Pro Rege et Populo – For King and People – such is the motto of the family whose ancestors had “come over with the Conqueror”. The granite monument that tops Carn Brea and which is dedicated to the memory of the most notable of the lineage symbolises not only wealth and potency but also, and probably for the last time in Cornish history, the deep affection felt by the common people for the feudal dynasty that had so dominated the region for nearly 800 years in what was essentially Basset’s Kingdom.
Cecilia, heiress of the De Dunstanville family of Devon brought, as part of her dowry upon her marriage to William Basset in 1150, the Lordship of the Manor of Tehidy whose lands encompassed the parishes of Camborne, Illogan and Redruth. Whilst the name Basset is from the French and means of low rank or birth, it was to the Norman knight Osmund Basset, who had so distinguished himself fighting alongside the future William I, that the appreciative conqueror passed great tracts of land in Oxfordshire. Osmund’s great grandson took possession of the manor of Tehidy upon his marriage and built the first of many mansions on the lands that had once belonged to the pre-conquest chieftain, Ordulf.
Little recorded history of the Bassets remains from the ensuing Dark Ages but we can be sure that a Basset was one of the knights who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymead and then put his own name alongside that of his king. Records also show that in 1277, Sir Lawrence Basset was the patron of the parish of Redruth, the earliest record of such a patronage being held by the Basset family.
Early signs of the future influence that the family was to exert over its domain and the wealth they were to extract from their lands, came when William Basset successfully petitioned King Edward III, to grant a Charter Roll to the village of Redruth for a twice weekly market to be held. William went further when, in 1337, the advowson (benefice) of the “The Church of St. Eunnyni” worth £20 per year was acquired. The markets proved to be a valuable concession which could be traded and many generations later, and as a result of marriage, passed from the Bassets and into another prominent family, the Bullers of Tolgas. Bassets and Bullers enjoyed something of a love-hate relationship through successive generations, being equally at ease as business partners or suing each other in the courts. What is today Falmouth Road in Redruth, was once Buller Row. It is worth noting that over many successive generations, Basset blood was mixed by marriage with that of the other great families of the day – Godolphin, Prideau, Trelawney, St. Aubyn and with these marriages (some cynically arranged to gain great advantage) came yet more land and influence.
The Bassets continued to consolidate their wealth and power. Their vast estates enjoyed the benefits of three sources of profit; the forests that were said to enable squirrels to leap from tree to tree between Carn Brea and the coast, the spoils from the numerous wrecks around what is now Portreath and finally, and most important of all, the mineral wealth in tin and copper ore deposits below their lands. By the Civil War the ancient oak forests had disappeared having been felled for the mines or for the king to build strong ships with. The support of Charles I and the Royalist cause had cost the Bassets dearly and their financial difficulties in the late 1640s, 1650s and 1660s were in no small part due to John Basset falling foul of Cromwell’s Commonwealth Government as a result of the heavy support that his father, Sir Francis, had given the king (who had knighted him during the war for forming and leading the Royal Cornish Regiment in 1643), this even though Sir Francis had died in 1645. Cromwell’s annoyance was exacerbated by the fact that other prominent members of the family figured strongly amongst the Royalists with Sir Thomas as a major general and Sir Arthur as a colonel. Family finances only began to stabilise after 1660 when the Bassets were obliged to sell St. Michael’s Mount to the St. Aubyns, a family connected to them by marriage.
The early 1700s were decisive and the family’s prosperity soared following the discovery of large copper ore deposits at Pool Adit. The squire of the time was John Pendarves Basset who, having recently married Ann Prideau, began the first of the sumptuous rebuilds of Tehidy that would reflect the restored fortunes and prestige of the family. No expense was spared as materials were brought in from all over the country but sadly John was not destined to see the completion of his dream as in 1739, he died of small-pox, leaving the estate to his brother, Francis. Poor Francis was destined to lose his inheritance in the most cruel manner after only a few short months when it was discovered that Ann was pregnant and John Prideau Basset was born. The estate was to be administered by a solicitor, Christopher Hawkins, a member of Ann’s family until young John came of age when another cruel blow was dealt. John Prideau Basset died whilst at Eton school. Not for the first time did the estate move sideways within the family as John’s uncle, Francis (the M.P. for Penryn 1766 – 1769) inherited Tehidy Manor for the second time.
In 1757, the most illustrious of all the Basset line was born in Walcot, Oxfordshire. Another Francis, he inherited from his father in 1769 whilst still completing the education that had taken him to Harrow, Eton and Kings College Cambridge from where he graduated with an M.A. Later described as “First Man of the County’, young Francis soon set about the following in his father’s footsteps as he too became M.P. for Penryn in 1780. It was in the year before however that he had achieved his greatest triumph when, receiving news that a combined French and Spanish fleet was in the bay of Plymouth, he marched with 300 Cornish miners to build earthworks to defend the town. It was for this act that a grateful King George III created Francis a baronet, his first step on the path to a peerage (which was bestowed in 1796 when he became Baron De Dunstanville of Tehidy). History shows that the threatened invasion (timed to coincide with the absence of the royal navy fighting the Colonial Americans) was never a serious one since the relatively simple plan proposed by the French was rendered wholly inoperable by their association with the Spanish whose legendary inefficiency led to such displays that the combined fleets had to cancel their original plans to take Portsmouth and settle for Plymouth instead. Even this they could not accomplish as the late summer gales twice blew the fleet back into the Atlantic when in sight of the Devon coast.
Lord De Dunstanville was a celebrated author of agricultural literature, patron of the arts and parliamentarian as well as an enthusiastic builder and his hand was most firmly behind the works that transformed the manor at Tehidy into arguably the most elegant house in the county, appropriate for his standing and fit to entertain his prominent contemporaries. He was also responsible for the creation of fortifications for a battery of four 12-pound and two 6-pound guns when, during the American War of Independence a daring privateer launched a raid on Portreath. Ostensibly to guard the small harbour, this bulwark sought also to protect the family’s rich mines just inland. Following the death of his first wife Susannah, Lord De Dunstanville, now 66 years old, and after only a short period in mourning, remarried and Miss Harriet Lemon entered the Basset family. It is one of the strange coincidences of life that Harriet’s mother, Lady Lemon of Carclew, having learned of the illness that had befallen her lifelong friend whilst both were in London, prepared to rush to her sickbed. Before she could enter her carriage she too was struck down, having been “seized with a shivering which was speedily succeeded by mortal symptoms”. She died two days after her friend, Lady Susannah, and the two coffins were brought back to Cornwall together.
Lord De Dunstanville and Harriet Lemon (a lady not noted for her beauty) were married in July 1824, but the union bore no children. The master of Tehidy remained constantly active despite his advancing years, spending long periods in London attending to the nation’s business in the House of Lords. It was whilst returning to his home in Knightsbridge that he suffered a stroke near Exeter but with typical tenacity he insisted upon continuing the journey, only to die on 5th February 1835, shortly after arriving in Strathenden House, his London home opposite the Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks. It took twelve days for the funeral cavalcade, travelling at walking pace, to arrive back at Tehidy. The procession was probably the finest ever seen in Cornwall with the coffin lying in state during overnight stops in Launceston, Bodmin and Truro. Local mayors greeted the mourners whilst shops and businesses were closed as a mark of respect. On the last day, some eight hundred tenants of Tehidy met the cortege in Truro and accompanied the mahogany casket to the manor house. The day after his final journey home, Lord De Dunstanville was buried in the family vault at Illogan church. All the mines were closed, and an estimated 20,000 people gathered to join the procession, a fitting tribute to the man who had enriched so many and was sufficiently enlightened to treat his tenants and workers with respect and dignity.
The following year work to erect the 90 ft. high, grey granite monument on Carn Brea commenced. Money for its construction was raised by public subscription and an estimated 30,000 people, “a mountain of flesh”, attended the ceremony to witness the laying of the foundation stone. An obituary of the time read “Francis Lord De Dunstanville and Basset of Tehidy. A great and good man, nobleman patriot and a Christian philanthropist, the benefactor friend and advisor to the poor”. What better epitaph can there be for any man.
The title of baroness passed to his daughter who died in 1855 following a long illness that had confined her to Tehidy for the last years of her life and with her passing the title became extinct. Successive generations failed to live up to the ideals of their eminent ancestors and, much in keeping with the changing pattern of society in the late Victorian era, the family lost the aura of grandeur, power and dignity and with it the respect that had surrounded them during the eight hundred years of their tenure at Tehidy. The nephew of the first baron, Gustavus, having inherited after the death of Lady Frances, and although being a noted philanthropist, had alienated himself from his mining “Adventurers” through greed and from the populous at large by denying access to certain parts of Spratting or Basset Cove. Gustavus’ adopted son, Arthur Francis, was the latest Basset to live at Tehidy and it was he,
who with ever mounting debts brought about by an almost compulsive addiction to horse racing, moved the family to Devon following the sale of the manor and its lands in 1917. Destined to become a sanatorium for T.B. sufferers, the once great house underwent a transformation as wards and administration areas were created from bedrooms and reception rooms alike. Although the paintings and many of the statues had long gone. nobody who entered the building could fail to be in awe at the splendour of the gracious mansion.
The story of the Bassets at Tehidy does not quite end there though. It was once said as legend has it, that a 16th century Basset matriarch put a curse upon Tehidy Manor. She foretold that should the Bassets ever leave Tehidy the house should be consumed by fire. It was nearly four hundred years after she made this dire prophecy that early in the morning on 25th February 1919, a mysterious blaze started (its cause was never established). A fire which was to engulf the entire house, reducing much of it to ruin. Only small areas of the principal building remain today; these, together with the occasional stone urn are all that is left to mark 800 years of history and achievement.
To those who are susceptible to it though, the spirit and presence of the Bassets can be felt as much in the rebuilt Tehidy Hospital as it would have been in the old manor. The panorama viewed from the windows over Tehidy parkland and out towards the cliffs at Hell’s Mouth is the same as enjoyed by generations of a family whose vision and benefaction contributed in no small part to the development and prosperity of mid-west Cornwall.
Footnote: The excellent reference work Tehidy and The Bassets by Michael Tangye has been of immense assistance in the compilation of this article and should be read for greater detail on the subject.