Monday was washday. For many Cornish women, the busiest day of the week. The first day of the week one of strenuous activity after a long, quiet and for many a Methodist Sunday. The thought of washday recalls images of raw, red hands, buckets of “blue” whitener and the dangerous possibility of fingers getting crushed in the mangle. In this book from the Penwith Local History Group, “Women of West Cornwall”, all the of the back breaking effort of domestic routine, to which women were tied, is vividly recalled. In earlier days before washing machines and even hot water, it might involve catching and hauling buckets of rainwater. For women in large Victorian families catering for brothers fishing or sons toiling on the land it meant restoring heavily soiled work clothes. It was truly hard labour.
This fascinating 100 page book gives the impression that many women’s lives were run along pre-determined tracks. Who you married decided rigidly the pattern of your future life. Also according to medieval laws, up until the late 19th century your property and dowry became your husband’s. It recalls the lines of Joan Baez’s “Waggoner’s Lad” – a folk song that was much heard around Penwith in the sixties:-
Yet, in spite of destiny, which sometimes included injury or loss of a husband, perhaps in war, womenfolk were determined not just to survive. “Women in West Cornwall” shows how they were intent upon improving their lot and also that of their sisters, real and metaphorical. Even in small villages like Ludgvan there were successful attempts to create a Friendly Society by means of which women might alleviate difficult times or dire emergencies. In a similar manner, women who managed large families, adapted their skills to run businesses in larger towns like Penzance. Despite educational discrimination and rigid stereotyping, these ladies showed an enterprising spirit, determination and courage. They pursued their rights to preserve their privacy, dignity and reputation through the complexities of Church Court system.
In this splendid little volume, it is truly encouraging to read of the maternal care that one Mousehole women showed in wartime to a number of Jewish children entrusted to her care, showering them with love and understanding. Bearing in mind the current refugee crisis, this story moves the reader to meditate upon the nature of human progress and the transformative power of kindness.
In a short review it is difficult to mention all the useful studies in this fascinating and moderately priced book. It is delightfully illustrated with informative diagrams and background material. It is worth mentioning that it contains passages of humour, like the surreal yet socially revealing clash between Penzance carnival queens in the 1930s. There is an informative chapter on the vicissitudes of being the model of a famous artist and her later experiences. These ten chapters all written by women show, in a variety of styles, empathy and imagination, much systematic and painstaking research into primary sources. Such materials, wills and deeds, being hand written are challenging to decipher. There is in addition a productive use of personal recollection and family memories. This is a great contribution both to Cornish and Women’s Studies. Equality, sadly, is still a work in progress but this neat volume marks, in a touching manner, the distance travelled towards that goal.