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(Old Celt)

His Life and Stories.

By George Pritchard (c)
Whilst researching my wives family, (the Vingoe's of Penwith in Cornwall) I came across the name of William Bottrell whose grandmother on his mother's side was a Margaret Vingoe. I knew that Bottrell was famous as a recorder of Folk-tales and decided to see if I could trace any of his works.
I visited the Cornish Studies Library in Clinton Road Redruth where Terry Knight, the head librarian,  pointed me in the direction of copies of the three volumes that Bottrell had produced. Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, (series one) published in 1870, Series Two with the same title, published in 1873, and the third volume, which was published in 1880. Bottrell had changed the title of this last volume to Stories and Folk-lore of West Cornwall.

As I read through the first volume, it became obvious that William Bottrell was not merely a scientific recorder of folklore, but had him­self been brought up in an atmosphere of chimney-corner tale telling which he was able to carry onto the written page. His narrative has a leisurely rambling style, so that by the time his tales are finished you feel that he has not only told you most of the traditions, beliefs and practices of the country folk of West Cornwall in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but you have travelled back in time to a Cornwall before rail­ways, an intensely Cornish Cornwall, in which you see the people themselves in their daily life and habit, and hear the Celtic rise and fall of their voices as they utter words and phrases which are rarely heard today. You have travelled down a narrow, winding lane of high moorstone hedges, topped with many an obscuring furze-bush and bramble, through which, with a glance over every gap and an excursion over every stile, he has taken you into this magic country. There are times that the going is rough, even that the guide him­self become tedious; but no one who has read his tales doubts that William Bottrell knew Cornwall and its people.
  I wanted to know more about William Bottrell the storyteller and turned to the local newspapers for information. For a man who became so well known towards the end of his life there is very little in the way of records.

William was born at Raftra (or Raughtra) in St. Levan, within a couple of miles or so of the Land's End, on the 7th of March 1816. He was the son of William Vingoe Bottrell and Margaret (nee Bosence).
On his fathers side William can is descended from the Bottrell’s and Vingoe’s Both of these are ancient Cornish lines with  the Bottrell family tracing its line back from Edward de Bottreaux , whose son  Sir William des Bottreaux built Bottreaux Castle in what is now known as Boscastle in Cornwall in c1086. Whilst the Vingoe’s have held lands in the Lands-End district since time immemorial. The same applied on his mothers side with both the Bosence and the Andrew family being able to trace their roots in Cornwall back generations.
William’s father  was also born at Raftra being baptised at Sennen in 1790. He was the son of Richard Bottrell, of Raftra, St. Levan, and Mary Vingoe, the daughter of  Richard Vingoe and Mary (nee Penberthy) of  Trevilley estate Sennen. who were married at Sennen, 2 Aug.1788.

Williams father was a Yeoman Farmer of some means, so the first few years of William's life were spent on the family farm at Raftra. It was in these surroundings that he heard his first stories while sitting by the fire in the kitchen with his Grandparents, Mary and Richard Bottrell. His Grandma told him how as a young girl her own mother had died, and how she had been sent to live with an aunt and uncle at Alverton in Penzance and had befriended Edward Pellew (Admiral Lord Exmouth} as a young boy. Bottrell later went on to tell this story in volume three of his Folktales. Grandma Mary had a great influence on young William. She would take him for walks over the fields and cliffs around the Lands End telling him stories that had been handed down from generation to generation of Vingoe's for hundreds of years. Stories that later became the basis of the three volumes. 
 William was an only child so his parents were able to give him what was for those times a good education. This more formal education was started at Penzance Grammar School under William Purchase, who was the English master there, and under Nicholas Bice Julyan until 1831, when he was sent to Bodmin School, then under the headmastership of Leonard James Boor. William gained a love for the classics and mathematics, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. 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 and women he travelled the world. About 1837 he visited France and went on to invest heavily in 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 local Basque folk tales but this idyllic life came to an end when his land was confiscated and given to the Catholic Church and Bottrell returned to Cornwall a ruined man.

Within months he was on the move again, this time to Canada where he had obtained a position as English Teacher in a College in Quebec (1847-1851). He became unsettled with academic life and left for the forests of the interior where he worked for a short time as an overseer for a timber
company, returning to Penzance, in 1852  where he lived at No. 4, Clare Street.
  At some stage he married and took his wife to live in Australia where she unfortunately died. This was a black time in his life, which he refused to discuss with anyone, but would dismiss it with the words "I lost my love and my money so came home."

On his return from Australia he lived the life of a recluse at Hawke's Point Lelant. A friend of his later wrote:” 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." His friend went on to tell how Bottrell became a friend of the tinners who worked in 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 Cornwall. 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 the ample harvest."

The advent of radio and the subsequent loss of the wondering story tellers meant the if it had not been for the work which William did most of the stories which make up the volumes of not only Bottrell's own work but also a large part of the two volumes produced by Robert Hunt would have been lost.  Much of his work,  was utilised by Hunt in his two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England, first printed in 1865, of which upward of 50 "drolls were communicated to him by Bottrell, a help which Hunt did not acknowledge and  which caused Bottrell to be both upset and annoyed. As a result the editor of the "Cornish Telegraph" suggested to Bottrell that he should write and publish the stories himself. Bottrell took the 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.  Many articles of his appeared subsequently in this paper and in "One and All", a particularly interesting and now rare periodical.  In 1873 he contributed to another magazine which has become a collectors item, the  "Reliquary". Of all these various articles the best were gathered together and published in three volumes and life began to improve for William and he moved into St Ives. Before the completion of his last volume, however, he suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. Following his stroke he was able to speak and although bed bound for almost a year he dictated his regular column to the newspaper. A further stroke in May 1881 led to six weeks of suffering before he died at 10am on the 27 August of that year at Dove St. St. lves. He was buried in the churchyard he loved the most, St. Levan amongst his ancestors.

If you would like to purchase a C.D. and hear some of William's stories told in a West Cornwall accent then follow this LINK


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Last modified: Thursday January 06, 2005 .