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.’

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.