Occupying raised ground at the centre of this small, ancient harbour town, Place could perhaps be regarded as the Camelot of Fowey. Notwithstanding the fact that, unlike King Arthur’s fabled fort, it is obviously does exist, Place has long remained a tantalising presence hereabouts. With the land sloping away to the estuary only the loftier castellated features of this grade I listed house – domain of the Treffry family for at least 600 years – can be glimpsed, partially visible here and there above the rooftops and the high wall of its grounds. The local heritage society advises that ‘the best way to see Place is from the river.’
‘There have been an increasing number of people trespassing within the grounds of Place…looking around the historic house and in a number of cases…pitching tents.’ Last year the Treffry Estate sought retrospective planning consent for a more robust entrance gate, the old one apparently having failed to ‘provide any security or privacy to the property.’ The authorities took rather a dim view of the new barrier but they might perhaps at least be thankful that the family haven’t resorted to their most legendary mode of intruder repellent – molten lead poured from a height. But then that was over the heads of the French.
‘All along the sea coast and in the Channel disorder was endemic. A kind of mob law prevailed [and] Fowey was the leader in these exploits.’ Ah, the good old, bad old days of the mid-C15: ‘This was the heyday in the town’s history – never was there such a time before or since.‘¹ The line between legitimate sea trading, smuggling and outright piracy fluctuated as freely as our relations with France, privateering often constituting the front line of defence.
Violent skirmishes were commonplace and in a serious reprisal attack in 1457 the town of Fowey was sacked. Yet at Place the French marauders were kept at bay, the doughty Elizabeth Treffry stepping up in her husband’s absence with the aforementioned heavy metal resistance. In the wake of this the house was further fortified (r) and when the couple’s staunchly Lancastrian sons John and William later returned from exile with the soon-to-be Henry VII, the family’s ensuing prosperity was reflected in greater embellishment of Place.William died ‘an exceedingly rich man’² and the basic footprint of the compact Tudor gothic courtyard house which would be occupied by his nephew Thomas Treffry for 54 years from 1509 is little altered. But whatever was spent on Place during his tenure (which encompassed the entirety of Henry VIII’s reign), it seems Thomas’ service in defence of the realm way out west would prove to be the greatest drain on his inheritance. In 1536 he was minded to write to Thomas Cromwell explaining how ‘for 26 years he had maintained the defence of Fowey largely at his own expense.’ Having underwritten the construction and operation of two nearby forts, Thomas had come to feel that his loyalty – and, perhaps, geographical remoteness? – had been, if not exploited, rather under-appreciated. But his labours and expenditure have at least bequeathed two Treffry-built castles – St. Mawes (r) and St. Catherine’s – which can, unlike Place, be visited today.
‘There is no surviving C17 work and not much C18 work remaining at Place other than the attractive Rococo ceiling in the library. One has the impression that the condition of the house was deteriorating in the second half of the C18 along with the family’s prominence in the county and the decline of Fowey as a port.’²
Also finally faltering at this time was the Treffry male line, a name change by licence being required of William Toller upon succeeding to the estates of his uncle, John Treffry, in 1731. And a similar device would be invoked a century later by the remarkable man whose endeavours would turbocharge the local economy, reviving the fortunes of Place and creating the house as it stands today.‘Place is an overwhelming display of early C19 Victorian Gothic..ambitious, somewhat elephantine Walter Scottian romanticism.’³ By no means the only striking physical legacy of the industrious Joseph Thomas Treffry – witness the quietly awesome Luxulyan Viaduct – Place was his grand indulgence across 30 years, a fair fortune being invested in his entreprenurial embrace of an initially unpromising inheritance.
William Esco Treffry died childless in 1779, the estate being settled equally upon his surviving siblings Jane and Susanna. The Treffry sisters would marry the Austen brothers, Nicholas and Joseph respectively, Susanna and Joseph producing the only boy, Joseph Thomas, who bought out his cousins’ interest in 1808. Unusually, ‘the Treffry family never owned extensive landed estates; instead Joseph Thomas saw the possibilities of industrial expansion and the estate benefited accordingly.’ His diverse economic odyssey was powered principally by the hugely profitable mining of copper and tin, Treffry’s can-do attitude overcoming logistical obstacles with major infrastructural initiatives of enduring benefit.The region’s mineral riches were also exploited in JT’s restoration of Place. Workable Pentewan stone aided exuberant carving, the surviving C16 bay a template for two more in an initially faithful, fulsome homage to Place’s Tudor pomp. But the statements became bolder and more idiosyncratic as time went on: most emphatic are the polished Porphyry Hall (‘a grand curiosity of Cornish geology’4 which wowed Prince Albert) and the 105ft bifurcated granite tower. ‘The most elaborate room is the drawing room’ (r). A plaster ceiling painted to resemble wood is bordered by a cornice featuring ‘weird heads that look down on the room with various expressions of anxiety, ferocity and amusement.’ And the discomfitted will find no relief as they exit, ‘the main staircase [being] a world of monsters and beasties who laugh, sneer and tease all who pass up and down. It is extraordinary that a man such as Treffry should have made so public his dream world.’5
‘Not much physically has changed at Place since Joseph Thomas died’² (even if the exquisite Georgian suite pictured in the drawing room has since been sold).
‘Treffry was not only the biggest employer in Cornwall by the time he died, but one of the best. He worried about his miners.’6 And their gratitude for JT’s paternalism was made plain at his funeral in February 1850. The local press were quite taken aback:
‘We were not at all prepared for the spectacle that awaited us a mile or two from Fowey. Thousands of Mr. Treffry’s work people [in] procession, not one who was not decently, even respectably dressed – it was difficult to realise they were working miners. Their multitudes showed the vastness of his undertakings as an employer, and their appearance proved the comforts they had enjoyed under his protection.‘7
But Treffry’s workforce had not always shown him such respect. During the annual Fowey Regatta in Queen Victoria’s coronation year, for one day only, the grounds of Place were opened to the locals. ‘The trouble started when a couple of hundred intruders, fortified with drink, took possession of the house and only left after they had caused a great deal of destruction.’8 If the memory of this unfortunate occasion has been passed down along with everything else at Place it’s perhaps little wonder that the present generation should continue to uphold a tradition of privacy. Will the next be any more inclined to, er, rock the house?
¹ Rowse, AL. Tudor Cornwall, 1941.
² Treffry, D. Place and the Treffrys, Royal Institution of Cornwall, vol.2, pt.4, 1997.
³ Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Cornwall, 1970.
4 Beacham, P., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Cornwall, 2014.
5 Cornforth, J. Country Life 21/28 June 1962.
6 Smelt, M. 101 Cornish lives, 2006.
7 Royal Cornwall Gazette, 8 Feb 1850.
8 Keast, J. The king of mid-Cornwall, 1982.