Pontus Piece, St Cleer

by Emma Trevarthen

Pontus Peace in the parish of St Cleer is a settlement that now consists solely of two adjoining smallholders’ cottages, located between the village of Minions and the hamlet of Gonamena, on the south eastern edge of Bodmin Moor.

Variously recorded as Ponton’s Piece, Pontin’s Piece and Pontius Piece on Ordnance Survey maps and in census returns, the remaining cottage pair were constructed in the mid-19th century. They and their tiny garden plots were taken out of the moorland at a time when copper and tin mining in that area were reaching their peak. The smallholdings were tenanted by miners, quarrymen and farm labourers who were often the same people working multiple jobs, as well as tending to the cultivation of their small patches of land.

What is a smallholder’s cottage and how does it differ from other cottages, or from farmhouses? Historic England’s 2017 Listing guidance describes smallholdings generally as ‘now very rare’; they are ‘often set within areas of enclosure of common land and associated with industrial activity such as mining and quarrying’, and comprise ‘very small agricultural units often run in conjunction with other economic activities such as mining’[1].  This last part of the definition makes an important distinction between farming and smallholding: the first is a full time occupation, the second is a combination of often subsistence-level livings, such as mining, quarrying, fishing, market gardening and the small-scale rearing of livestock.

The settlement of Pontus Peace in 2018. To the west and the north east of the surviving cottages are the remains of earlier farmsteads, recorded in the tithe apportionments of 1840. Within the trackway running directly past the cottages in the centre of the image are two lines of granite setts: the remains of the Gonamena Incline, part of the Liskeard and Caradon Railway that joined the Cheesewring quarries with the Liskeard canal in 1846. The incline probably pre-dates the cottage pair by a few years. Image ©Google Earth, 2021

While smallholdings sprung up for a variety of reasons across Britain, those that appeared in Cornwall during the 19th century were primarily the residences of workers employed in local mines or quarries. Plots of land, often taken in from poor agricultural ground or from moorland and not necessarily with a cottage attached, would be leased from landowners, usually on the three lives system. The land was often returned in much improved condition at little or no expense to the owners[2]. As extractive industries expanded rapidly across Cornwall smallholdings made way for small industrial settlements: Minions, previously known as Cheesewring Railway, is one such settlement that evolved in the 1860s[3].

Approaching the cottages from the north, August 2010. The large granite setts of the Gonamena Incline are visible in the foreground.  
Photograph ©Martin Bodman, 2010

The smallholders’ cottages at Pontus Peace lie within an area of land leased to a local farmer, William Honey, from landowner Samuel Trehawke Kekewich in 1840. The area where the cottages now sit was described as ‘marsh’ and was under pasture at that time[4]. The settlement itself is recorded by Thomas Martyn on his map of 1748, and it is possible that two small, now ruinous farmsteads visible to the north east and the west of the cottage pair may date to that period.  These older farmsteads are recorded as inhabited at the time of the tithe survey: by Joseph Staton, mason, and Humphrey Stephens, labourer in copper, and their families[5]. Between 1841 and the time of the 1861 census, the number of residents of Pontus Peace increased dramatically with the number of residing families rising from two to eight[6]. This period slightly predates the early growth of the village at Minions; it coincides with the rapid expansion of copper, then tin, mining with both Phoenix and South Caradon Mines close by. The pair of cottages with its small garden plots, asymmetric roofline and deep outshuts, may have housed several of these new families: the right hand cottage has double the number of chimneys as the left, and is shown on a map of 1906 as split internally across its length[7]. Some of the households may also have leased additional plots of land, but the remains of outbuildings in the cottage gardens suggest that a variety of animals such as pigs and geese would have been kept in close proximity to the cottages.

The smallholders’ cottages in April 2012. Note the double chimney stack on the right hand of the two cottages.
Photograph ©Rob Farrow, 2012

Life on these smallholdings would have been almost relentlessly exhausting. The various occupations of the residents are without exception physically demanding and the hours would have been long, but returning home would not necessarily have meant the wage-earners of the households could rest. As Adam Sharpe notes in his description of smallholders at Trewellard Cliff in West Penwith: ‘After a hard day’s labour underground, there was still plenty to do when miners returned home, working with their families to mend walls, weed gardens, feed pigs or gather furze “stogs” for fuel. Despite all of this, the smallholdings were essential because they could mean the difference between survival and starvation’ [8].

The occupations listed in the census of the 19th century reflect not only the rise in the local population but the varying nature of work on offer. Copper mining and stone quarrying are the dominant occupations in the middle of the century, with tin mining replacing copper by 1891. The rise and fall of local industries also meant that many smallholders had to be almost nomadic: very few of the same individuals appear in successive census for Pontus Peace throughout the 19th century but some reappear elsewhere in St Cleer or its neighbouring parishes. Perhaps they were following the work, or perhaps the comparative luxury of a village life had beckoned.  In the final census return of the century, the population of Pontus Peace had fallen back to four families; this fall would continue into the 20th century as the industries that briefly had swelled the tiny settlement declined.

While there are a handful of Listed examples of smallholders’ cottages across England, none in Cornwall have yet been granted this level of protection. Their association with mining has led to some being included within areas of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (WHS) but this is not a guarantee of security: smallholders’ cottages on Dudnance Lane in Pool[9], along with their distinctive adjacent field plots, have disappeared beneath the amenity landscaping of the Heartlands centre. Other sites, including Pontus Peace, have been highlighted as vulnerable since at least 2014 when a survey of the condition of buildings within WHS areas was undertaken[10]. Since then many have continued to deteriorate and the surrounding small field plots have become overgrown, or boundary hedges removed. Those dwellings that do remain are a precious reminder of lives lived on the hardest edges of Cornwall’s industrial zenith.


[1] Historic England 2017. Agricultural Buildings: Listing Selection Guide. Historic England, Swindon[1] Tithe apportionments for St Cleer, c1840

[2] Sharpe A, 2008. Geevor and Levant, Cornwall. Historical landscape development. Cornwall Council p21

[3] Sharpe A, 1989. The Minions Area: Archaeological Survey and Management. Cornwall County Council p60

[4] Tithe apportionments for St Cleer, c1840

[5] St Cleer 1841 – Transcript of Piece HO107/153. https://www.genuki.org.uk

[6] Menheniot and St Cleer 1861 – Transcript of Piece RG9/1528. https://www.genuki.org.uk

[7] Ordnance Survey historic 2nd edition 6 inch map, 1906

[8] Sharpe A, 2008. Geevor and Levant, Cornwall. Historical landscape development. Cornwall Council p21

[9] Sharpe A, 2007. Pool Heartlands, Cornwall. Assessment of historic environment assets. Cornwall Council pp80-82, figure 17

[10] Sharpe A, 2014. Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site: Condition Survey 2014. Cornwall Council pp19-20, figure 54

Published by buildingsatrisk

Since 1969 the aims of the Cornish Buildings Group have been to stimulate interest, appreciation and knowledge of good building in Cornwall, and to encourage the erection, protection, repair and recording of such buildings. Like any amenities group, we depend on numbers, strength and support of our membership, who provide the force and knowledge that have made us effective for over fifty years. We encourage the protection and repair of historic buildings whether these are listed buildings or simply good examples of traditional building. We aim to encourage good architecture and to raise the general standard of building throughout the county. We hope that our generation may leave behind it buildings which will be looked back on with that same pleasure and enjoyment that we experience when we look at the architecture of past ages.

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