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Joel Michell - merchant benefactor

Though the name is no longer familiar, Joel Michell was once a well-known figure in Penryn. He was a merchant – first for linen, and later coal and potatoes – and used his wealth for the benefit of Penryn residents.

Joel Michell was born to a Mine Agent, Thomas, and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1833, in Gwennap, mid-Cornwall. He was the 3rd son in a family of seven children, including an elder half-brother, Henry, born to his father’s first wife Mary, who had died in childbirth (1).

The 1851 census records Joel as being a linen draper, and visiting Middlesex, so by this time he had evidently completed his schooling and begun work as a merchant. Other members of his family travelled further afield: Joel’s half-brother, Henry, was a copper miner, and left Cornwall as a young man to live and marry in New Zealand; Joel’s younger brother, Richard, also married in New Zealand in 1842, later moving to Australia. Joel travelled to Australia with his eldest brother, Joseph, in 1852 - his brother remained there and married in Australia in 1856 - and Joel returned to the UK.

Perhaps around the time Joel's father died in 1863, he, his elder brother Thomas, widowed mother and two sisters moved from Gwennap to Penryn, where they moved in to Trenoweth House. Joel and his brother earned money from being coal merchants – later extending their interests to include potatoes – and his mother and two sisters - Elizabeth and Rosina – established a boarding school at Trenoweth. In the 1871 census, there were 6 boarders, probably joined by some local children who came only for lessons. The school was evidently successful; it was in operation for at least 20 years, and after the death of their mother, in 1887, Joel's sister, Elizabeth, became the Head.

Joel Michell was still working as a merchant in his late 60s, by which time it seems his sisters had closed the school at Trenoweth House and were living by their own means. In the earliest part of the 20th century, a reminiscence of a young Penryn resident is that of Joel Michell handing out ‘sweets and oranges’ to children passing his doorway on Christmas Eve. After Joel died at the end of 1916, the practise was continued by his sister Rosina up until her death in 1923.

Joel did not marry, so towards the end of his life he established a Trust to control his inheritance after his death. Joel wished this Trust to purchase land to create a play area for the children of Penryn, and eventually Trelawney Park – adjacent to the B3292 – opened in 1926, delayed by the outbreak of the First World War, and procedural issues in obtaining land. This same Trust also distributed funds to provide shoes for the most impoverished children in the town; it was still helping those most in need in 1960, when twenty pairs of shoes were distributed (2). Michell’s Trust was amalgamated with two others in 1991, they are now administrated together as the Penryn Town Local Trust.

Joel Blamey Michell passed away on the 30th December 1916, aged 84; his funeral service was carried out by a Wesleyan Minister at St Gluvias Church. He is buried alongside his two sisters in a shady area of St Gluvias’ churchyard, which adjoins the Penryn River.

Trelawney Park has been a source of delight for generations of children since it was opened in 1926, fulfilling the wish of this notable, kindly gentleman to bring enjoyment to the children of Penryn. When he made a bequest for a playpark, it is unlikely he could have imagined how much more urban Penryn would become in the following century, and hence how much more valuable his gift of green space would be. We can celebrate his foresight as we enjoy time in the natural surroundings of Trelawney Park.


(1) - an amazing family history resource for anyone with a Michell/Mitchell in their past!

(2) West Briton & Cornwall Advertiser – 22nd December 1960.

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