Annabel Walker, A. L. Rowse, Slightly Foxed 66, Tregonissey 1912 (Francis Frith Collection)
Tregonissey, 1912 (Francis Frith Collection)

An Outsider in Tregonissey

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When I was a child growing up in Devon, I held a rather dim view of Cornwall. The landscape of claypits and roadside caffs glimpsed from the car en route to the beach seemed bleak. It wasn’t that I found the far west boring, simply that my interest was unconnected to twentieth century realities and focused instead on the romance of Daphne du Maurier’s historical novels. If I found the modern county prosaic, I could bury myself in tales of dashing French sailors or murderous smugglers on the high moors. Later, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells alerted me to less flamboyant but equally seductive charms. Still, I was in the realm of romantic sentiment, aware that most lives in the county were not as enchanted as that of a privileged young boy on holiday from Highgate in the early twentieth century.

In the years that saw Betjeman taking exciting train journeys from London to Wadebridge, Alfred Leslie Rowse, later to become an eminent academic and historian, was living in rather different circumstances a few miles to the south in the village of Tregonissey, on the outskirts of St Austell. The son of a clayworker, he spent his entire life up to the age of 18 in this small community. His only experience of train travel was the annual Sunday School outing to the sea at Pentewan, three miles away, in china clay rail trucks that had been specially cleaned for the occasion. Like Betjeman, he later wrote vividly about his childhood and the resulting memoir was published in 1942.

There will be readers who find A Cornish Childhood too rooted in the egotism for which A. L. Rowse was well-known, or uncomfortably tinged with disdain for others – he dishes out verdicts such as ‘vapid’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘puerile’ with seeming equanimity and is unafraid of making dismissive generalizations about ‘the people’. At a distance of almost eighty years from publication, I mostly feel fairly forgiving towards such comments, amused rather than outra

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When I was a child growing up in Devon, I held a rather dim view of Cornwall. The landscape of claypits and roadside caffs glimpsed from the car en route to the beach seemed bleak. It wasn’t that I found the far west boring, simply that my interest was unconnected to twentieth century realities and focused instead on the romance of Daphne du Maurier’s historical novels. If I found the modern county prosaic, I could bury myself in tales of dashing French sailors or murderous smugglers on the high moors. Later, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells alerted me to less flamboyant but equally seductive charms. Still, I was in the realm of romantic sentiment, aware that most lives in the county were not as enchanted as that of a privileged young boy on holiday from Highgate in the early twentieth century.

In the years that saw Betjeman taking exciting train journeys from London to Wadebridge, Alfred Leslie Rowse, later to become an eminent academic and historian, was living in rather different circumstances a few miles to the south in the village of Tregonissey, on the outskirts of St Austell. The son of a clayworker, he spent his entire life up to the age of 18 in this small community. His only experience of train travel was the annual Sunday School outing to the sea at Pentewan, three miles away, in china clay rail trucks that had been specially cleaned for the occasion. Like Betjeman, he later wrote vividly about his childhood and the resulting memoir was published in 1942.

There will be readers who find A Cornish Childhood too rooted in the egotism for which A. L. Rowse was well-known, or uncomfortably tinged with disdain for others – he dishes out verdicts such as ‘vapid’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘puerile’ with seeming equanimity and is unafraid of making dismissive generalizations about ‘the people’. At a distance of almost eighty years from publication, I mostly feel fairly forgiving towards such comments, amused rather than outraged and prepared to overlook them since his outspokenness seems so obviously a product of his particular circumstances.

The circumstances are these: an unusually bright boy is born in 1903 into a family of modest means whose world is circumscribed by village and work. Life, as Rowse wrote later, proceeded ‘along very well-worn ruts’. Of course, this was still common in the early twentieth century, particularly in remote parts of the country. We know that most people necessarily lived parochial, often difficult and wretched lives and that many either could not or did not read or write (elementary schooling had become compulsory only thirty years earlier), did not travel, rarely took holidays or met people from beyond their own familiar territory.

The bare historical facts are known – but written, highly readable accounts of the real experiences of such a community are rare. How could they be otherwise, since those communities produced few people with the skills and inclination to organize their memories into book form?

In this young boy, however, Tregonissey had a future chronicler. From the outset Rowse seems to have had a deep interest in learning, an innate sense of history and a facility with words. He is keenly sensitive to emotion, place and aesthetics. He seeks out books, teachers, mentors; he spends hours immersed in study. All this sets him apart; he is an outsider and an observer. Also, happily for future readers, he has a phenomenal memory. What a combination!

Written when Rowse was in his late thirties after years of ill-health and life-threatening illness, the book is primarily an affectionate and nostalgic description of his Cornish childhood – unlike the difficulties he had when composing books on history and politics, he commented in the Preface, this book ‘was there waiting to write itself’. Woven throughout his account, however, is an inextricable sub-theme, like a continuous thread in a piece of cloth, a couple of shades deeper than all the others: the resentment clearly still burning in him at being under-appreciated by his family and forced to struggle at every step on the way to becoming first a scholar and then an academic. ‘I admit that I was exceedingly inquisitive,’ he writes,

devoured by an insatiable desire to know and in every direction . . . So a technique of dealing with me was developed from my earliest years. My questions were unanswered; the more I asked the less satisfaction I got; I was told on every hand: ‘Little boys should be seen and not heard’ . . . I grant that I must have been an altogether too knowing little boy, or would have been if the questions had been answered – if they had been capable of answering them. But this process of stubbing every shoot of confidence on the part of a naturally sanguine and vivacious temperament had all sorts of unforeseen consequences, some of them detrimental to happiness. For one thing, this repressive, discouraged youth drove me in upon myself and made me excessively ambitious . . .

You can see how that prickly, provocative and outspoken character developed.

He sought affirmation from his teachers, whether in school or at church where he was a chorister, found few friends among other children and had no like-minded relatives – though he enjoyed spending time with his spirited great-aunt and uncle, who read to each other from Dickens. As a very young child he seems to have noticed that the dialect his family spoke was not ‘correct’ and felt acute shame if anyone drew attention to his using it. He must have made a determined effort to shed it because he says that he became unable to speak it for many years – understandable at a time when many of his peers at Oxford would no doubt have judged him for having a regional accent and a vocabulary to match. By the time the book was published, however, he was secure enough to enjoy the dialect and is adept at reproducing it accurately on the page.

Rowse compensates for the perceived lack of family support by channelling his emotions into a love of his native county and all that that encompassed: the physical contours of the place, its history and its people. He writes with such vivid recall that you almost feel the road dust in your nostrils and hear the voices of the carters calling to their horses on the way from the claypits to the town. You experience his wariness of the older boys at primary school wielding stones, his awestruck fascination during a visit to the unoccupied ‘big house’ where his grandparents were employed, and his terror while reading the frightening passages of Jane Eyre under the bedclothes. He loves trips to the coast but is scared of the sea (no one goes in the water on the Sunday School outing); his experience of the First World War is mostly confined to rumours and a depopulated neighbourhood; he is as familiar with the columns of the Cape Times as with those of the local paper, because so many former miners seek their fortunes in South Africa, but is overcome when once invited to dine at the Rectory.

He describes a society of rituals and restraints, hard work and heavy responsibilities. His mother and father were respectably poor, with no spare cash and strict rules: no liquor in the house, best clothes and church (not chapel) on Sundays, many duties on other days including cleaning scales and weights in the shop his mother ran, measuring out flour and lamp oil for customers, selling oranges round the village and chopping sticks on Saturdays. He found such work demeaning and vexatious, convinced ‘that my work, my reading and writing, was infinitely more important’, and often fell into ‘a sullen ill-temper’ (for which he is unapologetic).

He couldn’t know, and didn’t intuit then, how precarious a life of hard-working respectability was, nor what his parents might feel, or deny themselves. By the time he writes the book, however, he understands that

something in my father had been deeply hurt by the circumstances of his early family life; recollections of the past, though they began well, brought up associations which gave him acute pain. He was a man of simple texture, upright, hard-working, honourable, of a distinctly Puritan cast of character; but he was uneducated, unintrospective, unsubtle and naturally incapable . . . of seeing himself and his environment objectively, of locating the pain, diagnosing it and gaining relief from it by self-expression.

While he often immersed himself in the history and romance of far-flung places, Rowse himself barely travelled even within Cornwall during his childhood. The places he knew beyond his village were of necessity within easy reach by foot or in the family donkey-cart and he seems not to have considered going for long walks until, as a teenager, he was introduced to the idea by a fellow choir member. They walked to St Blazey, then through Prideaux Woods to the village of Luxulyan. ‘It might have been the Tyrol,’ he wrote, ‘it was so strangely beautiful, and for all I knew that there was such country within half a dozen miles of the place where I was born and had lived all my days.’

In 1973, after a career in academia during which he became an authority on the Tudor period and a prolific author (interrupted by several unsuccessful attempts in the 1930s to become a Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth), A. L. Rowse retired to Trenarren House, about three miles south of Tregonissey. By the time he died in 1997, the Eden Project was being planned in a claypit close to that walk he took to Luxulyan, and Tregonissey had long since been absorbed into the northern suburbs of St Austell. His long life spanned many changes in his beloved county but it’s easy to forget all those when you become absorbed in this vivid evocation of an unusual childhood.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Annabel Walker 2020


About the contributor

Annabel Walker has changed her mind about Cornwall.

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