Kneehigh joins the cause of Cornish women's heritage

We were delighted to see that the wonderful people at Kneehigh, Cornwall's National Theatre, is marking this year's International Women's Day on 8 March with a great post about the women of Cornwall who have shaped our history and culture. A special thank you to Sarah Newton MP for prodding Kneehigh in this, and our, direction.

Read and comment on Kneehigh's post on Cornish Women.

Don't forget that History 51's Facebook page which is dedicated to sharing news, views and information on women's heritage in Cornwall is open to anyone to join in.

Mary Kelynack heads up Kneehigh's list of Cornish women.

275,000 Cornish women will know the reason why!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing'

Unknown learned woman, Cornwall
Unknown learned woman, Cornwall

There are approximately 275,000 women and girls living in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly today--yes, 51% of the population, that is a majority!

This week at History 51 we have been musing and debating the maleness (?) of Cornish history and heritage. The story of men is written into the DNA of the over-arching narrative of Cornish history being based on the fisherman, the miner and the engineer. However we all know that it is not as simplistic as that.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a critique of Cornish heritage, provoked by what seems to be an innocent statement written in a newspaper article by Cornwall Councillor, Bert Biscoe. He begins the article:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

Bust of Richard Trevithick, Cornish inventor, engineer and hero
Bust of Richard Trevithick, Cornish inventor, engineer and hero

I have qualified my criticism of Bert Biscoe's words as I do not believe he is a sexist person but it is alarming in many ways that such a thing can be so easily written and reproduced without comment.

Trelawney has become the Cornish national anthem. In it we intone the following:

And shall Trelawney live?Or shall Trelawney die?Here's 20,000 Cornish menWill know the reason why!

Repeated with passion by those of us who sing it, are we accidentally surrendering to the male narrative and absorbing it into our consciousness?

And that is why I have decided to comment, and encourage all those who care about the diversity and totality of Cornish history, identity, culture and heritage to do the same for the sake of everyone's better understanding of the past: men and women, girls and boys.

There is no history without women!

Don't let anyone say a) it is political correctness 'gone mad' or b) you are making a 'fuss about nothing' - women being known in particular about being fussy (I prefer to call it being particular) or c) you are 'man-bashing' and causing a generation of boys to lack confidence.

Why is women's history important?

Three comments, one from a man, two from women, we received on our Facebook page and via email particularly resonated with me this week in answer to this question:

"...that's like saying why is history important? There is no history without women!"

A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn't use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman.

I would not like to be a young woman lacking in self-confidence these days. I've never had much time and will not tolerate men (or women) referring to women as 'bitches', 'whores' and 'sluts'.

Remember the bread makers, not just the bread winners

Cornish history is full of testimony and evidence of women's lives and achievements. It's just not easy to find. We will be changing this. Because we have based our public histories on activities and events led by men e.g. hunting, war, conquest, raiding, engineering... they privilege those protagonists as the drivers of change in our society. We should remember those that make the bread as well as those that win it.

So, who is Elizabeth Treffry?

St Piran's Flag (Baner Peran) flying from a Fowey boat In July 1457 Elizabeth Treffry was left to defend her castle, Place House, and the major port town of Fowey on her own.  At this time the south coast was frequently raided by French and Breton marauders eager to disrupt the growing maritime trade of England and Cornwall (and to annoy the king, Henry VI who had been engaged in the last bit of the Hundred Years' War with France that had ended in 1453).

Her husband was absent at the King's Court during one of these raids so it was left to Elizabeth to rally local people and co-ordinate a six-week defence of Place and Fowey town and harbour. Allegedly, she came up with the idea of repelling those rascally French pirates by pouring hot molten lead all over them.

Or so the chroniclers say...

The Lady of Place

Elizabeth Treffry the legend was immortalised by Cornishman Henry Sewell Stokes in the poem The Lady of Place, published in The Voyage of Arundel and Other Rhymes From Cornwall (1884). The poem starts by setting the scene of the bravery of Fowey sailors (also pirate raiders) who become known as the Fowey Gallants, themselves the cause of much misery for the communities on the northern coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Although a few townsmen tried to repel the French who were raging through the town, Elizabeth Treffry found the defence a sorry state of affairs:

But she was there, that Lady, To play no woman’s part ; Though the great sufferings of her town Had pierced her gentle heart :

And into action she sprung:

Still calm look’d forth the Lady From her embattled wall ; Her presence was a power, her voice Thrill’d like a trumpet’s call.

The Fowey Gallants fought under her banner to rid the town of the French:

Three cheers, then, for the Fowey gallants ! For the Lady three times three ! And, if the French should come again, May our wives as fearless be !

Suggesting Elizabeth Treffry a good role model for the women of his day, Sewell Stokes ends the poem with a moral:

Changed is the world, much changed since then, Yet will they come once more ? Who knows – or cares – or fears ? who doubts We’ll serve them as before ? Grace Darling died but yesterday, And others of her race May yet be found to emulate That Lady brave of Place.

Elizabeth Treffry is now the figurehead of the Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Collection which is held by the Hypatia Trust. When the collection was formally launched in 1996 by her then direct living descendant David Treffry, Hypatia was looking for a female figure to create a strong image and inspiration for the collection. Elizabeth Treffry seemed to sum up everything that is good about women and the Cornish spirit.

The collection is currently based in Penzance, West Cornwall and is in the process of being professionally curated and catalogued. It comprises over 3000 books and archives documenting women's lives, work and achievements, including those who have shaped the Duchy's character and reputation. We are actively fundraising to ensure the collection becomes an essential part of Cornish and Scillonian heritage and move it to a new publicly-accessible home.

Curating Gold

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning with Victoria Derbyshire (credit: Victoria Derbyshire)

A curator's work is usually associated with historical ephemera and artefacts or ancient specimens. It is rare to get the opportunity to curate history as it happens. And then it happened here in Penzance, Cornwall yesterday when local woman, Helen Glover, and her partner Heather Stanning, won TeamGB's first Gold Medal in the London 2012 Olympics, while also being the first British women to ever win Olympic Gold in a rowing event. They won the Women's Pairs in 7 min., 27.13 sec., having already set an Olympic Record for the event of 6 min 57.29 sec. in the heats on 28 July on the Eton Dorney 2,200m rowing course.

The story

Helen and Heather have captivated the nation, not only because of their success, but because of the stories behind both women's entry into top-flight sport (Helen, an talented sportswoman, hockey player and PE teacher only started rowing in 2008). From a Cornish point of view, the win has placed a spotlight on the Duchy and on west Cornwall, particularly Newlyn where Helen grew up and Penzance where she went  to Humphry Davy School.

Today's national papers were full of stories about the pair, albeit that their place on several front pages were significantly diminished by much more prominent photographs of Bradley Wiggins, with the exception of the Independent's i Newspaper and the Daily Mail who gave equal weighting to the two stories. Perhaps that's because his win came afterwards, or maybe because his win was considered the more significant? It isn't unusual, even today, for women's achievements to be considered slightly less newsworthy, especially when a male achievement has come hot on their heels. Olympic women's sport is reported differently to that of men, a report reveals. Although several have commented already on their feat's worthiness to make history.

New women's heritage

But as the Curator of a nationally-important collection on women, Helen Glover's achievements deserve to be recorded and collected for posterity as the best a positive female role model can offer. It is my job to ensure that Helen's story is preserved for Cornwall for future generations.

The opportunities for collecting have spanned digital and physical media, and of collecting memories. It's hard to be objective about collecting and recording major achievements like this. You tend to go into souvenir hunter mode, setting your sights on what you think is the most important and most auspicious, but as you will read below, that's not what recording for history is all about. When the whirlwind surrounding Helen's win dies down, it is even more important for the Elizabeth Treffry Collection to keep recording.

In just over 24 hours my collecting frenzy has taken me to places I might not usually go, to observe and absorb. So here it is, 24 hours of curating gold.

The view from Cornwall

 Good luck Helen!

So read the headline in The Cornishman on 26 July, accompanied by a photograph of a beaming Helen. Then one of the many TeamGB Olympic gold medal hopefuls, she is quoted as saying that the "support she gets from the people of west Cornwall will give her an "extra edge" as she rows for gold..." By Saturday 28 July Twitter was abuzz with congratulations and excitement at Glover and Stanning's Olympic Record-breaking race during the first heat, being dubbed by some as a 'Cornish Olympic Record'. On 31 July further news was broadcast via Twitter that the race final would be screened at Penzance Hockey Club, where Helen used to play, and so it was here that I decided to start.


Rooting for someone doing something so globally public in their home town is an experience in itself. Penzance Hockey Club is an unassuming sports club tucked away behind council offices. There were media vans in place, cameras up, ready to record the willed-for winning moment. A row of children with Union Jacks were put in place in the front row and various people were earmarked for reaction and interviews.

And so at 11.50am people settled down to watch the race while the press watched us watch the race. Cheers at every milestone became more frenzied, peppered with sharp intakes of breath as the picture kept freezing. A moment of anxiety when Australia were closing in was quickly allayed when Helen and Heather swept passed the winning line and collapsed in a heap.

We were on our feet, fists punching the air, all recorded for posterity by BBC Cornwall. As you will see from the BBC's interview with Helen's former teachers there was a very real sense of immense and sincere pride and admiration for someone who had an otherwise normal upbringing, went to a regular school, did a normal job but whose inner strength, focus and dedication has propelled her to greatness.

"I'm just amazed that someone from a small school in Penzance can make it to the top of her game." (Andy Thomas, Helen's former teacher and Deputy Head, Humphry Davy School)

"It's wonderful that Penzance is on the map... it's just lovely that something can be achieved from someone who lives so far away from the centre of things, if London is the centre of things, and to have gone through a state school and still have achieved such a marvellous achievement." (Kate Finch, Helen's former PE Teacher)

Oggy Oggy Oggy! Oi Oi Oi!

What the BBC Cornwall coverage didn't show were the two rounds of the Cornish Oggy Oggy Oggy rallying chant joined in by everyone at the club at the end, highlighting that the crowd considered this a very Cornish win (and I am sure Scots felt the same about Heather Stanning).

There was immediately talk after the win on The Cornishman'sFacebook on how Helen should be welcomed back to Penzance. Open-top bus? Freedom of the town? One person commenting aptly:

[The Cornishman]  Should be renamed The CornishWOman!

Collecting golden firsts


Helen Glover and Heather Stanning's firsts extended to firsts for Olympic-themed commemorative acts and in true Brit style Royal Mail stepped in with two innovative ideas. Each gold medal-winning athlete would have a Post Box painted gold in their chosen home town and immediately on their win, RM would release special Gold Medal Winner stamps. So Penzance got Great Britain's first golden Post Box and the very first special stamps showed the two women rowers upon crossing the finishing line. In another first, Helen and Heather became the first all-female sports team to appear on a Royal Mail stamp.

So earlier today I went on the trail of recording and collecting these firsts. Arriving at Penzance Post Office at 11am, I was told to come back at Midday. In the meantime I headed to the gold post box, situated by the seafront on Marine Parade. The first images of the conversion from red to gold were circulated by artist and photographer Lee J Palmer who spotted the priming work early in the morning. I was glad to have seen the painters putting the finishing touches on the box. I think they were a little taken aback at the great interest shown in this phenomenon but they were happy for people to snap away and take their own little piece of history home with them. As I arrived one Penzance tourist was waiting to post a card to her daughter. She got the painters to dab a bit of this hallowed gold paint on her card, and then posted it.

Sorry, they're all gone. They only sent us 80!

After taking a few snaps of my own I headed back to the Post Office just before Midday only to be confronted by camera crews and a queue headed out of the door. Who'd have thought that stamps would make such a comeback one day! The first person to buy the rowers' Gold Medal Stamp was interviewed, photographed and generally made a fuss over. By the time I got to the queue I knew I would be faced with the inevitable reply: "Sorry, they're all gone. They only sent us 80! We're trying to get some more. Do you want the cyclist?" So much for a First Day Cover (or an understanding of the demand that is created in someone's home town). What I wanted for the Elizabeth Treffry Collection was to have a Penzance franked cover sent to the Hypatia Trust at Trevelyan House to found a new sporting women archive.

...or collecting Cornish women's heritage

This portrait of three brilliant women sums up what we're all about.

In one moment I felt like I had let the collection down and that I failed in acquiring a requisite piece of Cornish women's heritage. And then it dawned on me that I was barking up the wrong tree. It did not seem in any case that these particular First Day Covers would be franked with the local postmark, which is what I was after for the collection. So I decided to go Blue Peter. I ordered a run of stamps and a First Day Cover for the collection online and then, in order to get a Penzance frank on something celebrating the women's success, I whipped off the front page of the Western Morning News which held an excellent photograph of the rowers, folded it up to make an envelope, sealed it with two regular Olympic stamps and popped it in the Helen Glover gold Post Box in time for its last collection on its first day.

I was also delighted that BBC radio and news journalist Victoria Derbyshire let me use her photograph of the winning women on this blog. This portrait of three brilliant women sums up what we're all about.

2012-08-02 16.55.43
2012-08-02 16.55.43

Yes it is important to collect these things as they are the memory triggers that allow history to form. But they are not what collecting for Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is all about: we're not magpies. Sporting women is an area that the collection currently lacks books and papers. As Curator I want to expand in this area and what better inspiration than Helen Glover's incredible win?

This is what celebrating a golden girl is really about.

But it's the stories that led to the win and how she builds upon it and becomes a positive female role model that Cornwall and Scilly desperately needs, that we want to document too. Even before the Olympics began Helen was extremely keen on inspiring the children back in Penzance. She talked to them via video link, online and came in to tell them the story of her amazing journey in sport and rowing. She says she intends to come back to show the same kids her medal. This is what celebrating a golden girl is really about.

Cornish pride in women rowing

All the attention that Helen Glover and Heather Stanning are rightfully getting has perhaps eclipsed the Olympic achievement of another Cornish woman rower, Wadebridge's Annie Vernon.  Annie was part of the women's eight team that came fifth in the finals today but was an Olympic Silver medalist in Beijing in 2008. I was delighted that the BBC published an article on Annie highlighting the Cornish pride she feels when rowing at an international level. She carries St Piran's Flag (Baner Peran) on her rowing oars and according to her mother, Morwenna Vernon, she bonded with her team mates by making them each a "mean Cornish pasty."

Sporting women of Cornwall and Scilly

If you're reading this Helen, Annie Julie or any other sporting women of Cornwall and Scilly, please get in touch! We would love to make sure that your achievements become part of our future heritage.

I haven't yet counted up the Cornish women competitors in this Olympics, nor sporting women who compete in events outside of this arena, but it is perhaps time to do so and publish stories about them here. Part of the problem we have with women's visibility, not least in sport, is that we don't often enough hear about them and their achievements. Women like Helen Glover, Annie Vernon and another Cornish sporting heroine from Penzance, World no. 1 Muaythai boxer Julie Kitchen all have a place in the heritage of Cornwall and Scilly. Sport is an area that can be a major inspiration to young people, not least girls and young women.

It is the job of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection to help make sure that happens, not just during the glory moments, but much beyond. So, if you're reading this Helen, Annie Julie or any other sporting women of Cornwall and Scilly, please get in touch! We would love to make sure that your achievements become part of our future heritage. 

If you're keen to put your oar in... see here for some top rowing training tips from Sports Fitness Advisor.

Name your woman of Cornwall and Scilly

Elizabeth Treffry Collection wordle Here at the Hypatia Trust we are in the early days of campaigning and fundraising for a new, public and permanent home for the nationally significant Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The women represented in the collection are the cultural ancestors of over half a million inhabitants of Cornwall and Scilly today. As we compile an index of these women who, through their writing, art and work, have shaped how we and the rest of the world view and understand Cornwall and Scilly, we would like to know who you think should be included, and why.

It could be someone from the past or someone living now, what contribution have they made? Why are they special? Leave a comment!

The history and heritage of Cornwall and Scilly is still, unfortunately, based on stories of 'great men'. That is not to say that women did not play a prominent part, but it is to say that their lives were not as well documented and so we have to find these fine threads and weave them into something stronger. That is what the Elizabeth Treffry Collection aims to do. We collect and document in three areas:

1. Information and works by women from Cornwall and Scilly (Cornish by origin and non-Cornish inhabitants). 2. Information and works about women from Cornwall and Scilly (by men or women). 3. Information and works by women on Cornish/Scillonian subjects or inspired by a Cornish/Scillonian setting.

So far we have documented the lives of at least 600 women represented in the books and papers of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection. These include artists like Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, campaigners like Judith Cook, writers like Mrs Craik (aka Dinah Maria Mulloch) and teachers like Litz Pisk. In addition the Hypaita Trust has conducted projects into the Women's Land Army of Cornwall and supported research and publication on the subject of mining women (Bal Maidens).

So please share this post, leave a comment below, tweet us, join us on Facebook and give us your thoughts on how we can best use the collection to make sure that women's heritage in Cornwall lives long into the future.