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His Life and Stories.

By George Pritchard (c)

Click to listen to one of Williams Drolls. 

Click to hear a second Droll

William Bottrell is famous as a recorder of Cornish folk-tales. He wrote three volumes; “Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall” in 1870 & 1873 and in 1880  “Stories and Folk-Lore of West Cornwall”.
The reason that William was able to record so much of the folklore of West Cornwall was that he had been brought up in an atmosphere of chimney corner, tale telling which had been passed down verbally over hundreds of years he, however was able to transfer the stories to the written page  in to a narrative which has a leisurely rambling style. By the time his tales are finished, you feel that he has told you most of the traditions, beliefs and practices of the country folk of West Cornwall of 200 or more years ago. Not only that but he has taken you back in time to a Cornwall West of Penzance which had hardly changed for centuries before the railways came. It is a Cornwall in which you see the people going about their daily lives and hear the Celtic rise and fall of their voices as they utter words and phrases no longer heard today. You feel you have travelled back in time down narrow winding lanes of high hedges, topped now and again by hawthorn or furze-bush whose branches are flying towards the North-east from battling with the winds. You travel into this magic country with a glance through every gap in the hedge and a climb over every stile.   There are times that the going is rough and at times William can become tedious; but no one who has read his tales doubts that William Bottrell knew his Cornwall and its people.
Three Carved bench ends from St Levan Church (Click on Photo)
For a man who became so well known towards the end of his life there is very little in the way of written records. We do know that on the 27th of March 1816, William Bottrell was baptised in St Levan Church. He was probably born at Raftra Farmhouse, also known as Raughtra, in St. Levan, within a couple of miles of the Land's End. He gives his age as 69 on the 1881 census & 57 on the 1871. He was the son of William Vingoe Bottrell and Margaret Bosence who married 12 May 1813 in Sancreed. On his father’s side William was descended from the Bottrell, Vingoe, Hutchens & Dennis families, all ancient Cornish lines. It is recorded that the Bottrell family can trace its line back to one Edward de Bottreaux, whose son Sir William is alleged to have built Bottreaux Castle c1086, now known as Boscastle.
William tells us that the Vingoe family had held their lands in the Lands-End district since time immemorial. The same applied to William’s maternal line with both the Bosence and the Andrew families being able to trace their roots in Cornwall back many generations. William’s father was also born at Raftra and baptised at Sennen in 1790 the son of Richard Bottrell b 1762, a yeoman farmer of Raftra and Mary Vingoe. Mary Vingoe, William’s grandmother, was born in 1754 and lived until 1837. She was the daughter of WilliamVingoe of Sennen and his wife Joan Dennis. Their daughters were all baptised in Sennen but the entries are very vague and written in the margin, almost as an afterthought. One daughter has no parents recorded for her at all. The wills of John Vingoe, d 1760, Martin Hitchens, d 1747 and Joan Permewan, d 1763, have filled in the missing details.
William's great grandfather, William Vingoe was mostly concerned with the sea and boats and its possible he was off elsewhere from time to time. His marriage to Joan Dennis I have never found, although both are local to the area. He moved his family to Paul Parish, where his parents and sister were also living by 1753. Here he was in sight and sound of the sea and his business affairs in the busy port of Mousehole. Thus his daughter Mary acquired a ready knowledge of the maritime ‘goings on’ and perhaps she recounted her memories to grandson William, who later used them as the basis of his tales of “The Pirate” and the many other sea stories recorded in his writings. There are also family associations with Ailsa Mill, Kemyel Cliff and Burnwhal, all location settings for his various cautionary tales.
Young William Bottrell’s father was a yeoman farmer of some means, so the first few years of his life were spent on the family farm at Raftra. It was in these surroundings that he heard his first stories, perhaps whilst sitting by the fire in the big kitchen with his grandparents. His grandmother must have told him how, as a young girl, she had been sent to live with her recently married aunt and uncle in Penzance. This was her mother’s sister, Grace Dennis, who in 1767 had married Francis Boase, an affluent farmer and butcher from Alverton. They later had several sons, who rose to some prominence in Penzance as both mayors and bankers. However, having no companions her own age in this household, Mary age 13 had befriended the young and boisterous Edward Pellew who was living in the nearby ‘Hawke Farmhouse’ with his widowed mother. Edward and his brother Israel Pellew were later to achieve naval fame and Edward was to become Admiral Lord Exmouth. Bottrell tells this story in volume three of his folktales.
Apparently grandma Mary had a great influence on young William. I believe he must have spent much time with her as they walked through the cliff- top fields and down to the little beaches by the shore, she telling him stories that had been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years; stories that were later to become the basis of his writing. She also must  have imparted to him her knowledge of herbal and medicinal plants, together with their habits and requirements. He was later to establish a garden at Hawke’s Point in Lelant, that visitors would wonder at as it was created from some scrubby moorland.
William was an only child so his parents were able to give him undivided attention and a good education. This started with his attendance at Penzance Grammar School under two local teachers of repute; William Purchase, who was the English master there, and later a Nicholas Bice Julyan. In 1831 he was sent to further his education at Bodmin School where the headmaster was one Leonard James Boor. Here William gained a love of the classics and mathematics, which stayed with him for the rest of his life, however in his first book he goes on a bit of a rant about the practice of farmers in West Cornwall sending their children away to boarding school and he states that : "....a mania seems to have taken some [farmers] for educating their sons for the black-coated professions, from some notion of the superior gentility ; and the young Bolerions seemed to think there was something more refined even in serving behind a counter, of wielding a pen, than in ploughing and sowing their own lands."
He left Bodmin School in 1837 and little is known of his life between 1837 and 1851, other than, like so many of his fellow Cornishmen he travelled the world. His beloved grandmother Mary had died in the April of 1837 and it is believed that  soon after this he visited France and went on to buy land in the Basque area of Spain. Later in his life he used to speak of his love for his Spanish garden with its herbs, fruit and flowers. He also collected Breton and Basque folk tales. His idyll came to an abrupt end when his land was seized and returned to the Catholic Church, from whom it had been initially confiscated by the authorities. Bottrell returned to Cornwall a financially ruined man, as he had received no compensation.
His mother Margaret died in October of 1845 age 53 and within months William was on the move again, this time to Canada. He eventually obtained a position as an English Teacher at a college in Quebec (1847-1851). He became unsettled with academic life though and left for the forests of the interior, where he worked for a short time as an overseer in a timber company. Eventually, in 1852 he came home to Penzance and lived at No. 4, St Clare Street.
At some stage he is believed to have married and he and his wife went to live in Australia where she died. This was a black time in his life, which he refused ever to discuss with anyone. He would dismiss it with the words ‘I lost my love and my money so I came home.’ He had many relatives in Australia, some of whom are listed as subscribers in the back of his books, but I have failed to discover any greater details as regards this bleak episode in his life. I also think that at some point there was a major split between father and son.
On the death of his wife in 1845, and with his son William gone overseas it looks as if William senior then in his late 50’s, sold up the farm at Raughtra and moved into Penzance. Leastways, he is not in St Levan on 1851 census. In January of 1854, at the age of 65, he married Elizabeth Howe, only six years older than his son. When young William returned in 1853 did he find out that his father had sold the old home and was planning to marry again? Perhaps when he did marry and then in 1855 christened his new daughter Wilhelmina [the German feminine form of the name William] this was all too much for his son. One wonders perhaps by naming his daughter thus, William senior had entirely disowned his only son.
William Bottrell senior died at Hea Villas, Penzance and was buried in St Levan on 24 Dec 1875 aged 86.  On the 1881 Census his widow age 61 and daughter age 26 are living in Devon on ‘an income from Railway Bonds’.
Although estranged from his father and now a widower it is believed William must have returned from Australia in the early 1860’s. He lived the life of a recluse at Hawke's Point near Lelant. A friend of his was to later write: “Here he lived in a hovel and cultivated a little moorland. He had a black cat called ‘Spriggans’ plus a cow and pony. These animals would all follow him down the almost perpendicular cliff, over a goats path, to the spring which was their water supply and no accidents happened to either."
He went on to tell how Bottrell became a friend of the tinners who worked in the near-by mines. They would do a days work underground then think nothing of spending a couple of hours helping Bottrell clear ground in order that he could create a garden. It was from these men that Bottrell learned more of the ancient tales of West Penwith. As they sat by the fire in the cottage which he had made his home, one of the number would tell a tale whilst William drew a sketch of the man. Bottrell always acknowledged the debt he owed to these men, he said of them "they have intelligence, mother-wit and memories and I am able to garner from them the ample harvest."
The subsequent loss of the wondering ‘droll tellers’ meant that, but for the work of William Bottrell, recorded in his own volumes and in those of Robert Hunt, most of their stories would have been lost. Bottrell had recounted many of the tales he knew to Robert Hunt, who had utilised them in his own work “Popular Romances of the West of England”, which was first printed in 1865. In excess of 50 ‘drolls’ were told by Bottrell to Hunt. who had received much acclaim for his work. He had acknowledged his debt to Bottrell and others for recounting their stories to him, but perhaps he had been less than honest in his intentions when collecting them.
Others were soon to realise the wealth of knowledge that Bottrell possessed and the editor of a local paper suggested that he should write and publish the stories in his own rite. Bottrell took his advice and his first appearance in print was in the columns of ‘The Cornish Telegraph’ of 1867, in which he gave an account of "The Penzance of our Grandfathers" which was reprinted in volume one of his subsequent books.  His articles appeared also in "One and All", a particularly interesting and now rare periodical and in 1873 he contributed to another magazine now a collectors item, the  "Reliquary".
Of all these various articles the best were gathered together and published and life began to improve for William. By 1871 he was living in lodgings in Penzance but he later moved into a relative’s home in Dove Street, St Ives but before the completion of his final volume he had a stroke and suffered a partial paralysis. He was still able to speak and, although bed bound for almost a year, he continued to dictate his regular column to the newspaper.  A further stroke in May 1881 led to a more acute paralysis. His cousin, Mary Quick, continued to take care of him but after six weeks of struggling against the odds he gave up the ghost at 10am on the 27 August 1881.
He was taken back to be buried on 31-Aug-1881 near the place he loved the most. He lies in St. Levan, amongst his ancestors, in the little churchyard that overlooks the sea.

Williams last published piece appeared in the 1881 / 82 edition of "The Reliquary" magazine along with a short obituary. I have scanned the pages and reproduce them below. Just click on a page to enlarge.

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