Contrasting Cornish surnames from places

Boswarthack or Boswarthick is a surname that I haven’t yet covered in either book or blog. It comes from a place in Constantine parish spelt Boswodek in 1330 and Bosvathek in 1519. This apparently meant a settlement by a water-course or stream.

In the 1500s the distribution of the name Bosvathek (also spelt occasionally Boswathek) mostly clustered around its point of origin.

It began to be spelt with an <r> as early as the 1580s and this had taken over as the predominant spelling by the 1700s. There were still quite a few families with this surname, as the map below indicates. Yet, by the 1861 census, only two household heads called Boswarthick remained (at Stithians and Perranarworthal – both quite close to its point of origin.)

For contrast, here’s a map of the surname Polglase, a locative name with multiple origins. For a map of Polglase in 1861 see here.

Poldark’s Cornwall

Work on an insider’s guide to Poldark’s Cornwall is proceeding apace. A month has passed and I now have first drafts of four chapters. These are The Mine, The Cottage, The Road and The Chapel. In the meantime – a taster from The Mine.

‘pick out the hard ore by the glimmering of a small candle’

Here’s Reuben Clemow, in the first book of the Poldark saga, waiting to go to work down a mine. He’s wearing an ‘old hard hat with its candle stuck to the front by clay’. Candles would be the sole source of illumination. He’s also carrying some tools, including what’s called a ‘heavy iron jumper’ in the book. This wasn’t a cardigan, but a rod, usually called a borer, used for drilling holes in the rock. But first Reuben had to descend to his place of work. This was done by climbing down ladders from one ‘level’ of the mine to the next. These ladders weren’t all vertical by any means, lying at various angles. Care had to be taken as the ladders could be worn and slippery and rungs broken or missing. Once at his workplace, Reuben and his partner would take turns holding and twisting the borer as the other wielded a hammer to beat the borer and drill it into the rock. When it was deep enough, gunpowder was packed into the hole, the powder tamped down and a fuse set and lit. The miners retired to a safe distance and waited for the resulting explosion to bring down some ore-bearing rock. Beating the borer and removing the ore and the waste rock were the two central tasks of the underground miner. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that. Expertise in knowing which way the lode of ore was trending and experience in setting the fuses in the days before the safety fuse had been invented (by a Cornishman) were all critical.

Surface work at Dolcoath mine in the 1820s

More to come next month.

The pasty in the 1800s

Two reports illustrate the changing state of the pasty between 1850 and the 1890s.

In 1850 the newspaper the Morning Chronicle ran a series of articles on the condition of the poor. One of these concerned Cornwall. The report tells us that the pilchard, one of the staple dietary items in west Cornwall ‘seldom constitutes an ingredient of the pasty, so commonly met with as entering into the labourer’s diet in Cornwall. The mackerel frequently does … [but] generally speaking the pasties consist of potatoes and bits of meat, more frequently salt pork, covered with a rather tough crust made of flour and sometimes of flour and barley meal mixed together. In the absence of the potato, the turnip constitutes one of the internal ingredients of the pasty … They are generally made for the labourer himself, his family contenting themselves with lighter and more frugal fare.’

The writer encountered a labouring man who claimed his large family had only eaten potatoes and some ‘fat mutton’ over the previous week.

‘“There’s my dinner today, sir”, he continued, breaking a pasty in two, which he took from his pocket. The tough, black crust enclosed a quantity of watery-looking turnips’.

Half a century later, in 1893-94, a Parliamentary Commission into the conditions of the agricultural labourer took evidence from the vicinity of Truro. Things had improved as the report concluded:

‘Cornish pasties are excellent things. “They are mostly full of vegetables”, the men say, a turnip pasty, a leeky pasty, or a potato pasty, but they often have bacon chopped up inside, and in some places beef. At Probus, “the men won’t eat pork in their pasties. It is generally beef. They used to eat what were called hobbans, suet and flour and raisins rolled up and baked, but they have all gone.”’

Boys forced to eat pasties for a cruel photographer