St. Piran’s Day in Penryn – A Tale of Two Extremes: Part II

Last week’s blog post covered the first half of my St. Piran’s Day in Penryn, delivering a session for a Year Two class at a local primary school. Leaving the primary school behind me, I made the short walk across to the Penryn campus to present a paper at the Institute of Cornish Studies’ Keskowsow event – a very different audience to the six and seven year-olds I was leaving behind!

Three of the ICS’ postgraduate researchers; myself, Andrew Climo and Phili Mills each presented papers related to our present work. The event began with an opportunity for the audience of around fifty people to discuss Cornish issues informally over lunch of pasties and saffron buns before Andrew Climo delivered the opening presentation into Cornwall’s unique identity and examined whether Cornwall parallels national identities such as Wales, Scotland and Eire, or if it is just an aberrant ‘Celtic-ish’ corner of England. Phili Mills’ talk followed. Entitled, ‘What’s in a Name? Is your Surname Cornish? Does Where you like have a Cornish language name? Mills examined how knowing if your family is Cornish and where they came from helps to piece together your family history and cultural identity before highlighting how surnames and place names unravels what ancestors did, where they lived, how they lived, and if they spoke the Cornish language.

My presentation, ‘The Cornish Language from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century’ encapsulated a summary of some of the early findings from the opening six months of my Cornwall Heritage Trust funded PhD.

The remainder of this blog post covers extracts from the first half of my presentation, with the concluding part following next week.

News from Down Under:

One of many potential examples of potential Cornish language usage in Australia came courtesy of Alan Kent who revealed a potentially previous unknown speaker of the Cornish language in the mid to late 1800s. Kent had just been sent a sound recording made in 1970 of John William Pearce in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia reciting a rhyme in Cornish, Fleghigow dor (Little Children of the Land). At this point it was believed that Pearce would have been in his seventies. Kent explained to me that Gavin Cheshire told him that his grandfather did not know or understand the language, but had learnt parrot fashion from his own grandmother. The family then discovered that Grandfather Pearce’s paternal grandparents – William Drew Pearce and Elizabeth Collins (both born in 1846) – had left St. Austell for Rockhampton in 1875. William Drew Pearce worked as a miner at the Peak Downs Copper Mining Company in Central Queensland. John William Pearce also remembered his grandmother using the terms “Eswthaki” (meaning something like “Good Night”) and “Bethisto” (meaning something like “Shut Up!”).

One of Ten Remaining Cornish Speakers”:

An important early reference to a Cornish language speaker came in an extract from ‘The Cornishman’ Newspaper on 2nd February 1888 which identifies William Copeland Borlase as being “one of ten remaining Cornish speakers”. Borlase was the Great Great Grandson of renowned Cornish historian Dr. William Borlase, and he later became the Liberal MP for East Cornwall (1880-1885) and St. Austell (1885-1887). According to Lake’s Falmouth Packet & Cornwall Advertiser (1894: p 3), he wrote an article entitled ‘The Land of a Lost Language’ in the Christmas edition of ‘English Illustrated Magazine’. Interestingly, Rev. W. Jago, writing in The West Briton & Cornish Advertiser on 10th October 1889 believes that Borlase “himself has not pretended to this accomplishment (of speaking Cornish)” [p 7].

However, if Borlase was indeed a Cornish speaker, one therefore has to ask, who would be the other nine suggested by The Cornishman? My preliminary newspaper research can identify potentially five of these individuals through mentions of people speaking Cornish in the pages. Henry Jenner is one, with John Hobson Matthews another. The third is likely to be Louis Charles Richard Duncombe-Jewell of Liskeard (1866-1947). Duncombe-Jewell founded the Cornish Celtic Society (Cowethas Kelto-Kernuak), and at the Pan Celtic Congress of 1901 called strongly for Cornwall to be identified as a Celtic nation.

Georg Sauerwein (1831-1904), a German publisher, polyglot, poet and linguist who wrote two poems in Cornish, and Dr. Charles Picquenard (1872-1940) are likely to be the other two individuals. Picquenard, from Quimper, was a doctor, professor, poet and writer in French, Breton and Cornish. Additionally, he was one of the founders of the Goursez Vreizh. Therefore, the question remains, who are the other four people likely to be?

At the present time, this is a question that cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. There are, however, some potential leads worthy of following up. Loveday Jenkin informed me that Reverend Leverton was using Cornish “in the late 1800s and early 1900s…(and his) descendants have moved back to Penryn and have books and letters from that period.” The Penzance Town clerk, Thomas Cornish states in The Cornishman on 28th July 1887 (p 4) that “there are four or five other persons still living in the village of Mousehole who can converse in Cornish”, along with a short paragraph written in the language which Cornish has translated. Peter Jacka of Newlyn is referred to in The Cornishman on 28th April 1910 as having “some little knowledge of the ancient Cornish language” (p 4).

There is also the Kelynack family. Lyon (2001) mentions a Mrs. Kelynack of Newlyn who was interviewed by Henry Jenner in 1875 (p 13) along with her husband John due their having Cornish language ability. Mrs. Kelynack, Lyon asserts, was taught Cornish by her fisherman father John Tremethick, a contemporary of William Bodinar. My own research has uncovered a report on John Kelynack giving a fisherman’s cry: “Breeul meta truja bizwandhu pemper whether all isserowed all along the line-oh” at the ‘Centenary of the Old Cornish Language’ in Paul (Royal Cornwall Gazette: 4th January 1878: p 6) and a Miss. Kelynack of Camborne is referred to when attending a Cornish saints and place name lecture given by the Reverend G.H. Doble at Redruth in the 11th June 1923 edition of The West Briton.

Additionally, Rod Lyon has mentioned Jacob Care (1798-1892) from St. Ives, who also lived in Mevagissey. It is quite possible that Care is the same person who I discovered signing a letter as ‘JMC’ in the 21st August 1879 edition of The Cornishman which clearly demonstrates a knowledge of the Cornish language.

The London Cornish Association:

Although appearing at the very end of the period that my research is focusing on, I discovered a fascinating article in the 21st February 1924 edition of the Cornubian and Redruth Times mentioning the fact that the London Cornish Association was to hold a meeting at Kings Weigh Clubhouse in Oxford Street with the Cornish language prominent in proceedings, and as well as speeches there would be “songs in the language”. The report goes on to state “It is thought to be the first occasion since Oliver Cromwell that real Cornish will have been spoken in London.”  A report on the events that took place appeared in the Western Morning News on 25th February 1924 highlighting a lecture given about Cornish by Trelawny Roberts, who also spoke Cornish as part of the event.  Examination of the London Cornish Association Archives reveals that the event formed part of their 25th Anniversary celebrations, but originally, language was not going to form part of the occasion. Examination of the minute books sees that the initial idea was for a Cornish tea, with a first class concert followed by a supper. This particular entry into the minute book is worth remembering – as it could potentially go some way to explain events which followed a few months later.  Roberts’ lecture was extremely well received and a number of LCA members contacted their committee stating their wish that the LCA could provide some sort of Cornish language lessons. Trelawny Roberts was contacted and readily agreed. However, the plan had fallen apart by September 1924, when Roberts fell out with the LCA committee. A strongly worded exchange of letters ended with him accusing the LCA of having “too narrow a focus” and being “more interested in dinners and concerts than Cornish culture.” Thus ended an opportunity for Cornish language classes to commence in mid 1920s London.

NEXT WEEK: The second part of the presentation, focusing on links to Brittany, and the poet William Barnes.




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