A longer Christmas read By Ray Hingston
During the second-half of the 16th century John Michell (d.1620), descended from the St Columb branch of an ancient Cornish family, married Christabell Roberts (d.1623) daughter of an aspiring merchant family from Truro. Soon after the marriage, in c.1584, Mitchell sold his new father-in-law, Richard Roberts (d.1593), a corner plot of land which fronted both Pydar Street (now King Street) and Market Street (now Boscawen Street).1 On this plot Roberts build a prestigious new house, known later as the Great House.
There appears to be no formal record of the sale however a detailed plan of the site, ‘Plan of Premises in Truroe: The Property of the Hon. Charles B. Agar’ drawn in 1805 by Charles Moody (Fig.1), suggests that it measured just over 0.6 acres (0.257 hectares), the frontage on Boscawen Street being 67 feet, or 4 perches, whilst the depth of the site from Boscawen Street to High Cross averaged 412 feet, or 25 perches. At the end of the 16th century land was still divided into burgage plots which were always measured in perches.
To date no detailed description of the house built by Richard Roberts has been found, the only detailed attempt to determine its configuration was by J.W. Tonkin who published his research in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall.2 What prompted Tonkin’s assessment was the demolition of the neighbouring Pearson’s jewellery shop to make way for an extension to the Midland Bank. He conclude that first, the Great House measured 20 feet wide and 70 feet deep, very large when compared to other contemporary Cornish and Devonian houses, and second that the original frontage of the house ran north to south, along what is now King Street, he wrote of
‘…a radical alteration in the run, or at least a partial rebuilding, of the roof which
probably consisted originally of a single gable running from the end of the modern
Boscawen Street to the thick transverse wall dividing the kitchen from the rest of the
house. The refashioning of the southern face of the house in order to provide a shop
front and shopkeeper’s accommodation almost certainly resulted in a reorientation of
the house and a realignment of the roof’.
Exactly when this alteration took place is uncertain however, a late-18th century painting of Prince’s Street and Boscawen Street (Fig.2) indicates that the roof ridge ran parallel to Boscawen Street.3
In his article Tonkin further attempted to explain the original configuration of the house. He believed that the house was built in two different periods, the main section going back 70 feet from Boscawen Street, this section he dated ‘towards the end of the sixteenth century’, while the back part of the house (which he understood to be the kitchen area) he dated to between 1630 and 1650. Furthermore, as there were blocked windows in the west wall (facing King Street) and a north gable in evidence he took this to mean that the house was not built against on those two sides. Tonkin also had thoughts on the interiors. A stair well was evident in the centre part of the house which was illuminated by two west facing windows; the ground floor meanwhile had a room looking out onto Boscawen Street, with the original kitchen at the rear. He believed that the first floor contained two, possibly three, chambers, with the main reception rooms being on the second floor. The attics could have provided accommodation for servants, or storage space. Tonkin produced a plan of the four floors, indicating the original structure and features (fireplaces and windows) (Fig.3) the solid lines indicate original (16th century) walls while the unshaded lines for the east walls indicate where they have been rebuilt.
The family occupied the house as their principal residence from its completion sometime between 1620 and 1625. Richard Robarts (c1580-1634) bought the house and manor of Lanhydrock in May 1620, and when his wife Frances died in 1626, her eulogy, given by Hannibal Gamon in the church at Lanhydrock, referred to her house ‘hereby’, as distinct from ‘her closset also of hers in Truro’.4 However, they appear to have still used the Great House until 1663 when it was leased to Walter Vincent. The lease for ‘his Lordship’s greate house Truro, with divers old walls’ contained a clause in which Vincent appears committed to add ‘an hole row of buildings’.5 One such ‘building’ could have been the kitchen area Tonkin found at the rear of the building during its demolition.
The property remained leased to Vincent until 1744, when it passed to Thomas Williams and Abraham Rose as the executors of his estate. The annual rental was £6-01s-06d.6 The lease remained with the Rose family until released by Abraham’s daughter, Hannah, in 1807, following her father’s death in January that year.7 During his lease Rose had subdivided the property into 12 sub-leases, giving him a return of £20 per annum. Until the release by the Rose family the Great House always appeared as property number 2 on the Robartes Estate Rent Register. When the property was subsequently leased it was subdivided into 12 separate properties at a total rental of £20, appearing as properties 2A to 2L inclusive. The subdivision is shown and listed on Moody’s map of 1805 (Fig.1), created for Charles Bagenal Agar, husband of Anna Maria Hunt, whose inheritance he managed. Whilst not wanting to question in any way Tonkin’s interpretation of what he saw, there are a number of records and statements that leads this author to question whether he was indeed looking at the whole of the original Great House.
First, the Hearth Tax returns for 1666 assessed the Great House as having 18 hearths
however Tonkin only identified six hearths which would have been subject to tax. This might well be explained by evidence seen when the first floor east wall was demolished and it was found to be single skin external wall. This section of the building later became the Seven Stars public house but was probably originally part of the service quarters to the Great House (Figs. 7 and 8). It would seem highly improbable that in under three years Walter Vincent could have constructed ‘an hole row of buildings’ containing a further 12 hearths, especially when the kitchen hearth of any dwelling was not included in the tax. The Great House, when one includes its service areas, must have had more than 6 hearths.
Second, H.L. Douch makes a point in his work ‘The Book of Truro’ that when rebuilding the Market House the hope was to build it ‘at the rear of the Seven Stars, part of the original Robartes Great House….’. 8 Third, in the same publication, whilst visiting the demolition of Samuel Foote’s Great House, then the Red Lion Inn, further along Boscawen Street from the Robarts House, Douch wrote
‘Standing on the skeleton of the roof during demolition one could see the shape of the
Tudor courtyard house…..The existence of this second Tudor House, similar in design
and extent to the Robartes Great House….illustrates the pattern of these substantial
inward looking houses separated by the opes’.9
This prompts the question, what did the Great House look like? In his Daily Life in
Elizabethan England Jeffrey L. Forgeng writes:
‘At the top end of the urban housing scale was the courtyard residence of the wealthy
household, with facilities similar to a rural manor house, but condensed into a four
square layout gathered around a courtyard…access to the street through a passageway
in the street side structure…expensive dwellings tended to be those that fronted on
No details of the original Robarts house are known to exist and details of similar town houses of the period are very scarce. Details of two town houses of the period do exist for Devon, Bampfylde House in Exeter, lost during enemy action during World War II, and The Walronds in Cullumpton, now extensively altered. Whilst both are quite typical courtyard houses of the period, neither relate to the configuration of the Robarts house. One of the most untouched Elizabethan houses is Plas Mawr in Conwy. Although this is now has a Gatehouse entrance, at the time the Roberts built their house, it was a courtyard house with a gated entrance off the street, which was only large enough to allow a horse to pass through. As with Richard and John Roberts, Robert Wynn, the builder of Plas Mawr, was a rising member of the gentry.
One common architectural feature of the above houses, and others of the period, is
that all the ranges surrounding the courtyard were of a common height. This was generally because the complete courtyard house was built as one entity. The courtyard house of the Roberts incorporated ranges of varying heights which, I believe, can be explained by the probability that there were already buildings on the site when it was sold to Richard Roberts. It is likely therefore that he incorporated any existing buildings into his new house, a logic explained by the fact that the family possessed only modest wealth at this time. John Robarts (c.1550-1615), Richard’s son, was the principal creator of the family’s fortunes, and, at the time their house was built, it is his name which appears on most of the leases, loans, agreements, etc., by which the family made their fortune. Whilst appearing quite ruthless in business, he appears to have been very careful with his money, a point suggested in his will where he is somewhat parsimonious to members of his family other than his children and contains no bequests to ‘the poor of the parish’ or servants.11 Interestingly, this family ‘trait’
of architectural re-use was continued by his son Richard (c1580-1634) who, after purchasing the house and demesne of Lanhydrock in 1620, extended onto the existing medieval (c1450) building phases, whilst his son John Robartes (1606-85) subsumed his father’s houses into a much bigger courtyard house built between 1640 and 1644.
Back at the Great House access into the courtyard, and thereby the house itself, would have been from Market Street, through what is now known as Pearson’s Ope. This passage would have been wide enough for horses but not carriages, possibly because Cornish inland roads were incapable of carrying coaches. It is probable that the existing archway giving access to Pearson’s Ope from High Cross was constructed sometime later, possibly by Walter Vincent. A similar arrangement was certainly the at The Star Inn
(Clarendon Hotel), Oxford, (Fig.4) that was accessed through
…an archway, which led to a long narrow yard, flanked by two ranges containing
stables and outhouses. The passageways leading through the inn to the stables at the
back would have been wide enough for horses, but not for waggons or coaches; hence’
in the late 18th century……it was necessary to make a new way to the stables…’.12
My conclusions (Figs.5 and 6) from looking at all available evidence is that the frontage of the Great House extended from Pydar (King) Street for 70 feet from Market (Boscawen) Street, with the width on Market Street being about 30 feet. The Market Street elevation straddled the passage, now known as Pearson’s Ope. Tonkin considered it to be an existing right of way, but I believe this to be questionable. The entrance to Pearson’s Ope in Boscawen Street is only 60 feet from the corner of King Street, with its exit onto High Cross less than 80 feet from its junction with King Street, so such a right of way across this burgage plot would have been unnecessary. I believe the right of way was created when Walter Vincent sub-divided the plot, making it necessary to gain access off Boscawen Street through the original courtyard to the newly built properties.
The entrance to the house therefore would probably have been off the courtyard, into a screened passage containing the central staircase. To the right would have been a large hall, probably panelled, containing a large fireplace on the north wall. Light would have been supplied by windows into the courtyard, long since lost. To the south could have been an anti-chamber, with a window onto Market Street. Access to the upper floors would have been via the central staircase running east to west, illuminated by the two large windows identified by Tonkin. On the first floor could have been two, possibly three, bed chambers, the principal one being to the south where windows faced out onto Market Street. The large windows on the second floor would have allowed fine views to the west from the principal rooms, as there were no large buildings on the opposite side of Pydar Street.13 It is probable there were large windows in the gable end overlooking Market Street, possibly even an oriel window, allowing views over the Market House across to Lemon Quay, where the family had large warehouses.
A further conclusion is that the ‘Great House’ of c.1585 is embedded in Charles Moody’s Plan of 1805 (Fig. 1) where
Ref. No. 12 & 12b:- The families main accommodation
Ref. No. 13 & 13a:- Kitchen, Buttery, Storerooms and servants accommodation.
Ref. No. 11c, 11d & 13b:- Courtyard
Ref. No. 13c:- Stable
Ref. No. 13d:- A Brewhouse.
It is likely that the remaining area of the plot was garden surrounded by a wall, possibly the ‘divers old walls’ described in the lease to Vincent, and that the Privy was where it is shown in 1805 at 13e.
1 This sale probably took place between 1583 and 1585, as an Edgcumbe deed of 1583 indicates the Michells to be the owners of the site. For more information see The Ancient Michell Families of Cornwall, (St Austell, 1994), p.79 and Boscawen Street Area, Truro (Truro Buildings Research Group, 1981), p.5.
2 J.W. Tonkin, ‘The Great House, Truro’, Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall (1961), pp.17-35.
3 Prince’s Street, c1800. Thanks to Mr Michael Galsworthy of Trewithen House for allowing me access to photograph the painting.
4 Hannibal Gamon, In Praise of a Godly Woman (1627)
5 Royal Institute of Cornwall (RIC) J4/21/225
6 Cornwall Record Office, Clifden Rent Rolls CL/2/32
7 RIC HJ/4/25
8 H.L. Douch, The Book of Truro (Truro, 1978), p.50.
9 Ibid, p.73.
10 Jeffrey L Forgeng, Daily Life in Elizabethan England (Westport, 1995)
11 National Archives, PROB 11/123
12 E. M. Jope, Studies in Building History: Essays in Recognition of the Work of B.H. St. J. O’Neil, (London, 1961) p.175.
13 John Michell and his wife Christabell, who sold the plot to Richard, had a house on the west side of Pydar Street, slightly further to the north than the Great House. It was a low two storied building