Daughters of Moor and Coast – the lady folklorists of North Cornwall
When studying the folklore of North Cornwall we often consider the writing of two men: R.S. Hawker* and Sabine Baring-Gould**.
However, the field of folklore is so large that Hawker and Baring-Gould could only address obvious or localised matters. It fell to four ladies to give us the fine grain of the folklore of North Cornwall by collecting and publishing folk-tales, leaving an invaluable record for future generations. They are Nellie Sloggett, Barbara Spooner, Margaret Balfour and Anna Bray.
Nellie Sloggett (1850 – 1923)
Nellie Sloggett was born in 1850 in Padstow, where she lived most of her life.
Nellie’s father died when she was just seven. As a teenager she suffered a spinal illness and was paralysed for the rest of her life. Then Nellie, with her mother, lived with an aunt, the wife of a well-to-do master mariner. By 1881 the families had moved to Marine Villa, overlooking Padstow quay. Nellie kept diaries about flowers, the seasons, and birds and other creatures, all seen from her window. She may have told stories to her younger cousins. Her first book was published in 1885 under the pen-name Nellie Cornwall.
Latterly she devoted much attention to folklore and legend, recording many stories about Cornish Piskey folk. She published three such books under the pen-name of Enys Tregarthen. Together they contain 27 folk tales. They are:
The Piskey Purse: Legends and Tales of North Cornwall (London, Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd. 1905)
North Cornwall Fairies and Legends (London, Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., 1906)
The House of the Sleeping Winds and Other Stories (London, 1911)
Nellie probably remained at Marine Villa until about 1905 when it was sold. She then briefly lived with her cousin in Little Petherick. From a date after 1911 until her death in 1923 Nellie had a room at in Dennis Road, Padstow, the home of her unmarried cousin Alice Rawle.
In 1938 an American writer Elizabeth Yates met “Miss R” (probably Alice Rawle) who told her of Nellie’s work, showed her Nellie’s room, and her trunk of unpublished material. Yates edited this material for publication as Piskey Folk: A Book of Cornish Legends (1940), The Doll Who Came Alive (1940) and The White Ring (1949)
Anna Elizabeth Bray (1790-1883)
Anna Elizabeth Kempe was born in Newington, Surrey in 1790. After the untimely death of her fist husband, in 1823 Anna married Edward Bray, the vicar of Tavistock. From 1826 to 1874 she wrote many historical novels. Those based on the main families of Cornwall and Devon, including the Trelawneys of Trelawne, were particularly successful.
Anna also wrote The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (1836, 3 vols.) There she mentions Tintagel, Nathan’s Kieve, Pixy Gathon of Cornwall, the Cheesewring, May-fires, a Pixie House and Druids.
Anna also wrote A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West (1854). It has six tales, three set in North Cornwall, one referring to Cornwall and two set in Devon. Anna died in London in 1883.
Barbara Spooner (1893-1983)
Barbara Spooner was born in Richmond in 1893, moving to North Hill in Cornwall in 1923. She never married and her main interest was the folklore of Cornwall. She was a founder member of the North Hill Old Cornwall Society and was made a bard of the Gorsedd in 1930. Daughter of the Moors was her Bardic name. Between the wars she travelled miles across the moors collecting folk tales. She contributed six articles to Old Cornwall, the magazine of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. Her book John Tregagle of Trevorder, Man and Ghost, was published in 1935.
Around 1944, Miss Spooner moved to the Wadebridge area. She began a book on the folklore of Cornwall, but was unable to find a publisher. However, chapters from the book were later reworked as articles in the Folklore journal. From 1953, Barbara published papers on the stone circles of Cornwall, the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss, the giants of Cornwall, cloud ships, haunted styles and the figures of Jack and Tom in chapbooks.
Barbara corresponded with luminaries of the early Old Cornwall movement, including Henry Jenner, Charles Henderson, Robert Morton Nance and Canon Doble. She died in 1983.
Margaret Melville Balfour (1898-1940)
Marie Margaret Melville Balfour, a niece of Robert Louis Stevenson, was born near St Malo, Brittany in 1898. Her mother was a folklorist and novelist. Marie subsequently lived in Edinbugh, London and near Bath. She never married. Between 1921 and 1940 she published novels and poems, including a collection of folk tales: The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow and other truthful narratives (London, Faber and Faber, 1938)
The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow has 16 West Country tales, seven set in Cornwall. It’s clear that Marie’s horizon extended from Brunel’s bridge over the Tamar to the Wadebridge and Padstow area. The text shows that the author is familiar with many classic Cornish and Welsh legends.
Marie is a fluent and charming storyteller. She has a good sense of place and landscape. Often her well-crafted stories seem to have their origins in geographical features, structures or historical incidents. The sub-title ‘other truthful narratives’ is an interesting, perhaps challenging, addition, perhaps used to give the tales more impact or credibility.
*R.S. Hawker of Morwenstow (1803-1875). His books include Records of the Western Shore (1832), Echoes from Old Cornwall (1846), Footprints of Former Men in Cornwall (1870)
**. Sabine Baring Gould of Lewtrenchard (1834-1924) His works include A Book of the West. Vol II: Cornwall (1899) and Cornish Characters and Strange Events (1909).