As a memoir of ancestor research in Cornwall, Lesley Carter uncovers the journey she carried out to find more information about her great grandfather.
With a captivating and honest style of writing, read on to discover more.
It is Thursday 7 May 2009 and I am on my way to Cornwall. I am embarking on a journey of discovery, to find out what I can about my great grandfather, George Henry Guy. My friend D, a librarian, is helping me with the quest.
It feels slightly strange to be going to Penzance as a tourist, or ‘visitor’ as the locals say. I was born and grew up there. I went away to university and to work, but still came back several times a year until both my parents were dead and the family home was sold; that is until I was about 35. Visits after that were less frequent but they still persisted. And after all these years, I still regard it as my true home. At heart, I am still, and probably always will be, a Penzance girl.
But before we get to Penzance, our first stop is Truro where we have an appointment at the County Records Office.
This is my first experience of records and archives and I am a little apprehensive. It appears that there are certain protocols to be followed. When you are handling records you have to wear gloves and one side of the open volume, in this case a minute book, fragile and worn and 130 years or so old, has to have a foam wedge placed underneath it to protect the spine from breaking. When first presented with this, I think it is a cushion to sit on.
Afraid of doing damage, I open one of the books tentatively. Librarian D, much more experienced in these matters, opens another with confidence and gets down to business.
At the first sight of the copperplate, often barely legible text I catch my breath. In a way that typescript can never be, handwriting is an echo of a person’s existence, the imprint of his or her former presence. It is highly personal. This particular handwriting calls to my mind a lowly, painstaking, dutiful, silent clerk. I pay him due respect and turn the pages carefully, my white-gloved fingers as sensitive to the delicate task as a surgeon’s. We don’t possess a digital camera, so we have to make notes, and like slogging nineteenth-century school-children, with tongues poking out in concentration, we copy out chunks of our clerk’s text.
What we are pouring over are sets of Roche Board School Minutes (1875) and Sancreed Board School Minutes (1882-1889). In 1875, George Henry, aged thirty, had gone to work as the master of Roche Board School. Roche is a village in mid Cornwall, not far from Bodmin. He stayed for seven years and then took up a post in 1882 as master of Sancreed Board School, located in Newbridge.
Our first foray into original documents which might shed light on George Henry’s life and career, therefore pitches us into him midstream, so to speak. We had asked to look at these particular documents not only because they were relevant to our purpose but also because, simply and prosaically, they were available. And, opportunistically, Truro is on the way to Penzance which is where we are heading.
We are able to verify from these minute books that George Henry was indeed the schoolmaster of Roche Board School between 1875 and 1882. He was interviewed for the post on Tuesday 27 July 1875 at 12 noon. He is successful and takes up his post on 27 September 1875. According to the minutes he is:
‘elected as schoolmaster of the Roche Board School at a salary of £70 per annum and one third of the Government Grant actually paid. The engagement to be terminated with three months notice on either side.’
After the reference to the initial appointment there are occasional entries about pay. His income is made up of something called ‘school pence’, ‘salary’, and ‘G grant’, which, in 1881 amounted to £10-15-0, £3-0-0 and £25-5-0 respectively. G grant must be Government Grant, of which he gets a third, about £8. Other than that, there is nothing to shed light on George Henry’s life at the school.
What we do know, from Census returns and births, marriages and deaths certificates which we have seen previously, is that when he arrives in Roche he has been married for five years, to Rebekah Jane Candy and that they have a daughter, Henrietta, aged four.
During his time at Roche, his son, another George Henry, is born in 1877. His second daughter (who is to grow up to be my grandmother), Lilian Adelaide Rosetta, is born on 25 July 1879 and then in June 1881 another son, William Simmons (born in Pendeen). William Simmons only thrives for ten months. We also know that during this time, George Henry turns his hand to writing.
In 1881 a twenty-page tract bearing the title ‘The History of Roche Rocks and of their relation to Ancient Human Institutions’, under the authorship of ‘G. H. Guy, C.M., C.G., &c’, was published. ‘C.M’ I believe to stand for ‘Certified Master’ and ‘C.G.,&c’ for ‘City and Guilds etc’.
D had unearthed this publication some time before. I had been very excited at the time, by the fact that something written by George Henry was still in existence. Then I thought well, maybe he was clever. Mother was right.
Here was proof that my great grandfather, George Henry Guy, humble miner, had indeed pulled himself up by his bootstraps and ambition to make something of himself. Oxford or no Oxford, he did have a brain and he used it. I remember being curious, and amused, at this rather grandiose title. What on earth was it about?
George Henry tells us in the preface:
‘The Roche Rocks being a place of such general resort for tourists and pleasureseekers, the writer of the following pages thought it would greatly augment the pleasure of visitors if some thoughts of a generally interesting nature could be thrown together respecting them.’
The introduction concludes:
‘The view presented by the Rock from many standpoints is really an imposing one, and of course, as pertains to such phenomena in general, tends to awaken ideas of the sublime rather than the beautiful. Indeed, one cannot contemplate the scene presented here without being forcibly reminded of the appalling powers that nature has looked (sic) up in her vast reservoirs of energy.’
Its style and language seems hardly appropriate for a tourist brochure but then this is the nineteenth century.
The ‘Rock’, George Henry explains is referred to in the singular, because although there are a group of several rocks, one clearly stands out from the rest because of its superior size and the fact that it is home to the ruins of an old house and church.
The main body of the leaflet starts with a chapter on the geological origin of the Rock which stands 640 feet above sea level and measures 100 feet high. It is a lump of granite formed from the cooling of boiling subterranean material which had erupted a few million years ago. George Henry also has a theory that the origin of the china clay found in the area is connected to the origin and precise composition of the Rock.
He then goes on to deal with what he calls ‘The past history of the rock in its relation to human institutions’, the religious and mythological stories surrounding it, the old house which is built on the Rock and the origins of the name Roche. He ends with a poem of eighteen four-line verses entitled Reflections on Roche Rock.
Chapter III on ‘The past history … etc’ is the most intriguing to me. We already know from Chapter II that GH is a geologist. From Chapter III we learn that he is also psychologist, social anthropologist and a man of imagination. He suggests that what we see, and ideas about what we see, have considerable influence in fashioning our ‘emotional and moral susceptibilities’.
After the first emotional reaction to the object of our attention, he says, we start to make connections and look for explanations. Thus if the Rock has been a focus for various pagan and Christian groups over the centuries, then it may have something to do with the way it looks:
‘… from various standpoints we can trace the bust of a man in profile. The brow, position of the eyes, nose, mouth, chin, neck, and breast, are clearly distinguishable, and are in very correct proportions. This, however, is evidently the work of nature, and not the partially obliterated work of art. It is not at all unlikely that this accidental coincidence may have had much influence in leading men living under the influence of idolatory, to consider this as a fit place to do homage to their Gods. There are many things suggestive on this point; but to make them of any considerable interest imagination has to play a very important part … ’
As a boy, George Henry was surrounded by rock. He walked on it, worked with it, hammered it, entrusted his life to it as he crawled about in the tunnels hewn from it, under the ground and under the sea. As his father did and his father’s father before him. He knew first-hand about the ‘appalling powers of nature’ and her ‘vast reservoirs of energy’. And I imagine that his imagination would not have needed a huge leap to conclude that studying nature and writing about it might be infinitely preferable to putting life and limb at its mercy, day in, day out, down a mine.
The time is passing and the novelty of foxed and ancient volumes is wearing off. I look at D. ‘Shall we go to Roche? Actually, where is Roche?’ We consult the map. It is a few miles north east of Truro.
The area around Roche is a mass of disused industrial sites, clay pits, grassed over mounds of waste and derelict buildings. By the time we arrive at the village itself, it is pouring with rain. The streets are deserted and running with water, slate houses are shining darkly, Methodist Chapel and Temperance Hall, lifeless and grim. We drive past the grey granite school, presumably George Henry’s school and then out of the village towards the Rock.
D pulls into a lay-by. There it is, across the road, a dark outcrop in the middle of black-green brambles and gorse and grass. There is a rickety gate which looks like the way into it. The car engine is still running.
The rain is still thundering. I look at D. He looks at me.
‘Another time?’ he says.
He turns the car round and we go back the way we came, having failed to ‘trace the bust of a man in profile’ or consider it a fit place to do homage to our Gods (if we had any), or to anybody else.
End of part one.
The memoir on George Henry Guy will continue in next month’s issue. If you enjoyed this article, why not take a look at Being Cornish in California?
*Disclaimer: Extracts from the pieces on Roche, Cardinham and Newbridge have been previously published in the Cornwall Family History Society Journal.