The Looking for George Henry Guy series is back! This month sees a continuation of ancestor research following the story of Lesley Carter and her journey to uncover more information about her great grandfather.
You can find part 6 here.
I love this place. This Pendeen.
Its ever-changing lights and mists and sun and colours. The sea is ever present but never the same. Look away, look back, the colour will have changed. Bluish or slatey or purple, or green. The sky is clear, striated and clean. Breathe in the muddy, salty smells. Somewhere a cow moos, a dog barks. A car surges by like a wave. Flowers grow stunted here. Cowed by the wind, they keep their colours close to the ground. But not Boscaswell Stores. It blossoms with every worldly good. And not The Radjel pub nor The North, which warm the heart with pasties and beery, chippy cheer.
Pendeen is a place where the moors meets the sea. St John’s Church tower, Geevor mine remind us, as if we could forget, that, here, we are on the edge. The cliff, the past could trip us up or suck us down. We could so easily fall. But I’m thinking, how can I leave? I don’t want to leave. These fields, this sea, this wind. This place where my forebears lie buried, this little piece of granite on the edge of the world, this place which made me, me.
But leave I must. It is our last day but one and we decide to go back to Truro, to the County Records Office. D esconces himself in Sancreed baptisms, St Just and Pendeen burials. There are discrepancies between my brother-in-law’s version of the family tree, and my cousins’, and mine (ie D’s). Which is correct? Or maybe none of them is and there is an (as yet unknown) other truth. D thinks the answer lies in the Parish Registers. If it does, he has to try and read these hopelessly illegible microfilms. I would like to know which version is correct but, I am afraid, not enough to do what D is doing.
Meanwhile, I am waiting for my orders to come up – like a Chinese takeaway. I have ordered Sancreed Weslyan Society Minutes, Sancreed Parish Council Minutes and Cardinham Board School Minutes. I was slightly intrigued by Cardinham. I had never heard of the place, never heard my mother mention it. Roche, yes. My grandmother had been born there. My mother had mentioned that. But never Cardinham. I sit and wait. An assistant has gone to look for these records of 120 years ago. It must be boring for her. But she doesn’t show it. Everyone in this room – amateur historian, amateur sleuth, aspiring writer, bored retiree – is obsessed by the person or persons they are trying to unearth. Or else just passing the time of day. Out of the rain.
They don’t allow pens in here. Only pencils. Mine is nearly blunt before I even start. Do they have a pencil sharpener? If not, my knowledge, or what I will be able to remember of it, could be stunted by the bluntness of my pencil. Can it be that what can be discovered is limited by the softness of lead? The sharp excitement of a possible breakthrough will be rounded and rubbed down by a Staedtler 2B? They have nothing on Sancreed Weslyan Society or Parish Council. But they do have Cardinham Board School Minutes. I read them. I read them again, trying to take in what I am reading. I can hardly believe my eyes. I push them under D’s nose and point with my pencil, speechless.
We go back to the car, dissecting and chewing over what we have just learned. As he puts the key in the ignition D suggests a visit to the Cornish Studies Library which may have some local newspaper reports.’ It does. The ‘West Briton and Advertiser’, on 20th May 1875 carries a report on the Cardinham School Board Elections. This is followed throughout May and June by letters penned by two of the Weslyan Board members, Messrs Bate and Lander and an unnamed ‘parishioner.’
That night, Tuesday 29th September 2009, the hundred and tenth anniversary of his death, in the small hours, I swear to god, I hear him knocking on the door. I am convinced it is him. All is quiet. There is no wind to account for it. The house next door is empty. The only other neighbour is a recluse with a cancerous cat. And while I have no experience of them, I figure burglars and mad axe-men don’t knock before they enter. No. It is definitely him. Or his spirit, anyway. In some manner or form.
I have this crazy notion that my great grandfather is somehow trying to make contact with me. I imagine the world beyond the cold granite walls of the cottage. Out there above those black Atlantic cliffs, I see the ghosts of my ancestors cruising around like hungry seagulls. My great grandfather has separated himself from the flock. He has swooped into land and taken on human form. He has knocked on the door, and I have let him in, with all the timidity and lusty curiosity of a servant girl.
‘You know, do you not,’ he announces, ‘that you are raising me from the dead with your questions, with your insatiable desire to know, with your persistent delving into the secrets and places of my life. You know do you not, my dear, that having disturbed me, you must finish what you have started. If you want to tell my life story, then you must do me justice. You must do me justice so that I may rest in peace again.’ The voice I hear is proud, formal, critical. It is the voice of my own conscience speaking in the tongue of a Victorian, Methodist schoolmaster, strait-laced and officious. It is the voice that speaks to me from the only photograph I have of him, in which he stands straight, short and stout, bearded and bald, with his class of children. And yet, I am aware too of an undercurrent. A hesitancy. A quaver in his tone that belies, albeit almost imperceptibly, the authoritative delivery of his words. I must be going mad. Or dreaming…
The next day, the images that have appeared to me in the night, the newspaper reports, the School Board Minutes are still swirling around in my head in a cluttery, soupy mess. I sit down and try to put together some sort of coherent narrative of what might have happened at Cardinham. He had married Rebekah in 1870 and a year later their daughter Henrietta was born. She would grow up to be my great aunt Hetty. I have no photograph of Rebekah but I do of Auntie Hetty, as an adult. She was as demure and fair and beautiful as her father was stocky, stern and stoney. I imagine Hetty to be a chip offRebekah’s, rather than George Henry’s, block. I picture the three of them living together in the School House, job and home inextricably linked. I conjure up a vision of George Henry, leading a quiet, respectable family and pedagogic life in this small, Cornish village an age and a world away. I construct a narrative in order to try to make sense of the Board Minutes and the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser entries.
Here he is, then, in his late twenties, head of the household, master of Cardinham school, and doing well. From a childhood spent burrowing underground in the hot dripping tunnels of the Pendeen tin mines, he has risen to be an important person in the community. He is, by comparison with most of his peers, educated and experienced, having been a student of Methodism in Sheffield, a teacher in a workhouse in Truro and now a teacher at a school in Cardinham. He is dedicated to his profession, committed to passing on the knowledge he has acquired to others, to improving the life chances of poor children of whom he was once one, and to setting a moral example in the community. At his side, his smiling wife, who has given him a charming little girl, who supports him in his endeavours, in his ambitions, moving around the county with him, providing a safe haven for him to return to at the end of his arduous day of public duty.
And then, one fine May morning, a letter arrives.
Dear Mr Guy
I am instructed by the Cardinham School Board to inform you that your services at the school are no longer required and to give you due notice of dismissal. At its meeting on 26 May 1875, it was unanimously resolved by the Board that you leave the school and give up the school house immediately and that three months’ salary be given to you instead of three months’ notice and that you give up all books, monies and other things belonging to the Board.
Clerk to the Cardinham School Board
George Henry folds the letter carefully and puts it in his pocket. He goes to the kitchen where Rebekah is preparing the meal.
‘My dear,’ he says, ‘I am going out for a walk before dinner. I need some fresh air.’
He goes for a walk. He comes back. They eat their meal. He goes to his study and then to bed. At breakfast the following morning, George Henry says to his wife:
‘My dear, I am afraid you must prepare yourself for a shock. Yesterday, I received this letter from the Clerk to the Board.’
He hands it to her. She reads. She breathes. And then cries out.
‘What? What is this? How can this be?’
‘And I have drafted this reply.’ He hands her a second piece of paper. It is another letter, addressed to the Chairman of the Board.
Dear Mr Hyde-Smith
I feel I must write to protest about the way I have been treated with regards my employment with the Board and my tenure at the School House. I received a letter from the Clerk instructing me to vacate the house forthwith. I am informed that my services are no longer required. With the greatest respect, I find this deeply concerning. I have given excellent and dedicated service to the School and received exemplary reports from the inspectors. My duty has been discharged without blemish. As you know, I have a wife and small child dependent on me and it will be difficult to find an alternative post and accommodation at such short notice. I humbly request that the Board reconsider its position on this matter.
George Henry Guy, Master
Rebekah hands back the letters to George. Her dress rustles dryly as she walks to the window. She notices a blackbird on the gatepost. She turns round. She stares at George.
‘What is all this about George? What on earth is going on? I don’t understand why they are doing this. And I don’t understand your reply. Aren’t you upset? Aren’t you furious? I mean “Humbly request”, “With the greatest respect”’. Anyone would think you were happy to go. Are you?’
He says nothing. She turns round. He is standing by the table, every inch ofhis 5’5” body stiff and in control. Only the silent tapping of his left forefinger on the cloth gives any clue that he might be experiencing some sort of emotion.
‘You are the Master here!’ Rebekah’s own emotions gather pace, countering his impassivity. ‘It is you who should be shown the respect. Remember the inspector’s report just a few months ago. ‘Discipline is good’, it said. The school is in a ‘creditable state of efficiency.’ ‘95% pass rate.’ Surely that goes for something. And it’s not just your job. It’s the house as well. They’re throwing us out on the street! Think of me and your daughter if you don’t care about yourself!’
George’s face does not flicker.
‘My dear, I think I know how to write a letter to the Board. I am not going to demean myself by pleading. I am asking them to reconsider, which I am sure they will do. And if the decision remains the same, then I am afraid we must accept it. They will have their reasons.’
Rebekah is silenced by her husband’s oppressive self-control and his reference to ‘reasons’. She knows as well as he what those reasons might be. One is insufferably unfair. The other, too personally painful to contemplate. She is not privy to the political machinations of the Board but she knows that in the recent elections, the Weslyan methodists, or Dissenters, as they are often known, have lost their majority. The Church is now in control and her husband, as everybody knows, is an inveterate Weslyan. If only he would keep his religious affiliations to himself! But then again, it had been those very affiliations which had helped him get the job in the first place. That was when the Board School was originally established under new legislation and the Weslyans had taken control of its management. These recent Board elections, however, had seen the power flip back to the Church.
And she knows enough of politics to understand that a man’s beliefs and alliances can win him success in one set of circumstances, but if those circumstances change, they can also be his downfall. Is this what is happening to her husband now? Why does he not confide in her? He is an extremely private man. Sometimes infuriatingly so. And principled. Sometimes pigheadedly so. But what is happening now is momentous. He should talk to her. Why won’t he talk to her? What is he thinking about? She has her suspicions.
Caroline Grose is what George is thinking about, the pupil who, two years previously, had brought a charge against him. She had impugned his moral character, stating that, one day, finding herself alone in the schoolroom with Mr Guy, he had asked her to show him her work. As she did so, he had touched her on a part of her body which she refused to name but which she said was a ‘girl’s part’. She alleged that she had run screaming out of the room. The incident was investigated and the Weslyan Board concluded that there was no foundation in the allegation. They also went so far as to expel Caroline Grose on the grounds that she was a bad moral influence to the other children. But thereafter George had felt that the trust placed in him by his colleagues and employers had been shaken, that even if their words and behaviour remained the same, there was now a hint of doubt, of wariness in their eyes which he had not seen before. And what if the new Board members had found out about the affair. They might not have trusted the impartiality of the investigation. Was this the real reason for his dismissal?
‘As I say…’ He walks towards her and takes her hand, ‘I will ask them to reconsider, but there’s very little I can do if they don’t. And I am not sure that my position here is tenable any more. Not in these circumstances. I will make enquiries about a possible alternative position – in Roche. I have contacts on the Board there. Do you really seriously think that I would allow you and Hetty to be put onto the streets, into the Workhouse?’
Rebekah returns to the window. The blackbird has flown. She turns around. And so too has her husband.
‘What time would you like to eat?’
I am jolted from my day-dream by an aproned D, onion in one hand and glass of red wine in the other.
‘Eight-ish?’ I suggest. ‘My dear, I think I’ll go out for a walk before dinner. I need some fresh air.’
He throws me a quizzical look. I set out for Pendeen churchyard. A smoky orange sun is setting over the Atlantic. A few seagulls are circling. Around the gravestone, long grass twitches in a cold wind. I stare at the slab of granite that was my great grandfather.
‘Is this how the story went?’ I say to him, ‘the time when the bombshell was dropped, when you thought your career, your domestic bliss was going to be shattered? Did you see it coming? Did you write a letter like the one I imagined you would write? Maybe not. But why did they sack you? What really was behind it? How did Rebekah really react?’
I have no idea what, if anything, he had done to make Caroline Grose bring the charge against his moral character. The Board minutes recorded the bare fact of it, not the details.
3 April 1873 – a charge was brought against the moral character of Mr Guy Schoolmaster by Caroline Grosse. After a thorough investigation, the School Board considered the charge to have no foundation in it – Further that in consequence of the bad moral influence Caroline Grose would be likely to infuse to the school children, that she be expelled from the School and for the future never be allowed to enter the school premises.
Gerald Hyde Smith Chairman.
It looks as though it was the malicious or mischievous prank of a schoolgirl. But then again was it a case of no smoke without fire? Or perhaps it wasn’t a child but a colleague. Was he having an affair with another teacher? We don’t know. All we have is a ‘charge’ against his moral character, leaving the nature of that charge to imagination and speculation. Two years later he is sacked.
26 May 1875 – Proposed by Mr P Rice (?) and seconded by Mr Langdon that the services of Mr Guy schoolmaster be no longer required and that due notice be given of his dismissal.
It was also unanimously resolved that Mr Guy have notice to leave the school and give up the school house immediately and that three months salary be given him instead of three months notice and that he give up all books monies and all other things belonging to the Board. It was unanimously resolved to be paid forthwith to the Treasurer.
The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser had shed some light. The School had been run by the church until 1872 when, following on from the Forster Education Act, a school board was set up. For the first three years the Weslyans had a majority. At the elections of 1875, the situation was reversed and the ‘Church party’ regained control. Among their number on the Board were Messrs Philip Rice and William Langdon, proposer and seconder of George Henry’s dismissal.
I am having trouble deciding whether my great grandfather was an innocent victim (twice over) at Cardinham or whether he was someone who tended to court trouble. We know nothing of how he got on at Roche after he left Cardinham (except that he appeared to leave without another job to go to) but we know that towards the end of his career (and life) at Newbridge he was not exactly making himself popular with his too-frequent job applications. Had he been a bit too familiar with Caroline Grose? Had he been stubborn and objectionable so that his religions/political opponents had no choice but to get rid of him?
In other words was my great grandfather some sort of pervert and/or an all round obnoxious member of the awkward squad? On the other hand he could have been totally innocent. Through no fault of his own, he had been caught up in the cross-fire of an old-fashioned political skirmish. His face no longer fitted in the new regime and he had ended up as collateral damage.
I stare at the gravestone. I hear a seagull cry.
‘So what is the truth, George Henry?’ I beg him to tell me, beg him to give me some clue. I remember the ambiguity in his voice the night he came knocking on the door, the feeling of doubt in my own mind that this apparent pillar of the community may not be as upright as he looked. He was an ambitious man with a large appetite for professional success and for doing good. Did he have other appetites too?
But now it really is time to leave Bojewyan. Next morning we pack up, clean up, wandering around the house, filling black bags, moving things back where we found them, wiping up and hoovering in preparation for the cleaners who will come in and wipe up and hoover. There is a chill in the air now. It is definitely autumn and the wimpish towny in me wants to get back to proper central heating and my own bed. My sensible self says that to live in Pendeen through all the seasons, year in year out, you have to be made of sterner stuff than me. At the same time, I have become so ensconced in my private world of memories and imaginings, of questions and revelations, emotionally I am having to pull myself away. I feel, as I always used to do when my mother was alive. She would stand in the porch, elderly and alone, and watch as I drove away. And I would feel hard-hearted and selfish.
As we get towards Bodmin we see a sign to Cardinham. I look at D.
‘Shall we?’ he says.
‘Yes, please,’ I say.
I had never noticed any road signs to Cardinham before. Why should I? It had until then no meaning for me whatsoever. My mother had never mentioned it. Perhaps she had never heard of it. My grandmother had, after all, been born several years after George Henry lived there. And perhaps ‘Cardinham’ was one of those family skeletons that had been well and truly buried. You get to it by coming off the A30, just past Bodmin, just short of Bodmin moor, go over a cattle grid and wind down a country lane into a wooded valley. The village, self-contained, is at the bottom. It is, if there is such a thing, a typical English village – church, chapel, school, houses. And you could be anywhere. It is a few miles from the sea, about half way between the north and south coasts. There aren’t even any tin mines or china clay heaps evident to remind you this is Cornwall. It is the unobserved, rural, hinterland.
The current school was built in the 1880s and so postdates George Henry’s time there, but there is a B & B in the village, opposite the church, called the Old School. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this is probably the site, if not the building itself, of George Henry’s school. This is where, for three brief years a century and a half ago he had lived and worked and from where he had been dismissed. This is where little Hetty, my great aunt must have played in the garden. This is where Rebekah would have played her wifely role supporting, or putting up with, or tearing her hair out over her husband’s problems at work. If it were me, I think I would have been very glad to escape. If only to Roche.
End of part seven.
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.