Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 

Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, [1870], at

p. 178


Part II

"Hail Mousehole! birthplace of old Doll Pentreath,
 The last who jabbered Cornish—so says Daines."—
                                                 Peter Pindar's Ode, 22.

In a note to the above lines, Peter says:—"A very old woman of Mousehole, supposed (falsely, however) to have been the last who spoke the Cornish language. The honourable antiquarian, Daines Barrington, Esq., journeyed, some years since, from London to the Land's End, to converse with this wrinkled yet delicious morceau. He entered Mousehole in a kind of triumph; and, peeping into her hut, exclaimed, with all the fire of an enraptured lover, in the language of the famous Greek philosopher, 'Eureka!' The couple kissed: Doll soon after gabbled; Daines listened with admiration; committed her speeches to paper, not venturing to trust his memory with so much treasure. The transaction was announced to the Society; the journals were enriched with their dialogues; the old lady's picture was ordered to be taken by the most eminent artist, and the honourable member to be publicly thanked for the discovery!" Thus sayeth Peter Pindar.

If the hut is still in existence in which the honourable Daines and Dolly kissed and jabbered, as recorded by Peter Pindar, it may become one of the most noted objects in the ancient town, as Dolly's posthumous fame seems to be augmenting. Mr. Halliwell has lately collected and published all he could glean from books about her. As Dolly lived until within the last ninety years—the date of her death being 1777—many interesting traditions of the dame might still be collected from the old folks of Paul, who must often have heard of her from their grandparents, which is the usual source from which children derive all they remember of old-world stories.

Dolly was married to a person called Jeffrey, but as she belonged to one of the most ancient and respectable families in the parish of Paul, she always retained her maiden name. This practice is still very general when the wife's family are or were persons of note.

Dolly lived in Duck-street, and there the dame was visited by many other great scholars as well as the honourable Daines Barrington, who laboured hard to convince themselves, and the learned world, that the old lady's lingo had a close affinity to Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, and other languages of the ancient world. Yet, notwithstanding Dolly's intimate connection with the savants of her time, she did not even learn her A B C in Greek from them: a question if she knew her letters in English.

One morning, as Dolly was proceeding down the street on her return journey home, after having disposed of her fish in town, when near Penzance Grammar School, she was overtaken by four boys, who, happening to have for their morning's lesson the beginning part of the

p. 179

[paragraph continues] Greek alphabet to learn by heart, were alternately repeating aloud, "Alpha, beta, gamma, delta." Dolly no sooner heard their words than she dropped her cowal, took to her heels, and the boys close behind her, to see what in the world the old woman could be running after. Dolly ran into school as well as all the boys. When Dolly recovered her wind, she told the schoolmaster that four of his blackguards of boys had chased her down the street, the one calling out, "at her;" another, "beat her;" the third, "damn her;" and the other said, "pelt her!" If she hadn't beaten them in running she believed they would have killed her. The boys, when taken to task, declared that they said nothing to the old woman; they were only repeating aloud the letters they had to learn. The master, seeing Dolly's mistake, explained to her that what she mistook for threatening language was only the A B C in Greek. If that was a sample of the outlandish tongue, Dolly thought it the wickedest she ever heard.

Dolly, from her skill in fortune-telling, charming for the cure of various diseases, giving directions to the young folks as to the best way of trying for sweethearts, and other practices of divination, came to be regarded as one of those who have acquired so much forbidden knowledge that they have the power to blast and ban, to lay a spell on man or beast, so that the old dame was little loved, but—what is the next best thing—much feared as one of those overwise ones about whom we now often hear the whisper, accompanied by the ominous shake of the head (which expresses whatever you please, like the bells chiming to your thoughts), "That she knows the hour and the minute: on that account it is much better not to offend the one who holds the dreaded secret. This mysterious intimation alludes to the general belief that there is an hour in every day, and a minute, only known to the demon-taught, in that particular hour (which varies from day to day), in which as we say "curses will not fall to the ground." This notion seems to be some vestige of the dogmas belonging to judical astrology, perhaps the shadow of some idea about the culmination of the malignant planet. However that may be, the belief exists to the present hour; also that our pellars, conjurors, white witches, or by whatever names these wise people are distinguished, have a profound acquaintance with this mysterious science. It seems that Dolly was also regarded as one having this knowledge, and more fearful kinds of wisdom, by the stories still told of her. When much excited, she seemed to forget the little English she knew; and her voluble Cornish speech, then imperfectly understood by the younger and educated folks, impressed the people with far greater terrors than if she cursed or scolded in a language of which they knew the import.

One day Mr. Price, of Choone, was riding down Newlyn hill on a shying, restive horse, when Dolly the Spring (as she was more generally called than by her right name) was slowly hobbling down the narrow lane (then a mere bridle-path) before him. Dolly's broad beaver hat,

p. 180

scarlet cloak, and cowal, as she resolutely kept the middle of the lane, left less space than Mr. Price or his horse thought sufficient for them to pass beside her. The gentleman wishing to get ahead of Dolly, called out to her, "Clear the way!" Dolly would neither move on any faster, nor start a peg, as she said, for all the cursed Jamaica drummer's brats in the country, and told the gentleman that, like all other upstart beggars, he would ride to the devil, with much more of the same kind in her choicest English (which she could speak pretty well when cool). This civil talk, for Dolly, was not much to Mr. Price's taste, and as he did not wish to be treated to any more of the popular history about the rise of his family, by the vigorous use of whip and spurs he forced his horse to pass Dolly, but, in going by, the horse or rider came in contact with her cowal, full of fish, which was overturned and all the contents cast out in the muddy ditch. Dolly then forgot her English, and began to abuse in her native Cornish, which came more glibly to her tongue; at the same time casting mud, fish, and stones at Mr. Price as hard and fast as she could pelt them, the refrain of each sentence of abuse being an oath ending with, "Cronnack an hagar dhu." As Dolly was reputed to be a kind of half witch, as mentioned before, Mr. Price became terribly frightened at hearing what he dreaded might be some horrible incantation for laying a spell on him and his. He endeavoured to appease her by paying for the fish, when she became a little more placable. He wished above all to know what she had been saying, to curse or blast him perhaps? Dolly called him a fool for thinking anything of the kind, and assured him that she was no more a witch than himself. Still, Mr. Price was not satisfied, and before he arrived at the bottom of the hill returned again to Dolly. He must know the meaning of what she repeated like a spell, after every oath, which he did not mind, as he could swear as hard and fast as she could in honest and plain English. At last he offered Dolly half-a-crown to be told the meaning of "Cronnack an hagar dhu." "Give me the money first, then," says Dolly, "and I must call ye a fool for your pains; as all I said was to call ye the ugly black toad that thee art." Mr. Price, on hearing this, threatened to horsewhip her. Dolly then dared him to lift but a finger against her, and if he did she would put such a spell on him as should make his arm rot from his shoulder, and began again to jabber Cornish, which so frightened Mr. Price, or his horse, that they went off with all haste and left Dolly to gather up her fish in peace.

The above anecdotes were told me by an old lady of Sennen, who knew Dolly well. She often said there was no one in the west country who knew so much of what had taken place in the neighbourhood for hundreds of years past as this notable old dame of Mousehole, and that all the Pentreaths were remarkable for possessing more than the ordinary quantity of mental endowments.

p. 181

Dolly's ghost must be very much gratified by the sight of the handsome monument recently erected to her memory by Prince Lucien Buonaparte. In speaking of this memorial J. O. Halliwell says:—"It is right to add that my supposition of the new monument to Dolly's memory having been placed near the traditional site of her grave is erroneous. The general belief in Paul is that she was buried in the older cemetery of that church-town. The date of her death, as inscribed on that memorial, is also incorrect; so that, on the whole, the epitaph appropriately commences, "Here lieth," &c.

It may not be generally known that the ludicrous epitaph said to be inscribed on her tomb is a fabrication, which has imposed on many from its having been so frequently printed. Hundreds have hunted in vain throughout the churchyard in hope of finding her tomb with the Cornish of this absurd elegy inscribed on it. There is little doubt that the hoax was perpetrated by the Mr. Tonkin, of Newlyn, who composed many of the curious Cornish dialogues, &c., and by him gravely recited as the veritable epitaph which was inscribed on her tomb soon after her decease. If it never has been it ought to be now (as it is so well known), to gratify those who make pilgrimages to her grave. Better late than never. As Dolly has only been dead ninety years (the date of her decease being 1777), we may hope that the house in which she lived may yet be found, as, if known, it would be a great attraction for antiquaries.

The writer of an article on Cornish antiquities, in the "Quarterly" for August, 1867, says:—"Those who can appreciate the charms of genuine antiquity will not, therefore, find fault with the enthusiasm of Daines Barrington or Sir Joseph Banks in listening to the strange utterances of Dolly Pentreath; for her language, if genuine, carried them back to, and brought them as it were into immediate contact with, people who, long before the Christian era, acted an important part on the stage of history, supplying the world with two of the most precious metals, more precious then than gold or silver, with copper and tin, the very materials, it may be, of the finest works of art in Greece, aye of the armour wrought for the heroes of the Trojan war, as described so minutely by the poets of the Iliad. There is a continuity in language which nothing equals, and there is an historical genuineness in ancient words, if but rightly interpreted, which cannot be rivalled by manuscripts, or coins, or monumental inscriptions."

Mr. J. O. Halliwell also remarked, when his visited the west, six years ago (1861), that, "The provincial language of the Cornish of the present day is hardly a dialect, but rather, for the country, a singularly pure English, spoken in a kind of recitative twang that it would not be easy to describe. None of the recently-published specimens of the so-called Cornish dialect convey this peculiarity intelligibly, nor do they present it in a form that would be easily recognized. A few sentences

p. 182

may suffice. "Aunt Betty, coming from a Christmas party, had a ben too forthey in teeming out her licker, and p’raps were a little boozy, and she were found upon the sea-shore, laid down as of she were to bed, and water were comed opp to her face and flopping agen et, and she were a saying quite genteellylike, 'Nat a drop more, nat a drop more, thankee.' The people of the Land's End district do not talk in this tyle. Theirs is a really good English, intermingled only with a few provincial words." The few sentences given by Mr. Halliwell are taken from "Uncle Jan Trenoodle."

At the time Dolly the Spring flourished in Mousehole, and Mr. Price in Choone, the Praeds of Trevethow lived in such style and state as well become the head of the squirearchy and the hospitable customs of old Cornwall, which found their last resting-place in the ancient seat of this family, where many of the delights of "merrie old England" lingered long after they had said adieu to other places in the west.

Now, in these pinching times, it is rather tantalizing to hear the old folks of Lelant talk of the fat oxen, sheep, and deer, game and poultry without number, that were then weekly butchered in Trevethow for the use of the squire's establishment. Much out of this abundance was distributed with liberal heart and hand to all the poor of the neighbourhood. At the same time the choice spirits of town and country always found a hearty welcome at the squire's hospitable board.

Among scores of others, Dr. Walcot (Peter Pindar) was a frequent and favourite guest. Mr. Price (the same who had the encounter with Dolly) also frequently enjoyed the good cheer at Trevethow, and served as a butt for the satirical poet’s shafts. The heavy Mr. Price appears to have been very much of a gourmand, as one day at table, when the host and Peter were interested in duscussing some literary production, Peter, in one of his happiest moods, replying to Mr. Praed's remarks by some impromptu squib, but the heavy gentleman of Paul being formed on nature's very homely plan, had his heart and soul engrossed by the flavour or more substantial fare than that of Peter Pindar's spicy repartees; above all he admired the degree of perfection to which the host's turkeys were fattened and cooked, wished to know from the host what method was pursued in the fattening process of the poultry, the ingredients of the blancmange, and of the other delicacies he found the most pleasing to his palate. Neither Mr. Praed nor the poet took much pleasure in a dissertation on pudding and turkey-fattening. To put a check on the annoying interruptions of Mr. Price about such vulgar subjects Mr. Praed replied to the effect that he never paid much attention to the matter; yet that he had often noticed broken charcoal and chopped cabbage-stumps placed with the water in the feeding-troughs of the turkeys, and thought it highly probable that the success in fattening depended on their having an abundant supply of carbon and greens, with little else

p. 183

but what they found for themselves, and that was a secret he should not tell everybody. Mr. Price made a note, and congratulating himself on his shrewdness in having extracted the wonderful secret returned home early, that his turkeys might be put without delay to fatten on cabbage-stumps and charcoal. The carbonised regimen not succeeding to Mr. Price's expectation nor his turkeys either, he suspected the truth of his having been hoaxed, when he found the turkeys starved to death. This was followed by a quarrel between the squires, which did not last long, as Mr. Price feared losing the delicacies always to be found on the table of the squire of Trevethow. The whole affair was satirized by Peter Pindar in a few verses (well known to the old gentlemen of the neighbourhood) which were published in some of the early editions of the poet’s works.

We have but little more time to spare in the ancient town, although there are many more noteworthy objects in the place, particularly suitable for the sketch-book, as the old mill, some cottages farther up the glen, and on the cliff, &c.


We take the pleasant pathway across the fields from Mousehole to Lamorna: if the tide be out, we pass down over the cliff at the foot of Regennis hill, to see the cavern known as the Mouse-hole. This cavern is about fifty feet high at the entrance, and is said to extend to a great distance under the cliff; but, from being so low and narrow, it is not easily explored. The almost perfect arch of the cavern is adorned with a luxuriant growth of Asplinum marinum and other delicate and graceful ferns. On the cliff, near the sawn, are masses of creeping wild flowers: among others, trailing close to the water's edge, is a variety of the great bind-weed, remarkable for having beautiful pink-striped flowers. Ascending Regennis hill, we pass over a stile on the left, and are on the path which winds along near the shore, and which affords a splendid sea-view with a foreground (in many places) of towering cairns and picturesque crags. On the way we come to the farm-house of Lower Kimyal, and its surrounding cottages. This place is remarkable as the scene of an incident in one of the most romantic of the many wild legends of the west. We will give the story, as it is generally narrated by the old folks of Buryan, to which parish it belongs, rather than to that of Paul. This legend will give us many glimpses of the inner life and feelings of the ancient people, and enable us to understand how the wildly-poetical stories of the Cornish drolls may still tincture the Celtic race, just as tales of terror, related by an ignorant and superstitious nurse, make an impression in the infant mind never to be entirely obliterated; and the ghost, demon, or bucca-dhu, with which the child is frightened, remains as a dim and unpleasant

p. 184

spectre to shake the nerves of the man in his prime; and, as second childhood advances, these fantastic pictures are renewed in all their pristine vividness. We are still too much under the influence of the fearful fancies and images of horror, which those who pretend to teach us are found of displaying, in order to gratify the lovers of the marvellous, and the fantastical imaginations of the weak.

When children, we have often, of a winter's night, been more terrified than amused, as we listened, pitying all the while, to the old folk's tale.

Next: Part I