Who was Tom Bawcock?

Today at Mousehole people celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Children parade, paper lanterns aloft. Traditional songs such as ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ are sung, starry-gazy pie will be eaten. This age-old festival has its roots extending deep into the past. But how deep?

The event is said to commemorate the actions of Tom Bawcock, a fisherman who set out during a severe storm just before Christmas. This storm was the latest in a series so bad that Mousehole’s fishing fleet had not ventured to sea for weeks. In consequence the folk of Mousehole faced starvation.

But Tom was their saviour. Braving the gale and, in the latest iteration of the tale (The Mousehole Cat of 1990) with the help of his cat who soothed the tempest, Tom brought home a boatload of ‘seven sorts of fish’. These were promptly baked into a giant starry-gazy pie and the community saved from a hungry Christmas.

As Alan Kent points out in the most comprehensive account of this festival (The Festivals of Cornwall, 2018, pp.323-325), Tom Bawcock’s Eve underwent several revivals or revisions during the twentieth century. The first reference to it was from Robert Morton Nance, the Cornish Celtic revivalist, in 1927. Nance wrote that ‘at Mousehole this is the eve before Christmas Eve, which was formerly kept as a feast among the fisher-folk there’. This has been widely taken to mean that the festivity was still being kept up in the early 1900s. But the word ‘formerly’ would seem to add some ambiguity to that conclusion.

Mousehole harbour in the 1890s

It’s not clear whether Nance observed such a festivity or not. He was not averse to reconstructing or re-inventing aspects of Cornish culture, as he did with the Cornish language. It was in fact Nance who wrote the song ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ around 1910, a song he himself described as a ‘conjectural description’ of what might have been sung in possible earlier feasts.

Various theories swirl around the origins of the tale. Some assert that it was a product of the staunch Methodism of Mousehole, with Tom Bawcock acting as the shining exemplar of selfless commitment to community values. This would date it to the later 1700s or 1800s. Others, including Nance, suggest an older origin in pre-Christian times.

Anyone seeking an actual person called Tom Bawcock will be disappointed. Bawcock is not a local surname. The word was used by Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and Henry V, and was a generic term for a fine fellow, an anglicised version of the French beau coq. Tom Bawcock was the perfect moniker for this local hero. Based on the Shakespearian provenance of bawcock some claim that the tale therefore dates from the 1600s. However, as the word was used by another playwright as late as the 1850s, it could imply a date anywhere between 1600 and the late 1800s.

While the precise origins of the tale, one that no doubt shifted in its telling, remains obscure, it’s likely that Tom Bawcock’s Eve emerged as a local variant of widespread pre-modern mid-winter celebrations, of which Christmas is of course one. In mid-Cornwall there was Picrous day, held by the tinners of the Blackmore Stannary on the second Thursday before Christmas. Other miners took a holiday on Chiwidden Thursday, the last Thursday before Christmas.

It may also be significant, certainly interesting, to read that there’s a traditional Christmas eve feast among Italian-American households called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Were there seven sorts of fish traditionally, or did Nance, aware of the significance of the number seven in the Bible as a sign of completion or fulfilment, add this element as well as the song?

But at the end of the day who cares? As Alan Kent writes, ‘origins do not matter, only the event matters.’

Some surnames that don’t look Cornish but are

There are several surnames that give few hints of their Cornish provenance. It often comes as a surprise to learn that they have impeccably Cornish pedigrees.

The name Hurdon for example has a long history. William Hurdon was living at Lezant, next to the Tamar, in 1544 and he had a namesake in the neighbouring parish of North Hill. North Hill became the core district for Hurdons until the 1700s, when this family name began to spread. Its early geography proves the origin was the placename Hurdon, found at Altarnun and at Launceston. This looks English but is actually thought to be from the Cornish language, meaning fort of the ram.

Kelway is clearly a spelling variant of Callaway. But perhaps we should turn that around as Callaway was an eighteenth-century development of Calway and Kelway merely an alternative spelling for Calway. This name was widely dispersed from an early point, but the main location of Kelways was in the west, at Lelant and on the Lizard. Meanwhile, Calways were more likely to be found in north Cornwall. The name is claimed to have an origin in a place in Normandy.

Hubber doesn’t have such a long history but appears to have been coined in Cornwall. The name appeared very late, in the Newquay area in the 1810s. It’s been explained as a dialect form of the surname Hubert, of which there were no representatives in Cornwall before the 1700s. If an unfamiliar name arrived in a district, it could be more prone to being re-spelt.

The Penlee lifeboat disaster

The 19th of December will be remembered by any Cornish person in their 50s or above as the day when, 38 years ago, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat at Mousehole lost their lives. They had put to sea to go to the aid of the bulk carrier, the Union Star, which was in difficulties and drifting in the teeth of a furious gale.

The Union Star was actually on its maiden voyage. Launched in Denmark a few weeks earlier, it had picked up a cargo of fertiliser in the Netherlands and was heading for Dublin, where it was registered. En route the boat had also collected the captain’s family, who added three to its crew complement of five, as it sailed westwards into an oncoming storm.

Eight miles east of Wolf Rock its engines failed, contaminated by sea water. In winds gusting up to 100 mph and waves reputedly 60 feet high, it was blown back towards the cliffs of West Penwith.

The coastguard called up a helicopter, but the wind was too violent for the helicopter to winch anyone off. So they then requested the lifeboat at Penlee to launch. The Penlee boat, the Solomon Browne, then set off at 8.12 in the evening. In raging seas it located the Union Star and managed to manoeuvre alongside, successfully taking four people off the stricken ship. It then radioed that it was trying to rescue the remainder. And then there was radio silence.

wreckage from the Union Star

The 46-foot wooden lifeboat had presumably been smashed against the side of the carrier, pummelled by the horrific waves. Other lifeboats were launched: the Sennen boat was unable to make it around Land’s End while a search by the Lizard boat found nothing.

Sixteen people, the eight-man crew of the Solomon Browne and the eight on board the Union Star, lost their lives in this tragedy. A public appeal afterwards raised £3 million in recognition of the incredible bravery of those who volunteer to risk their lives in such conditions to save the lives of others. Following the disaster, the old lifeboat house was closed, a memorial garden planted nearby and a new lifeboat station established at nearby Newlyn.

Humphry Davy

The statue of Penzance’s most famous son looks east down Market Jew Street, where he was born on this day in 1778. But it also looks further east, past St Michael’s Mount, across the Tamar and upcountry, where he made his name, and then across the sea to where he ended his days.

His parents were not particularly well-off, although they could afford to send Humphry to Penzance Grammar School and then to finish at Truro Grammar School. By all accounts Davy was an indifferent scholar and made little impression on his teachers. When his father died he was apprenticed to a Penzance surgeon in 1795. There, he taught himself the rudiments of chemistry, as well as learning French, the language of the pre-eminent scientists of his day. More importantly, he made useful contacts, such as Davies Gilbert.

It was through Gilbert that he came to the attention of Thomas Beddoes at Bristol. Beddoes invited him to join his Pneumatic Institute, which was investigating the use of gases in medicine. While at Bristol Davy experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and identified its possible use as an anaesthetic. He also almost killed himself by deliberately inhaling carbon monoxide to test its effects.

As well as lacking much concern for health and safety, science in those days was less specialised and Davy counted among his friends at Bristol the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while writing some romantic poetry himself.

In 1801, aged just 23, he was offered a post as assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, established two years previously. It was Davy’s public lectures that brought him to wider attention. It secured invitations to all the best dinner parties, as well a full lectureship within a year.

A flood of discoveries followed thick and fast. Davy used electrolysis to isolate calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, proved that chlorine was an element and re-assessed the nature of heat. In 1804 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the main scientific institution of the time. In 1812 he was knighted and became a baronet in 1818. During the war with France in 1813 Davy, accompanied by his wife and his assistant, Michael Faraday, even journeyed to France, invited by the French Government to receive a medal for his electro-chemical work. This accolade crowned a career largely spent demolishing French theories on heat.

Back from the continent Davy found time for his most well-known invention, the safety lamp. This ultimately saved many lives in coal mines, preventing the recurrence of disasters such as that at Felling Colliery near Newcastle in 1812, when 92 men lost their lives in a massive explosion.

Davy was elected President of the Royal Society in 1820, but he never managed to reconcile the jealousies and feuds within it between the old gentleman-amateurs and the new professional academic scientists. His own manner, sometimes irritable while careless of etiquette, didn’t help.

Ultimately, he was felled by two strokes in 1826 and 1829, the second eventually ending his life. One of Cornwall’s most famous sons, he spent most of his life beyond its borders. Interestingly, his voluminous writings display little explicit reference to his Cornish identity, apart from some whimsical and over-romanticised poetry about the landscape.

Cornish carols

I’m straying into an area where I admit I know little. But Christmas is the season for carols and Christmas carols are a distinctive element of traditional Cornish culture. The carols composed and sung in the Camborne-Redruth district were carried across the world by emigrants and turned up in places as far apart as California and Australia.

Thomas Merritt was the best-known composer of Cornish carols. Born in Illogan in 1863 in a mining family, Thomas left school when his father died. He was just 11 years old. He then worked on the surface at Carn Brea Mine and as a tin streamer at Tolvaddon. But, at around 18, Thomas, who was musically talented, received music tuition from another miner-musician, Henry Broad of Redruth, who was choirmaster at Redruth’s Primitive Methodist chapel.

Armed with this help, Thomas then began to teach music himself and became a chapel organist. He developed into a proficient and versatile composer, oratorios, cantatas, hymns flowing from his pen. But he’s best known for his carols. These have been described as being of a ‘fugal type of style’, one voice starting and then being repeated in another part of the choir. His carols have also been called ‘earthy’ and conservative.

A collection of Cornish carols from 1899

The conservative aspect of Merritt’s carols should alert us to the fact that he was writing towards the end of a long-established tradition. When Cornish emigration was at its height – in the 1870s – Thomas Merritt had yet to start composing, but emigrant communities were already singing Cornish carols at Christmas.

Other less well-known working-class composers, such as Thomas Broad of Illogan or Willie Eade of Redruth, had been busy composing carols several decades earlier. In the 1820s and 30s Davies Gilbert and the dialect writer William Sandys both published collections of Cornish Christmas carols. These would have been sung by groups going around the town or village, the singers being rewarded with gifts of money or food and drink.

This carol tradition is usually linked to the rise of Methodism after the 1740s. This both validated and encouraged communal singing – of hymns and carols – beyond the church or chapel.

Yet the carol tradition in Cornwall may have an even longer pedigree, perhaps as far back as the period before the Reformation. William Scawen in the late 1600s wrote of the Cornish tradition of carols, which he speculated may have originally been sung in Cornish. He could have been right. For in 1508, when Cornish was still widely spoken, Elizabeth of York paid ‘to Cornishe [men/man?] for setting of a carolle upon Christmas day’.  

Cornish names with Devon roots

Two of the next three in my ‘rare Cornish surnames’ series have their roots east of the Tamar or straddle the border, while the third may possibly also fit that same category.

There is a small hamlet called Crowden near Northlew, a few miles north west of Okehampton. This name, spelt Growden, was already found in Cornwall in the 1500s – at St Neot – and in the 1600s moved into mid-Cornwall. Unless there is a lost placename in or near St Neot with this English name, probably meaning crow’s down or hill, it must indicate a migration from Crowden in Devon. Although the Growden family name settled down to the mid-Cornwall district, it was relatively dispersed.

The opposite was the case for Gubbin. This first appeared in the records as Gubbing, losing the -g by around 1600. It’s thought to be a form of Gibbon, itself from Gib, which was in turn a short form of Gilbert. While there were a few people called Gib, Gibb and Gibbs in east Cornwall in the sixteenth century there’s no convincing geographical relationship. The name Gubbin(g) was first recorded from the 1570s or thereabouts at North Tamerton, next to the border, suggesting a local cross-border spelling variant. It remained remarkably loyal to the parishes north of Launceston and was still found only there three hundred years later.

Finally, what about Henna? With its -a, this looks as if it should be name associated with the Cornish language community. But was it? It’s been proposed it came from Henn, a short form of Henry, or perhaps from Hann, from Johan (John). Or maybe it originated in the English word hen, a female version of the common surname Cock. Or was it from the Cornish word henna, meaning elder or senior? This last is unlikely as it didn’t crop up until the 1700s, usually spelt Hennah.

It was clearly linked to the parishes of Mevagissey and Gorran and a scatter of other nearby coastal locations. Its earlier absence suggests it wasn’t an example of the conservative custom of tacking an -a onto a personal name – as in Jacka. Nor did it stem from an earlier Henno, along the lines of Clemo/Clyma, as the name Henno isn’t found in early records. Given its coastal location, had it arrived in Cornwall by sea from somewhere further east? Was it perhaps a version of the name Anna? It may be significant that in 1861 there were as many Henna/hs in and around London as in Cornwall.

Housing and population: how Cornwall compares

From 2011 to 2018 the number of people in Cornwall grew from 534,000 to an estimated 566,000. This was a faster rate of growth than the other parts of Great Britain.

The number of houses built in Cornwall grew even faster. Interestingly, while the growth in the number of dwellings in England was less than the growth in population, the reverse has been the case in the Celtic countries.

A disturbance at Camborne in 1874

Camborne in the 1870s, a time of economic depression, could be a rough place. Here’s one incident reported in the West Briton of March 26th, 1874.

A man named Webster, a resident of Crowan, who has not the reputation of being the quietest character in the neighbourhood, and who, on account of certain pugilistic propensities, is known by the nickname of ‘Nipper’, … having got drunk, found his way  … into the kitchen of Abraham’s Hotel, where he became so noisy that, after some trouble, he was turned into the street. He next favoured Mr Arthur of the White Hart Inn; but here he made himself singularly obnoxious, and a second time he found himself ejected … He then commenced kicking with great violence at the door, and made such a disturbance that the attention of the police was called to his conduct.

The police officers – Gill and Sobey … endeavoured to persuade the man to go quietly home and took some pains to induce his friends, who were now collecting around him, to take him away. This was not a very easy thing to do, but eventually two men led him away, and the police took no further notice, although the fellow was swearing all the way going through the street. Gill and Sobey followed slowly in the same direction as Webster was taking … when he suddenly broke away from the two men, turned back and struck Gill a severe blow on the face. The policeman drew his staff, and hitting Webster over the head, knocked him down.

Immediately, there was a cry that the police had killed him and in two or three minutes an immense mob of excited men and boys had collected around the two policemen who were endeavouring to handcuff ‘the Nipper’ … But in this they failed, for Webster was forcibly removed from their grasp, and he went off, carrying with him the handcuffs that were fastened to one of his wrists. The unfortunate policemen were then hustled and jostled through the streets until at last they found themselves within the shop of Mr Eddy, P.C.Sobey taking in with him a man who gave the name of Williams, and who, while in the street, had been beating Sobey about the head with his fist.

Stone throwing was then commenced, but this was soon discontinued and the only damage done was the breaking of a pane of glass over the door of Mr Eddy’s shop. The mob, however, found out that Williams was in custody, and they thenceforth set up a cry for his release. … Fearing that further mischief might probably be done, the police took the advice of Mr Eddy and set their prisoner at liberty, … the two policemen remained in Mr Eddy’s shop until after midnight, eventually leaving by the back door and reaching their homes by a circuitous route.

This took place five months after serious anti-police riots had convulsed Camborne in 1873.

Rare Cornish surnames explained. Perhaps.

Edward Bickerley was buried at St Ives in 1854. A few years later the only three Bickerley households appearing in the 1861 census were found less than ten miles to the east, at Gwinear. Was this distinctively Cornish yet very rare family name a respelling of Bickley (from the placename in Devon)? There were early Bickleys in Cornwall, but they lived far away, in north-east Cornwall. A much more likely origin is a respelling of Beckerleg, a name that emerged at Newlyn and Penzance and was mainly confined to West Penwith. The meaning of Beckerleg remains a mystery.

People called Fitz were mentioned in a will of 1512, made by a resident of St Allen, near Truro. It’s from the Norman-French for son, from the Latin filius. Usually the first name remained attached, as in Fitzgerald for example, but not in Cornwall, where Fitz was found as a standalone surname. Although a John Fitz lived at Bodmin in 1525, the heartland of the Fitz family name was on the other side of Bodmin Moor, at Lezant south of Launceston. From there the name spread across south-east Cornwall.

Frayne was another east Cornish name. It’s claimed to be a name for someone living by an ash tree, from the Old French fraisne. Frayne made its Cornish debut quite late, not being recorded until the 1620s, and then at North Tamerton, on the border with Devon. Devon was in fact the origin of this name and in 1881 contained four times as many Frayne families as did Cornwall. The map of Fraynes in 1861 clearly indicates the Devonian connection.


What is it about mid-Cornwall that produces such prolific authors? The Hocking siblings, from St Stephen in Brannel, wrote almost 200 novels. A century later Alan Kent, who grew up in the clay country, is giving us scores of novels, plays, poems and histories. Not to mention Jack Clemo and Anne Treneer. And then there was Arthur Leslie Rowse, born at Tregonissey, just outside St Austell, on December 4th, 1903. Rowse became Cornwall’s foremost academic of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike his predecessor Arthur Quiller- Couch, he was of more working-class background, although his clay worker father had a small shop.

Rowse in 1942

Keenly supported in his career by Q, Rowse gained a scholarship to Oxford in 1921 to study English literature. He soon switched to history and it was the combination of history with a literary bent that made his name. He became best known for his work on the sixteenth century and Elizabethan England. His Tudor Cornwall, published in 1941, is still a key text for that period of Cornish history.

After being overlooked in 1952 for the post of warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he was a research fellow, Rowse spent a considerable time in the States, especially in California. It was there that he wrote The Cornish in America (1969). Never one to take either rejection or criticism easily Rowse later admitted that losing the wardenship enabled him to concentrate on his best work.

Rowse was never backward in coming forward to assert his own greatness. But equally, he was able to laugh at himself too. Everyone who met him has their favourite Rowse anecdote. Mine is of him at a conference at Perranporth in the 1980s. He had pompously backed up some opinion by stating ‘I’ve got a first-class Oxford-trained brain’. Responding from the audience the late Pedyr Prior prefaced his question with ‘As someone with a third-class Plymouth-trained brain … ’. Collapse of audience, as well as Rowse.

Rowse’s ground-breaking work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, when he claimed he had identified Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ involved him in his best-known academic controversy. While largely ignored in the outside world, it caused some bitter academic fallings out and much harrumphing over the port. Rowse’s autobiographical books, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Cornish Childhood (1942) were the tip of his unpublished and voluminous diary writings, which are by all accounts not a little scurrilous in their acid observations on academic colleagues.

Loyalty to his background meant that in the 1920s and ‘30s Rowse was a Labour man, even standing as Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency (which included St Austell) in 1931 and 1935. The voters of that constituency were saved the fate of having Rowse as MP when he resigned as candidate in 1943, later leaving the Labour Party over its opposition to Suez.

Rowse’s attitude towards the common people was ambivalent, to say the least. His love-hate relationship with both Oxford and Cornwall are summed up in the titles of the two biographies written about him. For Richard Ollard, he was a ‘man of contradictions’. From a Cornish perspective, Philip Payton dubbed him a ‘paradoxical patriot’.

Paradoxical or not, in later life he mellowed somewhat (although never totally) and became reconciled once again to his homeland. He spent his final years at Trenarren on St Austell Bay, a house he had first leased in 1953. Rowse continued to publish extensively, even after his All Souls fellowship ended in 1974. From that time, aged 71, to his death in 1997, he turned out a phenomenal 36 books. There’s hope for us all yet!