PADSTOW STORY TELLER
FROM RESEARCH BY SIMON YOUNG
Regular Echo readers may remember The Witch in the Well a story that we published a little while ago. We never did get to the end (the little children returned safely and the orphan boy marries his Betty and lives happily ever after. O.K. ?). This was one of a collection of legends and folk tales in the book The Piskey Purse by Enys Tregarthen, whose real name was Ellen SLOGGETT and who lived in Padstow in various locations with her mother Sarah and aunt Lavinia and uncle Charles Rawle and other members of the family. In 1851 the two sisters shared a house in Duke St. while their husbands were both at sea. Sometime during the next twenty years young Nell would lose her father and be struck down with a crippling disease that would leave her paralysed for the rest of her life. Undaunted and no doubt encouraged by her family and the community, Nell turned to writing, basing her stories on the people she knew best; her friends and relations in the bustling little sea port of Padstow. She will be best remembered for her collections of folk tales published between 1905 and 1911, the most lavishly produced being House of the Four Winds dedicated to the Bishop of Truro and with a preface by Thurstan Peter the eminent historian. This would be one of the young John Betjeman’s favourite books.
“Oh Peggy Purey-Cust how pure you were…………
She wasn’t well. House of the Sleeping Winds ,
My favourite book with whirling art-nouveau
And Walter Crane-ish colour plates, I brought
To cheer her sick bed”……………….
The other collection was titled Legends and Tales of North Cornwall (1906).
The Rawle family, in 1881 the owner of Padstow’s largest shipyard employing 27 men and 14 boys would have been part of the gentry class in Padstow society at that time and this must have helped with Nell’s literary ambitions. The extended family group now including Kate Guy and baby Warwick, . So must the support from the Prideaux-Brune family as indicated in one of her book dedications. Wherever the encouragement came from she was helped by the enormous strides being made in the education system of the country and the subsequent huge demand for “suitable” reading for young people. The splendid Sylvanus Trevail designed Board School in Padstow was typical of those times, already open for nine years when Nell had her first story published using her other pen name Nellie Cornwall. A slim volume titled Daddy Longlegs , followed in the next year 1886 by the full length Grannie Tresawna’s Story drawing on the characters and places so familiar to the author. In this tale she adapts the story of the ladies in red coats frightening away the French. As in all her “Cornish” based stories explanations would be given for such dialect expressions as “slocked” and “whisht”. In fact there are enough of them to form a unique record of known colloquialisms. The following year she departed from her Cornish theme withHalvard Halvorsen a story of the fjeld fjord and fos. I suspect a seafaring relative gave rise to this Norwegian inspired tale which was repeated in Mad Margrette and Little Grunvald published later.
She would return to a Cornish theme in 1892 with Tamsin Rosewarne and her Burdens and in 1897 with Maid of the Storm set in Port Issac .
Both of these stories contain warm country characters from all classes of small town Cornish society, the heroes and heroines kindly and godfearing, the villains rarely past redemption. Many trials and tribulations but Good always triumphs over Evil before the story ends.
Maybe Nell felt a need to vary her locations if not the themes and she turned to London for Sprattie and the Dwarf (1891) based on the real life General Tom Thumb who had been presented to Queen Victoria by the showman Barnum. The General apparently had once come to Padstow and had been known to the Padstow Doctor Marley, whose links with Dickens are well known. Little Bunch’s Charge (1894) was written in the same style, published by S.W.Partridge & Co Ltd Old Bailey as were most of the fourteen Nellie Cornwall titles. My copy turned up in Ontario Canada. It has excellent line drawings by Charles Tressidder and is just one of the 20,000 copies sold.
Nell Sloggett was not the first to recognise the importance of recording the fast disappearing tales of the people but she did bring the work of Botterrell and Hunt to a wider readership and we can thank an American visitor to Padstow two decades after Nell’s death for making more of these stories available.
Elizabeth Yates had been living in England for several years prior to 1939. An aspiring author she returned home at the outbreak of war with some of Nell’s unpublished stories. The result of this was Piskey Folk published in New York in 1940 and later The Doll who Came Alive (1942 and 1972). Faber and Faber published an edition in 1944 in the UK costing 6s. Another Enys Tregarthen story released in the US during this period was The White Ring
In 1996 a new edition of Piskey Folk appeared now titled Pixie Folklore and Legends,a copy finding its way into a Truro second hand book store. The forward states “Strange as it may seem in these matter of fact times, there are people living who not only hold that there are Piskeys, but say they have actually seen them! How fortunate to us across the space of nearly a century, these beholders of Piskeys yet seem.”
Fortunate indeed that Nell Sloggett’s stories are available to us even if the only ones readily available to us here are the rather lack lustre OakMagic publication of Padstow’s Faery Folk (1997). priced at £3.50. Can we expect more.? or is it wishful thinking on my part that she deserves greater recognition.
Elizabeth Yates had pursued a successful writing career winning a literary prize for Amos Fortune Free Man in 1951. Now in her 90’s she continues to write. She found my enquiries “a delightful recall of days in England many years ago”.
Here in Padstow there are those who remember some of the five daughters of Aaron Sloggett, first cousins to Nell. Margaret Evans (nee Guy) a descendant of the family who lived with Nell in Dennis Road in the house then called “Yatala” has been living here for some years. (now deceased ) It was in this house that Ellen (Nell) Sloggett aka Nellie Cornwall and Enys Tregarthen ended her days in 1923 aged 72. She lies buried with her mother beneath a simple cross quite close to a rather more grandiose marble and engraved slate memorial to another branch of the Sloggett clan.
Other Nellie Cornwall titles not mentioned :
Little Gladwise. The story of a waif. (1909)
The Little Don of Oxford. (1902)
Little Annie (1897)
Joyce’s Little Maid (1896)
This item is dedicated to second hand booksellers wherever they may be.
P.S. Elizabeth Yates died in New Hampshire USA in 2001 aged 96.