, accompanied by further reductions in salary, the Clerk maintained that the new list of duties warranted a full-time post at a greatly enhanced salary. Trevail refused to compromise, and the Clerk resigned. Alderman Heard and other senior Councillors prevailed upon him to reconsider, but Trevail would have no part in it. ‘The Town Clerk’, he insisted, ‘is now the enemy of the County’, and must go – which he did.
When the new post of Town Clerk, with its greatly reduced salary of £100 per annum, was advertised, the number and quality of candidates justified Trevail’s contention that the former Clerk had been over generously rewarded. Fifty-two well-qualified persons applied, including the Mayor and three Councillors. These made up the short list for interview, a decision which, Alderman Heard protested, made a ‘complete farce’ of the selection procedure. But Trevail our-ruled him, and ‘unhesitatingly’ supported the Mayor’s candidature in a strong speech which won the day.
Within less than a year, Trevail’s Mastery of administrative minutiae and modernising zeal had made him a major force on Truro Council, and it was no surprise when he was elected Chairman of the Finance Committee, where he continued to root out inefficiencies that had accumulated over years. His first budget won high praise from Alderman Heard: ‘He has done what no man has done before, working night and day to enable us, for the first time, to understand the financial position in full’.
Trevail had not heard the last of the former Town Clerk, however, who still held some £250 of the Council’s funds, and refused to hand them over until his own claims were met. This time is was Trevail’s turn to threaten to resign. The ‘miserable little squabbles’, he protested, prevented him from carrying out his task as Chairman of finance. Such was the obduracy of the Clerk, however, that even Trevail was forced to compromise, and it was now Buck’s turn to criticise him for ‘sacrificing principle to expediency’.
Then Trevail produced a trump card. His painstaking researches into Truro Council archives, unearthed a document, dated 1878, the existence of which the Clerk had denied, which showed quite clearly that the Clerk had charged the Council for duties for which he was paid a salary. Still, however, the Clerk would not give in, and took out an injunction on the Council to pay his claims. In the end, it was Trevail who had to give in and pay up. In the preceding two years, Trevail calculated, the Clerk had received £2,912, over ten times his combined salary as Clerk to the Council and the Sanitary Authority.
At last Trevail was in undisputed control of Truro’s finances, ‘Chancellor of the Truro Exchequer’, as the local papers, including the West Briton, dubbed him. Then he made a serious mistake. Judging that, because of the work he had done for his electors, he would be unopposed at the elections in November 1889, he absented himself to attend an exhibition in Paris. He seemed unaware that, besides winning praise, his buccaneering ways had also made him many enemies, and, once he had gone, they lost no time in putting up a rival candidate who captured his seat. Trevail was furious, but his anger was moderated by his election as one of Truro’s two members on the newly formed Cornwall County Council. With his customary energy and zeal, he was soon the scourge of local authority officers throughout the length and breadth of Cornwall.
The Society members met at Edgcumbe Chapel on the A394 between Falmouth and Penryn. It is quite an extraordinary building to find in such an isolated place; only a handful of small cottages and a pub stand nearby completely dwarfed by this neo-classical granite façade with its full height podium. The entrance is on the comparatively sheltered Falmouth side of the building approached by a ramp from ground level, an unusual arrangement for a non-conformist chapel, most of which are entered from the front elevation and few of which, outside town centres, have their ancillary rooms underneath the chapel itself. Mevagissey chapel, which we visited last year, now has a similar arrangement. Most of the old parish churches in Cornwall also have their entrance porches to one side because the west ends are so exposed.
This chapel, built 1884, is the most extraordinary memorial to a late 19th century congregation of scattered miners, quarrymen and small holders who raised the money to replace their small and inadequate building with one of such size and quality and still later enlarged it to provide a large organ loft and ancillary facilities below. Obviously in those days the population was considerable; the mines now are finished and the quarries which provided the stone mostly closed or worked out, even the workers houses once abandoned could not withstand the elements for long – nor the road improvements. Agriculturally too the land is poor and exposed with heavy rainfall, long periods of thick mists and gales and, unusually for the area, very heavy snowfalls that do not clear within hours. Very few properties to the south before Gweek have mains water, there is no sewerage for miles (only the new estates in Gweek and Stithians have treatment plants) and until the substation was built many had no electricity so that there has been little development in the last 100 years. It is probably therefore its social element, its large graveyard and bus stop that has enabled the chapel to survive where smaller and less isolated ones have not; the evidence of the large Sunday school room still laid out for the harvest festival suggested some 80-100 people had sat down to eat.
It is a very plain building inside; the long wall on the Helston side built from local waste stone has suffered from exposure to the extreme weather conditions and at some stage the plaster has been removed internally from the chapel walls. There is typical Silvanus timberwork in this area, substantial exposed roof trusses with sophisticated design. The principal decoration and illumination comes from the three large stained glass windows in the front elevation. Their survival is probably due to the unusual orientation of the chapel dictated to by its site; with its front to the S.E., the rostrum is at the N.W. end which is buttressed by extensions with lower pitched roofs. At the time the chapel (and its predecessor) was built it must have been pretty impossible to convey bodies to Wendron or Stithians for burial in bad weather when deaths were presumably more numerous particularly since three high risk occupations predominated.
Luckily as we left the torrential downpour which had seemed determined to prove its point during our visit abated and we set off via Gweek for Mawgan in Meneage and in particular Garras on the main Helston to St Keverne road, where on a corner of land a war memorial was erected after W.W.1. Designed by Alfred Cornelius who had worked for Silvanus since 1891 and continually as his assistant and Cornish anchor since 1896, he was to continue the practise until his death in 1964. The memorial is a large Celtic cross, very striking and reminiscent of the Trevail cross at Luxulyan that Silvanus designed for his parents and himself.
From Garras we cut across to the A3083 and down to Lizard town. We were welcomed at the former ‘Maenheere’ by Mr & Mrs Tim Eaton. The house was built for John Roberts, a director of the hotel nearby, as a mini self-contained estate. Most of the hotels built by companies in which Silvanus was involved had a director living in very close proximity, moreover many of them were also suppliers of goods and/or services to the hotels and Mr Roberts, I think, supplied linen and curtains etc.
The house itself faces due south out to sea with over 180° view. Light floods into the main reception and bedrooms on this front with a first floor balcony and terraces and lawns sloping towards the cliffs. Walled gardens gave protection to the entrance on the east and kitchen court on the north. When I first saw the house it still had its greenhouses, vine house and hot houses against these south facing walls, there was the formerly essential coach house too and a conservatory attached to the east side of the house. Presumably adjacent fields provided grazing for the horses and a house cow and chickens; probably they also catered for the hotel itself. After John Roberts death, the house passed to his sister-in-law and then her daughter Miss Wallis and very little maintenance appeared to have been done, with most of the original fixtures and fittings still in place. Miss Wallis told me that her uncle was on the train when Silvanus shot himself. When she died she left the house to the National Trust who have let it to the present tenants on a long repairing lease.
Despite major repair works and some updating of kitchen areas etc, the etched glass door panels in the hall with their striking fuchsia design remain and the original hardwood doors with their black trim have cleaned up beautifully. Even some of the sanitary fittings and most of the fireplaces have survived, together with the Cornish range, although some inconsiderate vandal has taken the maker’s nameplate, and the loss of most of the ceramic tiling on the balcony. In view of the lack of maintenance over nearly 100 years it was a testimony to the original builders and materials used that it survived as well as it did; even continuous maintenance and modern technology would have been stretched to the limits in that situation.
From there we went on to the Housel Bay Hotel itself. This has had few alterations externally; at the front it is built from fine local stone like the house but poorer quality at the back, which is built into the land and apart from a few small additions was very difficult to alter and has survived well. Internally there have been vast alterations to the public rooms and because the hotel was full, we were unable to view the bedrooms etc. We had a very good meal and were in fine fettle to venture onto the lawns and terraces that slope down towards the cliffs and that vast expanse of sea. The railway reached Helston in 1897, lasted only until the 1950’s and was never extended towards the Lizard 11 miles south. The state of the road alone would have made the journey a nightmare in winter until it was surfaced.
The season must have been incredibly short, although there was a thriving industry in serpentine, soapstone and bricks there were enough ‘commercial hotels’ to cater already and even by 1930 the access to Kynance Cove and other beauty spots was impossible or impracticable by car, but that people did get there is no doubt due to some intrepid photographers and Thomas Hart F.S.A. (whose house was built next to John Roberts) and who founded a strong art colony in the area. Those restrictions alone probably saved the Housel Bay from vast extensions pre-war, and Planning Control post-war.
From Lizard town we drove back to Helston to view the Cornish Bank built in 1890 on an exceptional site which undoubtedly produced such an unusual design. It stands on the bottom corner of Wendron Street and the top corner of Church Street.
It is opposite the free standing Guildhall with a cobbled and stepped access down and past the Folk Museum. It is built of fine cut local granite on a rough coursed granite plinth. The west side is the most striking as it has a vast pillared bay window to its banking hall looking straight down Coinagehall Street. The pillars are classical in keeping with those on the Guildhall and surprisingly delicate. The views over the town from the managers flat above must be quite spectacular.
From here the group split up for the remainder of the afternoon; either going for tea or browsing in the large number of small shops in the town.
One Tuesday evening found a group standing outside the National Westminster Bank admiring the terracotta decoration lit by evening sunlight. Silvanus Trevail produced this marvellous building in 1898-1900 for Messrs Coode and Shilson and over the doorway is the legend "St Austell Bank 1898". Modern business practises have meant that the building, although locally known as the ‘Red Bank’ was also the National, Provincial and Union Bank in the 1920’s, later the National Provincial Bank, and now the National Westminster. At the time of building, the opportunity was taken to enlarge the area known as the ‘Bullring’ by setting the building line back about six feet. Trevail worked on the assumption that his building would be seen along three streets so put three gable fronts to the building. Although the building is now normally viewed from the side of St Austell church, a walk up either of the smaller roads will show equally impressive facades.
An evening visit to the interior of this building was not practical, but I had been fortunate to have been invited to view and photograph the interior several days before.
The curved staircase winds its way round the NW corner of the building with very elaborate carved wooden balusters, which continue out of sight from the ground floor to just past the first floor, when the design becomes less ornate, the hand-rail is still unpainted. The windows in this stair well have curved frames and curved glass.
On the ground floor of the building, there is very little of the original to be seen; modern banking requirements have meant that all features are boarded in, but the first floor shows a totally different picture. The tall windows still have their wooden sash frames and architraves, with a wooden panel from floor level to sill height. All the doors have been replaced, but the surrounds and skirting boards are still there as are the beautiful curved arches along the corridor which link one area to the next, very similar to those in the Headland Hotel. All the woodwork has been painted over the years.
Part of the building is not now accessible from the bank, having now been divided into living accommodation with separate entrances, but the last part that I was allowed to view was the least altered – the lavatory! The door, complete with brass fittings was still varnished pitch pine as were skirting and architrave. The floor had a pattern of buff, red and brown Ruabon tiles and the white wall tiles were decorated with a frieze of Ruabon tiles in matching colours. I have to add that the plumbing arrangements were much newer!
From here our group moved to Tregarne Terrace; a group of granite houses built in the 1890’s, in two separate phases, for FL Barratt. At the top end of Tregarne Terrace, Tregarne Lodge was built for his own use. Most of the houses in the Terrace have been altered to become business offices, but the thanks of the Trevail Society are given to Peter Bishop and his wife who allowed us in to view the Victorian remains in their building. From the varnished pitch pine staircase and the panelled doors with their decorative architrave to the small cast iron fireplace in the upstairs room and the marks on the kitchen ceiling which we were able to identify as being the places where partitions for the scullery and coal stores had been removed. The leaded glass surround to the front door remains, as does the tiled floor of the entrance porch and some of the ceiling coving in the main rooms.
We then moved to another of the Francis Barratt buildings, the St Austell Liberal Club, now the Thin End restaurant. Barratt gave this to the St Austell Liberals in 1890; he also built Moorland Road in 1896-7, for which he charged very low rents, Trevail again being his architect. Barratt became High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1897, but when the St Austell Liberals would not adopt him as their candidate, he moved to Torquay and from 1900-1910 was their Liberal MP. In the 1930’s he transferred the lease of the Liberal Club building to St Austell U.D.C. and sold Tregarne House. He died in Torquay in 1933 and was buried in St Mewan.
The Club gave Trevail a difficult task, having a triangular site, which had to allow access to Hawke’s premises behind. Two shops were fitted into the ground floor with a central lobby entrance for the clubrooms above. The entrance has changed very little, the inner swing doors to the entrance porch are gone, but the brass plates on which they turned remain in the floor of Ruabon tiles in the distinctive buff, red and brown colouring. The Luxulyan granite steps leading to the varnished pitched pine staircase lit by windows of coloured glass all remain, as they must have looked over 100 years ago. Mr W.A. McArthur MP laid the foundation stone of the Liberal Club in June 1889. The building opened in July 1890 with much lavish celebration and feasting.
At first floor level where the Reading and Smoking Rooms were once separated by a folding screen, is the restaurant, the division no longer to be seen, but window frames and ceiling coving unchanged. The walls of the small Library behind this were long ago removed to make the kitchen area much larger. The floor above contained the Billiard Room with two tables. Under the floor remains the tray filled with sand that acted as sound insulation to the rooms below; a large roof light still in position lighted each table. The area is now used for cooking and storage, but previously to this was used as a dance hall. The rooms behind are still used as offices and cloakroom as in the original design. Our thanks to Andy Ward for spending so much time with us in the building.
To round off the evening it was decided to take a look at the Board School on West Hill, recently abandoned by St Austell College. We arrived a few days too late; the building had been razed to the ground. A sad ending to an enjoyable evening.
Unfortunately no full-length biography exists of Silvanus Trevail, in spite of the important role he had in building and social and economic development in Cornwall in the late 19th century. When I wrote my first article about him for the magazine I edit, The Cornish Banner (No 74 November 1993) I used principally contemporary newspapers and sections from two modern works which have brief mentions of his career. At the end of R.S. Best’s excellent biography of the philanthropist, John Passmore Edwards, "The Life and Good Works of…" (Truran, 1981) there was a resume of Trevail’s life by an enthusiast for his work, Peter Laws, the first president of the Silvanus Trevail Society. This, though short, was extremely valuable, and provided the framework of his career on which I was able to build. Also useful was a chapter in David Mudd’s book "Cornwall in Uproar", Bossiney, 1983. This dealt with episodes in Cornwall’s history involving riots and civil disturbance. The last chapter "Silvanus Trevail’s Soured Holiday Dream: The Newquay Hotel Disturbances, 1897" gives a good account of the present Headland Hotel.
Knowing of my interest in Trevail, local booksellers have kept an eye open for me about him and a couple of years ago Just Books of Truro located a splendid little volume produced in 1902 on the dedication of the church bells given by Silvanus to Luxulyan parish church. As well as detailing the order of service at the dedication, the booklet has an account of the proceedings afterwards, a report of his mother’s funeral in March of that year, several nice sketches of the church and the Trevail monument which he had designed for his parents and himself, and other interesting items. It gave me scope to produce another article for the Banner "What Drove Trevail to Destruction" (No 87, February 1997).
Since that time I have managed to obtain for the institute a couple of other volumes. "The Life and Reminiscences of C.T.T.", 1926, by his cousin, Charles Thomas Trevail, who himself had an interesting career as a local legal and social adviser for the mid-Cornwall community, has some valuable pieces of information about Silvanus, whom he knew well, and the times he lived in. More recently I acquired the "Cornwall Education Week Handbook" of 1927. Though this has no new information on the architect, it is interesting in showing the educational progress that had been made in Cornwall from Trevail’s time and in which he had played so prominent a part. It also has several pictures of schools which he designed.
The formation of the Society has allowed much valuable work to be done since its formation in 1993. Research into his career and the buildings he designed is ongoing. Dr Ronald Perry wrote an article in the February 1998 issue of the Cornish Banner, No 91, "Monument to a Victorian Giant", and in the same issue Harry Tregilgas did a follow-up article to mine on "What Drove Trevail to Destruction". Dr. Perry and other officers of the society, Hazel Harradence, Pauline Howard, Malcolm Surl and Joy Wilson have produced other valuable papers. Surely that full-length study so urgently required will not be long in appearing as a result of our efforts.
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