Looking for George Henry Guy: Part 4

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This month’s continuation of a short series based on ancestor research follows the story of Lesley Carter and her journey to uncover more information about her great grandfather.

You can view last month’s article here.

Back in Penzance the following day, we have a mooch around the Public Library. In the reference section, I am side-tracked from George Henry’s story to my own. We find a book called ‘The Story of Penzance Girls’ Grammar School 1913 – 1980’, written in 1980 by Gladys M. Tranter, a former teacher there. It is my school. I was there from 1963-1970. I am listed in the attenders, as is my sister, and there is a photograph of me (at least I think it is me) in a group of girls behind a presentation by the headmistress, Miss Milton, to William the retiring gardener, of a portrait of himself.

I stow myself away in a corner with the book and indulge myself in pure nostalgia. I scan the familiar names and remember how it was to be at school there, how it felt and how it smelt. I read some of Miss Tranter’s descriptions:

‘Over three hundred miles from London, and far from populous centres […] set on a hill above Penzance [the school] looks out over the whole extent of Mount’s Bay […] The sea is always a presence, and behind to the north are the open moors, wild and still almost empty except for mysterious signs of the far past […] The School serves an independent people, once having a language of their own, a tongue still not fully absorbed into the commoner Anglo-Saxon […] The children […] came often from far and isolated places, tiny villages, lonely farms, from the families of fishermen, small farmers, tin-miners, their local attendances fraught with difficulties of all kinds, finance and transport being not the least.’

Here it comes again – that sense of difference, of belonging to a unique, idiosyncratic club. To live in West Cornwall, by sheer force of geography, is to live apart, to have your mood determined by the weather, by the raw sensuality of the physical world and by the long perspectives provided by the sea.

‘Whatever attracts the mind of man has an influence in the formation of his character commensurate with the degree of attraction,’ says George Henry. Your mind cannot help but be strongly attracted to, if not overwhelmed by, this environment.

September 2009 finds us back in West Cornwall, this time in Higher Bojewyan. The cottage we are staying in is very old (probably three or four hundred years old) and quiet, although there is some traffic noise from the nearby Land’s End to St Ives coast road. But the walls are thick and could probably withstand anything. Whatever gales the Atlantic throws at them, whatever mists and driving rains, whatever salt-saturated air envelops them, these walls will keep you safe and will not yield.

At any rate they had withstood the so-called ‘Pendeen Hurricane’ of 1938, when other buildings in the area, such as the vicarage and school, had not. When we were here in May, this little area had captured me somehow.

I had discovered that a relative of George Henry (niece or great-niece), a Joyce North Prowse, had been born in Higher Bojewyan on 4 March 1918; perhaps in this very house we were renting. But, more than that, the house was very close to where George Henry had been born and grew up.

I was still thinking that Bojewyan itself may have been where he was living when he died, it being only two miles from his place of work at Newbridge and (with ‘The Cornishman’ obituary in mind) downhill from the churchyard where he was buried. I had booked the cottage for all these reasons, imagining I could immerse myself in him here, feel something of his life, not just unearth facts about it.  But, as I had already begun to understand, there is nothing ‘just’ about unearthing facts.

In the course of my disorganised researches before coming down to Bojewyan, I had discovered that, according to Kelly’s directory, as well as being master of Newbridge School, George Henry was, in 1889, a master at the ‘Mining and Science School’ which was located in the Art School next to Penzance Public Library. Also, according to the obituary:

‘He was one of the best mathematicians in West Cornwall and held numerous first-class certificates from both the South Kensington and city guilds departments.’

How did they know that? Again:

‘He had almost completed a most valuable treatise on the higher branches of mathematics.’

I wondered what that was. I’d heard of City & Guilds but not ‘South Kensington’, other than the fact that it is an area of London which has a lot of museums and the Royal Albert Hall. A little digging revealed that various educational establishments around South Kensington ended up as Imperial College. It was all a bit of a mystery, like a Pendeen mist, which would become clearer (though not much clearer) in due course.  But for the moment, I knew next to nothing about George Henry’s academic career (other than the rumour about Oxford) or, for that matter what anybody’s academic career might have looked like in nineteenth century West Cornwall.

So before coming down to Bojewyan, I had made a few enquiries. Firstly, to the Penzance Public Library.

‘As I understand it,’ I said to them in an e-mail, ‘the Mining and Science School was housed in the Penzance School of Art/Free Library in Morrab Road. Does your library hold any histories or other records of the School?’

It didn’t. Next I made an enquiry to the Imperial College. I told them I was researching my great grandfather, 1845-1899, tin miner turned elementary teacher, master at Penzance Mining and Science School and possessor of South Kensington certificates.

‘My reason for contacting you centres round the nature of the ‘South Kensington’ certificates – what they were, how they were acquired, whether they related to teaching or to mining, what organisation would have awarded them, etc.’

The replied:

‘Thank you for your enquiry re your great grandfather, it is receiving attention and I will contact you again shortly. You ask a few complex questions which are most interesting, but may add to the timescale of reply.’

The questions must have been very complex indeed, as, five years later, I am still waiting for the reply.

And finally to the Morrab Library:

‘Dear Lesley, thanks for your email, and sorry it has taken me a while to reply [three days actually, which I’d say is pretty quick]. I have done a bit of investigating on your behalf about George Henry Guy. He is listed in ‘Collectanea Cornubiensia’ on page 36. I have transcribed most of the entry below…’

But more of that later.

We have been in Bojewyan for three days now and the sun has shone from a blue sky streaked and swirled with high, white, benign cloud. There has been a breeze with an occasional autumn sharpness to it but really, it has been as glorious as you could hope to get in England in September.

We even manage to scramble down the rocky path to Portheras cove where we catch glimpses of seals darting about in the waves. We wander around Boscaswell, staring at cottages and wondering which one might have been the Guys’, which one could have crammed them all in – eight of them, for example, in 1851; George, head of the family, tin and copper miner, age 35, Jennifer, wife, age 31, Elizabeth, daughter age 13, Jennifer, daughter, age 7, George H., son, scholar, age 5, James S., Son, age 4, Mary Ann, daughter age 4 months, Edward Nankervis, lodger, tin and copper miner, age 41. (Poor Jennifer!  As if she didn’t have enough to do without taking in a lodger.)

But now the light is starting to turn grey. Is this going to be one of those Pendeen mists we’ve been told about in the North Inn? The sort of dark, low mist that can last for four months. I decide to do a bit of studying and get out a leaflet I had found in St John’s church – crudely produced with a rough-and-ready drawing of the church tower and tree on the cover called ‘The Church of St John the Baptist, Pendeen (revised 1993)’.

It proves to be an incredibly useful little document and together with the Ordnance Survey 102 Explorer Map of Land’s End, I learn that Pendeen had been, until sometime in the 1840’s, part of the parish of St Just.

Up ‘til then it would not have had its own church and school. An Act of Parliament in 1843 split up large parishes into smaller ones and, in Cornwall, one of these was Pendeen.

The new ‘parish’ was originally known as North St Just (as opposed to its mother parish of St Just-in-Penwith) but was later re-named ‘Pendeen’, and comprised the hamlets of Botallack, Carnyorth, Trewellard, Pendeen, Boscaswell, Portherras and Bojewyan (listed from left to right looking at the map).

The seven hamlets that make up the parish of Pendeen are strung out along the north coast like pearls – close together, to the untrained eye hardly distinguishable one from the other and connected by a thread of magical coastline, a tin mining history and a Church of England administrative reorganisation which took place 170 years ago.

And just as these hamlets were connected to each other, it began to dawn on me that, with the exception of Carnyorth, I was connected in a messy, eclectic kind of way to the hamlets. Bottallack – in the 1960’s the old Count House of the mine was a folk club where my friends and I would spend Saturday nights. Trewallard – its pub and Meadery we would use for celebratory meals out. Pendeen – my cousin’s father’s family lived there and worked at Geevor mine.

Boscaswell – my great grandfather, George Henry Guy, my current obsession, was born there.  Portherras – I once knew a mayor of St Just, a communist called Jack Hendy who lived there. Bojewyan was the home of George Henry’s great niece, Joyce North Prowse, and where I myself was now staying, using it as my base from which to get under the skin and into the heart of this wonderfully rich, beautiful, and mysterious place.

Yes, apart from Carnyorth, I had stories in my head about them all. Now that I could see them as part of a whole, the stories and the places began to connect. It was as if I had stumbled across a long-lost relative or re-kindled a romance with an old flame. But it was no aging aunt or balding lover that had gotten me so excited. It was the Parish of Pendeen.

None of my predecessor researchers had ever been able to trace a birth certificate for George Henry. Why? Depending on which source you use, you discover that George Henry’s parents had had 16 or 18 children which made me think that perhaps there was no birth certificate to find, the reason being parental exhaustion.

Two George Henry’s had been born and died before our George Henry had come along; the first christened on 19 May 1839 and the second on 25 February 1843. With the number of children being born so high, it’s possible George Henry’s parents didn’t want to commit to producing a birth certificate for fear he would die young like his brothers before him. But there is another possible explanation for the missing birth certificate.

Given the time lag between Acts of Parliament and their implementation at local level (in this case ‘local’ being 300 miles away from the centre) and given the speed and level of sophistication of 19th century communications, it is possible that parish boundary re-organisation was responsible for the apparent absence of a birth certificate in 1845. Files got lost. Duties were fallen down on. You could see how it might happen.

We’ll probably never get to the bottom of it – another question consigned to the great unanswered.  But while we might not have had a birth certificate, we do have a death certificate and we do know, or think we know, where he is buried.

End of part four.

The memoir on George Henry Guy will continue in next month’s issue. You can view the first article in Looking for George Henry Guy here.

Lesley grew up in Penzance but now lives in Bath. A lover of literature, she enjoys stories on landscape or place and is thinking about writing some of her own stories or memoirs on this theme.