Cornwall: Dolly Pentreath (1675-1777) – Last of the Cornish-Speaking Celts?

Postcard Dated on Reverse-Side ‘24.11.1975

This is a postcard sent from the Cornish town of St Austell by my maternal grandparents – Arthur and Winifred Gibson – to my mother – Diane Wyles – stating that all is well with them (but with a ‘hint’ of some sort of problem at home in Oxford regarding the ongoing care of elderly relatives) and that they will visit us on the way back after the end of their holiday Cornwall to their home, situated in the Forest Hill (Stanton St John) area of Oxford. This postcard was sent forty-six-years-ago – with both grandparents now being deceased. I now how hectic life can be and I sincerely hope they enjoy the natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere of Cornwall.

My Maternal Grandparents: Arthur Gibson (Left) and Winifred Gibson (nee ‘Inge’) – c. late 1930s

Of course, both lived through WWII with Arthur Gibson serving in the Royal Navy Patrol Group on the HMS Beaumaris Castle (Mine-sweeper) and stationed in the North Atlantic. Winifred Gibson participated in all kinds of employment to make ends meet and was a formidable matriarch. Prior to WWII they lived in Lewisham, East London, but due to Hitler blanket-bombing the place, they were evacuated to live with relatives in Oxford. This is how I eventually ended-up being born in Oxford in 1967.

The Stamp Appears to Fell-off!

Although it is recorded within the (indigenous) community of Cornish (Celtic) speakers that Dolly Pentreath was ‘102-years-old’ at the time of her death in 1777 – (making her birth-year as being circa 1675) – the English-speaking invaders of Cornwall state that she was ‘baptised’ in the year 1692 (pouring scorn upon the Cornish-speakers’ assertions as being the rantings of the poorly educated and the ignorant, etc). If the English assertion is correct that Dolly Pentreath would have been a mere ’85-years-old’ when the mortality rate for the average working-class woman was around 40-years and considerably less if she had given-birth. Interestingly, and a point not acknowledged or examined on the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’, is how plausible it could have been for Dolly Pentreath to have successfully ‘given-birth’ to her son (John Pentreath d, 1778) and to have survived this process even though she was supposedly in her 37-year of life!

Although it is recorded within the (indigenous) community of Cornish (Celtic) speakers that Dolly Pentreath was ‘102-years-old’ at the time of her death in 1777 – (making her birth-year as being circa 1675) – the English-speaking invaders of Cornwall state that she was ‘baptised’ in the year 1692 (pouring scorn upon the Cornish-speakers’ assertions as being the rantings of the poorly educated and the ignorant, etc). If the English assertion is correct that Dolly Pentreath would have been a mere ’85-years-old’ when the mortality rate for the average working-class woman was around 40-years and considerably less if she had given-birth. Interestingly, and a point not acknowledged or examined on the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’, is how plausible it could have been for Dolly Pentreath to have successfully ‘given-birth’ to her son (John Pentreath d, 1778) and to have survived this process even though she was supposedly in her 37-year of life! With medicine being as primitive as it was, a woman over 25-years-old during the 1700s was already exposing herself to very dangerous odds by getting pregnant, as even if the baby was saved, the mother usually died of a loss of blood that could not be stemmed. Already we see just how ‘extraordinary’ Dolly Pentreath was despite being an impoverished fish-seller (‘jowster’). Of course, if Dolly Pentreath was born in 1675, then she would have been around 54-years-old when she gave birth to her son, John (who died aged 49-years-old) and outliving his mother by just one-year! Again, given the mortality rate being between 30-40-years-old for both men and women of the 1700s – both mother and son lived well beyond the expected short life-span of the struggling working-class.

Monument Dedicated to Dolly Pentreath in St Paul Aurelian Cemetery- Paul – Cornwall

Here lieth interred Dorothy Pentreath who died in 1777, said to have been the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish, the peculiar language of this country from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century, in this Parish of Saint Paul. This stone is erected by the Prince Louis Bonaparte in Union with the Revd John Garret Vicar of St Paul, June 1860. Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Exod. xx. 12. Gwra pethi de taz ha de mam: mal de Dythiow bethenz hyr war an tyr neb an arleth de dew ryes dees. Exod. xx. 12.

References:

https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-14692

https://www.wikitree.com/photo/jpg/Pentreath-131-2

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/dolly-pentreath-16851777-the-last-speaker-of-cornish-100692

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