Discovering Cornish Hulls by Michael Tangye in 1994

I had heard of the dark and mysterious chambers penetrating deeply into the hillsides of the Carnmenellis granite area, which lies between Redruth and Helston. Stories brought down from the hills by natives of that, seemingly, remote region, said that they were as ancient as the hills themselves, and that they were fogous used by the Cornish in the prehistoric period. Others said that the tunnels were endless, that they had been made as places of concealment for smuggled liquor, and even as illicit stills for the production of highly potent alcohol.

Curiosity aroused, and one hobby being the discovery and recording of archaeological sites, it was decided to venture into the hills to explore, and to discover the truth behind these curious structures, known locally as “hulls”, and to correct any myths which might have arisen. For several years, at intervals, armed with sketch-pad, camera, compass, tape-measure, torch and candles, the area was explored; an area once so cut off from towns, not too far distant, that traditions and the old way of life still lingered amongst an ageing Cornish population. Unfortunately, they, on dying were being rapidly supplanted by newcomers from across the Tamar who were converting every barn and derelict cottage to obtain their Utopia. It was therefore important to investigate whilst those who retained traditional knowledge survived. Those years of investigation were full of interest, chatting to farmers and elderly folk, and exploring deserted cottage sites and moorland.

A variety of hulls were discovered, cut from a bed of soft granite known as “growan”, “growder”, or “pot granite”. This lies immediately beneath the sub-soil, and when excavated into a cave-like structure its texture is such that, except for the entrance, no supports are necessary. The entrance is usually formed and strengthened with granite jambs and lintels, and most were, originally, fitted with doors. The larger examples were, generally, found to be in farmyards, near the farmhouse. Smaller examples were located in cottage gardens or in open fields, which the research of old maps showed had once contained dwellings – probably deserted by miner-smallholders and their families who had left this bleak region in the 19th century for the mining camps of America or South Africa.

They had, cleverly, excavated their hulls into the slope of a hill, or into a bank, or where no slope existed, at an angle into the ground where steps descended to a long chamber, from which side chambers extended on either side. They were found to be oval in section, high enough to stand erect in, and, in oblique lighting, countless grooves left by picks could be clearly seen.

During the project one, or more, of three young daughters often provided company, waiting patiently at small dark entrances whilst the chambers were explored and measured by the light of numerous candles. This was not without its hazards, as it was often necessary to gain entry by lying flat and by wriggling into the dark interior. On one occasion a knee wound, caused by broken glass, became infected, and on another on gaining such access, the confined hull was found to be full of rats… all in the cause of research!

It became quite obvious that the hulls had been used for a variety of purposes, mainly as “cellars” for the storage of potatoes and root crops, dairy products – milk, eggs, and cream both for domestic use, and where situated in a farmyard, for storage prior to taking the products to local markets. It was also learned of similar hulls on Dartmoor, known there as “potato caves”. In some examples long shelves had been cut into the soft granite, on which to place items; alcoves for lanterns and candles were also excavated, and many hulls were whitewashed throughout. Being situated below ground the temperature varied little in summer and winter and potatoes, etc., were safe from frosts and snow which often affected such high, exposed areas, situated from 500 – 800ft. above sea level. They had several advantages, being easily created with no cost or maintenance, so important in a windswept landscape completely void of trees and with a resultant shortage of timber for building.

Traditions were retold by farmers in the parish of Wendron that certain hulls were used as places of concealment for smuggled spirits and wines. There is no doubt that during the 18th and 19th centuries smuggling was commonly practised in this remote area, a parish populated at that time by farmers, miners and tin-streamers. The Rev. R. Prior recorded in 1888 in his notes, at the Courtenay Library, Truro Museum; a vivid picture of the effect of this illicit trade on the populace of Wendron: The village beer shop where smuggled liquor could sometimes be had, possessed an irresistible attraction to others, and Laity, Gweek, Lower Town, Manhay, Fiscar, Medlyn, Porkellis, Carnkie, Tolcarn, and other secluded places, were often the scene of wrestling, cockfighting – even of drunkenness and midnight revelry.

It was noticeable, during the project, that hulls still existed at some of those places mentioned. There was also a traditional smuggling route to Four Lanes and Stithians, from Gwithian, along which farmers led horses with packsaddles carrying two kegs of liquor on each side and with two kegs slung in front of each one who rode.

At Gregwartha Farm, near Four Lanes, a large hull is actually entered from within the farmhouse. Here we have the tradition that it was originally made to conceal smuggled brandy landed at the Helford River. The Hain family, who lived there in 1970, spoke of a ghostly coach and horses, drawn by a headless coachman, which ascended the hills from the south and entered the farmyard. This is typical of such stories spread in the past by those engaged in the smuggling trade in order to terrify anyone who might encounter such a ghostly “run” in the hours of darkness; it also acted as a deterrent to those who might use the same route. At Home Farm, Bolenowe, near Troon, a hull was still used for the storage of wine in 1970. Other hulls were sometimes known as “sand holes”, where the extremely soft decomposed granite closely resembled sand. This was excavated to be used as a building material, and for bedding hearth-slabs, etc. The project stimulated correspondence which revealed a unique hull type excavation at Coverack Bridges, Sithney. This proved to be, literally, an extensive gravel mine for such material. A small entrance in a hillside led into a labyrinth of long tunnels, all interconnected. It was from these that material was conveyed by horse and cart to Helston and used to bed granite pavement slabs. Along with other members of the Cornwall Archaeological Society the tunnels were explored by candlelight, and by unravelling a huge ball of string to mark the routes as we progressed into the depths of the hill.

Another unusual hull was revealed at Goonorman Downs, Stithians, when a tractor wheel broke through its roof. Dropping through the small hole created it was possible to measure the surviving chamber. The fieldname “Sandy Pit”, and the extremely sand-like texture of the decomposed granite suggested that this was a source of sand for local builders. It was also, probably, used for sanding the floors of dwellings where such a commodity as “Connor sand”, from the dunes near Hayle, was too far distant to obtain. Coarser granite was used as a domestic agent for pots, pans, kitchen tables, granite steps, etc. This, and Connor and Gwithian sands were once hawked around the countryside from door to door by such characters as “Lizzie Growter”.

Heavy tractors had passed over the Goonorman hull many times without breaking through the roof, illustrating the remarkable strength of only a few inches of the compacted material. At Forest Gate Farm, near Four Lanes a large hull remained undetected beneath the farmyard until 1970. A heap of about 50 tons of manure, which had rested there for a considerable period, was being moved by a heavy tractor and equipment, when a wheel broke through the roof of the hull which was only 10 inches thick. Other hulls have been discovered when roofs have collapsed beneath the weight of large cows. The entrances to such hulls had been blocked and covered long beyond living memory. Most were used prior to modern refrigeration, and with its advent many hulls became depositories for household rubbish in areas not visited by the “ash men”. Local hunt followers added to the destruction by blocking and destroying those hulls associated with abandoned dwellings, in order to prevent foxes from going to earth. Few have survived but one of the best examples is preserved, on private property, at Loscombe, Four Lanes, where the entrance is quite unique, possessing a superstructure of granite with a lintelled entrance above a flight of descending steps roofed by large granite slabs.

It is impossible to date each hull, but a study of Cornish field and place-names suggests that some date from the Medieval period; one at Treneare in Wendron, is of, at the least, the 17th century, but the majority are of the 19th century.

It is of interest to note that emigrant Cornish dug similar hulls in America to preserve root crops in harsh winters there. James Thomas, of Forest Gate, Four Lanes, where we find the densest concentration of hulls, emigrated to Australia with his parents in 1848. Ian Auhl records in his Australian publication about Burra Burra , The Monster Mine, that while James was working there as a whim-boy, his family, and others, lived in dwellings cut out of the river bank, whitewashed inside, with a window and door, but with no other features except a chimney – was this a continuation of the hull tradition?

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