Join us for the final part of the Looking for George Henry Guy series! This month sees the conclusion of Lesley Carter’s genealogical journey to uncover her great grandfather’s story.
You can find part 8 here.
We haven’t reached Taunton yet and the sun is shining. The sky seems to be clearing, turning from damp grey to tentative blue. I pass the time flitting between writing this, reading Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, looking out the window, eating a banana, and lazily allowing miscellaneous thoughts to superimpose themselves onto the scenery as it trundles by. We are travelling through an area known as the ‘Somerset Levels’ which as its name suggests is very flat. There is a fair amount of surface water in the fields. But sky and sun are getting ever brighter.
I am on the way to Penzance. It is the first time I’ve gone down by train for many years. When I was a student and my parents were still alive it was always the train. None of us owned a car. I had a student railcard then. Now I have a senior one. Forty years have managed to cram themselves into the space between those railcards.
It is now 10.15, an hour and a quarter into the journey. We are in Exeter and it has clouded over again. I am detecting a change in atmosphere. There are fewer people on the station platforms and they are moving more slowly. Empty seats are appearing around me. I remember that from before. Whether coming home from Swansea when I was a student or, later, from London when I was working, the train would be full at the start, and then gradually empty itself out until, at the end, only two or three of us were left. Remoteness had crept over us like a slow, incoming tide.
We are now out of Exeter. It has been replaced with a huge expanse of water, the Exe estuary. Then we come to Dawlish Warren, a series of tunnels through red clay cliffs. If the weather was rough the sea would be crashing up over the train. But it is calm and though grey, tinged with a sparkle from a pale sun. A cormorant is racing us. He is losing.
11.15 and we are in Plymouth. The pretty Devon scenery has gone and been replaced by sprawling 1960’s housing estates. Our breathy announcer or ‘train manager’ tells us where we are going. He lists the stops and when he gets to the end, ‘Penzance’, he drops the word like a heavy bag he is glad to put down.
We are now inching over Brunel’s bridge built in 1859. George Henry was five then. It looks cumbersome, worn-out, out-dated. Ugly to my eye. I can remember trips to Plymouth as a child, going over the bridge in a steam train. (Can I remember it? Or is it something somebody said?) All smuts and sulphur smells and hoots. Proper carriages, bouncy seats covered in rough fabric which rubbed the backs of your legs. The road bridge doesn’t look much better than the railway bridge. When it opened in 1961 or 1962 they said it was the longest suspension bridge in the UK. They always called it the ‘new’ bridge. Even when it became old. Either bridge, new or old, ugly or not represents a Rubicon between ‘up-country’ and ‘down-here’.
Liskeard, Meinheniot, Bodmin Parkway. I’m counting them off like stations of the cross. The scenery is dull. At this point in my eight-hour journey from Swansea, it would probably have been dark by now, the windows covered with condensation inside, streaked with dirt and rain outside. But now, I can see it all. A few isolated houses, small-holdings, farms or former farms, scrap metal yards. I can’t imagine this was much different in George Henry’s time. There is a big swathe of what appears to be forest – partly harvested, partly cut-down pines. It looks abandoned, almost derelict. And the air is dark and thick with undischarged rain.
Par, we are told, is our next ‘station call.’
12.25. I’ve been thinking about being 20 in 1973. And now I’m trying to imagine being 22 in 1867, travelling from Boscaswell to Sheffield for the first time. My eight hours would have been a short hop by comparison. I wonder how it would have felt to leave the bosom of his family, everything and everyone he knew. Sheffield must have seemed as far away and strange as another planet. Was he sad and lonely and fearful at the prospect, or excited and glad to get away?
We are approaching Redruth. The weather is still threatening and so are the tall black trees. Old mine chimneys loom. It is starting to rain. My spirits are starting to sink. What on earth am I doing here? Why am I putting myself through this? It is supposed to be pleasure but it feels more like endurance. It’s lashing now. There is something white on the ground. It is hailstones. It is suddenly winter.
St Erth. ‘Change here for St Ives.’ We are getting very near now.
St Michael’s Mount. It was always such a landmark. An icon. When you saw ‘the Mount’ you knew you were home. We are slowing right down now, through Eastern Green and finally into Penzance station ‘where this train will terminate.’ This is it. The end of the line.
I spent the next two days wandering around Penzance. My feet plodded again along the first pavements they had ever encountered. They took me to the house I was born in and the one I grew up in, the church and the two schools I went to, the playgrounds and parks I ran around in, the beach I first swam from, the seafront and harbour wall I first walked along – all the places that constituted the first, and only as it was to be then, world I had ever known.
But my feet were now adult feet. As my whim and appetite demanded, they also took me to the sorts of places I had come to experience in subsequent worlds. When I was thirsty I went into a bar, when I was hungry into a restaurant, and when it was my mind I wanted to feed, they carried me to a gallery or a bookshop or a library.
We are all children of our time and place and family circumstances. It was my good fortune to have been born into a loving family, to go to a supportive and enlightened school, to have education for free right through to my early twenties and plenty of employment opportunities when the time came. The result was that all these years later, as a woman alone, wandering around Penzance, I was independent and free. I could do exactly as I pleased. And really, I had had to do very little to achieve it. All I had to do was what was expected of me and follow a well-trodden path that everybody else was following.
George Henry, on the other hand, was the child of a different time and circumstance. His fate as a child was hard physical labour down a mine, in appalling, dangerous conditions under the ground under the sea. He acquired a better life through ambition, intelligence, hard work and no doubt some help from his family and friends. But he would not have been in the majority among his peers. His path was not well-trodden.
He had had to work hard for what he had achieved – the warmth and safety of a class-room. It doesn’t sound much. For me, upward mobility had meant that I could enjoy my supper in a restaurant without a second thought. For George Henry it meant he could go to work without a first thought, that his work might actually kill him.
From ‘The Cornishman’ 5 October 1899:
DEATH OF Mr G. H. GUY
By the unexpected death of Mr George Henry Guy, of Newbridge, this parish loses one of its most useful and respected inhabitants. The deceased, who has been suffering for several weeks from a painful and complicated illness, recently underwent the most skilful surgical and medical supervision with, apparently, the most satisfactory results; and it was, therefore, with profound sorrow and some surprise that the news of his death became known.
Mr Guy was headmaster of the Newbridge board school – a position he has satisfactorily filled for many years. He was a member of the parish-council and a prominent and energetic member of the Wesleyan Society at Newbridge.
Mr Guy was a man of sound judgement and rare common sense. He was always cheerful, agreeable, and willing to assist those in need. 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. He had almost completed a most valuable treatise on the higher branches of mathematics.
All who knew Mr Guy, and who recognised his many good qualities, will mourn his loss, and will respect the memory of one so highly esteemed – WEEKLY READER
The funeral of one of one who had been for 17 years master of the Newbridge board school took place on Monday afternoon, amid signs of widespread regret. Needless to say it was largely attended.
The mournful cortege left deceased’s residence in the quiet village at half-past four, and slowly wended its way up the hill and along the north road to Pendeen churchyard, where the interment at the north end of the cemetery took place, the vicar, the Rev J H Rogers, officiating in an impressive manner. The burial was witnessed by a large concourse of people from the surrounding districts, deceased being a native of Boscaswell and widely known for miles around.
42 witnesses to the burial are listed, plus 8 bearers drawn from the Newbridge Weslyan Society and Sancreed Board School.
‘The coffin was of polished pitchpine, embellished with electro-plated furniture, the engraved breastplate bearing the inscription:
GEORGE HENRY GUY
Died September 29, 1899,
Aged 54 years
Messrs. Hosken and Son, Penzance, discharged their duties as undertakers in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. Hearse and carriages were supplied from the livery stables of M. T. Warren, Penzance.’
42 people witnessed the polished pitchpine coffin with electro-plated furniture. I imagine George Henry, being something of a scientist, would have appreciated ‘electro-plated’ furniture. But Rebekah, his wife, is not one of the witnesses. Where is she? Wives, I am assuming do not go to funerals. But sisters apparently do. Mrs Prowse (Catherine) is listed as attending. And two other ‘Mrs’s as principal mourners – including Mrs Grace Harvey and Mrs Harvey (no forename) and a Mrs Hall. Could the no-forename Mrs Harvey be Henrietta, daughter of George Henry and wife of Mr J H Harvey (Jo)? Henrietta is age 27, married and the oldest child so do those credentials admit her to the funeral? Could it be that daughter, Lilian Adelaide, aged 18 and not yet married, is at home consoling mother?
Rebekah lives for another 25 years with the £209.5s that her husband leaves her. That’s the equivalent of about £12,000 today. Did State pensions exist? Occupational pensions? Benefits? I don’t know. I think she may have lived with one or other of the daughters until she died but I have not looked into that. Rebekah’s life is another story, but I cannot yet think about hers, while George Henry’s story is still full of holes.
But I cannot go on with this. I must stop the questions now. He is dead and buried and that is the end of that. I must, as he asked me to do in my dream, let him rest in peace. Except that it isn’t the end of it, is it? The life and times of George Henry Guy are as bottomless as I imagine the Sancreed Well to be. All anybody can do is take a cursory look and stick a few markers round the entrance.
I can hardly believe the vastness of what I still don’t know. What was it really like to be a child miner in the 1850’s and 60’s? To teach in a workhouse in Truro in 1871? How did he get that job at Newbridge – fair and square or with a little help from his friends? And what did it mean, in practical everyday terms, to be ‘a member of the parish council and a prominent and energetic member of the Wesleyan society’? Not to mention the great Thomas Guy or Oxford questions. Will anybody ever answer those satisfactorily? I certainly haven’t. Is Ranmoor the solution to Oxford? Probably not. A mere possibility at best. If someone (me included) wanted to plumb the depths of the Guys of Egham, Surrey, I feel they might find an answer to Thomas Guy. Possibly. It is a lead as yet unfollowed and there may be some sort of truth in that particular rumour. Why? Because it is mentioned in Collectanea and everything else in Collectanea appears to be true. Oxford isn’t mentioned and by the same token I’m inclined to think that Oxford is a total myth. In which case I am happy to let Ranmoor stand as a reasonable surrogate, for the time being at least.
As for what I do know, if you say it quickly, it doesn’t seem much – Roche and Roche Rocks, Cardinham, Robert Aitkin, Ranmoor, the Mining and Science School, the Miners’ Association Certificates. And I have seen the schools he taught in, some houses he possibly lived in and his grave. But each place, each name, each organisation is a label, a signpost to rich and untold stories about an ordinary person’s life and times. I’ve managed to find and bring up to the surface a little bit at least about some of them.
And have I got to know him as a man, have I got under his skin as I had hoped to do? I have no reason to doubt that he was anything other than the ‘Weekly Reader’ of The Cornishman said he was – ‘ a man of sound judgement and rare common sense…cheerful, agreeable and willing to assist those in need’. I think he was also ambitious, restless, intelligent and made the most of his opportunities. Although born in a far-flung place, the geological, industrial and cultural circumstances of the time in which he was born provided him with opportunities that his own father would not have had. He was no paragon but I don’t really think he was a paedophile any more or less than I think anybody walking down my street is one. That is to say he might have been one but then again he might not. In terms of his ‘moral character’, or of any other aspect for that matter, he most probably lived in thought and in deed, somewhere in the murky grey area between two ends of a spectrum. Like most of us do.
More than a century separates me from George Henry but only three generations. I wonder if his thirst for knowledge has some somehow found its way to me, through the family values he established around education if not the genes. His curiosity and constant quest for something different, something better resonates. My own quest for his life-story has taken me four times to West Cornwall, has given me new things to look for, new things to see. It has enabled me to remember and to connect afresh with that wonderful magical place.
Lesley A Carter
GEORGE HENRY GUY – Key dates
3 March 1845 – Born Boscaswell, St Just in Penwith
24 June 1849 – First (wooden) church, St John’s opens in Pendeen under Rev Robert Aitken
1852 – New permanent church opens, then school built, then vicarage
1861 – Tin miner (age 16)
1867-1869 – Student at Ranmoor College (age 22-24)
22 Dec 1870 – Marries Rebekah Jane Candy from Callartha at St Johns’s, Pendeen (age 25)
1871 – Teacher in the Union Workhouse in the parish of St Clements, Truro. Daughter, Henrietta born in St Just in Sept
22 July 1872 – Schoolmaster, Cardinham Board School (age 27)
21 Jan 1873 – George, father dies.
27 Sept 1875 – Schoolmaster, Roche Board School (age 30)
1877 – Son, George Henry born in Roche
25 July 1879 – Daughter, Lilian Adelaide Rosetta born in Roche
1881 – ‘The History of Roche Rocks and of their relation to Ancient Human Institutions.’
30 June 1881 – Son, William Simmons born in Pendeen March
1882 – William Simmons dies
Oct 1882 – Master Sancreed Board School Newbridge (age 37)
1889 – Master at the ‘Mining and Science Schools’, Penzance
1892 – Elementary certificates in Inorganic Chemistry and Geology from Mining Association and Institute of Cornwall
1894 – Son, George Henry dies. Henrietta marries Joseph Harvey from Sancreed, at Penzance
25 April 1895 – Jenifer, mother, dies 59
29 Sept 1899 – Dies (age 54) at Penzance Infirmary,
4 July 1903 – Lilian Adelaide Rosetta marries Charles William White at Sancreed
13 Aug 1920 – Henrietta dies
1924 – Rebekah dies
1953 – Lesley Anne Carter, granddaughter born
1956 – Lilian Adelaide Rosetta dies
End of part 9 and end of the series.
Thanks for following Lesley’s journey, we will be back soon with more ancestral adventures. You can view the first article in the Looking for George Henry Guy series here.