Discover Herodsfoot - one of the few Thankful Villages with zero war casualties

A Thankful Village is one that lost no one during the Great War

Herodsfoot – A Thankful Village. - Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dale

While we mark the ultimate sacrifices made by so many in conflicts on Armistice Day this month, for a tiny village in Cornwall, it is also a reason to give thanks.

Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are important dates on the calendar in my household.

My wife’s late father fought throughout the Second World War and saw action at Tobruk and El Alamein, so remembering has an added poignancy for us, writes Stephen Roberts.

Going back even further, virtually every community in the UK suffered losses in the Great War of 1914-18, so their war memorials naturally become the focus of remembrance every November.

What of the small number of villages that do not have a memorial though? The term ‘Thankful Village’ dates back to the 1930s, when it was coined by journalist and writer Arthur Mee to describe a village that had lost no men in the Great War.

Of the approx 16,000 villages in England, Mee identified 24 that could be called Thankful, a figure now adjusted up to 53. There are no Thankful (or Blessed) villages in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

And there are only 14 villages in England and Wales that are ‘Doubly Thankful’, having had all its members of the armed services also survive World War II; Herodsfoot, four miles south west of Liskeard belongs to this most exclusive of clubs.

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The statistics are staggering and bring home fully the scale of loss from both World Wars, but from the Great War in particular. The total military deaths from all causes for the UK during WW1 (including its colonies) may have been as high as 887,858, the sad figure multiplying because of the carnage of trench warfare. The comparable figure for WW2 was 383,700, which explains why our memorials always seem to have more names inscribed for the Great War than the Second World War.

All Saints, Herodsfoot in Cornwall one of the Thankful Villages of WW1 and II

All Saints, Herodsfoot, which was admired by Cornish resident and Poet Laureate, John Betjeman. It stands up high, looking down on the village - Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dale

Herodsfoot has history. The name derives from Cornish, ‘the stream at the foot of Heriard’ (or ‘Nanshiryarth’), the ‘Heriard’ gradually morphing to ‘Herod’, so ‘Heriardsfoot’ or ‘Herodsfoot’.

‘Heriard’ seems to have indicated a long hill, so a stream at the foot of a hill in other words. There’s another popular explanation, that of a local giant (‘Herod’) planting his enormous clodhopping foot here and creating the valley in one fell swoop. So, was the West Looe Valley born.

There has been a settlement here since Medieval times, with agriculture, local forests and orchards providing a living, later augmented by mining (silver and lead). The church came along in 1850 (All Saints) and was much admired by Cornish resident John Betjeman, who found a font considerably older than the church, having been recovered from a ruined chapel in St Willow near Lostwithiel.

A war memorial with no war dead in Cornwall's Thankful Village

Herodsfoot’s granite cenotaph records the names not of the fallen but of those who returned - Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dale

Betjeman didn’t just like the church incidentally: He described Herodsfoot as an ‘inland Polperro’, a quaint place of ‘slate cottages with uneven roofs’. The population was modest at the time the church was added (c.115) but had grown to c.500 just 20 years later, presumably as the mining, which employed more than 300 at its peak, brought more folk into the area.

There was also a local gunpowder mill from the mid-19th century, which for Herodsfoot, proved to be more hazardous than war. In four separate explosions between 1850 and 1876,  11 men lost their lives.

Armistace Day in a village that lost none of its servicemen

‘The Parish of Herodsfoot erected this memorial to the following men in gratitude for their services in the Great War 1914-1919’ - Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dale

Herodsfoot has changed little. It’s in a deep valley, not that far from Looe, with winding, narrow lanes that connect it eventually to the wider world. Herodsfoot is one of those small places that has held back the tides of time. It is not ‘modern’ in any shape or form, but still looks like the village those Victorian residents would have recognised.

Herodsfoot does actually have a memorial, but it is not like many others. In most towns and villages up and down the country these stones and crosses record with sad lamentation the names of those who went away never to return. In Herodsfoot, the memorial, which you’ll find on the modest village green, close to a stream and an old stone bridge, lists the names of those who returned safely. There are 13 names inscribed for the First World War.

Some tiny villages have achieved Thankful Village status almost by default by having such a small population, where the few able-bodied menfolk worked the land. For World War Two, there are no additional names listed, just the enigmatic ‘in memory of all who served in 1939-1945’.

The village is a tranquil place today. The mines are relics whilst one of the gunpowder sites, which wasn’t finally vacated until 1965, now hosts holiday cabins, utilising the former mill pond, which once powered the machinery at the gunpowder mill, whilst the woods around the village are home to varied wildlife.

The village has changed little since Victorian times

Herodsfoot village is nestled in hills - Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dale

Some Thankful Villages have had doubts expressed about their authenticity, for example, as to whether a particular serviceman who died was or was not ‘of the village’: There is no such doubt regarding Herodsfoot. Herodsfoot can be proud of its status as a ‘Thankful Village’, for there is something about these lucky communities that sets them apart and also binds them together.

Herodsfoot is also proud to join the citizens of this country each November, when a brief service is held at its memorial. For, whilst celebrating Herodsfoot’s good fortune as Cornwall’s sole thankful village, we must never lose sight of the bigger picture. ‘

Only a very small village, called Herodsfoot by name, But a gem in a wondrous setting, ‘Neath hills of Cornish fame’ as Eveline Shergold wrote in a poem about Herodsfoot, written in the 1950s).