The History of Tharsis, Calstock

by Jean Sneyd and Joan Farmer

This imposing Villa, built of local slate with stucco façade, is in the centre of a hillside, which stretches from the Calstock road below to the railway line above.  It sits comfortably on a very large area flattened out from the steep slope.  The drive is designed skilfully with two sharp bends to arrive at the front of the house, with its magnificent views to east and west.  A long stretch of the Tamar River lies on one side and the viaduct on the other: this confuses the sense of east and west because of the way the Tamar snakes around in very sharp bends upstream.

Tharsis is marked on an 1876 map held in the Calstock archives in the village hall.  This map is an enlarged copy of the 1839 tithe map on which the owner, Thomas Down, superimposed his house and gardens, probably wishing to establish the antiquity of his new domain.  Down, a mining engineer, named his house after the Tharsis Copper Mining Co. in Spain where he worked as a mine captain until around 1866.  Having made his fortune there, he retired to the area where copper had been mined for so many years in the Tamar valley.  Perhaps it was no coincidence, as he may have visited the area professionally while working abroad.  As well as the two fields to the east of the house, Thomas Down bought land to the west, and two other fields in Calstock.  The 1876 map shows a well-stocked walled garden and the trees marked correspond to the large specimen trees that remain today.

Thomas Down died on 23rd September 1879 aged 64, and is buried locally in St Andrews churchyard.  Anne, Down’s widow, occupied the house until her death in 1890 and then it passed to their son, Thomas, who was also a mining engineer.

In the 1901 census, James W Lawry, coal merchant, local preacher, JP and councillor, is registered as living there.  He is well known in horticultural circles as he founded the strawberry business in the Tamar valley in the 1860s, growing outdoor crops in St Dominic and St Mellion.  He had visited the 1862 Exhibition in London and saw the high prices being charged at Covent Garden  for strawberries of poorer quality than those grown by his father.  He requested that his father send strawberries to Covent Garden, but they were picked wet and rotted.  Undeterred, he went on to make punnets and eventually supplied the earliest ‘out of door’ fruit in Britain.  He grew strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and introduced a variety of apple to cultivation.  He sent the fruit by road to Saltash or by water to Plymouth.  He may have been responsible for the rows of iris still found running parallel to the field boundary on the small lawn to the east of the driveway.  In 1919, he planted an oak tree on the terrace below the greenhouse, in memory of his son, William Arthur Lawry, who died in battle in 1916.

The house and garden
The first record of a building on this site is in 1868:  the greenhouse, outbuildings, stable block and service cottages date from the same period.  A row of service rooms, including dairies, stand behind the house, set against the raised walled garden, and form a small courtyard.  To the west of the house is a Victorian greenhouse contemporary with the house.  Now restored it echoes the attractive crested roof ridge of the villa.

Many of the fashionable features of Victorian villa gardens are present: contriving a rus in urbe, although there were few urban features impinging on the site rising so steeply above the Tamar River.  The whole garden with its provision for cow, dairy, pigs and produce emphasises Down’s new status as a Gentleman.

The garden today
The Villa’s western front gardens are screened from the road ten feet below by dense shrubberies which border one half of the property above the retaining wall, providing a traditional enclosed walk along the lower boundary, and leading back to the wilderness in front of the stables.

The east front lawn with fine trees slopes steeply down to the wall on the main road, just below the railway bridge where ancient cottages lie below the wall, right up against its foundations, as in mediaeval times.  To the north east of the house lies the stable yard, sloping up to a gate onto the back lane that leads to the railway station.  The stables, the harness room and coach house stand next to the sunken piggery yard:  the slated pig run is today ornamental.

The large walled garden above the Villa is an irregular shape dictated by the varying levels and the sloping site, and was originally closely cultivated as a market garden.  It is now pasture with soft fruit planted against the massive high walls, through which a wide door leads onto the lane above, parallel with the railway.  The second door onto the lane, from the stable yard, allowed carriages to use the easier approach to Tharsis, as the lane forks off from the steep approach road to Calstock some quarter of a mile further up.  The two adjoining fields, originally market gardens, are still part of the domain, happily with protection orders on them.

Under its present ownership, Tharsis remains a delightful reminder of bygone days:  everywhere one sees first class workmanship and everything continues to be loved and cared for in this fine Victorian domain.

Calstock History Society Archives
Cornwall Gardens Trust Recorders:  Joan Farmer, Jean Sneyd