Views from a Prison – archival treasures in Morrab Library

Library member Kensa Broadhurst is studying at Exeter University, and has been using Morrab Library’s extensive archive collections for her research since we re-opened. She came across two fascinating documents, written by prisoners of war. The library holds facsimiles of their diaries. Here’s Kensa’s take on them….


I have been working my way gradually through the archives at the Morrab Library whilst researching for my PhD. The letters, journals and notebooks held in the Morrab archives are a real window into the past and offer a fascinating view of not only daily life, but contemporary views on the wider world too.  

Two of the most interesting documents I have read recently concern Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Wars.  John Pollard, a ship’s Captain from Newlyn, was a prisoner of war in France from 1794-95 who kept a journal for a large portion of his time in captivity.  Similarly, Captain James Quick was held captive from 1810-14.  He wrote a series of letters to his wife in St Mawes detailing his life as a prisoner.  

Pollard tells us that he began to write his journal only after several months of captivity and so it is unclear whether his account of this early time is copied from elsewhere or based on memory.  Pollard’s account not only details the trials, tribulations and practicalities of life as a prisoner of war, but offers a contemporary view of wider events in Revolutionary France.  Some of these are hearsay, or titbits of news picked up sometimes long after the events in questions, such as the death of Louis XVII, or the results of Naval Battles, but through Pollard’s journal we are also able to track the effects of inflation and food shortages on France at this time.  The price of bread steadily increases from 1 to 15 livres per pound for example.  I found it fascinating to discover that whilst the prisoners were given a certain food allowance each day, Pollard was also able to work and earn money.  Although there were times when he was unable to work due to illness, the weather or changes in regulations within the prisons in which he was held, at various times Pollard works as a gardener, builds roads, repairs fishing nets, heaves rubbish and works in a grocers, variously grinding pepper and coffee.  We also hear of other prisoners getting drunk in the local public house, starting a fight and breaking things!  Pollard also keeps track of the escapes, and attempts, of other prisoners.  Some of these are more successful than others.  

As Quick’s letters were written with an intended recipient in mind, his wife, they chart a wider range of emotions than Pollard’s journal.  We sense his frustration in the early letters when Quick has evidently not received any letters himself, then relief that he does finally hear from his wife, coupled with annoyance that his brothers do not think to write to him.  The letters also discuss the practicalities of receiving post (via the Transport Board seem to be the most reliable means), and the frustrations of not being a regarded a Prisoner of War by the Committee for Prisoners of War at Lloyds of London (and therefore able to claim money for support) as he had been shipwrecked on the French coast and then imprisoned.  The French view was that all were regarded as prisoners of war, whether shipwrecked, captured or forced to seek shelter in a French port by adverse weather.  Lloyds evidently wanted to avoid paying out any money!  Quick’s letters also give us an insight into contemporary networks within Cornwall.  In his letters he lists other Cornishmen with whom he is held captive and their hometowns in order that his wife and get word to their families of their situation.  As well as men from Mevagissey  we hear of several men from St Ives. We learn Quick spent his time in captivity learning French and some of the language begins to find its way into his writing.  

Examining documents from the past not only makes me realise how privileged we are to have a wealth of archives, such as those held at the Morrab, but also make me feel more connected to the past.  As I drive around Penzance and the local area, places which feature in the documents I have read now jump out at me as I think about the people who lived there and the events which took place which I have discovered. 

Row Boys Row

Cornish male vocal group, the Bryher’s Boys, recently collaborated with Morrab Library to create a video for one of their recordings. Using evocative images from the Library’s extensive historic Photo Archive, they were able to capture the essence of their song in pictures, and they’re delighted to share the finished product with us. The story follows below…


How did this video come about?

Bryher’s Boys are a busy Cornish male vocal group so the restrictions of the Covid Crisis have hit us hard! We’ve adapted by producing our own videos, both for our fans and, sometimes, to use in place of planned live performances which could now not take place. The Morrab Library Photo Archive was invaluable in helping us with a video we were asked to produce by the organisers of Yn Chruinnaght – The Celtic Gathering, a festival we’d been invited to represent Cornwall at in the Isle of Man. The song we chose – Row Boys Row – is all about Cornish maritime heritage, and the history of pilchard fishing here, so we wanted to marry the music with some images which would evoke that period. Thanks to the Archive’s 10,000+ photos covering many elements of vintage Cornish life – all available and searchable online – we were able to assemble a series of images to summon up that era, which perfectly complement the song. We’re very grateful to the Library for permission to use this resource which has helped disseminate this little piece of Cornish heritage to an audience of thousands, worldwide.

Backgrounder for Bryher’s Boys

Bryher’s Boys formed back in 2017 when the Tenor and Bass sections of several Cornish choirs were press ganged to form a new crew especially designed to navigate the choppy waters of Sea Shanty singing!

Their collective love of the established folk repertoire, both Nautical and Cornish, proved an immediate hit with West Cornwall audiences, clocking-up almost 200 performances to date in venues as diverse as private parties, weddings, crowded pubs, festivals, community events, large scale concerts – even aboard the Royal Fleet Auxilary ship Lyme Bay!

Although firmly rooted in the male vocal tradition, their trademark style of free harmony ensures that no two performances sound exactly the same.

Named after bandleader Trevor Brookes’ youngest daughter, Bryher, the Boys do not hail from the Scilly Isle of that name, but come from all over West Cornwall, from Newlyn to Truro.

The group are proud to have been selected to officially represent the Duchy of Cornwall at Europe’s largest music festival, Festival Interceltique Lorient, in 2019, taking their unique mix of Traditional Cornish songs, shanties and shaggy dog stories to a new audience of more than 800,000 attendees, singing to 9,000 people at a time!

Last year, they recorded and released their first CD, The Ballad of the Boy Jacq.

“Bronte Territories” by Melissa Hardie – an Appreciation

In 2019, the Hypatia Trust’s Melissa Hardie launched her book – Bronte Territories: Cornwall and the Unexplored Maternal Legacy, 1760-1870. Melissa’s research reveals the often overlooked but important influence of the maternal family background on the Bronte sisters. The book delves deeply into the Cornish context and cultural understanding in which Maria (Carne) Bronte, her sister Elizabeth (Carne) Branwell and their family lived.
Morrab Library member and Trustee George Care has written a review of Melissa’s book, and it follows below. You will find copies of the volume to borrow or read here in the library.

Wandering down Chapel Street in Penzance, you cannot fail to recognise that you have entered that part of town where history feels close-by. The sea in the distance, the church and the chapel architecture is impressive, the Turk’s Head Tavern and the baroque wonder of the Egyptian House, the Portuguese consulate and almost opposite the house where George Eliot stayed waiting for calm weather for her voyage to the Scillies. Reading Melissa’s book is like taking a similar peregrination through lost corridors of time to recover a sense of the rich liveliness of Penwith’s past. Welcome to the psychogeography of Bronte’s Territories.

The Brontes are still much in the news. The Irish Times, just two weeks ago, were reporting on the O.U.P. computer analysis of Wuthering Heights apparently confirming it to be the work of Emily and not, as had been suggested, that of her brother Branwell. Iconoclasm may be in vogue. However, a square in Brussels – the city where two of the Bronte sisters studied French – is to be named in honour of the literary siblings. Other authors make claim to curious events in Shropshire in the early years of the 19th century drew the parents of genius together. It is to the intellectual and feminine furore of Penzance and its inspiring hinterland that Hardie’s work appropriately returns us.

In a key chapter on the literature and legend of Cornwall from 1760 much mention is made of the intriguing and taciturn figure of Joseph Carne, a geologist of great renown and an energetic banker. His personality was such that he combined a skill with numbers with a strong Methodist belief and mixed in a variety of literary circles. Nearby Falmouth was a key port for the Packet boats recorded in the poetry and memoirs of Byron and Southey. It too was the home of the Quaker family of Foxes who founded the Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1832. Carne was a friend and shared their Non-Conformist beliefs. Hardie shows how Carne encouraged his daughter in her geological studies and mentions the doctors, engineers, vicars and scientists whose cultural sources were enriched by contacts which included Bretons, Huguenots, Hessians as well as a significant Jewish community. She reminds us that in reading Davy, for example, we encounter not just a socially beneficent scientist, a traveller and a poet. This is the endowment the Branwell sisters took to Haworth.

It is interesting to consider that within this Cornish background at this period there were a number of competing beliefs and attitudes. There were the mythical beliefs fostered from folklore- piskies and stories in the expiring Cornish language. There was the old religion of Rome not far beneath the surface. Yet there were also new discoveries especially in medicine and geology that fostered a scientific empiricism. This can be seen in figures such as Davies Gilbert to whom this book gives due prominence- a polymath, mathematician, engineer and President of the Royal Society and a wonderful diarist to boot. William Temple much later stated, “The Church exists primarily for the sake of those who are still outside it. It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” It was the evangelical zeal of the Wesley brothers and their belief in education, temperance combined with stunningly beautiful hymns. It was also a challenge to superstition. It is often said it averted revolution which France and later Peterloo portended.

Melissa Hardie shows us the other supportive factors that came into this heady mixture and sustained the Branwells and flowered in the Bronte’s work. These are twofold; the societies and the family or kinship links. The Penzance Ladies Reading group who carefully studied together a stunning variety of literature from the classics of the Ancients to the contemporary travel writings. Not forgetting the subversive eloquence of Lord Byron, a gentleman with Cornish links through the Trevanions. The founding of libraries and collection of artefacts had practical even economic benefits. The Royal Cornwall Geological Society studies into metallic intrusions assisted the efficiency of mining. Local banks provided the capital for further developments in the industry as well as the magnificent Wesleyan Chapels that the Carnes, Branwells and Battens founded and fostered.

The author has researched both land and legacy extensively. Her approach is frequently imaginative and sometimes speculative. This is a strength because she is also at pains to inform the reader of the limitations of the evidence. Footnotes and suggested reading in themselves are useful but the illustrations are worthy of pondering- several works of art in themselves. They add significant detail. This patient work by Melissa supported by other members of the resplendent Hypatia Trust must be counted as filling a deep fissure, or as we might say in Cornwall, a zawn in Bronte Studies.

August 5, 2020.

Find more of George’s reviews at his website: 
The Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – a permanent gift to Morrab Library from Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust.