Celtic Congress 2001, From Bardd Glas to Trelawney's Army Page 1
From Bardd Glas to Trelawney's Army, An oral history based investigation of 20th century Cornish identity.
As an oral historian my research has been motivated and fuelled through a desire to probe, explore, and reveal the hidden non elitist histories of the common people. This passion has manifested itself, in the respect of the following paper, in the form of an investigation into how the evolving Cornish Movement of the 20th century has left an indelible imprint upon the collective consciousness of the Cornish in the form of a heightened awareness of their Cornishness and Celticity.
The passages of oral narrative contained within this paper are selected extracts from interviews undertaken with four Cornishmen. Of these interviewees three have been brought up in (or have been heavily involved with) the Cornish movement for most of their lives. All four individuals have memories that scan the interwar years and through into the 1950's, a crucial period on which this paper will particularly focus, when the Cornish movement expanded dramatically in terms of support and eventually acquired a political voice in the form of the Mebyon Kernow, initially in the form of a pressure group and latterly as a fully fledged political organisation.
In the instance, of the individual whose recorded experiences tell of a Cornwall outside of the direct realm of influence of the revivalist movement, I have included extracts from an interview with my father. The reasons for this are twofold, firstly because he was brought up in a Cornish working class community and consequently was a member of a section of society that initially had little contact with such organisations as the Gorsedd, Tyr ha Tavas, the Federation of 0ld Cornwall Societies, or the Celtic Congress. And secondly, on a personal level, because the catalyst which motivated and inspired my interest in Oral History above all else were my parents stories and particularly my fathers ' yarns'.
I can well remember, as a child, in the evenings at the meal table listening to their memories of home (the family was living away from Cornwall at the time). These reminiscences predominantly centred around accounts of life, in and around, the City of Truro between the world wars, and they would fill me with a longing to be able to visit the places, events, and characters that they would so graphically describe. Little did I consider at the time that collecting, analysing and interpreting such reminiscences would take over my life. And that furthermore these narratives concerning their respective 'places of memory'. 1 were also to inextricably draw me deep within a Cornish 'collective consciousness' a consequence of which makes the analysis of oral narrative, for this particular historian, not only a voyage through the subjective elements of historical research, but also an interactive experience with those who have acquired their sense of place belonging or identity through similar processes.
The Early Years
The Italian Oral historian Louisa Passerini remarked in researching the cultural experience of the Turin working classes,
.. that essential for an understanding of history is not just knowledge of the lives of obscure and ordinary individuals.. but information about the ideas feeding into their everyday experience. 2
So accordingly this investigation will commence by briefly describing the early activists of the Cornish movement.
As the 20th century dawned, the revivalist movement was confined mainly to a few members of the middle classes such as J.C Duncombe Jewell secretary of Cowethas Kelto Kernuak (the Cornish Celtic Society). 3 A flamboyant individual who appeared at the 1902 Bangor Eisteddfod as the Cornish delegate sporting a traditional Cornish costume of his own design, he was barded by the Welsh Gorsedd in 1904 and took the bardic name of Bardd Glas (the Blue Bard) due to the fact that he was clad from his tights to his cap in this colour. Also involved with Cowethas Kelto Kernuak was Henry Jenner who had retired to Cornwall following a distinguished career as librarian at the British Museum. ).
It is essential to remember that during this period the interests of these individuals were primarily that of antiquarians, and that being Cornish Celts represented a type of fantasy world, an escapist pastime, that fitted in neatly with their loyalty to king and Empire. Yet their contribution in the formation of what can be termed 'Modern Cornwall' cannot be underestimated, because this eccentric hobby had led them to take an interest in the PanCeltic world and most importantly for Cornwall they were eventually successful in gaining its acceptance as a Celtic nation by the Pan Celtic Congress of 1904 .4
During the early years of the 20theentury the Cowethas Kelto Kernuak fulfilled another important function in that it was this organisation, which was instrumental in the publication of Jenner's highly, acclaimed Handbook of the Cornish language. But, by and large, the activities of these individuals during this era were far removed from the lives of the common people and perhaps it was because of the lack of an initial take up of their ideas by the Cornish people that the Cowethas Kelto Kernuak organisation petered out at the outbreak of the Great War and the colourful enigmatic Bardd Glas progressively turned his attention away from Cornish Celtic culture to Welsh.
Henry Jenner, on the other hand, remained in Cornwall although his confidence in the strength of any wide scale Cornish cultural revival appears to have been nominal. It is indeed interesting to read the paper that he presented to the 1917 Celtic conference at Birkenhead in which he lamented that,
With one not altogether unimportant exception the Celtic language and literature of Cornwall belong to the past. For more than a century Cornish has been no mans mother tongue, and the only way in which it can be said to live now is in place names, of which a very large majority are in the old language. It is therefore the sad fact, that any paper on the position of the language and literature of Cornwall would be obliged to say that they have no position. except in the grave, and no prospects of any joyful resurrection. The best that can be hoped for is that the Cornish people take some interest in the study of their Celtic past.' 5
Extracts from A.L Rowse's autobiography A Cornish Childhood would also appear to confirm that this sense of cultural loss was wide scale. As Rowse looked back to the armistice celebrations following the Great War he wrote,
l can remember the momentary return to the old ways, for we celebrated the Armistice with a Flora Dance through the town. There was something instinctive, pathetic about it, like a gesture from some former existence, which had no meaning anymore Hardly anybody knew how to dance it by now: we just crowded the narrow tortuous Fore Street of St Austell town, treading on each others heals in a snake walk, for the most part walking for we had forgotten the steps, though all of us knew the tune. 6
And yet as Jenner and later Rowse were penning these observations a revitalised Cornish cultural revival was beginning to gather momentum.
The Inter War period
In reviewing the various available historical sources, it is apparent that during the interwar period there had commenced, if only initially making slow progress, a reawakening within the people to rediscover their Celtic Cornish identities. Paradoxically this cultural renaissance had germinated from the seeds of inspiration sown via the activities and writings of the members of what can be categorized in terms of the 20thh century as the first generation of the Cornish cultural revival, which included Henry Jenner himself. As George Pawley White a founder member of the Mebyon Kernow party in 1951 and the third Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd remembered,
I went to school at what is now the Humphrey Davy School [Penzance ] And l was there for oh seven years, seven years in the school. And in my last term last year l was at school, we had a new library and in the sixth form we were allowed to have a couple of hours a week to do what we liked in the library And in the library l came across a book called A handbook of the Cornish language by Henry Jenner 1904 which absolutely fascinated me because l knew very few words of Cornish. And that led me to the study of the language, l have still got the book there with the notes that l made quite indecipherable. 7
So therefore Jenner's pessimism appears to have been unfounded and in further conversation with George Pawley White it also emerged that Jenner's actual charismatic personality and appearance was also to prove to be something, which those with an embryonic interest in their heritage found inspirational.
It was very interesting really because having read this book Henry Jenner became a cult figure with what and me a wonderful man he was. But I had never met him until I was working at Hayle (I had started to work at the bank at Hayle) and in those days people used to have Passbooks instead of statements (it was all written up by hand) and I had to take a statement (take a passbook to Henry Jenner) who live just up the hill from there and I went there and I rung the bell and to my amazement Moses appeared at the door and I was absolutely struck dumb, I didn't know what to say because this was the man that I had read so much about and I had admired so much and had never seen in my life before but he was very gracious to me and I got to know him. he was the president of the Hayle Old Cornwall Society and I used to, I became a member of that. 8
Within this extract of interview is mentioned the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies an organisation which was to be vital in providing the activists of the revivalist movement a point of contact during the interwar years, particularly during the 1920's, prior to the establishment of a Cornish Gorsedd.
Importantly at this time while the first generation of cultural revivalists had provided an inspiration for the adoption of Celtic cultural icons, it was a second generation during the interwar period who were to establish a more sustainable cultural identity and were consequently beginning to reach out beyond the confines of upper and middle class participation.
The Old Cornwall Societies were the brainchild of Robert Morton Nance, who took the bardic name Mordon when barded at the Welsh Gorsedd at Treorchy in 1928 and was to become the second Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1934. Born in Cardiff of Cornish parents Nance was to settle permanently in Cornwall in 1906 firstly in the village of Nancledra near St Ives and it was here that he wrote his Cledry community plays in the Cornish language, a performance of one of these eventually in 1920 was to lead to the formation of the St Ives Old Cornwall Society.9 Within a few short years Old Cornwall Societies had sprung up all over Cornwall and a Federation had been formed the President of which was somewhat ironically Henry Jenner bearing in mind that he had also observed in his paper to the 19 17 Celtic conference that,
Of course it would be possible to found a society that should confine its attention wholly to the Celtic aspect of Cornwall, but I am not at all sure that such a society would be desirable or useful. 10
By 1927 however Jenner had completely changed his opinion and took the annual meeting of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies to the Boseawen Un stone circle where, dressed in his Breton bardic robes, he appealed to the membership to support the establishment of a Cornish Gorsedd. An appeal that was evidently taken up with sufficient enthusiasm as the first Gorsedd proper was held on the same site in 1928 with Jenner becoming the first Grand Bard of Cornwall.
However, it is a considerable point of conjecture whether the vast majority of ordinary people were even aware that such a 'revival' was even taking place. Perhaps a reason for this was that the tight knit communities in which they lived were still to come under pressure from any external influences and that the revivalists to all intents and purposes constituted a race apart, a special breed. Yet these individuals were influential to some of their immediate kin as John Jenkin Secretary of the Cornish Gorsedd remembered about his Uncle, Edwdn Chirgwin (Map Melyn).
Edwin Chirgwin was totally and utterly unlike any of the others he had no practical ability whatsoever I think he probably couldn't even change a light bulb, but he was the academic. And he became a school master and he became a bard of the Gorsedd in 1932 through examination in the language and he was a very keen Cornishman all his life, and of course he progressed through the Gorsedd and he was the herald bard and he was the secretary for a long number of years and he was an acclaimed poet in Cornish and he was a prolific writer. I knew from the very very earliest years that he was a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd and I can remember going to a Gorsedd when I was very very small, I cant remember quite where it was it may have been at the Merry Maidens, but I certainly went to a Gorsedd in St Johns Hall, the first one that was rained off, I cant remember the year now that should have been at the merry maidens it was held in St Johns hall and I certainly went to that. 11
In 1932 a further development occurred when another organisation was formed which took the name, following a suggestion by Robert Morton Nance, of Tyr ha Tavas (Land and Language). It was the staging of the Pan Celtic Congress of September 1932 that above all provided the golden opportunity for it's establishment because it was to all0w an opportunity for some of the more ardent members of the Cornish revivalist movement to exchange ideas with those from Celtic nations. The early minutes of Tyr ha Tavas reflect of this that,
During the pan keltic congress, held from September 6th to the 10th Gwas Arthur [Edmund Hambly] had the good fortune to meet, among other Cornish enthusiasts Gonodor A Bell [Trelawney Roberts] Gonodor a Bell with the help of Scryfer Cudhys [Buchanan Couch], translated our ideas into the excellent aims which Tyr Ha Tavas now possesses. 12
Members of the 'Second Generation' of the revival, many of whom were based outside of Cornwall, such as the above mentioned, Edmund Hambly, and Retallak Hooper became passionately involved with the Tyr Ha Tavas movement and as a consequence the society's aims and objectives reflect this new infusion of energy and enthusiasm its constitution reading,
Tyr ha Tavas is an organisation to unite those persons of Cornish birth or descent who value their Cornish heritage, and who desire to maintain the outlook, individualism, culture and idealism that characterises their race so as to pass on the unbroken tradition. 13
So that it many ways Tyr ha Tavas acted as a link between the antiquarian societies and a more vital cultural revival. For example throughout the 1930's Tyr ha Tavas youth camps were held and church services in the Cornish language were revived largely due to the influence of this organisation. 14
However, despite of this increased activity by the Cornish movement it is essential to remember that during the inter war period it only essentially existed in isolated pockets and that many of the post industrial chapel based communities lived far removed existences from the displays of Cornish Celtic pageantry. W. J.E Crago, the author's father, had another, perhaps more typical, interpretation of the period,
How, aware were you of any sort of form of revivalist movement taking place in Cornwall?
Oh very very very little you know
Had you heard of the Old Cornwall Societies?
Only vaguely, only as a name, [...] hadn't really thought much of it you know.
And would they have been open to you anway ?
Probably not. think the snobbery thing would have crept in there a bit, yes, I didn't really know, I never made any effort to find out about it (if you follow me)
And nobody else obviously...
No, no, I mean we were so Cornish why the hell did you have to...
Revive something? .
Yes you know you have got to remember that before the war going to Plymouth was a hell of an exercise you know. I mean (that's right) Marj went to live up Cullompton I've been up to Cullompton and that was the furthest I had ever been in my life I think before the war. 15
The Second World War & Beyond
It is most significant that the Second World War is referred to in the above narrative
because the magnitude of this conflict appears eventually to have drawn closer the
differing conceptions of popular Cornish identity existing amongst the Cornish working
classes and the still predominantly upper class revivalist movement.
Initially when the war was running its course, it had to all intents and purposes, not surprisingly rendered the Cornish movement dormant in terms of its diverse cultural activities. The Tyr Ha Tavas movement ceased to exist as the Cowethas Keltuak had failed to survive the Great War and the Cornish Gorsedd was held in the form of a closed ceremony behind closed doors at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro.
However when peace renewed, an open Gorsedd was once again held in 1946 at Perran Round and it was noticeable that it was unusually well attended. A whole generation that had been forced to leave Cornwall to play it's part in the defence of Britain was returning and as the servicemen were demobilised it became apparent that there had occurred a heightened perception of the value of their Cornish identities. That this experience appears to have been common to all, what ever their social economic origins, is apparent within the memories of the interviewees.
At the time that you formed Mebyon Kernow what do think were the sort of influences or driving forces behind this organization being formed at that particular time.
I think probably a number of us had been away from Cornwall just as I had been out in India all those years) and we began to realise how much Cornwall meant to us and how easy it would be for it to pass into history, if we didn't do something about it and I think that was the driving force . 1 6
You hadn't really realized what you had had before if you follow me. Suddenly there was an awareity of your own, descendents and you know what you had descended from and that you had a strong local thing which you could be part of you know, And this is particularly strong in Cornwall I know that. But I think you will probably find that in parts of Wales and Scotland you will find it equally strong where those people had come away and then realized the unique society that they had lived in, before they moved then. 17
Once more the staging of a Celtic congress on Cornish soil was again to act as a vehicle where progressive ideas for the propagation of Celtic Cornish culture could be discussed. As Richard Jenkin another former Grand Bard and a founder member and the President of Mebyon Kernow remembered.
Well there was the Celtic congress in Truro in 1950 and I was able to attend that. I think it was during the summer holidays then and I was able to attend that and was able to meet all of the leading figures of the Cornish movement of the time (and some who became leading figures later on) And people from other Celtic countries (I've got a photograph somewhere of that congress) with Morton Nance and Cynan who was then the Arch Druid of Wales in the front and Professor Arnbrose Bebb in the front and I was there in the back !
And so was Lambert Truran, and Martin Yelland who died quite young actually and people I still know in Wales like Delwyn Philips and Ehblin Ni Chathailriabhaigh from Ireland and so on, they are all there and so I have known them since 1950 onwards !
Of course it was through the Celtic congress that I met Helena Charles and her band of actors who Performed Beunans Meriasek. Well it from that that we found a lot of people who were of the same mind (about the problems of Cornwall and the culture of Cornwall and so on) it was from that that Mebyon Kernow 18 was founded in 1951 ). 19
So what can be deduced from these voices of the past? Certainly it is apparent that the acquisition of identity is a complicated process. The people of Cornwall have always considered themselves first and foremost Cornish, yet it can be argued that the nonconformist working and middle classes conceptions of history and identity were largely founded upon Cornwall's recent glorious industrial mining past. As opposed to the early 20th' century revivalists who were generally members of the upper classes and looked back to a romantic period of Celtic myth and legend for their inspiration.
However, progressively throughout the century the romantic imagery of the Cornish movement has seeped out from the higher social echelons of society to gradually become adopted as the property of the Cornish people as a whole.
And in the background, as this process has taken place, acting as a sounding board for progressive developments of where to take the Celtic revival next, has been the 'think tank' of the Celtic congress. Be it in 1932 when it helped spawn the Tyr ha Tavas movement or 1950 in Truro following which Mebyon Kernow was formed the Celtic Congress can be seen as playing a vital role in the development of the Cornish peoples culture and continually evolving modes of expressing their own identity.
In addition to these factors it can be further argued that the revivalist movement could never have influenced the lives of the Cornish people to the extent that it has, if had not been for the outbreak of world war two which was to act as a major agent of convergence in terms of the differing perceptions of Cornwall.
So that from the aftermath of this conflict and beyond to the present day, in an era of Celtic post modernity there exists icons of identity both ancient and modem, invented and reinvented, existing side by side. These are evident in the way the Cornish name their houses and children, the wide scale adoption of the flag of St Piran as a national emblem and even in the fanatical supporters of the Cornish rugby team 'Trelawneys Army'.
Finally, it is apparent that the Cornish movement has been able to maintain and expand its influence through a generational continuity. For example whilst William Watson barded 'Tirvab' at Boscawen Un in 1928 was to pen poetry in Cornish so his Grandson is the Hon. Secretary of Trelawneys Army the Cornish rugby supporters club. Perhaps from this it can be concluded that while indeed it is true that Jenner's observation that the Cornish language still has not been taken up in terms of Wide scale participation, it cannot be ignored that some 40,000 supporters of the Cornish rugby team 'may not know the reason why', but they do know the meaning of the phrase 'Kernow Bys Vyken.'
Notes And References
1 For a full examination and description of 'places of memory' in the discipline of Oral history see
Alessandre, Portelli, The Baittle of Valle Guilia, Oral history and the Art of Dialogue, University of
2 Passerini L, Fascism ill Popular Memory, The Cultural Experience of the Turin Working Class,
Cambridge University Press, 1987, p7,
3 For further information on this charismatic individual see Amy Hale's, Genesis of the Celto Cornish
Revival ? L.C Duncombe Jewell And the Cowethas Kelto Kemuak in P Payton (ed.) Cornish Studies Five,
1997, pp 100 111
4 See Marion Loffler, A Book of Mad Celts, John Wickens and the Celtic Congress of Caernarfon 1904,
institute of Welsh Studies, 2000.
5 Henry Jenner, The Present Posiition and Prospects of Celtic Cornish Studies in Cornwall, The Celtic
Conference 1917 Report of the Meeting held at Birkenhead Sept 3 5.
6 A.L Rowse, A Cornish Childhood, Jonathon Cape, 1942, p7
7 Interview with George Pawley White by Treve Crago, 25/1/2000, CAVA
8 Interview with George Pawley White by Treve Crago, 25/112000, CAVA
9 for further details of Nance's early life see, The early Life of Robert Morton Nance, Mrs C. Morton
Rayment, New Cornwall, Padstow 1962.
10 Henry Jenner, The Present Position and Prospects of Celtic Cornish Studies in Cornwall, The Celtic
Conference 1917 Report of the Meeting held at Birkenhead Sept 3 5.
11 Interview with John Jenkin by Treve Crago 8/2/2000, CAVA
12 Tyr Ha Tavas Minutes 1932 34, Gorsedd Kernow Archive.
13 Tyr Ha Tavas Minutes 1932 34, Gorsedd Kernow Archive.
14 For a further account of the establishment of Tyr ha Tavas see Garfy Tregidga & Treve Crago, Map
Kenwyn, the Life &. Times of Cecil Beer, Gorseth Kernow, 2000
15 Interview with W.J.E Crago by Treve Crago 21/2/2000, CAVA,
16 Interview with George Pawley White by Treve Crago, 25/1/2000, CAVA.
17 Interview with W.J.E Crago by Treve Crago 21/2/2000, CAVA.
18 For an account of the formation of Mebyon Kernow see, Richard Jenkin, Mebyon Kemow, 1991