Penwith Local History Group Publication

West Cornwall in the Twentieth Century : Life in Penwith. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

West Cornwall in the Twentieth Century : Life in Penwith


Edited by Susan Hoyle

Published by Shears and Hogg Publications (1 Sept. 2007)

ISBN 978-0954024932  (Paperback, 120 pages)


Available to purchase: £6.00 (plus p&p)


Introduction, Susan Hoyle

The Penwith Local History Group has rarely discussed events as recent as those in West Cornwall in the Twentieth Century: Life in Penwith. While we might not go as far as Mao Tse-Tung, who (it is alleged) thought it too early to pronounce on the effects of the French Revolution, we have generally been more comfortable studying times well before we or our parents were born. However, any worries that this study would not be 'proper history' vanished as we produced our own drafts and read our colleagues'. While many of the great basic institutions, discoveries and inventions which underlie today's quality of life in Britain were in fact nineteenth-century (e.g. free elementary education, public-health improvements, railways, the internal-combustion engine), their greatest impact came in the next century, and it is in tracing the influence of these and other changes on the ordinary people of Penwith that the deep interest of this book resides.

At the same time, one of the pleasures of writing (and editing) a collection of articles such as this (on a common historical theme by different people with often very different interests and concerns) is finding links between the chapters. These overlaps help to emphasize how interconnected our lives are, and thus our history. Considering how small Penwith is in size and population -- and for how many hundreds, even thousands, of years many of its families have been here -- we should not perhaps be surprised at the continual coincidence of name and place and focus. Memories are long here, and meanings are complex. But, because West Cornwall is such a well-defined and well-rooted place -- a virtual island in fact as well as metaphorically -- the connexions in its stories are more distinctive than they would be almost anywhere else in the country.

Mining's scat, fishing's scat, farming's scat: it's back to wrecking, me 'ansomes!
(Cornish bumper sticker, c 2000)


Our look at twentieth-century West Cornwall begins with Glyn Richards' voyage around the Penwith coast. We could not have a better guide than Glyn, whose roots here go deep: for example, his great-grandfather James Mann Hosking fished out of Newlyn in 1900 in a lugger -- a sailing vessel. For many years Glyn was a Fishery Officer and Engineer for the whole of Cornwall, and thus knew the area in its heyday, when fishing was a major employer; he remembers the arrival in the 1970s and '80s of the large purse-seiners, from Scotland and the east coast during the Cornish winter mackerel season, their nets 'capable of encompassing St Paul's Cathedral'. And by the time he retired in 2001, people were saying that fishing was 'scat'. (Perhaps it is, but today Newlyn lands the most valuable catch in the country, and in terms of weight is second only to Brixham.) [scat=broken]

If on his first trip that cold day in January 1965, Glyn had looked up from tending the fenders and stowing the ropes of the [no 'the' for a ship] Cornubia, he would have seen Wheal Betsy, high on the hill overlooking Newlyn. This was the house built by Thomas and Caroline Gotch in the Arts and Craft style in 1910 (and discussed in engrossing detail by Pam Lomax, in chapter 11). The Gotches' daughter Phyllis slept in her 'little white room' at Wheal Betsy for a few brief months before joining a vaudeville company in 1911 to tour South Africa. There she married the mining engineer Ernest Patrick Doherty and, like the women of the Harry family (to whom Carlene Harry introduces us in chapter 3), she came to understand the dangers of the mining life, where men worked underground in heat, cold and dust for hours at a time, often standing up to their knees in water. She saw it herself at Langlaagte mine, where she was 'the first woman who ever went down below the levels the skip goes down to...the 17th level and all through it'. Charles Harry (see Ron Hogg's account of Charles' travels in chapter 2: Charles was Carlene's grandfather) had worked in this same mine when he was a migrant worker in South Africa. Unlike Ernest Doherty, who had trained at the Camborne School of Mines, he had learned his trade in the under-sea mines at Levant and Botallack. Both 'Erne' and 'Charlie' went to South Africa because of a recession in the Cornish mining industry, and they both contracted the miner's lung-disease phthisis, Doherty dying in 1918 and Harry in 1939.

There is another instructive link between Jean Nankervis' fascinating study of agricultural change in Zennor (chapter 5) and Jenny Dearlove's absorbing account of the Madron WI and the difference it made to the lives of so many women in this rural area (chapter 9). The changing role of women was one of the most vivid aspects of the last century -- a revolution in educational, political and economic opportunities -- and Jenny demonstrates how much, in its understated way, the WI was central to that revolution.

Yet another link: Joan Howells (on Goldsithney School, chapter 4) mentions Father Bernard Walke's shocked reaction to the sudden death of mother-of-six Mrs Laity in the 1918 'flu epidemic; Tony Noonan reminds us (in chapter 12, on Christianity in twentieth-century Penwith) that the high Anglican Walke, while still vicar of St Hilary, was a national figure in the 1920s and '30s.

Or again: Zennor 'Old Codger' John Loosemore remarks (chapter 5) that in World War II 'no one lived in Carn Cottage...'. This is the house where Gerald Vaughan (the benefactor of the pacifist farming group which Susan Hoyle writes about in chapter 8) lived with his wife Ellaline and later his son Patrick in 1937. It is up a rough track which begins opposite Eagle's Nest, spied by Glyn on his sea-cruise (chapter 1). John Loosemore remembers nothing of Gerald Vaughan's pacifist activities, but he does remember buying his car, a Morris 8 open tourer. John also knew John Crockett (another pacifist discussed in chapter 8): Crockett had an 'iron horse' (a motorized plough with two wheels, and two handles -- you walked behind it) and he ploughed one of Loosemore's neighbour's fields with it. Another couple of Jean's Old Codgers from chapter 5, Nora Jelbert and Arthur Mann, were married on 8 April 1950 in Pendeen Church, with a sit-down wedding reception for 100 guests to follow in St. John's Hall, Penzance. Chirgwin's, whose instructive history is the subject of Iris Green's chapter 10, did the catering.

Our final chapter, Margaret Perry's entertaining account of the coming of the motor-car to Penwith, not surprisingly has echoes throughout the book: for instance, John Loosemore (chapter 5) recalls that his father Ernest 'was brought up in London and was trained as an electrician.... Later he became a motor engineer and worked for Lord Cowdray as a chauffeur. By 1909 he had an international driving license with his picture on and all.' We recall how much changed with the arrival of the car when we read of Charlie Harry playing in the road at Carnyorth because there were never any cars about (chapter 3), or (as late as the 1940s) the pacifist farmers taking produce to Penzance in a pony and trap (chapter 8).

Iris Green's chapter (10) on the old Penzance-based grocery business of Chirgwin & Sons is a case-study in the decline of the local shop. Chirgwin's once had shops all over this district, and here too (to pursue my links-theme) the car played a part:

The replacement of horse-drawn vehicles by motor-vans for deliveries required capital outlay. ...[T]he purchase of a Ford No.8 to replace the horse vehicle for deliveries was delayed when the Golf Club business was lost. In the early years of the twentieth century most people walked to Penzance from the various centres of population within West Penwith. From 1890 to 1920 the Royal Mail coach provided four regular services six days a week with an extra one on market days from St Just to Penzance. Motor-buses followed. The pony and trap for personal mobility was superseded by the motor-car.


And now we drive beyond Hayle to queue at Marks & Spence... Dawn Walker's 'Groping in the Dark' (chapter 7) -- about changing attitudes to archaeology over the period in what is arguably the richest archaeological area in Britain -- underlines the social significance of the motor-automobile, when she says that 'by the first World War, private cars...made life easier for those wanting to visit ancient monuments.' The West Cornwall Field Club (founded in 1935 and expanded in 1982 as the Cornwall Archaeological Society [CAS]) would never have been the success it was without (amongst other things) the mobility the car gave to its members. From 50 at the Field Club's inception, by 1986 the CAS had 700 members.7 This healthy state of affairs gave archaeology clout with local government, and it is probably no coincidence that Cornwall County Council was amongst the first to appoint a full-time professional archaeologist (within what is now called the Historic Environment Service), nor that the relationship with the CAS has been closer and more fruitful than in many other counties. It is relevant also that at the end of the century, CAS membership was down from that peak, at fewer than 600. We are no longer as apt as we were to use our greater mobility in collective endeavours.

There are three chapters which centre on childhood. Carlene Harry (chapter 2) has used her father's notebooks to great effect to recreate what a boy-child's out-of-school life was like in the early years of the last century. Younger readers may find it hard to credit how much freedom those boys had! (Girls, of course, had much less liberty, and much more to do in the house.) Joan Howells (chapter 4) traces the history of the much-loved village school at Goldsithney. There are many names here which will bring a smile to anyone who knew Goldsithney then -- for example, Miss Edmonds, headmistress 1930-55, and the school cleaner, Mrs Rowe. The other chapter (6) which touches closely on childish concerns is Ann Altree's study of the Corpus Christi Fair, which for centuries must have been a highlight of a Penwith child's year -- now a shadow, if a still glittering one, of its former self. Ann has relied greatly on the notes her grandfather, the renowned Penzance historian Walter Eva, made of his own childhood, and on her own memories of this annual treat.

Some things have perhaps not changed as much as we think. Tony Noonan's exploration of Christianity in Penwith (chapter 12) paints a picture of thriving communities in numerous churches and chapels in the peninsula. He writes: ÒThe fact that there are nearly four thousand people attending a total of eighty-three places of Christian worship each Sunday hardly spells the end of Christianity,Ó and concludes: ÒWhat divides Christians from each other seemed less important at the end of the century than at the beginning.Ó Emphasizing what people believe rather than how they express that belief, Tony tells a tale of continuity rather than change.

No one will argue about the changes in tin-mining, and Ron Hogg's short biography of Charles Harry (chapter 2) traces its boom and decline in the most vivid fashion: through its impact on people's lives. Harry was born and died in Carnyorth, near St Just, but in response to economic pressures he and his brother spent two substantial periods (1895-99 and 1910-17) working in South African mines, before ending his working life at Geevor in 1926. He died in 1939 aged 66, a good innings for a man in a very unhealthy trade. Even by then, two of the local mines he had worked in had shut (Botallack in 1914, Levant in 1930), and in 1990, Geevor followed, the last Penwith tin-mine. Mining is scat -- but the St Just Mining District is now one of the ten locations which make up the Cornwall and West Devon World Heritage Site, conferring international recognition on its historical importance.

Almost mirroring the collapse of mining was the rise of the West Cornwall artistic community. Pam Lomax' story of her house, Wheal Betsy (chapter 11), describes for us the networks of friends and relations which contributed to the decision of the Gotches (leading lights of the Newlyn artists' scene in the years before World War I) to build an Arts & Craft house here. The overlapping circles of artists and architects was nationwide -- although we learn for example that Tom Gotch's architect-brother knew Edward Prioleau Warren, the architect of the Fisherman's Mission in Newlyn, through the London-based Foreign Architectural Book Society -- while the craftsmen who actually built the house were of course local: employed by Edward Pidwell of St James Street in Penzance. In the 1901 census, Mr Pidwell was a mason living with his family in Penare Terrace; but here he is in 1911, a builder and contractor, living at Green Bank and constructing important buildings.

Agriculture may be scat, but it is still central to the lives of many people in Penwith, especially those outside the towns of Penzance, Newlyn, St Just and St Ives. Jean Nankervis has farmed at Wicca in Zennor parish for nearly fifty years -- but, as she would be the first to tell you, that must be set beside the amazing fact that there have been farmers at Wicca for four thousand years. In chapter 5, Jean tells us the story of agriculture in West Cornwall through the reminiscences of a group of friends -- 'old codgers' who once ploughed with horses and lived in farmhouses with no running water, and who now drive combines and equip their houses with computers and freezers.

In 1960 when I came to Zennor there were 28 dairy farms. ... Every farmer was a Zennor man or one of his relations, except at Trendrine. Now, in the year 2006, there is half that number of farmers because many have taken over neighbouring land. However, the same families run all but two of the farms.


Continuity and change. John Loosemore quotes the adage: 'Live like you're going to die tomorrow, but farm like you're going to farm for ever.'

At the start, I mentioned the great nineteenth-century innovations which affected the last century. That century's greatest contribution to the world was arguably the idea and practice of total war. The Second World War had at least as much impact on Penwith as the First, in good part because of the direct interest central government took in farming during those years, when feeding the British people was so difficult and so important. Jean's old codgers mention it, of course, but the main notice which this book takes of the war is in Susan Hoyle's record of a group of pacifists who farmed briefly around Nancledra. A sub-theme of this chapter (and also apparent in chapter 11 on Wheal Betsy) is the attraction which Penwith exerts on incomers, especially idealists and artists.

The pacifists had come together in an odd way, through the coincidence of several of them living in houses with blue doors, which the police feared were signals to the enemy. After Susan had finished writing her piece, another member of our history group mentioned the Nancledra pacifists to some friends, one of whom said: 'I remember them! They used to send messages to the Germans!' A little while later, Susan visited Higher Trenowin, a farm very close to several of the community's holdings, and the farmer there, Bridgette Clamp, showed her a barn-door painted blue -- in the 1970s, sadly! -- by her grandfather, who had however been there from long before the war, and painted many doors blue.

This is so often the way with historical research: you collect a document here, a book there, a treasure trove of an archive yonder -- but it all falls into place only when you are able to plug into stray remarks which you almost ignored...

It is thanks to Iris Green that we chose the twentieth century. Iris pointed out that Penwith was in danger of losing an enormous amount of information about its relatively recent life and times if we, the local history group, neglected to do anything about it.

This was a big challenge, which we have done our best to meet. There are wonderful public archives (at the Morrab Library in Penzance, and for example at Truro's Courtney Library and County Record Office, as well as at the Cornwall Studies Centre in Redruth -- and the National Archives at Kew). There are also private archives held by individuals -- collections of letters, minutes, photographs, legal papers, books, ephemera -- sometimes about their families, or their house, or parish; or about fishing, say, or Methodism, or artists. Then there are business papers, whose value to historians is often overlooked, or those of voluntary organizations. Most valuable perhaps, because most vulnerable, are people's memories -- untrustworthy at times, goodness knows, but irreplaceably precious.

Our task has been to identify some of these rich sources, and to decide what we each would research and write about. Above all, we were satisfying our own curiosity as historians: what happened, and why? We have also been very aware that this is only a tiny fraction of what is there to be collected and understood. Almost any of the subjects treated in this book could have been expanded to fill the whole volume. And still so much has not been touched on: tourism, for example, or local politics and government, or health....

We hope you enjoy this book. Perhaps you will be inspired to make your own record of the twentieth century.


Penwith Local History Group

West Cornwall in the Twentieth Century : Life in Penwith. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"West Cornwall in the Twentieth Century : Life in Penwith"

Edited by
Susan Hoyle


price £6.00
plus p&p


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The Morrab Library showing the new extension
The Morrab Library showing the new extension.
Photo Glyn Richards
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