Author Victoria Cornwall joins The Bandwagon to share her fascinating family history in Cornwall.
Victoria Cornwall grew up on a farm in Cornwall. She can trace her Cornish roots as far back as the 18th century and it is this background and heritage which is the inspiration for her Cornish based novels.
Victoria is married, has two grown up children and a black Labrador, called Alfie. She likes to read and write historical fiction with a strong background story, but at its heart is the unmistakable emotion, even pain, of loving someone.
Following a fulfilling twenty-five year career as a nurse, a change in profession finally allowed her the time to write. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society.
The Thief’s Daughter is her debut novel and the first in a series of Cornish based novels.
We knew it existed, but not many in the family had seen it. Finally, after a bit of sleuthing, my father tracked the document down and brought it home for us to see. At the time I was on the verge of my teenage years. I had left the Bay City Rollers behind me, Abba was big in the charts, and punk rock was on the distant horizon, yet even I was impressed when he unrolled the yellow scroll on our dining room table. It was my father’s family tree and, in turn, it was mine.
Researched and compiled by Gilbert John Anderson in 1922, it dated back to 1712 and contained 1036 names. Beside each name he had recorded their date of birth and spouse. With each generation the numbers multiplied, spreading out on the sheet like a gathering army, but they all had one thing in common. They had all descended from a single Cornishman, the “renowned and pious” farmer, Matthew Thomas.
Matthew Thomas was a faithful and devoted follower of the co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley. According to a broadsheet of the time, he was the “first to welcome the Methodist preacher under his roof”. How do I know this? Because Gilbert John Anderson had the forethought to record the details of some of the more notable members of the “Thomas pedigree”, as he liked to refer to my father’s ancestors.
In fact, the family tree was so comprehensive, that when my grandparents saw it for the first time, they discovered that they were distantly related. This is a time when your options for courting extended only as far as you were prepared to walk in a day. For the Cornish labourers and farmers, horses were for work, not for sons to go courting the young maid in the next village. Rural country life was hard; opportunities to meet other people were often limited to festivals, religious services and village hall dances. Wander around a village churchyard and you will see generation after generation of the same family, who have lived and died in the same area. Why move away when the community spirit and family ties are so strong?
This family heirloom throws up some interesting facts. The most popular masculine names were John and William, while the most frequent feminine names were Elizabeth and Jane (including the variant Janie). It was common for a man to name his first son after him, and it was not unusual for a child to be named after a deceased sibling. This practice would be considered abhorrent today, but it was not uncommon during the 18th and 19th century. It was a way many grieving parents gained some comfort, for their deceased child would not be forgotten. The average number of children per family (as noted in 1922) was five – however, I would like to add that one distant relative, William Thomas, had twenty-three, which boosted the average somewhat.
The direct line to my father were mainly farmers, although more distant relatives included a Captain/agent of Trewey Downs Tin Mine, who was later killed by a fall of rock following a blasting explosion at Wheal Chance Tin Mine in 1809.
Over the generations the family began to scatter, spreading out from Zennor to include St.Buryan, Tregony, Par, and Bodmin. Farming remained the main occupation for my father’s direct line and then, in 1914, the unthinkable happened. War was declared.
My grandfather, Thomas Thomas, was working on his father’s farm when war broke out. Farmers were allowed to keep one work horse – the rest were sent to war and never seen again. From pulling ploughs, they now had to pull artillery guns and wagons filled with supplies to support an army. Experience of working with horses was a much needed skill during the war. It was a skill both farmers and blacksmiths had and probably influenced his posting when he was enlisted in the first quarter of 1916. He was sent to Aldershot Training Centre for drill and fitness, Woolwich Gunnery School for training, and then posted to the 45th Brigade Royal Field Artillery – divisional support for 8th Division.
The Royal Field Artillery had 18 pound field guns, each crewed by ten men and pulled by a team of six horses. The brigade also had a team of 65 to 70 drivers, controlling horses and mules, some with ammunition wagons, guns and limber spare parts. It was a hazardous job, and horses and soldiers often got bogged down in the mud. My grandfather survived, but his hearing was damaged by the field gun he operated. He would never speak of the horrors he saw on the Western Front.
By the time the Second World War was declared, he had ensured that his elder sons, who were approaching the age of conscription, had secured essential workers posts. They spent the war producing food for the country rather than experiencing the horrors of war first-hand as he had done. His forward planning probably saved their lives. His neighbours were not so fortunate, one losing all of their sons to the war.
My father was still a boy at the time. Cornwall did not suffer the horrors as other areas of England. New evacuees appeared in school, certain foods became scarce, and occasionally a plane overhead would send him running for cover, terrified that it might be German. War was something that was happening elsewhere and his life did not change too greatly. Then the Americans arrived in Cornwall. They overtook large areas as they waited to take part in the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overload. Many children had not seen an American before, particularly an African American. My father has fond memories of their presence as they were friendly and kind, often throwing sweets out of the back of their trucks to the children who chased after them.
Sweets were rare in peacetime, and in war they were nonexistent. My father, like many Cornish children, found their own substitute by picking soursob leaves from the hedgerows on their way to and from school, so it was a real treat to have American G.I.s giving them sweets for free. Then, one day, they were gone. Hundreds of men, together with their heavy machinery, which up to that point had been hidden in wooded areas, disappeared within hours. There were no more sweets to catch in the air, and life returned to waiting for the war to end.
Peace came and time, education, and the hardships of farming changed the aspirations of the generations that followed. I was the first to obtain a degree in my family line. Improved transport and standards of living have meant that my generation, and those that follow me, have travelled more widely than our predecessors. We have also broken the tradition of naming the eldest son after his father, and farming being the only option available. Other occupations have entered the family line – nursing, teaching, medicine, computer animation, research, writing, and quantity surveying. Some have moved away, however, our love for Cornwall remains. As for myself, I will remain in Cornwall. It has been my family’s home for many generations and the inspiration for my novels. I see no good reason to leave.
The family tree was in our care for only a few short days, until it had to be returned to the person allotted to look after it. Several years later it was lent to someone outside the family and never returned. It is a tragedy that such a document has been lost, and I know that my father would love to see it again before he dies. Fortunately, my father inherited my grandfather’s forward thinking. The day after he unrolled the scroll on our dining room table, he gave me the task of copying the notes made by Gilbert John Anderson in 1922 and photocopying the family tree itself. Our copy may not be as clear as the original, or give justice to the penmanship of the man who compiled it, but it is ours and we will care for it in the way it deserves.
The Thief’s Daughter is available to download for 99p now, and is my chosen read for this year’s Cornish Reading Challenge. Keep an eye out for my review!
You can find Victoria’s recommendations for this year’s reading challenge here.