New Year’s Day – resolutions, new beginnings; we somehow expect major events. January 2nd can be an anti-climax. So, on January 2nd in a typical Victorian year - 1886 for example? What is going on in West Penwith? Attend us, if you will, as we leave Penzance and journey west.
It’s a Saturday. But we only have to reach Newlyn for the mood to turn sombre. For here we are held up by the the funeral cortege of Miss Emily Borlase Bolitho, making its slow way through the Combe on its way to Gulval church. There are Bolithos, Borlases, Donnithornes among the bearers. The remains of this pious and well-respected lady has 40 carriages in attendance; they will take a while to pass. We should bow our heads, perhaps remove our hats as she passes – it’s only right.
Then up to Paul: hear the fall of earth, feel the chill air, around the graveside at a more modest funeral – that of James Payne, who has departed this life at 36, leaving a widow and three children. No thousands here, but those who have come up the hill to pay their respects are still shocked. “In the midst of life we are in death, etc” - that they surely knew - but the man was not thought seriously ill until the day before he died.
Pendeen is as far west as we can go. And there the mood is sombre; a body has just been fished out of a pond at North Levant mine. News spreads quickly – it is a woman from over at Boscaswell, worn down with illness, with family problems. Perhaps she kept her difficulties too close, and through pride or reticence would not seek help. Or perhaps she over-confided, sensed her neighbours avoiding her in the lane up to Pendeen. Her husband surely can’t be faulted: he had taken her a cup of tea in the night, and later heard – too late – the sound of the door closing as his wife went out into the night, into the New Year, wearing only her night clothes despite the season. She will have walked a good way across rough ground, that thin-clad figure, evading those who followed and sought her, until the water ended her life.
Death may be confused, sometimes, with Old Father Time. But here he is still at work in the far west, 24 hours and more into the New Year. And of the three victims that we see today, only one – Miss Bolitho - has lived out her Biblical span.
Cornishman 7th January 1886