Looking for George Henry Guy: Part 3

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Pendeen sunset

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.

And now to Penzance, where we are renting a house in the town centre for a week. The upstairs lounge looks out over the yellow lichened rooftops to the harbour. There is a small balcony off the kitchen area but we daren’t use it for fear of being dive-bombed, Hitchcock-style, by seagulls nesting on a nearby roof.

Then on Monday, it’s down to business.  We drive to the north coast, first of all, via Sancreed.

In 1903 my grandfather, Charles William White married my grandmother, Lilian Adelaide Rosetta Guy (George Henry’s youngest child) at Sancreed Church. Grandad White’s father, another Charles, had become a Sancreed postman after he retired from his career as a coastguard.

According to one family story the Guys (in the form of Rebekah as George Henry had been dead for four years by this time) were of a higher social status than the Whites and would not have approved of Lilian’s choice of husband. So they kept their marriage plans a secret, forgetting however, that secrets are very difficult to keep in small places.

On the morning of the wedding, Charles White the postman was delivering letters as usual when the church bells started ringing.  He said to a passer-by, ‘Church bells ringing.  Must be a wedding on’.  To which the delighted village know-all replied, ‘Doest thee not knaw?  That be your son getting married.’

But there are no weddings today and it looks as though there hasn’t been any for many a long year. The door is firmly locked. Apart from the church, Sancreed consists of a few cottages (probably holiday homes), one or two grander residences and the Well.

Sancreed Well is quite famous, for what I’m not sure, but I think it is supposed to have some pagan or mystical significance. We find it, with difficulty, well-hidden by thick undergrowth. There are different coloured rags and scraps of one kind or another tied to the branches of trees and bushes around the entrance. It seems to be some place of pilgrimage or something similar.

When you wander about Sancreed, wind-blown and deserted, over the hedgerows you can catch a glimpse of the moors or the fields to Mount’s Bay. That’s when you know that you are in an ancient, untouched place. Apart from the wind, all is silent and the air is heavy with the past.

And now the Fountain Inn at Newbridge. This is a lovely old, log-fired Cornish pub.  We have a beer and chat with the friendly bar staff and a couple of local customers.

They tell us where the old school was – George Henry’s school.  It is a hundred yards or so out of the village towards Pendeen on the left-hand side.

It is now a private house, called ‘The Old School House’. They tell us about a man called Ian Soulsby, who lives in Grumbla and is a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth. He is a Sancreed historian and has written a book of which they show us a copy (‘A History of Sancreed Parish, 2006, Ian Souslby).

There is a section on Newbridge School, which, according to Mr Soulsby was a product of Forster’s Education Act 1870. The Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone had commissioned his colleague, W. E. Forster to extend elementary education throughout the country.

Previously, elementary education had been in the hands of the Dames and the Churches.  The new act increased subsidies to church schools but also allowed the establishment of ‘Board Schools’ which were to be non-denominational. And so it was that a school was opened at Newbridge on 7th January 1876.

On 24th September 1880, a School Board was formed and a new school building was completed in 1883. And here we have it: ‘George Henry Guy was the headmaster and the average attendance was about ninety pupils.’

We already know this of course, from other sources showing that George Henry had taken up his post in October 1882, age 37, but it is gratifying to have your facts confirmed from more than one source, especially by a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth.

We decide to go on to Pendeen but stop first at the ‘Old School House’.  We press ourselves to the gate and look up the driveway like snoopers (which we are) or burglars casing the joint (which we are not).

Trees obscure most of the house but from the road you can see, on the outside, steps going up from the ground to the first floor. What would they have been for? A fire escape? Separate access for boys and girls? Was there living accommodation there for the Master and his family? And how did they get ninety or so pupils in there?

Kelly’s Directory 1893 says the average attendance was 31 boys, 27 girls and 29 infants. It looks far too small. Out of every answered question, as usual, leap a hundred questions more.

We enjoy a steak baguette in the North Inn in Pendeen and then go to St John’s Church.  Unlike Sancreed, it is open and we are able to wander round inside, and then out into the graveyard.  Stumbling on the hillocks and grass tufts and moleholes and mud we scan the gravestones for Guys.  We find a broken one with a Guy name.

‘In loving memory of Hetty Harvey died Aug 13th 1920 aged 49’ and also ‘Hilda Harvey daughter of above who died April 26th 1924 aged 28 years.’

Hetty is George Henry’s oldest child and Hilda (or Hildegarde as she was christened), her daughter.


This is not the main Guy grave which, I understand, contains George Henry himself and a number of other family members.

We walk down the road to Portheras Cross and Bojewyan, seeing signs to Boscaswell and Portheras and Callartha – all places that have, in the George Henry story somewhere, somebody’s birth or death or domestic life associated with them.

His obituary in The Cornishman (5th October 1899) says something about the funeral cortege going ‘up the hill’ to Pendeen church. Does that mean he lived in Portheras Cross or Bojewyan, which are downhill from Pendeen?

In Bojewyan we stop and chat to a nice lady with a three-legged cat. She says Portheras is the little bit between there and Portheras Cross. There are only a few yards between any of these places which themselves contain only a few cottages. The lady says she has lived there for fifteen years. She likes the pace of life.

‘Nobody gets up before 11.00 o’clock round here,’ she says, ‘whereas ‘visitors’ are up at 9.00.’

It is, by now, quite late in the afternoon but we walk down to the lighthouse. I breathe in the Atlantic wind, smell the grasses and gorse and cliff-top seapinks, the salt-infused air and remember the times I used to trot down this road, trying to keep up with my big sister and cousin, when we had come to visit my cousin’s grandmother in the school holidays.

We battle on down the long lane to the cliff edge. The sea is rough, empty, bleak. It is hostile, unforgiving and compelling. But it is time to make our way back. We turn and head for the car via Boscaswell village, where George Henry lived as a child.

It is now called Lower Boscaswell and consists mainly of post-war council houses which were built after the slums were demolished. But alongside the grey-slate and concrete estate, and close to the cliff, a few of the ‘slums’ remain.

They are of course transmogrified and rebranded – pretty, granite miners’ cottages, converted barns, milking parlours and animal stalls, let out in the summer, no doubt, to ‘visitors’ who want to get away from it all, for small fortunes.

Was it in one of these survivor dwellings that George Henry was born and raised, crammed into a couple of rooms with his parents and siblings? Was it here that, despite his early years spent underground, in black, wet tunnels of tin, he found his thirst for knowledge, for self-improvement and for Methodism?

Even now it seems so isolated, so far-away.  But then, in the 1850’s, what must it have been like? Whatever it was like, it is the place that spawned and formed him.

At Geevor mine, the next day, D takes the underground tour but, being slightly claustrophobic, I do not, particularly if I am going to be taken along a seam under the sea; I would not have survived a day as a miner.

Instead, I wander round the museum at surface level. It is fairly empty as it is early in the season. In the mine buildings themselves, I am alone. I feel uneasy being on my own here in these masculine, machine-dominated rooms, in the metal mess of engines and pipes and pistons and pumps.

It is, by now, quite late in the afternoon but we walk down to the lighthouse. I breathe in the Atlantic wind, smell the grasses and gorse and cliff-top seapinks, the salt-infused air and remember the times I used to trot down this road, trying to keep up with my big sister and cousin, when we had come to visit my cousin’s grandmother in the school holidays.

In the ‘dry’, a kind of staff room, there are rows of lockers housing the miners boots and personal possessions, pegs on which their clothes still hang as though they have just stepped out of them and will be back to put them on after the shift.

I am in a place where I should not be, a girl-child voyeur in a men’s changing room. I can almost smell the sweat – a Proustian flash of memory of the bathroom of my childhood home, when my father had gone in there after some heavy gardening to  smoke and read the newspaper.

There is a gallery of miners’ mug-shots – young and old, fathers and sons, smiling faces, serious faces, quizzical expressions.

It is quiet and I am completely alone with the ghosts of all those brave, hard-working men who had been dispensed with, twenty-five years earlier, when there was no longer profit in the mine.

I did not know them as individuals, but in the silence, I sense their presence, and their absence, and am appalled and angry that all the energy and labour they have contributed, the risks they have taken now count for nothing

A way of life, not only for the men but for their families and for the whole community has been completely decimated by the whim of markets and technology and capitalism. Their life-blood, their history was turned off like a tap. They were men but are now reduced to museum exhibits. And their history is partly my history too.

This could be the mine that George Henry and his father and his father’s father worked in. The 1861 census shows George Henry, aged 16 as a miner.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there were over 300 working mines in Cornwall employing around 50,000 men (‘Memoirs of the Geological Survey’, Dines H G 1956 Vol 1).

Mines in the Botallack/Pendeen area included (and I list them for the sheer delight of their names): Boscregan, Letcha, Hermon, Bosorne and Ballowal United, Riblows, St Just Amalgamated and St Just United, Portledden, Ellen, Cunning, Boswedden, Owles, Botallack, Spearn Consols, Spearn Moor, Levant, Geevor, Boscaswell Downs, East Boscaswell, Pendeen Consols, Balswidden, Castle, Cock, Edwards, Ding Dong.

To complicate things further, there were, just like today, mergers and management changes which meant name changes. For example Geevor at one time included Boscaswell Downs, and was part of Levant, being known as North Levant.

It seems highly unlikely that I will be able to trace the precise mine that George Henry and his father worked in. Common sense tells me it would have been Geevor or Boscaswell or Botallack or Pendeen, those being the nearest to where he lived

However, it was not uncommon for the miners to have a fairly substantial commute.  According to Hamilton Jenkins (‘The Cornish Miner’, A K Hamilton Jenkins 1927) a typical walk to work might have been five or six miles across country, which means the Guys could have worked in any one of a large number of mines.

I wonder if the equivalent of ‘the dry’, with its showers like the ones I’ve just seen (one for men and one for managers) existed in 1861. Somehow I doubt it.

The men and boys would turn up for work after their five or six miles walk across the moors, climb down 200 fathoms of ladders, do an eight hour shift or ‘core’ in 96 F, climb back up and then walk back home in the biting wind.

Perhaps a tin bath in front of the fire when they got home if they were lucky, by which time any lung damage would have already been done. It is hardly surprising that life expectancy was short.

End of part three.

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.

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.