This brief biography was posted to CORNISH-L by George Pritchard on 10 Jan 2001

William Bottrell was born at Raftra (or Raughtra) in St. Levan, within a couple of miles or so of the Land’s End, on the 7th of March 1816. He was the son of William Vingoe Bottrell and Margaret, daughter of William and Margaret (née Andrew) Bosence, of Sancreed. The latter couple were married at St. Levan, 27 Sept. 1788, and Margaret, their daughter, was baptised at St. Buryan, on the15 June 1792. William Vingoe Bottrell was also born at Raftra in 1790, and baptised at Sennen. He was the son of Richard Bottrell, of St. Levan, and Mary Vingoe, who were married at Sennen, 2 Aug.1788. Williams father was a Yeoman Farmer of some means, so the first few years of William’s life were spent on the family farm at Raftra. It was in these surroundings that he heard his first stories while sitting by the fire in the kitchen with his Grandparents, Mary and Richard Bottrell. His Grandma told him how as a young girl her own mother had died, and how she had been sent to live with an aunt and uncle at Alverton in Penzance and had befriended Edward Pellew (Admiral Lord Exmouth) as a young boy. Bottrell later went on to tell this story in volume three of his Folktales.

Grandma Mary had a great influence on young William. She would take him for walks over the fields and cliffs around the Lands End telling him stories that had been handed down from generation to generation of Vingoe’s for hundreds of years. Stories that later became the basis of the three volumes. William was an only child so his parents were able to give him what was for those times a good education. This more formal education was started at Penzance Grammar School under William Purchase, who was the English master there, and under Nicholas Bice Julyan until 1831, when he was sent to Bodmin School, then under the headmastership of Leonard James Boor. William gained a love for the classics and mathematics, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. He left Bodmin School in 1837 and little is known of his life between 1837 and 1851 other than like so many of his fellow Cornishmen and women he travelled the world. About 1837 he visited France and went on to invest heavily in land in the Basque area of Spain. Later in his life he used to speak of his love for his Spanish garden with its herbs, fruit and flowers. He also collected local Basque folk tales but this idyllic life came to an end when his land was confiscated and given to the Catholic Church and Bottrell returned to Cornwall a ruined man.

Within months he was on the move again, this time to Canada where he had obtained a position as English Teacher in a College in Quebec (1847–1851). He became unsettled with academic life and left for the forests of the interior where he worked for a short time as an overseer for a timber company, returning to Penzance, in 1852 where he lived at No. 4, Clare Street. At some stage he married and took his wife to live in Australia where she unfortunately died. This was a black time in his life, which he refused to discuss with anyone, but would dismiss it with the words “I lost my love and my money so came home.”

On his return from Australia he lived the life of a recluse at Hawke’s Point Lelant. A friend of his later wrote: “Here he lived in a hovel and cultivated a little moorland, He had a black cat called ‘Spriggans’ plus a cow and pony. These animals would all follow him down the almost perpendicular cliff, over a goats path, to the spring which was their water supply and no accidents happened to either.” His friend went on to tell how Bottrell became a friend of the tinners who worked in near-by mines. They would do a days work underground then think nothing of spending a couple of hours helping Bottrell clear ground in order that he could create a garden. It was from these men that Bottrell learned more of the ancient tales of west Cornwall. As they sat by the fire in the cottage which he had made his home, one of the number would tell a tale whilst William drew a sketch of the man. Bottrell always acknowledged the debt he owed to these men, he said of them “they have intelligence, mother-wit and memories and I am able to garner from the ample harvest.”

Only a few years later and most of the stories which make up the volumes of not only Bottrell’s own work but also a large part of the two volumes produced by Robert Hunt would have been lost. Much of his work was utilised by Hunt in his two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England, first printed in 1865, of which upward of 50 “drolls” were communicated to him by Bottrell, a help which is not as handsomely acknowledged as it deserved. The then editor of the “Cornish Telegraph” suggested to Bottrell that he should write and publish the stories himself.

William Bottrell’s first appearance in print was in the columns of The Cornish Telegraph of 1867, where he gave an account of “The Penzance of our Grandfathers.” Many articles of his appeared subsequently in this paper and in One and All, a particularly interesting periodical, and in 1873 he contributed to the Reliquary. Of all these various articles the best were gathered together and published in the three volumes. Life began to improve for William and he moved into St Ives. Before the completion of his last volume, however, he suffered a stroke and was paralysed. After six weeks of suffering he died at 10am on the 27 August, 1881 at Dove St., St. Ives and was buried in the churchyard he loved the most, St. Levan amongst his ancestors.

William Bottrell had become:

“A sun-dial pillar left alone,
On which no dial meets the eye;
A black mill-wheel with grass o’ergrown,
That hears no water trickle by:
Dark, palsied mass of severed rock,
Deaf, blind and sear to sun and rain;
A shatter’d gravestone’s time worn block
That only shows an honoured name.”


More biographies