Friday, 21 August 2015

Cornish Family History: Treasures of Penwith

You can't beat a bit of local information!
I'm not long back from a family holiday in Newlyn, near Lands End in Cornwall, England.

During the holiday I did the holiday stuff like a family barbecue, meeting for meals, enjoying a day out at Land’s End and just spending a lot of time with my mum. However I also visited a cluster of ancestors I've spent the last few months getting to know.

I’d managed to do a lot of work online during the spring thanks largely to the exceptional hard work of the local Online Parish Clerk Diane Donohue who transcribed and made available free online decades-worth of baptisms, marriages and burials, amongst other resources, from OPC Newlyn St Peter and Paul parishes.

I also joined Cornwall Family History Society  whose online records also gave me a lot of information prior to my visit, some of which is on FindMyPast but not all, as far as my search results indicated.

I had also made pages of lists in my book of graves to track down, streets to check out for photos of ancestors’ homes, churches to visit and places to visit, such as the shops my ancestors ran or their schools. The following are a few of the main sources I appreciated.

Morrab Library 
The Morrab Library in Penzance (next to Newlyn) is an amazing private library in what was formerly the home of the local dignitary and MP Charles Campbell Ross. I had planned to go check out their range of resources which I knew from the web they held, specifically old parish records for a couple of nearby parishes St Buryan and Sancreed.

Morrab Library, Penzance
In the event the first time I went along there was staff sickness and the Library had needed to close for the afternoon.  Fortunately this was early in my holiday so I gave them a call the following day to check they were open again. The volunteer who answered the phone who had the dubious honour of fielding my many questions told me that yes they have a photo archive which is open on Wednesday mornings only. Ha! The next day. So one itinerary change later and I was back the following morning.  The team were great, really helpful, and showed me the various hard-copy photo albums they had sitting there, and told me about the catalogue they have. 

There were so many images of Newlyn and Street-An-Nowan (the specific part of Newlyn I'm most interested in) so I spent some time working my way through their catalogue. There were no photos in the archive of my family’s ice-cream shop so maybe we should contribute one!  I had planned to stay all day and check out the OPRs but my eyes get bleary quite quickly when scanning so when the photo archive closed I just went home and joined family for a day out at Lands End [their 4D dinosaur film was brilliant!]  But I did order a digital copy of a couple of photos of a family house and they were emailed to me within days. It was fascinating to see the streets from the war without yellow lines at the side of the road or best of all, without wheelie bins in the photos!

Penlee House 
I went to Penlee House art gallery to see an art exhibition of work by the Newlyn School artists such as Stanhope Forbes, mainly because my mum told me to. However I liked it and I found some of the pieces really engaging, especially those showing local Newlyn girls and women just having a laugh or going about their business like Frank Bramley's Eyes and No Eyes.  Others were really haunting, especially a couple of portraits of women who've just lost their fisherman husbands at sea such as Walter Langley's Among the Missing.

Penzance Library
Penzance Library (left)
After I’d finished at Penlee House I was walking about and by chance walked past Penzance Library so I thought I would just pop in and see what they had.

In addition to microfilm and readers, in their family history section they had whole sets of local books such as Kelly’s directories. Not something to start working through just when you've dropped in on the off-chance with no notes with you. However what they did have that I wouldn't have got anywhere else was a book about Newlyn's history by a local author, published privately and one of only ten in existence.  I took many, many notes from that one!

Newlyn Archive
Newlyn Archive 
is another local organisation which is run by volunteers and it too was only open half-day a week, although that’s just the public face on it and doesn't reflect the hours of work behind the scenes by volunteers. I spent a while chatting with Pam and colleagues and looking through some of their books, mainly those which work by surname. They have so many documents that I’ll need to check their catalogue online and I have contact details for following things up. My mum told me to leave hard copy of some of my Newlyn-related blog posts with them which disconcerted me as I didn’t want to force anything on them, but they seemed interested and quite pleased.  I’d previous bought their books about Newlyn at Play and Newlyn at School and this time I left after buying Newlyn at War.

Before leaving Newlyn I checked out Newlyn Post Office. I’ve found in other towns that often post offices have local books  of the areas and also postcards, and this turned out to be the case here too.  And it had the added bonus of being sited (I believe) in the old Customs Building.  If this is the case it’s where my grandfather James E Glover worked, which made me happy.

Finally Hannah of Cornwall Council was really helpful. I actually rang her up during my visit as I’d run out of time before the holiday. I was very embarrassed that I’d not given her more notice in my request for grave locations, but she was really kind and efficient and she popped the information about 2 graves’ locations in the mail to my mum’s house. 

Susan Richards' grave
So, after spending an hour earlier in the week walking along rows of graves in Paul Cemetery and checking out the Paul QuietGarden graveyard I was able to walk in Paul Cemetery direct to the grave of my great-great-grandparents Benjamin Jaco Rowe and Susan (nee Sullivan) and their daughter Susie Richards. It was lovely to finally get to find them.

Later that day we went on a drive to a couple of local parishes where my ancestors lived in the 18th century: St Buryan and SancreedBy chance St Buryan Church had its Tower Open Day so the church was really busy. So not only did I get information leaflet and postcards (and of course dozens of photos!) but mum and I had a nice cream tea in the church, which was vaguely surreal but very tasty. And no I didn’t climb the tower, but would like to another time to get a view over the whole parish.

Sancreed Church, Cornwall
Sancreed was a beautiful church and not at all what I expected. Pulling up in the parking space across the road from it it gave us a beautiful classic view of a church, with its gate and its beautiful cemetery walls covered in flowers, with the church in the background. What I wasn't expecting – although to be honest I’d not thought about the church more than just that I wanted to visit it – was that the beautiful graveyard was the resting place of Stanhope Forbes and other Newlyn School artists. Their influence also was obvious inside the church, which although very old, included more recent artistic flourishes.

So what next?

The remaining graves will still be there when I go back, but this time I’ll contact the Council a few weeks in advance...

There are lots of family biographies that can now be written and illustrated.

I'm sure I’ll be back in touch with the Newlyn Archive soon.

And there seems to be so many publications and resources at the Morrab Library I will pay that a longer visit when I'm down.

But so much to do first!  The more you learn, the more you realise is still to be discovered!

Lynne Black
Blog: Starryblackness: 

© Lynne Black, 21 August 2015


  1. Wonderful blog of the available, and often overlooked, county sources. And the joy of personally getting close to the locations of ancestors.

    1. Thank you, that's kind! I love visiting the places where family would have stood and laughed after church, or trudged up the lane by their houses to school. [Sorry I didn't reply earlier, didn't realise you'd commented.]

  2. Lovely evocative and helpful story ... a nice follow-up to the article that will appear in the September issue of the CFHS journal.

    1. Thanks Tony, it will be a thrill again to see it in print!

  3. Thank you so much for this informative blog, it is very informative. My ancestors the Barbary's came from Cornwall. They immigrated to South Australia in the mid 1800's

    1. Thanks very much Diane, glad you liked it. There is an amazing county to have ancestors, there are so many people keen on preserving Cornish history.


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