George Henry Guy: Part 5
July 1, 2016
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 view part four here.
According to The Cornishman report (5 October 1899) of George Henry’s death and funeral, he was interred at ‘the north end’ of the cemetery. All the previous family history sleuths have tried to find it and couldn’t. Now it’s my turn. The graveyard is very big and I figure if we can’t find him in the north end, it means he could be anywhere, and the chances of finding him therefore, very small.
We walk slowly up the hill to the church under a cold and steely sky, enter the churchyard and start the search. We comb every square inch of the north end. We fail to find him. But we carry on wandering around the graves anyway, trying not to twist an ankle on the hummocky, pitted grass. There are a few ‘Guys’, yes, but none that appear to belong to us. There are a few ‘Prowses’. They could be ours because George Henry’s sister married a Prowse, but then again there are probably as many branches of Prowse as there are Guy.
I lift my eyes from the ground to the sky and realise that rain is imminent and I am on the point of suggesting that we should be getting home (or at least to the pub), when from somewhere behind me I hear D say, ‘Hang on a minute! What’s this?’
‘What’s what?’ I say.
‘This,’ he replies.
He’s standing directly opposite the church door, bent double, looking at the ground. I go over to him.
‘Is this it?’ he says.
I look down at what he’s looking at. It’s a grey, granite slab with a rusty iron rail round it, cowering in the shadow of a much bigger and grander affair in the name of ‘Oates.’ I quickly scan the inscription.
‘This is it! It’s not in the north end at all. And look at this Oates monstrosity! No wonder we couldn’t find it!’ I am as thrilled as if we had stumbled across the Holy Grail.
In Loving memory of
who died Jan 1873
Husband of Jenifer
Died 25th April 1895
Their daughter, died 27th April 1866
John, their son
Died 2nd Nov 1871 Aged 13
Thomas, their son
died 2nd May 1887 Aged 27
died 24th March 1892 Aged 49
Blessed are the dead which die in the lord
their son, died Sept 29th 1899
Aged 54 years
their daughter died May 10th 1901
Aged 46 years
I am moved to silence, weighed down by the burden of finding this thing that others, some of whom are now dead, have looked for before me and have been unable to find. I am moved by the confirmation, in the form of a slab of granite in the grass, that this Guy family, my family, actually did exist. I am moved by the length of the list of names, eight of them, only one of whom, despite year after year of childbirth, managed to achieve their three score years and ten.
The ‘Oates’ grave which overshadowed the ‘Guys’ grave, I subsequently discovered from the ever-informative ‘The Church of St John the Baptist, Pendeen (Revised 1993)’, ‘is the grave of the parents of Richard Oates who, with his partner John Deason, found the largest single lump of gold ever discovered in the world. It was known as the “Welcome Stranger” and was found at Moliagul in Australia. It weighed 2316oz and was sold for more than £9,534.’
The Cornishman’s report of George Henry’s death says:
‘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.’
According to the death certificate, the cause of George Henry’s demise was ‘Appendicitis perforation’, ‘Retro-peritoneal abscess’ and ‘Asthenia’ which I understand to mean loss of strength and debility. What I don’t understand is whether any of these three causes refer to his unexpected post-treatment condition or to the ‘painful and complicated illness’ which gave rise to the treatment. Did he have cancer? Did he have a condition, cancer or otherwise, caused by working in the mines? As I stand looking at the grave, I am startled by a Pendeen voice lobbing a question at me from the path.
‘Family history is it?’ He’s an elderly man carrying a shovel and a bucket – some kind of grave-digger or grave-tender or gardener?
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Guys’.
‘Oh, yes,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of them.’
We get chatting. He is over 80, has lived in Pendeen all his life and hardly been outside it. Except when he went to Colorado and the Rockies four years ago.
‘I learned a few things there,’ he says. ‘Found a half-brother I never knew I had’.
‘I bet you’ve seen some changes round here,’ I say.
‘Oh, yes,’ he says. ‘Lot more buildings now’, he said, ‘all this modern housing. But there used to be a lot of mines. Hundreds. A lot of noise and machinery and people. When the mines were working the sea used to be red with all the copper and tin and arsenic.’
‘Oh, I remember that, myself,’ I say. ‘When Geevor was still working.’
‘Oh, yes,’ he says. ‘That was the end of an era when Geevor closed. A lot of men out of work. Place has never been the same since. Course, this church, all built by hand you know. By local men.’
‘Oh, aye. All from local stone. From the carn. Carried down by hand. Every piece.’ He spoke as though he remembered it personally. ‘Anyway, your Guys … I remember a William and a John. Were they yours? Two brothers they were. Never married. Farmers. Lived with their mother and I can show you the grave of James Semmens Guy.’
‘Oh, can you?’ I say. ‘He is one of mine.’ (I’m not at all sure about William and John.) ‘He’s my great granddad’s brother. Went to South Africa I think and made a lot of money.’
We troop off to see James Semmens Guy’s grave. He knows the ‘Stevens’, my cousin’s family. I doubt if there’s anybody in Pendeen he doesn’t know. My open, generous, loquacious informant talks in lovely lilting Pendeen diphthongs, especially the ‘a’s which have an Irish resonance. There is a twinkle in his eyes, and I can’t tell if this is caused by his love of life and his habitat – his look periodically sweeps the seascape as he talks – or by mischievousness. He must see scores of ‘visitors’ doing what I’m doing and maybe he likes to wind them up, playing his ‘local village elder who’s been here man and boy’ act, pretending to know everyone and everything, but I like to think not. I don’t consider myself to be a visitor, having been born and brought up six miles from here, and having my ancestors buried in Pendeen soil.
Eventually we get away, the blood-red sun well and truly over the yard-arm. It never fails to intrigue me that as the sun touches the horizon it suddenly accelerates and starts to drop like a stone. Then the night, which has been waiting for its opening in the wings, swoops down like a hungry seagull and settles into place.
The Morrab Gardens of my childhood were stuffed with the most luscious, exotic vegetation on earth. There were tall palm trees, bulbous bushes, flowers of every colour and kind. There was a fountain, a fishpond and a bandstand. There were giant ferns and other triffids that sprouted great leathery, spike-edged tongues.
Now, forty years on, it appears that all the plant-life has shrunk. The colours have faded and under the palm trees, a new smoking cider-drinking species has sprung up. Tucked away in one corner of the gardens is a library and that’s where I’m heading now. When I was growing up, this elegant, Victorian house of learning was a private place, an adult place, a musty, fusty, fee-paying place for confident posh people. It was not for people like me and I never penetrated its mysterious interior.
But now, I am, if nothing else, an adult and confident enough to cheerfully announce myself to the lady behind the desk. ‘Hello’, I say, ‘I’m Lesley. I emailed you about coming to see ‘Collectanea Cornubiensia 1890’.
‘Oh, yes,’ she says, looking down at a piece of paper. ‘That’s right. Could you sign in here please?’
She leads me into another room, a reading room, with a big table in the middle. The walls are weightily lined with some serious volumes on Cornwall. ‘If you just wait here a minute, I’ll go and get it for you.’
Left alone, I wander about the shelves. Books on every imaginable aspect of the county – history, geography, geology, mining, Davy’s lamp, Brunel’s bridge.
‘Family history is it?’ says a voice. ‘What name?’ My interrogator is a fellow researcher.
She thinks for a moment. ‘Don’t know them. Mine are Pearce, Eddy, Roberts. Once you start, you know, it’s hard to stop. One thing leads to another and before you know where you are you’ve been led up all sorts of paths. And usually end up lost in the forest!’
She is describing the addictive personality of the family historian. The drug of search and detection, the insatiable desire to find out, to unearth like a trufflesnuffling pig, to run a prey to ground like a hound, takes possession of you, and when you finally nail your quarry, you take possession of it. You are triumphant, proud. You puff out your chest and flaunt your feathers like a mating peacock. No matter the total irrelevance to anybody else of what you have found. The discovery – the place of your great grandfather’s birth or some such trifle – which is of no interest whatsoever to any other living soul, is to you, the equivalent of discovering a new planet.
Anyway, here I am, following up the email I had received from the assistant librarian saying that there was an entry on page 36 of the 1890 edition of ‘Collectanea Cornubiensia’, which is a kind of nineteenth century Cornish ‘Who’s Who’. She had transcribed some of the entry and ended by saying: “Then it goes on to talk about the great grandfather of the above & his estate at Sancreed.” Was this the founder of the famous hospital? By the time I’d read and re-read the email twenty times, unable to delete the image in my mind of my mother’s nodding, purse-lipped face egging me on, I was absolutely convinced that it must be him.
‘Here we are. I’ve marked the page for you.’ The helpful assistant presents me with a rather unprepossessing, blue, clothbound book. I open the book. I start to read:
‘GUY, George Henry. 6th Child of George Guy of St Just m. Jenifer Simmons. Issue 18 children. B. Boscaswell, St Just in Penwith, 3 March1845. Educ. National School Pendeen and under Rev.Robert Aitken. Student of Ranmoor Coll. 1867-69; connected with mining 1870; Master of Cardinham board Sch. 1872-75; Master of Roche Board Sch. Since 1875. M. 1870 Rebekah Jane, 2 Daughter of William and Rosetta Candy.
The history of Roche rocks, and their relation to ancient human institutions. By C. H. Guy, C. M., C.G. etc, Roche, sold by Nicholas Groce junr. Ply. I. Latimer and son [printed] 1881, 8 pp20.’
New facts are bombarding me like a shower of meteors. 18 children. Rev Robert Aitken. Ranmoor College. Cardinham board school. I never knew any of that! Then:
‘NOTE – The great grandfather of the above (a near relative of Thomas Guy the founder of Guy’s hospital, London d 1724), came into Cornwall and purchased a leasehold estate at Sancreed, where he brought up his family. His son Richard lived on the estate until his death which took place in his 97th year. George the grandfather of G. H. Guy came to St Just in 1832, where he soon after purchased a freehold, and built a house in which he subsequently lived with a family of 4 sons and four daughters.’
The ‘Note’ strikes me in the eye like a lash from the tongue of a Morrab Garden triffid. This is it. This is the proof. My mother had been right all along. I repeat the words to myself. I copy them slowly, reverently into my notebook. Then I read them again. Light starts to dawn. Pennies start to drop. With loud reality-clanks. A ‘near relative’.
My 4 x ‘great’ grandfather wasn’t Thomas Guy, but a ‘near relative’. What relative? How near? This little bracketed nugget, which a minute ago was the golden key to my ‘founding of Guy’s Hospital’ mystery, isn’t a key at all. It is a cheeky little tease, taunting and testing and leading me on. It opens the door, yes, but only by a crack. I close the book. I take it back to reception.
‘How did Collectanea get its entries?’ I ask.
‘A mixture of ways. Often they were got from newspaper stories. Sometimes, individuals submitted entries about themselves.’
‘How much do I owe you?’ I scrabble for my non-members day fee of £3.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that. You weren’t here for very long.’ (How did I ever think this place was posh?) I blunder out into the sunshine and sit down on the nearest bench. A shrunken triffid waves a spiked-edged tongue in my direction. I wave a blurred-edged tongue back and tell it what has happened.
‘The founder of the hospital is my ancestor, if the words on page 36 of Collectanea are to be believed. But should I believe them? How do I know if they’re true? George Henry might have written the entry himself. He could have made the whole thing up. And what would that say about him?’
What I do know, is that talking to a triffid is not a healthy thing to be doing. These questions and their half answers are addling my brain. Half answers lead to more questions. It is the law of diminishing returns. It is leading me to madness. I am joining the ranks of the boozers in the park, the obsessives in the library. I am well on my way, if I haven’t already arrived, to addiction.
By the time I get back to Bojewyan, I’ve calmed down a bit. As I show D what I’ve found, I ratchet myself up again. I am excited by the Thomas Guy mention but also frustrated by its inconclusiveness. And then what about all the other things – Ranmoor, Cardinham, Aitken? Just as I thought we were getting somewhere, I realise we have hardly scratched the surface.
End of part five.
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.