Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
"One would like to know," said I to the old tinner, "whether Tom heard the knackers sing what he believed he did; or if there were any old ryhmes, somewhat similar, that he might, long before, have learnt and forgotten till something brought them to mind." "Never heard of any such," Bill replied. But An’ Mary—who knew a rare lot of queer sayings, odds and ends of old songs and the like,—said, "In a story relating to small people (fairies), that I often heard when a child, there are some lines about leaving the buryans (crumbs) for Bucca." And one would think the tribe of small folks always made their speeches in ryhmes. When I was young, it was a custom in the harvest-field, at croust (afternoon's refreshment), observed by most old folks, to pour a few drops of their liquor on the ground for good
luck; and to cast a fragment of bread over their right shoulder for the same reason. Fishermen, too, were in the habit of leaving on the sand, at night, a fish for Bucca; and they were also very careful to feed and make much of their cats, to insure them good luck in their fishing. If tinners in going to bal met with a 'bulhorn' (shell-snail) in their path, they always took care to drop before it a crum from their dinner, or a bit of grease from their candle for good luck.
Our talk about old rhymes reminds me that I have known many people who become little better than fools, because of childish verses and tunes constantly running in their numskulls; one would think that their seven senses were all stuck in their ears. "Before I was tormented with Bill there," said she nodding to her husband, "when I was sweet and twenty," as the old song goes, I lived with farmers down westward; in one place, my fellow-servant was known by the nickname of Jenny Tweedles, because she would be all day croanan over the song,—
[paragraph continues] It was enough to make one crazy to hear her croanan, over and over, a line here and there, with the burden brought in after every one. I can see her old grim visage now as she maundered about the kitchen, singing in doleful tones,—
[paragraph continues] You may fancy I would rather hear thunder by night than be kept awake with her droaning in my ear,—
Worst of all she could never be trusted to do any work that required attention,—if scalding milk, for instance, whilst she was tweedlean, it would boil over, and the cream be in the ashes; if cooking, for the same reason, all the fat would be in the fire.
An’ Mary paused, drew from her pocket a few lengths of yarn, when her husband said, "Come, Mary, keep the kibbal gwean, there's plenty of the same sort of stuff in thy bal." She continued her knitting and said, "There was a good mate for old Jenny Tweedles that used to live in the same parish, who was known by the name of Ky-me or Rigdom, because, when a boy, he was just another such fool, and would neglect, or badly do, any
work he was set about whilst whistling the tune, or singing the words, of another old song,—
"I can match these nicknames," said I, "with another instance of a grand one acquired from a song. But we must go back more than a hundred years to the time when potatoes were only grown as curious garden vegetables; peas supplied their place, and turnips, or other green crops, were unknown as winter's provision for cattle. Farmers then held, for the most part, freehold or leasehold tenements of from twenty to fifty acres of arable and pasture ground, with, in many places, twice that extent of uncultivated land or "outs" as we call it, which furnished fuel and winter's run for cattle.
Between tilling-season and harvest there was little farm work but to cut and carry furze and turf, and to save a little hay; and from the time that all was secure in the mowhay till seed-time there were long intervals of leisure. The corn was threshed as straw was wanted to be taken out to the downs or croft to keep the half-starved cattle alive. Horses, even, were seldom housed, and as there were no stall-fed beasts, little manure but ashes was made which was carefully housed to keep it dry till wanted for dressing;, then it was carried in dung-pots to the ground, ploughed in, and the crop quickly sown. After rough weather everybody was on the alert watching . for oarweed, which with sand constituted almost the only other substances used for manure. Everything had to be conveyed on horseback,—furze, hay, and corn in trusses, sand in sacks, oarweed in panniers or on crooks, slung over pack-saddles.
The only wheel-carriages in use were wherries, and these were drawn by horses in traces. A wherry was a square box, containing about four wheelbarrows, mounted on three solid wheels, such as we call druckshars. To empty this machine it was overturned, druckshars and all. Though there was little outdoor work to be done for long spells, our old folks were seldom idle. Hares, rabbits, and wild-fowl were plentiful on moors and the great extent of uncultivated land, and hunting was pursued—less as a pastime than a matter of necessity—to procure a little change of diet, now and then, from the almost constant peas-porridge, fish, and other salt provisions.
Women, old and young, passed much time in spinning, and in almost every farm-house one found weaving-machines, as we call hand-looms, so that when there was little else to do,
farmers, or some of their men, worked the treadles, and wove the yarn into blanketing, or other household cloth. The surplus of this serviceable material met with a ready sale in markets far eastward. The home-made clothing was almost everlasting. I knew a notable old farmer's wife who used, when bragging of her husband's stock of clothes, to say, "Our Honey (Hanibal) have got twelve coats, and only two of them biden clath" (bought cloth). Sennen people were famous for being good weavers, and those of Escols, in that parish, regarded themselves as the best in the West Country. In this village there might have been threescore inhabitants, including all ages, who were so connected by inter-marriages, that few of them knew where or how their relationship began or ended. The descendants of one family who formerly lived there still retain the nickname of "Triddles" from there forefathers having worked the treadles as their chief employment.
Weavers were much given to singing at their work, to relieve its tediousness; and an old weaving farmer, belonging to the primitive community of Escols, acquired the nickname of uncle Plato, because, whenever he was overtaken by a lazy stitch in working his treadles, he would sing a rather solemn piece,—one couldn't call it a song, which thus began,—
[paragraph continues] The rest I don't remember; its something about sceptred king's and beggar's dust coming to the same pass. But he seldom finished his favourite ditty; for if his wife happened to be within hearing, she would exclaim, "Peter! Peter! may the devil take thee and Plato too. I can hear thee droanan that dreary thing again, and the treadles gwean (going) lazier than with Billy, the weaver, croanan over Aaron's beard and the ointment. Come Peter vean, strike up—
or some other lively catch. I'll join in, and thee west make three throws of the shuttle for one." Uncle Plato's family continued to be weavers of more than ordinary ability. Some of them left Sennen, and established the first looms worked by machinery in the old factory at Alverton, and acquired considerable property in Penzance. Many of this family were also much given to study; one of them, a lady who lived in St. Levan—I don't know her exact relationship to Plato—was remarkable for her acquaintance with Greek and Latin authors, which she read in
their originals, and for her proficiency in astronomy and other sciences.
During this lady's lifetime, however, her acquirements were not regarded as anything so very extraordinary as they have been recently; for in those old times, and in that remote part, there were many who would even now be considered good scholars. The old folks of our great-grandfathers’ days were neither so ignorant nor so immoral as it is now the fashion to represent them; true, there were few sleek smoothies among them, and they would be too rude and outspoken for our taste perhaps.
Books, from their dearness, were comparatively scarce; but the few they had were read over and discussed around the winter's hearth, where neighbours assembled in a social way that is now not found in country villages.
The "Story of Troy-town,"—as they called some old translation of the "Iliad," almost everybody knew by heart. Hector was such a favourite, that the best horse was called after him; and Penelope had, in most families, a namesake (Pee) to commemorate her constancy.
They had also the "Seven Wise Masters of Greece," "Moore's Almanack," "Robinson Crusoe,"—which everyone knew by heart, and believed a true history,—and two or three herbals, besides religious books, of which they made little account on the whole. Culpepper was an especial favourite with elderly dames; stills being common, they experimented with his recipes, and often compounded precious balsams that would operate famously as evacuants. Many West Country gentlemen were practised astrologers; and in order to understand works that treated of their favourite science, they must have acquired a knowledge of Latin and mathematics.
We revert to our old country folks to remark that, for an acquaintance with classic fables, and much other secular knowledge, they were beholden to the plain Welsh, or native, parsons—then appointed to the western parishes who lived amongst, and associated with, their flocks in an easy, comfortable way. Yet the reverend gentlemen's familiarity and sympathy with their parishioners’ joys and griefs caused no diminution of respect for their sacred office. For example the Rev. James Bevan, from Glamorganshire, who was more than forty years curate of Sennen and St. Levan, was always spoken of, by the few old people who remembered him, with affection and respect. This gentleman resided in Trengothal; and so far was he from discountenancing wrestling, throwing quoits, and other manly recreations of the time, that he and his family, with many principal persons of the neighbourhood, always attended at
holiday games, on Penberth Green, where they danced with rich and poor, and their presence enforced decorum, and made our rural sports respectable.
Another usage—probably handed down from Catholic times—was then common. Prizes won at wrestling, or any other manly games, were either worn to church or suspended within it to a pillar near the door, on the following Sunday. This custom was particularly observed when the victory was obtained in another parish. I have often heard one who when young was a noted wrestler, and for many years champion of his parish, speak of the satisfaction with which he used to hang up a pair of spurs, gloves, yards of ribbon, lace, or whatever it might be, as a trophy in honour of old St. Levan.
A short time ago, it was usual for the winners of gold-laced hats to display them at Church, though the wearers—often gentlemen farmers’ sons—looked for all the world like livery servants. "Many customs of no more than fifty years ago," said the old tinner, "would be regarded as strange now. One thing that I have just thought of, that stories which have been related by romancers, and are still repeated by others in books, about the savagery of old Cornish wreckers and smugglers, is vile slander. Who, I wonder, would have more right to dead wreck than the salvers; and success say I to the fair trade."
The old tinner was now mounted on his favourite hobby, and as his stories about smuggling were interminable, I wished him good-night.
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