Mousehole, in Paul parish bordering the west side of Mount’s Bay, is now stuffed full of holiday cottages and second homes and more than half-dead in winter. It’s somehow fitting that this place could lay claim to be the location of the death of an entire culture.
The claim is based on two bits of evidence. First, the death in 1777 of Dolly Pentreath, claimed (wrongly) to be the last speaker of Cornish, a language that had been spoken for more than a millennium. The second is a letter written in 1776 by 65-year old William Bodinar to Daines Barrington, the man who had ‘discovered’ Dolly. Bodinar wrote (in English and Cornish) that ‘me rig deskey Cornoack termen mee vee mawe’ (I learnt Cornish when I was a boy) when out fishing. Bodinar’s letter suggests that Cornish was still a community language in the village in the 1720s but by 1776 ‘nag es moye vel pager po pemp en dreav nye ell clapia Cornick leben, poble coath pager egence blouth’ (there aren’t more than four or five in our village that can speak Cornish now, old people 80 years old).
Nonetheless, in 1850, when our Victorian Lives children were born, their grandparents, if they had survived into their 80s, may well have heard some Cornish spoken at Mousehole in their childhood. By that time, though the old language had expired and become just an unmourned (by most) memory, Mousehole was a lively and booming fishing village with its own rich culture largely revolving around Methodism and fishing.
There was very little migration into the village in the late 1800s. That didn’t mean children never left, even though six of the ten survivors born in Mousehole in our database were still living in Paul or Penzance in 1891. One other had only just left. Jane Blewett was the daughter of a tailoress who was widowed at a young age. Jane married young – to a fisherman – William Henry Humphries. A child was born to them in the village in 1890 but by 1893 William and Jane were halfway across the world in British Columbia.
Some departed only to return. Joseph Blewett was born in Mousehole in the same year as Jane. He was the child of a fisherman’s widow who remarried, only to lose her second husband within ten years as well. Undeterred, the young Joseph followed in his father and stepfather’s footsteps and became a fisherman. He married Minnie in 1884 and the pair soon left for America with their infant child and were in Massachusetts by 1888. There, a second child was born in 1893. Yet, in 1896 Joseph, Minnie and their family were drawn back to Mousehole, where he was fishing again in 1901.