Research Progress – Two Months In

Last week saw my first presentation as part of the Institute of Cornish Studies Postgraduate Study Circle for students researching elements related to the Cornish Language.

At the present stage – at the present time I have begun to

  • Build on existing relationships with key stakeholders in the Cornish language community – liaising with bodies such as Cornwall Council, Gorsedh Kernow and Cornish Heritage Trust.
  • Commence newspaper archive research – British Newspaper Archive holds ten Cornish newspapers from the period on its records.
  • Make relationships within the academic and cultural communities of Brittany & identifying key locations, people and groups to visit during period of Breton based research later during research process.

At the present time, I have completed three of the ten archival sections of the Cornish press relating to the period of my research, with The Royal Cornwall Gazette, The Cornish Telegraph and The Cornishman all combed through. This has led to the generation of over forty potential names of people who had expertise in, or were using the Cornish language within the mid to late 1800s. Liaising with former Gorsedh Kernow Grand Bard Rod Lyon, who has carried out research in this area, reveals that around a quarter of these names are either “new” to him, or have not been explored in any depth before. At the present time it remains questionable as to how potentially exciting this should be. It could well be that these are names that people have looked into previously and rejected as being spurious.

The Breton angle of the research is something which continually seems to crop up in the newspaper archival searches, and it is therefore pleasing that I have been able to establish relationships with academics at the Celtic Studies department at the Universite de Bretagne Occidentale and Centre for Research on Breton and Celtic Studies and British Studies departments at the Universite Rennes 2. A researcher at Rennes,  specialising in Dialectology and Breton place names, Antoine Chatelier, has forwarded me a short sound clip of a 93 year-old native Breton speaker called Roger Allanic from Hoedic Island, off the coast of Lorient. Allanic reported to Chatelier that his Great Great Grandfather (more or less Napoleon’s time) went to fish in Cornwall and was surprised to hear that fishermen there “spoke in Breton”. At this point one can assume that this may just have been instances of local fishermen counting their fish in Cornish, but it is something to examine further. Consequently, I am in the early stages of putting together some form of joint research relationship with Chatelier leading to a potential Cornish/Breton study day in Rennes, linked to Peter Harrison of the British Studies department there. It will also be fruitful to see if any other fishermen on Hoedic Island have any related hereditary tales. It is known that archives in Brest, Rennes and Vannes also contain documents related to exchanges of letters between Cornwall and Brittany in the nineteenth century, the language context of which needs further exploration.

The research has also revealed the character of John Hobson Matthews. Born in 1858 in Croydon, he was a linguist, author and archivist. His father was from the St. Ives area (Trewhella family) and mother from Great Grimsby. He lived much of his life in South Wales, around Cardiff in particular. Hobson Matthews was the first salaried archivist in the UK when he had the job of being the Keeper of Cardiff Records. He was known particularly in Cornwall for his book, ‘History of Parishes of St. Ives, Leland, Towednack and Zennor’. Hobson Matthews claimed, in an article published in The Cornish Telegraph on 13th July 1899, and in the Cornubian and Redruth Times the following day as being “The last hereditary Cornish speaker.” This followed written communication with Monsieur Jaffrenou, editor of a Breton periodical in the same year.

Hobson Matthews was a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule and was linked to the Gaelic Union. He published a piece in a staunchly Republican newspaper. The South Wales Daily News reported on 18th July 1899 that he had been made a bard at the Welsh Eisteddfod, and later led a party of Welsh bards to Vannes in 1899 to meet their Breton counterparts.

Whilst Hobson Matthews claims may, at first sight be potentially exciting, there needs to be a hefty pinch of salt taken. My initial research has uncovered a large number of critics about his other claims and writing. For example, The Illustrated London News’ of 13 August 1892 describes his book on St. Ives as “hampered by a false theory” with St. James’ Gazette on 18 April 1899 describing his book on ‘Records of Cardiff Vol. 1’ as “a sham”. There is a sustained period of criticism being put in his direction in the letters pages of South Wales Daily News from 1891-1900. There are, seemingly, endless examples of ongoing rows and petty squabbles between Hobson Matthews and others who are doubting the veracity of his statements/claims. “Misleading” and “ignorant” are among the criticisms. Hobson Matthews describes himself as merely being “the amiable czar of the archives” (17 Apr 1899).

I have now started work going through the archives of Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, and looking ahead to a St. Piran’s Day Cornish language presentation with the Institute of Cornish Studies in Penryn – when this is finalised more news will become available.






One comment

  1. B Carver · November 24, 2017

    It certainly sounds like your research is uncovering interesting new information. Exchanges between Brittany and Cornwall throughout the 1800s will no doubt be fascinating and this isn’t something that I am aware of being investigated before. I look forward to hearing more about it in due course.

    If I may just say some words about John Hobson Matthews. His father was John Thomas Matthews, born 1832 in St Ives; the Trewhella family were cousins as were the Stevenses. This relevant to the following statement in Matthews’ ‘History of the Parishes of St Ives etc’: “The families of Stevens and Trewhella were among the last to keep up the Cornish language in the parish of Towednack.”

    As far as Matthews’ claim to Jaffrennou goes, I think care needs to be taken to differentiate what he himself said from what the press reported. I haven’t seen the Cornish newspaper articles you quote, but I doubt Matthews ever claimed himself to be a ‘Cornish speaker’ – I know Welsh newspaper reports obviously exaggerated his claim. Matthews’ 1899 statement to Jaffrennou may best be translated as: “If I am not mistaken, I’m the only person who has any hereditary knowledge of Cornish. I have learned a bit from the mouth of the late Doctor Stevens, who was a cousin of my father” I would suggest the extent of this ‘hereditary knowledge’ is shown by the following passage from Matthews’ ‘History…’: “The late Dr Stevens of Saint Ives told the writer that his great-grandfather, Andrew Stevens of Trevegia, used to take his (Dr Stevens’s) grandfather on his knee, and say, ‘Come here, my little kennack [rush-light], and say, “Wonnen, deau, tri, pedar, pemp,”’ etc. He would then make the youngster count after him in Cornish. He also habitually used the exclamation, ‘Scavel angow!’…”

    A few expressions and the numerals (possibly up to 20) is clearly a modest amount of Cornish, nevertheless it is ‘hereditary’, passed down orally through generations of Matthews’ extended family. Robert Morton Nance said this knowledge was ‘unremarkable’ as he himself had ‘met with four independent traditions of the Cornish numerals up to twenty in this year 1922’ and knew ‘kennack’ and ‘scavel-an-gow’ to be still living expressions at that time. I think the only thing in the statement that need be taken with a pinch of salt is that he was the ‘only person’ then with such a small bit of hereditary Cornish. Matthews being a scholar undoubtedly went on to learn much more Cornish with the help of Norris’ Grammar and the work of Jago, books referenced in his ‘History’.

    Matthews did get involved in lots of spats on matters ecumenical and arguments about the derivation of Welsh place names, but the criticism of him in the South Wales Daily News was not over the Cornish language and I would say many of his peers seemed to think well of him. His ‘History of the Parishes of Saint Ives etc’ is certainly not free from errors but it is still a very important book on so many levels. The late Professor Charles Thomas said it was “one of the great works from late Victorian Cornwall, a parochial tribute and a personal monument.” And Judging by the statement re. John Davy’s rhyme in the ‘Handbook of the Cornish Language’, Henry Jenner too held Matthews in high regard.

    I believe there is correspondence between Matthews and Jenner in the Courtney Library, although I haven’t looked through it myself. I’m sure it would provide some very useful material for your project.

    Best of luck with your further research, I very much look forward to seeing more of it.



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