Constantine Cornwall

Dolly Pentreath and the Cornish Language

Jan Pentreath delved into the myths and realities of Dolly Pentreath’s life and her significance in the history of the Cornish language at the Constantine History Group’s October meeting. Jan’s talk was based on extensive and very thorough research. As the only child with the Pentreath surname in Mousehole he had been intrigued by the monument funded by Louis Bonaparte to another Pentreath, Dolly, in the wall of the churchyard at Paul and wondered whether she was a relation.

Despite the research the family link is still not clear.  Jan’s efforts to find out more about Dolly resulted in several puzzles that needed to be solved. Did Dolly really exist? There was no registered birth and no death but there was a Dolly Jeffry recorded in 1777. Evidence suggests that a son born out of wedlock may have given the surname Jeffry on her death. A Doartye Pentreath , whose father was a Nicholas Pentreath,  was baptised around the time of her likely birth was this Dolly? Interestingly, the need of her eight-pall bearers to halt on Paul Hill to refresh themselves with half a bottle of gin is recorded!

The monument records her age as 102 but this does not relate to her birth and death in 1877. An ode may have created this myth to achieve a good rhyming structure also there were calendar changes and the years were calculated according to the reign of the monarch. So, plenty of room for error.

William Borlase, claimed that the Cornish language had died out by the 1750s, however, his friend Danes Barrington, a lawyer sought, to find out if this was  true and was put in touch with Dolly. Was she the last Cornish speaker? Evidence suggests she was not as a fisherman wrote to Danes Barrington in Cornish, a language he purported to have learned from the “old men”. His family, the Bodinars were responsible for the location of Dolly’s monument, however a relation of the undertaker declared it was in the wrong place. It was later moved to where it was thought Dolly was buried. Were the Bodinars jealous of Dolly’s fame?

Jan suggested that Mousehole smugglers retained their Cornish language to enable communication with their Breton counterparts. Therefore Dolly, probably born into a smuggling family, would have spoken Cornish and later learned English. To claim that she was the last native speaker is probably justified.

The next meeting is on November 17th. The AGM will begin at 19.00 in the WI Hall, Constantine and be followed by “Exploits of a local vet in the Boer War” given by John Head. Visitors welcome – contact 01326 250604