On this Day 23rd January 1911

Blight dies in Bodmin

John Thomas Blight FSA has breathed his last. The elder son of a Penzance schoolmaster, he has been brought up to love antiquities and nature, and to observe them with a close eye.  A talented writer and artist, whose quick wits and talent earned the respect of his elders while he was still in his teens,  he has inspired trust: been given responsibility for notes concerning discoveries at Chysauster, for example;  been granted a rare pose in clerical dress by the Reverend Harker of Morwenstowe. 

J T Blight, author. His Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities of West Cornwall, published in 1856, and A Week at the Land’s End, published in 1861, will be read long after his death[1]. J T Blight, artist. He has painted the Beating of the Bounds, preserving forever the ceremony designed to imprint the borough limits onto the collective memory. He draws and writes accurately, compulsively:  we might say he is driven. He never makes much money, true, but surely he has done enough? After such a life, surely there will be fulsome obituaries; surely orations and ceremony will be in order?

In fact, Blight’s death on January 23rd 1911 will go unremarked. And why? Because, as far as the world knows, he is already long dead. 40 years ago, back in 1871, aged only 35, he was diagnosed with “softening of the brain” and committed to Bodmin Asylum. And there he has stayed, for the greater part of his life.

At first there were appeals, and his contemporaries responded with sympathy and generosity. But when the money ran out, as it always will, a pauper lunatic asylum loomed. In 1883, the Royal Institution of Cornwall heard Blight described as a broken shell of a man: “though the hand still lives, the over-wrought brain is powerless to guide it”. William Bolitho launched an appeal to grant Blight a £40 annuity , and lend some comfort to his remaining years. A few months later, references began to appear to the “late” J T Blight, and short obituary notices confirmed that his struggles were over.

But here he is, before us on January 23rd 1911. He has lived on in that place, unacknowledged as far as public record goes, for another 27 years. His true decease has just been recorded by the chaplain of Bodmin Asylum - who is, after all, in the best position to know. And apart from the chaplain, who else might have known that John Blight was alive throughout those late Victorian and Edwardian years? The Bolithos? Close friends? John’s brother, Joseph? All  have been, and will remain, silent.

The true story of Blight’s life after his “death” will not be discovered until 1977, when – thanks to the work of that meticulous historian P A S Pool of Penzance – the facts will be made known. Far too late, we might say. Far, far too late.

Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities of West Cornwall  reprinted 2004 with introduction by Ian McNeil Cooke pp xxix - xxxvi

[1] The Morrab Library copy of A Week at the Lands End has been loaned out a dozen times since 2002

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