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A Cornish Waif revisited: perspectives of place

A Cornish Waif's Story - Emma Smith (pseudonym) - Mabel Carvolth

This autobiography, of a life lived through the first half of the twentieth century, is a hymn to the importance of identity, place and belonging. Geographically, the book ranges widely across the U.K. - Cornwall, Plymouth, Devon and London - and as far afield as Australia, but the heart of the book is the tiny cottage tucked near to a parish church in west Cornwall, which is the setting for the protagonist's earliest memories. Mabel published her story under a pseudonym to protect her identity - and perhaps also to protect that of her mother, who was still alive when the book was published in 1954.

Born to an unmarried mother in the last decade of the 19th century, Mabel and her younger brother spent the first few years of their lives being cared for – alternately - by their maternal grandparents at their tiny cottage near to St Euny church and at the Redruth Workhouse. When family finances were so tight that their grandparents could not afford to feed them, the children were sent to the Workhouse for a period, until they could be reclaimed.

Old buildings, with an arch way which were part of Redruth workhouse
Buildings that were once part of Redruth Workhouse are now incorporated in to Camborne Redruth Community hospital

Mabel asserts that these contrasts in her early life – the warmth and kindness of her grandparents, contrasted with the sterile uniformity of the workhouse – served to pique her awareness of her environment. This is evident through the sensitivity of her writing in this most personal and accessible autobiography.

Map showing location of St Euny cottage (with a heart) and Plymouth

Mabel moved with her grandparents, brother, mother and aunts to Plymouth around the age of 5, but rather than being incorporated in to the family home that her mother established with a new husband, she was 'given' to an itinerant organ-grinder couple who needed a young child to arouse sympathy for their begging activities. For the next 6 or 7 years, she was only allowed to attend school sporadically and had to accompany the couple in their street-wanderings from their grimy lodgings, first in Plymouth and later in Penzance. She was the target of unwanted sexual attention from the man when his wife was not present, and suffered with skin conditions brought on by poor clothing and lack of cleanliness. The happiest times in these years was a period when she was placed in a Salvation Army house in Plymouth for a few months, aged 9, where she was washed, decently clothed, and had a steady supply of food and companionship of children her own age.

This period did not last long - in writing her autobiography, Mabel considers the possibility that she used some 'inappropriate' language picked up from her guardians - and this led her to be ejected from the Home, returned to her mother and, before long, passed back in to the dubious care of the itinerant organ-grinder couple.

Throughout much of her childhood, Mabel's main solace – carefully described in her book - was the beauty of the countryside she saw on her travels through Cornwall, as they first travelled through, and then settled in, Penzance, and walked around the west Cornwall area. Delighted by cottage gardens with flowers, and thrilled by starlit walks through woods and fields, her descriptions of the landscape are absorbing. And thoughts of the small cottage at St Euny Churchtown, holding so many warm memories from early childhood, never seemed to be far away.

Route walked by Mabel in 1906 from Penzance to St Euny churchtown

Aged 12, Mabel ran away from the organ-grinder couple she had stayed with from their home in Penzance, early one January morning, and walked 17 miles through snow to reach St Euny. On her arrival, she knocked warily at the door – anxious to see the interior again – and was delighted to be greeted by an elderly couple who had been friends of her grandparents, whom she had known in her childhood, and who had now moved in to the cottage she had previously inhabited. Mabel stayed with them for several days, recovering strength and waiting to see if her grandfather could be located; when he was not able to be traced, Mabel was enrolled at the House of Mercy in Bovey Tracey (Devon) – an institution run by nuns to train ‘fallen’ women to work in the domestic sphere - where she stayed for around 7 years, and gained some stability. Following this, she went in to service in London, then married at the age of 26. Her husband was a stable influence in her life, and together they tried the life of pioneers in Australia (on the Peel Estate near to Freemantle) but returned to the UK, eventually settling for a while in Penzance with their three daughters, born between 1922 and 1925.

Around 1928, Mabel returned to the cottage in St Euny Churchtown with her three young daughters in tow, and was delighted to find the elderly couple from her childhood still both living in the cottage there. In her autobiography, Mabel describes the joy of meeting them, and the pleasure she had in buying a few groceries for them; this was to be the last time she saw them, as husband and wife passed away in 1929 and 1930, respectively.

Though Mabel continues to sketch out a little more of her adult life – her daughters’ success at school, and her difficulties with her physical and mental health – there is a sense that the act of ‘giving back’ to the couple who represented her link to her childhood completes the circle of her story.

There are many books written by more well-known authors that purport to relate dramatic life events. Yet this intimate autobiography gives a sense that while the author’s experiences were very disagreeable and unpleasant, they were not altogether unusual in the times at which they happened. It is this understated tone – leading to the realisation that many people around the turn of the last century lived in miserable physical conditions and suffered much mental hardship – that amplifies the impact of this book: ‘the good old days’, it would seem, were perhaps only experienced by the wealthy few. Rather than harking back to the past with golden sentiments, this very personal slice of history leaves one with a sense of gratitude and relief that we live in the 'now'.

A Cornish Waif's Story - an Autobiography. Emma Smith (pseudonym), with a foreword by A L Rowse. Published in 1954 by Odhams Press, Ltd (London).

History of Bovey Tracey, including an article on the House of Mercy:

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