President: Mrs Hilary Thompson 01872 580573
Chairman: Mr Ralph German 01326 270558
Membership Secretary: Mrs Jean Rigley
Treasurer: Mrs Margaret George
Recorder: Neville Meek 01872 581817.
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12 February 2020
The Married Widows – The Wives Left Behind by Emigration by Lesley Trotter
One of the untold stories of 19th century emigration from Cornwall is that of the thousands of wives ‘left behind’ by men leaving to work overseas. In her February talk to the OCS, historian and author, Dr Lesley Trotter (Honorary Research Fellow Institute of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter) explored the lives of these unsung heroines of many a Cornish family. She described the resources they drew upon in the absence of their husbands, and the challenges they presented to the authorities. She illustrated her talk with poignant individual stories that highlighted the risks and vulnerability of being a ‘married widow’.
The typical perception is that the wives were deserted. There are numerous references in the census returns to ‘Wife of Husband’ in California, America, Chili, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Turkey – anywhere around the world where there were mining opportunities. Many state that the wife is the head of the household. In 1891, nearly 4,000 wives were the head of the household. In actual fact, there were even more than this because some women lived with relatives. In some parishes a quarter of all husbands had gone abroad, leaving a wife and an average of 3 children behind. This led to a significant impact on the community.
However, there is very little mention in the history books about the women. The suggestion is that the women are the passive victims, but research shows a different story. The wives were actively involved in a plan to improve the family circumstances and the women were invested in the plan for the men to take up opportunities abroad. The best-known woman was Jane Trevithick, wife of Richard Trevithick, who was left for 11 years with 6 children, and who only survived through her brother’s generosity.
The women’s experience depended on many factors, such as what they had to live on. Most were largely dependent on the money sent home by the husbands, but the logistics of this were very difficult. In the early days, cash would be sent by friends or via the post. Larger amounts were sent by banker’s draft, but these were expensive. In 1870s postal orders were introduced which made it simpler. The women had to learn new skills, such as money transfer, to cope with the new circumstances. Larger mining companies were able to send a proportion of the men’s pay home and the families were paid directly by the bank.
Often the situation was fluid, with the wives crossing the oceans back and forth, with the children to visit the men.
The women had more independence in some ways, but only with the money that was sent home. A lot of women lived on credit with the local tradesmen. Some of the men put notices in the press that they would not be responsible for their wives’ debts.
There were some stories of real hardship. The Poor Law authorities were fairly sympathetic and doled out outdoor relief by means of grants or loans. There are examples of relief being given on loan, with the expectation that the husbands would repay it when they returned. When the Poor Law resources became drained, pressure was placed onto the men to support their families by bringing them into the workhouse. Employment opportunities for women were very limited, because of childcare. Before 1870 the wife had no rights to her own income. Many women shared accommodation with parents or other relatives to save money for everybody and help with childcare.
The whole experience was varied and individual for the wives. Sometimes it was disastrous, but some took it in their stride. One thing they all had in common was the uncertainty and vulnerability while their husbands were away. Find out more on www.humble history.com. or Lesley’s book The Married Widows of Cornwall.
The Story of Place House – a story “never to be forgotten”.
How many of us, locals and visitors alike, have looked across the Percuil River and beyond Cellars Beach to admire the elegant manor house with its own little church nestled in the hillside there? No surprise that its name derives from the Celtic “Palace”. Place house, or Place Manor as it was known when operating as an hotel from the 1950s to the 1980s, has been a key part of the local scene and has touched many lives over the centuries.
No wonder that a talk by Nigel Hare-Scott was given to a record audience on January 8th: Nigel, son of the daughter of Gwavas Spry, whose family has owned Place for the last 400 years, was born at Roseland Place near the big house and has been inspired by the story to write a small book based on his own meticulous research and fascinating presentations, such as this one given to the Society.
Place’s story sweeps through time from 4,000 years ago: for details and chronology, best to look at the charming booklet, widely available in local outlets. A few details should suffice here to whet your appetites!
The early economy of mining and metalworking, farming and seafaring developed from the Bronze Age onwards: here was a safe anchorage, nearby lodes, a mild climate, a site for a tidal mill, all factors involved in the first settlement here: the first house here dates from the 16th Century, the first Saxon church in 950AD, the arrival of the Spry family in the 17th Century.
History burgeoned with the Sprys and eventually through the female line with Duncan Grant-Dalton, the first Commodore of St Mawes Sailing Club and husband of Gwavas, who ran the estate business: then came the upheavals of War; the hotel era, run by Edward Harte; Kevin, who restored Place to a private home leasing all its former farms from the National Trust; and Major Nat, the heir.
Nigel concluded with some memories written by his mother Ann, bringing the 1920s to the 1940s to life. A superb evening: Place, a Cornish house and story to be proud of.
The December meeting of The Old Cornwall Society was a fascinating talk by Jan Pentreath on Dolly Pentreath, the last native Cornish speaker. Jan grew up in Mousehole, the home of Dolly, and discovered he was the only Pentreath in the village. This sparked an interest and he wondered if he was related to her and so carried out considerable research but found he was not a descendant.
Cornish was widely spoken prior to the 16th century, however, certain events which then took place led to the start of the dying out of the language. These being the destruction in 1548 of Glasney College in Penryn during the Reformation, the Prayer Book rebellion in 1549 and numerous battles. Owing to these events the Bible & Prayer Book were not translated into Cornish and the language declined together with The Miracle plays in Cornish.
Dolly stimulated interest amongst some eminent men who were interested in the continuation of the Cornish language. Several papers were written and letters exchanged between them. Dolly was “discovered” living down a narrow lane in a hut, a fishwife. It was alleged she could not speak English until she was in her twenties. The reason that Cornish lived on in Mousehole is thought to be that it was a hot bed of smuggling mainly with Brittany, where they understood each other’s language.
Dolly died in 1777 and was buried in Paul Church. There was some dispute as to her actual resting place. There was no record of her death but there was a record of a Dolly Jeffrey. It is believed that her illegitimate son’s father was a Jeffrey and her son buried her using his name. Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (interested in languages) and the then vicar of Paul erected a memorial to Dolly. It was not until later that a local man stated that the monument was in the wrong place and so after investigation it was moved to its current position. Dolly had her portrait painted by John Opie which now hangs in St Michaels Mount. After her death poems were written, Staffordshire figures and other portraits were produced all in her memory and so she became a celebrity.
The Society’s AGM in October was followed by an illustrated talk by Charles Fox, of Glendurgan on the gardens created by his ancestors at Rosehill in Falmouth and their residences at Glendurgan, Trebah and Penjerrick. The Quaker Fox family were established as ship agents in Falmouth in 1759.
Alfred, the son of Robert Were Fox, created the garden at Glendurgan, ‘considered by some as the best planted and designed valley garden in Cornwall’ In addition to the many plants and trees, the garden at Glendurgan contains the maize, a popular feature for visitors. The garden is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public during the summer months.
The talk, with many interesting anecdotes, was accompanied by a collection of slides, demonstrating the beauty of this garden on the banks of the Helford river.
Our meetings are 7:30pm on the 2nd Wednesday of the month at Gerrans Memorial Hall Portscatho, TR2 5EE. Visitors are very welcome (admission £2.50)
We regret that we have made the decision to cancel all our St Gerrans and Porthscatho Old Cornwall Society meetings until May 2021