Wordsmiths of West Cornwall

We all have our favourite local authors –  Patrick Gale perhaps, or Liz Fenwick, or another of the host of other contemporary writers  who know and represent West Cornwall. New voices are coming in all the time – during the 2018 Festival we were delighted to introduce (amongst others) Raynor Winn, Noel O’Reilly, and Ken McKechnie. Turning to poetry, Des Hannigan and Gray Lightfoot are just two of the many practitioners writing locally, and inspired by place.

Going back a few decades, Crosbie Garstin is another familiar name, along with Derek Tangye and (of course) Winston Graham – and it’s a well-known fact that, on Sunday 11th July 1937, Dylan Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara at the Penzance Registry Office, which was then situated in the white building across Parade Street from the Acorn Theatre. Thomas spent extended holidays in the area around Polgigga and Mousehole, although he wasn’t always complimentary – and once said that Newlyn was “famous for its fleas – and Dod Proctor”.

But what about the famous writers who called in at Penzance – for a few hours, a few days, or a few years – more than 100 years ago?

The first were explorers – including John Leland, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe. For Defoe, who published his impressions in 1724, Penzance – despite its remoteness (“the farthest town of any note west, being 254 miles from London”) –  is “a place of good business, well built and populous, has a good trade, and a great many ships belonging to it”. Defoe is also surprised to note “a great many good families of gentlemen”, and most of all the wealth represented by exposed lodes, down to the shoreline and beyond.

Next, we meet a couple of famous literary residents. Charles le Grice was both a defender and an observer of Penzance. His most famous work? Undoubtedly the Petition of 1811, in which le Grice adopts the persona of a derelict house standing just where the DHSS office can now be seen, on the corner of Clarence Street. Dereliction is dereliction, then and now: le Grice remarks on cobwebs, broken glass, weeds growing up the steps, “hollow echoes… Desolation’s cell”. Here is “Dry-Rot, foul and musty… Mildew…Bats… Skeleton of a famish’d cat”. The wine bottles are all empties, the candles have been taken away, and the tobacco-pipes are left uncharged. But le Grice – who arrived to take up a job as tutor at Trereife and within a few years married into ownership of the property – was on the whole loyal to Penzance.  He became a magistrate and President of the Penzance (now Morrab) Library, and ran the Grammar School for a while after the appointed master was found to be a suspected highwayman who had falsified his qualifications.

A near-contemporary of le Grice, and another poet, was none other than Sir Humphry Davy.

Dreaming of pilchards? Sir Humphry in literary pose

There is a story that Davy gave le Grice unwise advice about a good diving place, and then had to use his nascent medical skills (he was at the time an apprentice to surgeon Bingham Borlase) to bandage le Grice’s head. Coleridge apparently said that, had Davy not taken up science, he could have been a foremost poet of his age. Davy wrote a poem about the gravestones of his ancestors, which can still be seen, propped up against the wall of Ludgvan Church. He wrote about Mount’s Bay, “The dark Bolerium, seat of storms”, and the “cloud-like” Scillies “far beyond”. And he wrote about pilchards, reminding his mother in a letter about “the times when I sat opposite to you, my dear mother, in the little parlour, round the little table, eating of the same delicious food.”

But literary visitors were not generally very keen on Penzance. Mrs Piozzi – better known as Hesther Thrale, the friend of Doctor Johnson – spent her last winter (1820-1821) at Regent Terrace.

Mrs Piozzi – resigned to another evening of sixpenny whist?

She was not impressed. “We are wild here without sublimity”, she judged, and complained of “sixpenny whist” and home-made cakes and wine even at the “most magnificent” parties to which she was invited. She was displeased to be able to find nothing better to read at the Ladies’ Book Club than Walter Scott’s The Abbot, and feared that her digestion would cope with neither clotted cream, nor the tempting cakes and jellies “all new and warm” – let alone a crab.  She stayed in Penzance until shortly before her death, and wrote despairingly: “I was so ill on Fryday night I hardly felt anything like certainty of ever seeing myself out of Penzance alive” (although in the event she reached Exeter before she expired).

Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Tennyson all visited the area, and are almost certain to have stayed in Penzance. But, like most tourists, they used the town

Wilkie Collins, possibly contemplating a never-to-be-written paragraph about Penzance

rather as we might book into a motorway Travelodge, and found it equally uninspiring. The pattern seems to have been a last twilight gaze at the Mount, a quick drive along to (probably) the Union Hotel, then up early the next morning and off to the Logan Rock, Land’s End or – for the particularly adventurous – Botallack Mine. Wilkie Collins famously rambled the county (before the railway) to literary effect. Dickens and his friends rattled through in a carriage stuffed with “merrily clanking bottles, their necks “peering out” in all “their immense varieties of shape”.  But they all remained silent on the attractions – or otherwise – of Penzance itself.


Weather conditions stranded a Scillies-bound George Eliot and her partner George Lewes in town during 1857, granting them a week of enforced leisure in Penzance to work respectively on Scenes from Clerical Life and observations that would later surface in Seaside Studies.  With rain and gales keeping him away from the rock pools, Lewes spent his time making caustic observations about the misfortune of being “stranded in a lodging-house, kept by a middle-aged Harpy, rearing a brood of young Harpies”.  The engravings on the walls are sentimental; the display of stuffed animals and shells evidently displeasing to a professional naturalist; the furniture, bed-pole and fire-irons are unstable and not even the teapot lid fits. The landlady launches into a dramatic guilt-trip when her guests suggest they might take the evening meal left-overs away for lunch. After a week, Lewes is delighted when he is called up at dawn to board the Ariadne and cross to Scilly. And George Eliot herself? She remains diplomatically, but disappointingly, silent.

In the spring of 1868, R M Ballantyne brought his ailing wife to Penzance for a change of air and a nice sandy beach (which, fortunately, was still at that date a feature of the seafront). here, he set about writing the novel that would later be published as Deep Down.

R M Ballantyne tells the tale

Ballantyne – a diligent researcher – was captivated by Botallack mine and set most of his book in the St Just area, but he opens his book with the arrival of his young hero, Oliver Trembath,  in Penzance “seated clumsily on top of…[a] clumsy public conveyance”, which passes up Market Jew Street to the Star Inn. With no apparent thought of taking lodging in the town, Trembath sets out on foot for St Just. In his haste he takes the wrong road, and unwittingly strikes out towards Land’s End: a common enough mistake in real life even today. Later in the book, after marvelling at the Wherry Mine, Ballantyne’s characters watch as it is destroyed by the “Yankee ship broken from her anchors in Gwarvas Lake” which will famously carry away all trace of the mine structure. This well-known and oft-repeated story, the factual evidence for which is at best flimsy, owes most of its currency to Ballantyne’s description.

20 years after Ballantyne, one ‘Edward Bosanketh’ – real name, Richard Boyns – wrote Tin, a novel so controversial and potentially damaging to the banking interest that the Bolitho family did their best to have all copies burnt.  They were not entirely successful, however, and although original copies are very rare, the book was re-printed 100 years later, and in 2012 used as the basis of a stage show (and later a film) by Miracle Theatre.  Boyns was the son of the character named in the book as Charles East (played for Miracle by Ben Luxon), the nearest thing the book has to a hero. Tin is a roman a clef, with each character a thinly disguised fictionalisation of a St Just or Penzance notable of the late 19th century. Neither St Just (“Redborne”) nor Penzance (“Camruth”) emerge well: Redborne is “large, yet unattractive”, as well hidden as the mineral that surrounds it but “not so well worth the toil of finding”. There is “no mayor, magistrate or lawyer” but far too many parsons. And in the “Cornish Arms” gather an unsavoury collection of minor crooks and self-servers named in Dickensian style: Bounce, Shuffler, Mrs Blabb. An epilogue to the book places Shuffler in prison, other characters dead or married according to desert, and East (Boyns’ real-life father) “flourishing as lord of one of the richest mines in the county”. Reality hadn’t quite worked out that way, but Boyns, one hopes, would at least be pleased to know that his book is still  discussed, adapted and enjoyed today.

Our final two literary visitors join us in the early 20th century. The first of these, John Davidson – a moderately successful poet and playwright in his day – had left London for the sake of his health, and for cheaper living. Installed at Coulson’s Terrace, he did not enjoy Penzance.  Lonely and embittered, his one place of refuge was the Penzance (Morrab) Library where he was often to be found up the stepladder investigating the travel books in what is now the ‘photocopier room’; his one friend, Herbert Thomas, editor of the Cornishman.

Alerted to the sound of a May Horn?

He joked about needing a gun in order to “shoot the fauna of the place, cats and small boys”, and one morning in late April was surprised when “a discordant bellowing… burst out”. The season of May Horns had arrived.

A man of melancholy temperament, a pessimist who found himself at odds with 20th century values and tastes, Davidson went for a long walk on March 23rd 1909 and was never seen alive again. His body was later discovered below the cliffs at Mousehole – “found dead”, according to the inquest – with one small hole on the right of the head and a larger one on the left. He was eventually, after some tricky negotiation, buried at sea.

Finally, we come to D H Lawrence. He and his German wife, Frieda,  (and, for a short time, Katherine Mansfield) rented cottages at Higher Tregerthen near Zennor, between 1915 and 1917. Lawrence had unorthodox views about the war which he did not trouble to conceal from his new neighbours. And perhaps worst of all, the couple entertained visitors who sang folk songs. Lawrence’s cottage was repeatedly searched, and he was forced to go to Bodmin in order to have it confirmed that he was unfit for military service. Lawrence re-told the story in his own novel, Kangaroo, in a discrete chapter entitled “The Nightmare”. When Somers – the main character, and Lawrence himself in all but name – goes into town (the description suggests Penzance), he is “known and execrated”; his neighbours turn against him; officials worthy of Kafka search the cottage, bully Somers and his wife and take away the harmless papers that constitute their work. Elements of Lawrence’s novella The Fox also appear to be based on this period of his life.  And the Lawrences’ unhappy stay in West Cornwall was itself represented in fiction by Helen Dunmore, whose Zennor in Darkness tells the story of their time at Higher Tregarthen largely through the eyes of local characters. 

Yet even for Lawrence, there was grandeur and delight in the landscape: “At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself. Zennor is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high shaggy moor-hills and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… It is the best place I have been in, I think”.

Zennor today – a century passed, wartime suspicions forgotten, and all welcome


West Cornwall has been many things to many writers: a place of exile, of yearning for a lost paradise; a place of pleasure and delight; a focus for nostalgia. For some, the border of Lyonesse; for some, just a place to stay for a while through force of circumstance.

And of course, there is much more to say. Have we missed out your favourite writer? If so, would you like to tell us about them during next year’s Festival? Does West Cornwall inspire you to write? And is it time for a grittier, more contemporary voice to emerge? Is literary life (and Penzance Literary Festival) representing the reality of Penzance and St Just? Or are we ready for a new “Edward Bosanketh”?  Comment here, or write to inbox@pzlitfest.co.uk, and let us know!


Written by a member of the organising team