PhD: William Bottrell & Robert Hunt, collectors of Cornish folklore.

The folklore of West Cornwall: an analysis of collections, publications, and adaptations from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, focussed on the works of William Bottrell and Robert Hunt (published 1865-81).

So there it is. A working title, for a research project keeping me busy for the next three-four years (2021-24/5). But what does it actually mean? What, exactly am I hoping to achieve – and more to the point, why??

Cornwall is a land of myth and legend, history, tradition and superstition, much of it encapsulated in the five books pictured here: five books which became, and remain, founding texts in the study of Cornish folklore: Robert Hunt’s two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) along with William Bottrell’s two-volume Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870 & 1873) and single-volume Stories and Folklore of west Cornwall (1880). Cornwall is also a land shaped by centuries upon centuries of technological innovation, from prehistory to present day. Most significantly, the 18th-19th centuries, when the rapid advance of Industrial Revolution overhauled all areas of life: machinery replaced human hands, science challenged religion, rail tracks cut new routes through previously inaccessible terrain – and in Cornwall the language itself disappeared. Across Britain and beyond concern arose: the old ways were being lost! In response to which an army of writers rallied, intent on capturing those ‘old ways’ for posterity …

Robert Hunt (Ernest Edwards, 1864, National Portrait Gallery NPGx13935). 
William Bottrell (the only known image, artist unknown)

… Robert Hunt and William Bottrell were therefore not alone in their fascination for regional folklore. They were however unique as two writers approaching same subject material from two very different perspectives; Cornish-born Bottrell (returned diaspora turned reclusive smallholder) as man-on-the-ground, collecting stories direct from source on familiar home territory; and Devon-born Londoner Hunt (established author, scientist, and academic) claiming to have sourced his material through personal research whilst in reality drawing widely from others – including William Bottrell, whose substantial ‘insider’ contribution became overshadowed by Hunt’s more confident self-representation. In the century and a half since their initial publication, these works continue to inspire and entertain – yet little research has been conducted into the actual processes which lay behind their original compilation. This then is my aim: to examine the processes behind the collection, editing, and presentation of these influential folklore collections, thus gaining advanced and hitherto missing insight into William Bottrell and Robert Hunt, not only as authors but, more fundamentally, as men – individually, in relation to each other, and in the wider context of time and place.

How will I do this?

Firstly, a biographical study, digging deep into the lives of these two men, personally, professionally, and in wider contemporary context. Robert Hunt’s life and work is fairly well-documented, while William Bottrell remains something of an enigma, shrouded in mystery. There is much to be discovered about them both. Secondly, an exploration of their legacy: what was the impact of these two writers, on the presentation of Cornish culture; past, present and future? I’ll be doing this through case study, exploring a subset of stories variably presented by both writers: the associated folklore of Pengersick Castle at Praa Sands, on the far southwest Cornish coast.

Famed as one of Britain’s most haunted places, the square granite tower of Pengersick Castle is all that remains of a fortified Tudor manor house built (c1500) on the site of a previous medieval dwelling (c1200) as home to a high-status family of Norman origin.  Abandoned to ruin sometime in the early-mid 17th century, the derelict remains became steeped in myth and legend circulating as oral tale eventually distilled into written form by Bottrell and Hunt. Multiple interconnected stories surround this building. Some can be traced back a thousand years. Some date even further back, to prehistory. Many continue in circulation to this day, evolving for new audience as modern ghost tale. I’ve previously examined the folklore of Pengersick Castle in my MA thesis (2021),* and am revisiting it here as PhD case study, exploring the ‘afterlives’ of regional stories and their renewal in different contexts.

A working title, and plan of action. I’ll be sharing my progress along the way, as occasional blogpost, and I welcome input from readers here – anecdotes, pictures, questions & ideas – send them all my way!

* MA Celtic Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (2021) The Legend of Pengersick Castle, and the meaning behind the name of the place, Praa Sands. Watch this space for news of my forthcoming book of the same title, adapting my MA research for wider audience.