Once Upon a Time...

Author: Sue Ellery-Hill

Sue Ellery-Hill was born in Penzance in Cornwall to Brenda and John Wootton and grew up with strong Cornish roots and influences. In her teenage years she had a poem published in Denys Val Baker’s ‘Cornish Review’, and after a life spent mostly involved with children’s charities, she has only returned to creative writing in recent years. In 1994 she published a book of her mother Brenda’s poetry, ‘Pantomime Stew’, and then another containing probably the largest ever collection of Collective Nouns, ‘Gallimaufry’. In 2018 she was awarded two medals for Creative Writing in English by Esedhvos at the Gorsedh Kernow, for a poem and a short story. She published her mother’s biography ‘Brenda – For the Love of Cornwall – The Life and Times of Brenda Wootton, Cornwall’s First Lady of Song’, and it was launched at the Acorn Theatre Penzance in 2018. She has two very grown-up sons, six grandchildren, and is loving living in St Just with husband Chris.

 

Brenda Wootton (1928-1994), Sue’s mother, was a Cornish poet and folk singer and was an ambassador for Cornish tradition and culture in all Celtic nations and as far as Australia and Canada. Barbara was a member of the Gorseth Kernow, where she was known as her Bardic name of Gwylan Gwavas (Seagull of Newlyn).

 

Sue Ellery-Hill brings us two fascinating stories in her Brenda Wootton mini-series. 

 

The first article is the extraordinary tale of Nina Katorza, a Cornish model, dancer, singer, artist, and raconteur who, in her later years (mid 1980's) became a pen pal and dear friend to Sue’s mother -Brenda Wootton. The second article focuses on Nina’s Grandmother – Sybella. In both accounts Sue utilises Nina’s letters, which combined with historical archives and records, provide a rich source of information for this melding of fantasy and realism.

1. Nina Katorza – Brenda Wootton’s remarkable French Pen Pal…

 

 

Thirty years ago, an 85-year-old Cornish woman living near Nice in the South of France got in touch with my mother- Cornish singer Brenda Wootton. They became pen friends and mutual admirers – the story that emerged from Nina over the next 3-4 years of her unique and eventful life was so remarkable, I could not pass it by… Her wide-ranging tale incudes some fascinating insights into Penzance in the 19th and 20th centuries, into the private lives of some of the most famous Newlyn School artists, and into ‘la vie Parisienne’ of Montparnasse in the 1920s … it is a story of celebrity, tenacity, audacity, and bravery…

 

Nina initially wrote to Brenda after seeing her on French television and hearing that she was from Penzance in Cornwall – they struck up a friendship, and kept up a regular correspondence for a few years in the mid-1980’s.

 

She was born Evelyn Constance Nina Thorne in Penzance 8 January 1900, going on to star as a singer in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. At the time of her writing her letters to Brenda, she lived at the Villa Tip-Top, Montee du Perousin, Haut-de-Cagne, in Cagne-sur-Mer in the south of France, together with 5 cats, 19 birds (including parrots, budgies and canaries), and a Pekinese dog.

Throughout the 1890’s her father, Joseph Alan Thorne was organist and choir master at St Mary’s Church in Chapel Street.  He was a teacher of violin, piano, organ, violincello and mandolin, as well as singing and harmony. He was also organist at St Paul’s and at Madron Parish Church. Her mother Linda also taught singing, and her grandmother Sybella - a very flamboyant character- sang and played piano and zither.

Her parents had lived at ‘The Hollies’ in Alverton (where Nina was born, as well as three horsey aunts and two uncles), and then at some point moved to 45 Morrab Road (where her brother was born – next to Penlee Park main entrance) presumably for financial reasons; her grandmother, Isabella Trembath Thorne lived at 2 Morrab Terrace. Alverton, the only discrepancy being that it seems Nina was still living at ‘The Hollies’ within her memory, and she was born there in 1900:

 

“Some little way out of Penzance, on the north side of Alverton Road, is ‘Chycelin’ (a Cornish name derived from chy-house and celin-holly). Fronted with grounds sporting magnificent magnolia trees, ‘Chycelin’ is set back from the street. The house was formerly called ‘The Hollies’ Academy, a Gentlemen’s Boarding School, opened in 1883 and owned by Joseph Alan Thorne. JA Thorne was later listed in The Edinburgh Gazette of December 1893, as involved in bankruptcy proceedings. Henceforth, ‘The Hollies’ became a private residence, dwelt in by the family of a Prussian merchant called David Bischofswerder. Further, there is an 1893 Kelly’s directory entry of a Sylvanus Hanley (probably the famous shell collector), living at ‘The Hollies’.”

 

The quotes in italics below are taken directly from Nina’s letters to Brenda between 1983-88.

 

“I used to sing in my cot, and was bribed by my Nanny with chocolate to shut up… Then there were the luncheon parties, and I was always asked to sing – 8-9 years old – I would only sing under the table amidst the feet… ‘Come birdie, come and sing to me!’… I hated being put on a table with all these people eating even then, and later when I did cabaret in Monte Carlo it was torture… but I was also a child pianist and played two pianos with Pa (who, so they say, was playing Rachmaninov’s 3rd on two pianos with his girlfriend when I was arriving in an upstairs room in ‘The Hollies’) …”

 

She remembers Stanhope Forbes also had an ‘installè’ somewhere in Morrab Road, and she thinks maybe Lamorna Birch… before the 1st World War, her parents used to hold Musical Soirees and Open House every week,

 

“There were two grand pianos (and one for my grandma, Isa) and I often played duets with Daddy and Mother sang German Lieder [the setting of romantic German poems to classical music]… Gran did her zither turn, and I loved it all, as I was allowed to stay up late those evenings, and there was booze set on a long table on the veranda, and sandwiches, and the maid of all work, Edith, having a ball… lovely memories… I think [Stanhope] Forbes played the violin, one of them played cello and flute, and Mme Garstin [Mrs Norman Garstin] sang in a piercing soprano, but would sing ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’ by Herman Löhr, who was a friend - he later married a Florence Daly, a folklore singer from Ireland…”

 

 She describes her father as:

 

“a sex-pot – god’s gift to women … Black hair green eyes and a six-footer or more. He taught piano and violin to all the beautiful ladies around… and by the way, he discovered Dame Clare Butt’s voice – she had a booming contralto – and a pretty child called Dora Labbette, who had a lovely soprano … she used to sell papers in Penzance and became the girlfriend of Sir Henry Wood.” (Nina has that wrong – Labrette had a thirteen-year affair with Sir Thomas Beecham and bore a child by him).

 

She continues:

 

“By the way, dad had two singing pupils from Hayle, one, a Miss Eddy with a beautiful contralto… they used to come together on the bus – but Miss Eddy used to send him poems and he used to leave them around … when I was eight, I knew the ‘Poems of Passion’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox by heart! I remember when very young seeing one of Dad’s violin pupils, a Miss Brind, daughter of General Brind [British Army Officer, Commander of the 4th Division]… well, she was so mad about Dad that she gave me presents and used to comb her quite lovely hair in the lobby while she waited her turn… she was years after murdered in the Foret de Fontainebleau – no wonder, poor thing…Dad couldn’t bear her, for once…”

 

Her uncle Frank went to Manitoba to live on an Indian reserve, and died and was buried there, she says. But it was Penzance she hankered for … she had many happy memories of her hometown…

 

“I’m told I would no longer know Penzance, it was changed so much, but I presume the Prom is always there, and the Mount… my Nanny used to take me over to the Mount at low tide to have tea with the St Leven kids (Lord Leven’s family) who were my age – and then at Plymouth to Mount Edgecombe, for tea with that lot (presumably the children of the Earl of Mount Edgercombe). I did not enjoy it except when we were allowed, to ride the Shetland ponies – sweet animals!”

 

Of the Hollies she recalled:

 

“I wonder if the field with the trout stream is still there behind the house, where we allowed two horse caravans to stay in permanence – Manouche [French Romani] or Romani, I forgot – but they were called Smith and Taylor, and were basket makers, and did the Thursday market on Market Jew Street – Leah Smith was my wet nurse! My Grandma Isa used to make music with the gypsies” …

 

She sat for artist Stanhope Forbes…

 

“I never sat, but had to stand, and show as much leg as possible. He would come to the Hollies as he and Dad were buddies… then he would sketch me by the dozen.”

 

She said she posed for Forbes,

“as a shrimp-girl with a shrimp-net on shoulder, and loved posing this, 1910-11!”

 

She says in those days she was known as Eve or Evelyn Thorne. She also posed for Norman Garstin, and modelled for an artist called Langley (Walter Langley),

 

“who became quite famous – he had a son John – a horrid boy, a bottom- pincher aged ten!”

 

Walter Langley married Madron-born Ethel Pengelly, and, in 1901, they and their son, John, were living at Alexandra Road, Madron…

 

 

“And someone – rather vague -called Harris …with a beautiful child called Queenie and a lovely mother?”

 

Alverton Street in Penzance c1905, around the time that Nina would have been living there. (Photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)
Alverton Street in Penzance c1905, around the time that Nina would have been living there. (Photo: Sue Ellery-Hill)

Nina asked if St Mary’s Church in Chapel Street was still standing…

 

“I had my first ‘mystique crise’ there when I was twelve and wept before the crucifix draped in purple… my other ‘crise’ was Russian and in Paris, when I was singing in the Russian Orthodox Church, Rue Daru… I lived with Russian ballet dancers for a time, until one of them tried to kill me! So Russian, and they never told me (7 of them) that Sonia was a morphino {morphine addict] and had les crises! Yes, even in 1923 people drugged…”

 

 

“My Grandmother lived a lot in Newlyn and Lamorna – she was a beautiful woman called Isabella Trembath Thorne, and she was a painter – she had one taken by the Academy – ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’, with all those dear rats! She had a jingle [pony and cart] and dressed in Spanish shawls – made a hole in the middle and that was that… jades hung around her neck, and she was smothered in Liberty, amber and things… she never paid a bill and ruined poor Grandpa Thorne who fled to live on the Isle of Man after paying Gran’s debts… she played the piano beautifully, also the zither, and taught me my first piece, Arabesques De Schumann. A real numero [one off] … a haunted woman who seemed only happy when she used to have seven gypsies round after supper to make music. She spoke their language, Romani – often when there was the marché in Penzance in Market Jew Street there would be side shows with acrobats etc… well, Gran would take the jingle and go down at 12hrs and bring back seven circus people [always7] to lunch, and they would still be there at 6pm”.

 

“She [Isabella] was born before her time, and her brother Harry Trembath was a pianist who went to live and had a school of music in a dreadful place called Isleworth… he married and had four beautiful sons, all who were doctors and who were killed in the 1914 war, except Thomas Trembath, also a pianist. Old Harry Trembath was mad, wore an oriental smoking cap and was a great womaniser…very colourful gent, and he and Gran together!!! And terribly gifted but as I say, they lived too soon… Dad used to tell me he toured all England when he was eight, playing the 48 Fugues and Preludes of Jean S Bach, by heart of course. He swore it was true, and he was dressed in velvet suit and lace collar and cuffs, poor kid. I used to try and tap Gran on all this as even at eleven years old I was curious, and she used to reply, ‘Your dad is a genius, but, god, so lazy…’ I think Gran Isabella and old Harry were Celtic throwbacks! Both had auburn hair and green eyes, like Dad and me!”

 

[Not sure whether Great Uncle Harry and her Father became conflated there…]

 

 

“ I often wonder what would have happened if the damned 1914 war had not come… it quite shattered my musical career… and the chaos of having to leave Penzance… our windows were broken because we made music with the Kettners and Kerdas [local German families] – a German doctor and antiquary, but surely spies – and I had a German Governess [who rolled in the hay with Daddy, as they all did] called Lisa Hoeck, who with the other Boche, disappeared overnight!”

 

Her father was offered a post teaching ‘Master Classes’ in piano, violin, and cello in St John’s Wood in London, and fearing persecution, they fled Penzance in 1914. Her mother was travelling abroad and could not be traced, but she did turn up later.

 

 

“Anyway, everyone seemed to sing, and no-one took me seriously except for piano playing – my first love. The two flats where we settled in St John’s Wood were more or less full from morn till night with three pianos and violins and late at night my Father got in his poker playing musician friends and played… you wouldn’t remember the Hambourg brothers, pianists – they poor boys were thrown into camp with composer Heman Löhr ( who wrote ‘Little Grey Home in the West’)… and there was a man in uniform, red tabs and all, and handsome – when I was seventeen I dropped everything and ran away with him. He was in an Indian Regiment and doing hush hush work but had racehorses – (I adore horses and rode from the age of four in Cornwall, but no hunting or killing of little animals – horrible and so cowardly) … but three years of impossible life – no music! – I ran away three times, but he always found me … I did circus, music hall etc, and was in a tearoom in Burlington Street when I read in The Times, he had died in Hove… free, dear life!! I contacted the family lawyer who was in the know and he said I had to get out of the country, as my husband had put all in my name, and had died bankrupt and I was responsible – so my lawyers lent me a few hundred pounds and put me on a boat at Dover to come over to France – with a fur coat and two bracelets, and that’s all… I had divine jewellery in the bank, but it was too late to get it…”

 

So, by 1922-23 she was posing nude for artists in Montparnasse, 

 

“And I had lots of work because I never ‘broke’ a pose… Augustus John was the most popular – oh! What a lovely time we all had, with very little money…”

 

She was modelling in the legendary Montparnasse School, La Grande Chaumiere – goodness knows the artists she must have modelled for… or what the ‘private work’ entailed…

 

“Later when I left the schools, those who had not gone back to the States came to hear me sing…I studied with Mme Blanche Marchesi who was the teacher at that moment (1923-25), and I worked with Josephine [Baker] at the Casino de Paris and the Folies Berger, to eat… Marchesi took me for nothing, bless… a hard school – her mother, old Mathilde Marchesi, brought out Dame Nellie Melba, and Emma Eames. I sang in churches and private dinners, and concerts, as I was really a Leider singer, in all languages, but German is the best language, with of course Italian to bring out the voice…”

With her friend, Josephine Baker, Nina was one of the first to have her hair styled by Antoine de Paris, the most famous French hairdresser of the period, in the ‘Eton Crop’, the very short and severe mannish hairstyle he perfected. How ironic that Brenda should end up singing (and performing the very final concert) in Josephine Baker’s Bobino Theatre in Montparnasse some sixty years later.

In the 1930s, Nina had a role as the goat girl Zenzi in the White House Inn musical in Paris, as a dancer/claquetier (clapper) with the tenor Richard Tauber, second only to Caruso in fame. She had to sing a little song on stage with a real goat called Charlotte, who, she says, always, always peed on the stage, much to the outrage of the boss, Zola.

 

From 1941-45 she was held in a concentration camp near Marseille (Natzweiler-Struthof at Isle Sur La Sorgue) …

 

“They took the best years of my singing life! How I escaped the ovens I shall never know…”

 

From my research, it seems that the Struthof, as it was known, was not a camp for Jews, but was reserved mainly for French insurgents and Resistance workers. It was described (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Natzweiler/Tour/AshPit.html) by a former inmate as ‘one of the most terrible, and one of the most radically exterminating ones’. With her attitudes and background, for her work for the French Resistance would have been entirely in character. Nina would have been forty when she was imprisoned, and I’m sure there would have been a story to tell there, although she never told it to Brenda.

 

“If it interests you, I’ll write it sometime… when I feel strong with a good whisky and soda at hand… we had an awful time, dear, with the German boot… anyway, to say I lost five of my best years… my voice after was never the same. Something had gone, and I closed down in 1959…”

 

“When I had come out of the war and camp (four years- fatal for the voice!) and got back to Paris and my flat – I found the Boche had taken all, including my piano, and all my money out of Lloyds. So what, most of my friends had gone into the ovens – so I came down to Cagne, which before the was known as Little Montparnasse – Soutine, Jules Pascin and Renoir all lived there, and lots of others. Then I had to go back to Paris for my swan song – the Pie Jesu, Gabriel Faure’s Requiem – one of the most lovely things ever written, and would suit you marvellously, Brenda! Anyway, I sang that at Les Invalides (some military do, I forgot what), then Nadia Boulanger wanted me in her group to go to Monte Carlo to sing for the Rainier coming into his own [the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly in 1956]. We had fifteen days paid, and three days concert at the Palace, and had a lovely time… that was my second swan song, as my voice was not as it had been… went through too much in those ghastly years… too numb…emotion – oh! I was happy when I said goodbye to dear Paris and came down here to the sun, and heat and laziness…”

 

 

In the 1950's, unable to pursue a singing career, she turned to art, and describes herself as a ‘Naϊf’ painter – an activity she kept up for the rest of her life, as long as her painful arthritis allowed it.

Sketch of Nina's house in Haute-de-Cagne in 1959. (courtesy of Sue Ellery-Hill)
Sketch of Nina's house in Haute-de-Cagne in 1959. (courtesy of Sue Ellery-Hill)

In 1960, Nina’s friend, the famous French singer and actress, Suzy Solidor, opened her Paris Cabaret Club in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Suzy is another fascinating character – in the 1920s and 30s she ran ‘La Vie Parisienne’, which became one of the trendiest night spots in Paris. One of her most famously publicity stunts was to become known as the ‘most painted women in the world’. She posed for some of the most celebrated artists of the day: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Tamara de Lempicka, and many others. Her stipulation for sitting was that she would be given the paintings to hang in her Parisian nightclub, and by the time she opened the Cabaret at Cagnes-sur-Mer, she has over 100 portraits of herself.

 

 

She had been a friend of Nina’s since 1928, when Nina had been dancing in the Folie Bergere and the Casino do Paris. In, 1960, Nina joined her and started up an English Pub in the garden of Suzy’s Paris Cabaret Club in Cagne-sur-Mer, she combined the pub with an antique shop and served behind the bar for all her old friends from Paris when they came down south. 

Suzy Solidor's Cabaret in Cagne-sur-Mer, where Nina worked with her, running the bar in the 1960s. Suzy is standing at the back. (Photo: Sue-Ellery-Hill)
Suzy Solidor's Cabaret in Cagne-sur-Mer, where Nina worked with her, running the bar in the 1960s. Suzy is standing at the back. (Photo: Sue-Ellery-Hill)

Nina says it was:

 

“Great fun – the night began again, and it was a riot, for ten years!”

 

Among the friends who regularly appeared were Jean Cocteau, ‘Flo’ Gould (Florence Gould, wife of American billionaire Frank Jay Gould), Aristotle Onassis, Cecil Beaton, and Greto Garbo, and of course, Josephine Baker,

 

“… in fact, everyone who was, or had been someone – and the shekels flowed in … Suzy died two years ago… we were friends for fifty-five years, and I have never been up the Village since… They are nearly all dead, my friends, and it hurts – but what ‘souvenirs’ …[memories]”

 

Responding to Brenda’s comment that she did some Cabaret work, Nina replied:

 

“Cabaret! Poor you – I loathe working cabaret and did it in Monte Carlo in 1928 and didn’t know that singers and dancers had to go to the Hotel de Paris between acts and ordered champagne galore (I used to pour mine in the bucket) -anyway, I didn’t stay long – Today I presume it is different (or is it!!) … In my day no one (all the great names, Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews etc etc), ALL had to bed with Cocky (I mean Cochrane) – [English theatrical impresario Charles B Cochrane] -or stay in the chorus… I presume it is the same – but WHAT a bore!”

 

I have a strong suspicion that Nina never married again, and that her surname Katorza was chosen on her arrival onto the French avant garde scene in Monparnasse in the early 1920s. Fleeing Britain after inheriting her estranged husband’s debts, she would highly likely have chosen a new identity - she became part of an illustrious circle of notorious celebrities living ‘la vie Parisienne’, and maybe selected the name Katorza herself.

 

There is evidence that she may have known the couturier designers Mouna or Dora Katorza, whose willowy models can be seen on postcards from the mid-1920s onwards wearing exotic long fringed Spanish shawls. Or maybe she was herself Mouna, or Dora, or both… the Spanish shawls provide a very strong echo of the elaborate garments worn by her beloved Grandmother.

 

And she was close friends with American Gertrude Stein, whose obscure piece ‘Are There Arithmetics’ (1925) -more difficult to read than James Joyce, and even more impenetrable – randomly references the name ‘Dora Katorza’, with no context whatsoever. Katorza as a surname is almost unheard of in France, and I think she chose cathartic escape from England to later rebrand herself as Nina, her own given middle name, together with Stein’s Katorza…

 

 

At the time of her correspondence with Brenda, Nina was in her mid-80's, and had been put on a strict diet by her doctors – no eggs, salt, sugar, butter, or fried stuff, but she recalled her mother – born Linda West Anthony in Plymouth, ‘who had a lovely mezzo [soprano] and studied in Rome with Battistini…”- telling her that all family had their last meal at nine at night, a hot one, ending with cheese and biscuits and a whisky and soda, and they all died in their eighties and never required diets. She also describes herself as …

 

“a compulsive gambler… inherited from the Trembaths who gambled everything away at poker! But you see, Brenda – I am a dreadful dilettante and want to do everything, and I had to be sixty-eight to stick to painting! I won a little competition for a painting of Haut de Cagnes, bought by Americans, and my dear that was in ’68, and I’ve never stopped …never believed it would go on, so never had a catalogue, never even did a one-man show, as I always had an order… amazing…of course I show in galleries around here, and up in the Chateau and at the Musée Cantini in Marseille … so I find it is a very nice ending Brenda, and I feel I am being protected …After all, I’m nearing the end of a very long road – not yet gaga – love life, have a curiosity for everything and can spend my lasy years with my beloved cats and birds – all God’s creatures for whom I am responsible…”

 

 

Nina with her beloved Pekinese in Haute-de-Cagne 1968 (Photo Sue Ellery-Hill)
Nina with her beloved Pekinese in Haute-de-Cagne 1968 (Photo Sue Ellery-Hill)

She adored Brenda, and praised her voice above all else… she loved the Cornish songs on her records Brenda sent her, and several times expressed a longing to learn the Cornish language. She was also a great fan of Dynasty, Dallas, tennis championships on TV, Barbara Cartland, and Boy George. She suffered terribly from ‘cervical arthrose’ and was finding painting increasingly difficult with the pain in her hands but awarded herself a glass or two of whisky and soda every day at six o’clock as a tonic. She still made Cornish pasties, and longed for a taste of saffron cake again…

 

Nina asked Brenda if she wrote and was encouraging her to collaborate on producing a book with Nina’s memories… Sadly, Brenda and Nina never met, and it never happened – but I hope I have done her some justice.

 

(Reproduced by kind permission of the Author)

 

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2. Lamorna Wink

Sue Ellery-Hill is back with another fascinating story in her Brenda Wootton mini-series. This second story, also written in 2018, focuses on Nina’s Grandmother – Sybella.

 

 

Sybella Henrietta Giddy Trembath was born in 1842 in Penzance. She was the daughter of Sybella Henrietta Nancollas and Edward Giddy Trembath, and had a brother Henry, or Harry, who was also an accomplished pianist – his niece described him as a great womaniser, quite mad, and wearing a smoking cap. Sybella married schoolmaster Joseph Alan Thorne in 1862 and died in Brentwood in Middlesex in 1912.

In Our Old-World Valley (c1921) SJ Lamorna Birch
In Our Old-World Valley (c1921) SJ Lamorna Birch

Some of this is true … ‘Lamorna Wink’ is part fact – part fantasy. Which is which?

 

The facts come from correspondence in the late 1980’s between a Penzance woman, Nina Katorza, then living in the south of France, and my mother Brenda Wootton. Nina – formerly Evelyn – was in her late 80’s at the time, and remembering her childhood in West Cornwall, and her Grandmother, Sybella.

 

Sybella Henrietta Giddy Trembath had been a wild child – wild, rebellious, and free. Throughout her life, she was the target of much ‘talk’ – local folk were very wary of her strangeness, chary of being seen to endorse such an apparently godless character.

 

"She dawn' think no small taties of 'erself, was the consensus ... She's no better'n she oughta be ..."

 

And there were dark stories of some added oddness - did she have witchy qualities? Rumour had it that in her youth, she'd danced with the devil, and it turned her head - made her mazed - and folk didn't hold such things.

 

“Piles o’ awld nonsense”,

 

Indeed had Sybella herself been a victim of the 'evil eye'.

 

All of this passed Sybella by. She was unique – a genuine ‘broke the mould’ eccentric aristocrat, she knew the normal rules and social niceties of country life were for others. So said her Grand-daughter Evelyn, to my mother, over 100 years later.

 

 

For a while in her youth Sybella lived with her parents in the Lamorna Valley. Possessed of fertile imagination, Sybella, though often alone, was never lonely. She had the freedom to use her creativity and employed it to the full with her art and her music, even her appearance.

 

 

There were many colourful strands to the complex tapestry that was Sybella.

 

Throughout her life, she painted: bold, dangerous paintings, alive with colour, ragged ... well, those she finished. So many more she started, and impatient, angry, began again, or threw them out like wilting, fading flowers. She painted not what she saw around her, but what was in her head - and that was dangerous territory for sure. The would be dragons, fantasies, stories, played in her head, like a flickering zoetrope. One painting, 'The Pied Piper of Hamlyn', was taken by the Royal Academy, but then vanished without trace. Evelyn often wondered what inspired that theme.

 

Certainly, rats held no fear for her. As an adult she lived in what some would see as squalor, as cleanliness and domesticity were not her forte, not part of her life plan - if ever she had one. Sybella cared not a jot for her appearance - her clothes and her hair got just a lick and a promise. Her maid of all work, Tryphena, often remarked she looked like she'd 'been dragged through a 'edge backwards'. She had little patience with her mistress's slovenliness - the place was always like 'high jail' she said - but her wage was such a pittance, she had no luxury of time to spick and span every corner, or to do anything other than just tend to her mistress and keep 'keep things going'. Nevertheless she was loyal, and would defend her employer hotly from harsh critism of unkind neighbours , should the need arise. Once a week she baked Sybella a pasty, hopeful that one solid meal would keep some flesh on the woman's bones.

 

 

Sybella knew what she wanted from life: life, life itself, she wanted. So, she took it, embraced it like a long-lost lover. She had been an impossible, wilful child, and grew into a passionate, wilful adult. For the longest time she never paid a bill, relying on her husband, the responsible headmaster Joseph Thorne, to somehow cope with her eccentricities.

 

 

That was in her youth. But in later years, when age had calmed her passions somewhat, and foreign as it was to her, she was forced to take over the management of the household, and of the school’s budget – a question of necessity, as Joseph seemed to have given up caring. Eventually, he was declared bankrupt, and fled to Bovey Tracy of all places, returning soon after, a ruined man.

 

Market Jew Street (1923) Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)
Market Jew Street (1923) Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)

Essentially, Sybella was a Manouche at heart … a French Romani, and these were the people she made her own. Every week, on a Thursday morning, she took her little jingle into the Market at Penzance. More like a fair than a market, there would be acrobats and cheapjacks, hawkers and jowsters … and Romanis. The visiting Romanis performed all sorts of tricks, sleight of hand, juggling and leaping – but it was their wild music, their dancing, and their singing that she loved … the fiddles, the pipes and tambourines played by the exotic women and the darkly handsome young men. And Sybella, friend to them all, would gather seven of them – always seven – into her jingle and drive the little pony and cart back through the muddy lanes, lit by gorse flowers in every kissing season, to Lamorna Valley, or to Newlyn, or wherever she was living at the time. She spoke their language. They would stay for hours, amusing her, drinking and dining, but mostly making music. Untamed gypsy music it was, and the beautiful Sybella would dance, her long skirts swirling, her red hair flying, laughing.

 

 

In later years, two of the Romani families, with the unlikely surnames of Smith and Taylor, were even allowed to site their horse-drawn caravans permanently in the field behind the family home, by the trout stream. They were basket-makers who sold at the Thursday market in Penzance – and so close to the family were they that their daughter Leah Smith, became wet-nurse to the baby Evelyn, and her husband Syvanus her sometime guardian.

 

Sybella wore silks and satins – expensive hand-stitched long-fringed shawls from Spain, with a crude hole cut in the middle for her head. Long jade and amber necklaces clattered from her neck, the latest luxury Liberty fabrics of her skirts trodden in the mud, spattered in chicken shit.

 

Music was her great love. Sybella played the piano and the zither, beautifully, and taught the young Evelyn Schumann’s Arabeske. Her son Alan toured Britain at the age of eight, at his parent’s instigation, playing Bach’s 48 Fugues and Preludes. Eight years old wearing Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet suits with lace ruffles – and he’d learned all forty-eight by heart!

 

When Alan had grown to become the well-respected organist and choir master at St Mary’s in Penzance, Sybella would attend the weekly soirees at his house in Alverton, The Hollies, and they would play duets on two grand pianos. Many of the district’s glitterati attended, including the Newlyn’s fledgling art colony: Stanhope Forbes was a regular, who cam to play the violin, and Mrs Norman Garstin sang ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’, in a booming contralto, while young Evelyn – a model for these great artists - hid under the table and watched. At luncheon parties, Evelyn was often called on to perform… ‘Come little birdie, come and sing for us!’ Granny Sybella would cry … but the birdie would only sing from under the table, squatting amongst the feet.

 

This was a family driven by music.

 

But you will want to know what drove Sybella – why this obsession with the Roma people, why was she so eccentric – did she really have the ‘evil eye’? What was the true story behind her ‘dance with the devil’? For that, we have to go back … much further back …

 

 

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How did this adventure begin? She was able to identify a specific time and place where her life’s path had forked. Her memories hung about her mind like cobwebs, dewed with pearls of misty distance.

 

Easter was earlier that year – 29 March 1861, Good Friday in Lamorna – or Nantewas, as was. The day when all and sundry walked, from wherever, from Buryan, from Newlyn, from Penznace – to Lamorna. Why did they do it? Why does any Easter Festival take place? The bluebells are blooming, the air is fresh, the sun is hot – sap is rising. And once risen, in the woods at Lamorna was the place to be on Good Friday, with your sweetheart, ‘kayeekin’ as her granny called it.

 

 

Lamorna Inn (Wink) in 1923 (Photo: The Lamorna Archive)
Lamorna Inn (Wink) in 1923 (Photo: The Lamorna Archive)

Sybella had enjoyed the ‘festivities’ at Lamorna more than once, with a succession of sweethearts. Her passions fuelled by a few tots of brandy in ‘The Wink’, she had joined in the revelries with riotous abandon. This year, to her annoyance and frustration, the current potential sweetheart she hungered for was nowhere to be seen. Disgruntled, Sybella wandered off alone through the trees, away from the crowds of revellers, heading up the valley, deeper into the woods. She ploughed through the swathes of nodding bluebells, self-absorbed, unconscious of their colour or their delicate scent. She passed by without a thought the stone her Grandfather had always lifted, to show her the judiciously placed ‘fairies’ treasure’ of a few dusty pennies.

 

The daffodils fields on the right were mostly finished now – drab green spikes, waiting to be deadheaded… The sun had long since hidden behind streamers of cloud, and there were swirling tendrils of chilly mist and fog between the trees … but Sybella was lost in thought as well as space and time. The busy chunter of the stream, swollen with Spring rains, barely registered, and soon she left it behind. At last dispirited, damp, tired, she curled up in the crook of an old ash tree and dozed.

 

While she slept. The creeping mist had turned to rain, and she woke, stiff, alarmed. She lost her bearings for a moment, then realised she must have walked further than she thought. She was right beside the entrance to Boleigh Fogou, and crept in for shelter, looking to escape the heavy drops that were soaking her to the skin. At the end of the creep there was just enough light to make out the large, rounded boulder with a cushion-like seat, and she rested there, waiting fort a break in the weather to make her way back.

 

 

But then she noticed the light filtering through from the entrance looked strange. Sybella gradually became aware of a faint gauze curtain that was constantly shifting, moving with the current of suddenly colder air. Maybe the mist had followed her in …maybe it was simply cobwebs … but she could see flowing shadows beyond it, and she could hear the faintest hint of tinkling laughter.

 

She sat very still, silently watching, waiting for something to make sense. Then came another sound, on the edge of hearing – pipes, playing a wild, haunting tune she could barely catch. Maybe some of her friends had followed, and were looking for her? She was nervous of trying to pass the shadowy veil that still hung in the passage – not like her, to be cautious! – but she steeled herself and strode forward, pushing the insubstantial screen aside with her arms, and ran out into a different scene to the one she had left scant minutes before.

 

 

The light was different – golden, and old. The trees were different – festooned with lichen that hung like the silver beards of old men, but glowing, sparkling. There was no rain, nor no sun neither for that matter, and her clothes, soaked with mist just minutes before, were dry. All around her, holding hands and dancing in long grey gowns, slender women were weaving in and out, round and round in a ring. At first, as in a dream, they span almost lazily, floating, it seemed – a leisurely soft-focused, slow -moving circle of merry maidens. Then the music picked up, and the maidens too gathered pace, their forms sharpened, leaping, and stamping to the complex rhythms, heads swaying, hips swirling. Now they danced joyfully, they danced like Sybella herself always danced – arms up, waving, hair flying, green eyes flashing – what could she do but join them?

 

They made space for her, moving aside, and so she danced with them to the pipes she had faintly heard – but now alive and lively, urgently, two pipers wove the tune that made her feet and her blood leap, made her laugh with the wonder of it all, jigs and reels spinning them faster and faster – so that all became a blur, a whirling dervish of arms, faces, laughter, movement. She threw herself into it, loving the rush, the excitement, the gaiety and the sisterhood. The willowy maidens accepted her as one of them, unquestionably. She, too. Spun and whirled. She, too, leaped and laughed. Her feet barely touched the ground, yet her hands touched the sky. As she swept past, she caught sight of the pipers – dressed in colourful rags, their faces brown and weathered, etched with character – but smiling, laughing too. They looked so familiar, but from where? She couldn’t call them home …

 

Then one held her gaze – dark eyes intense but smiling – and winked.

 

The world turned black.

 

Sybella was on the ground, in damp, dark silence. No golden light, no music – just a soft glow of moonlight filtering through the trees to the side, from a low late Sabbath moon. She struggled to her feet, aching and stiff. She wondered how long she’d been lying there. Slowly she made her way back down the Valley to her home, not so far now.

 

 

She told no-one. Who could she tell? Who would believe her? Her mind kept turning the memory over, like a dull beach-stone in her hand, hiding a hint of druzy gems; was there a glint, a flash of sparkle maybe? What was the tune she’d heard? She thought she could almost catch it … Who were the women? How did it start? Why end? Why her? Was it a good thing, or a bad? She was quite clear on that last point when she analysed it. This was not the evil eye – it was good … more than good, it was amazingly, breath-takingly, exciting. She wanted it back – she wanted more, she wanted it at her beck and call, to come when she called, to leave when she tired of it.

 

Her parents noticed nothing unusual … she hid it well: the feverish beating of her heart, the quickening of her pulse – the disturbing hidden memory of that ‘crise mystique’, as Evelyn would later have called it. But over the next few days, she knew her life had somehow changed. She sensed she was not the same person, but in a way she could not define. She yearned to know more, to understand what had happened to her.

 

 

The following week, she went with her parents as usual to the Thursday Market in Penzance. She’d always enjoyed the gaiety and colour, the noise and bustle, but today, it held no interest for her. It felt like a pale and shoddy imitation of her powerful, life-altering experience of the previous week, and she felt it a chore, a duty. Sullenly she followed them around the stalls, sucking listlessly on a chunk of tooth-breaking whacko while they exchanged pleasantries and gossiped with friends, lingered over silk ribbons, bought spicy fairings and skirt beef.

 

Then, above, beyond the general bustle, a tune caught her ear. The Roma who always came to the weekly market were playing and dancing, the women in bright swirling skirts, singing, dancing; the children leaping and dodging for pennies; the men leaping and twisting to the tune – that tune … like a drum, beating out a rhythm in her veins. It felt to her like sun came out, every colour blazed, enhanced, it entranced her every sense – and she suddenly came alive. She quickened her pace, ran down the street to Market Place, pushed through the crowds …

 

In front of her, amidst all the activity, were two pipers, dressed in pied, colourful ragged clothes, with brown, wizened faces, smiling and laughing. She recognised the faces now, Roma she knew – she’d met them often before – the tall Sylvanus, and Connen …

 

… who caught her eye, smiled – and winked. And like a fish drawn by wriggling bait, Sybella was hooked and caught by the Lamorna wink, for evermore.

 

And so, it was that the village folk, prim lips pressed in disapproval, would later watch her as she passed, and murmur amongst themselves … 

 

“She! Wha’s she like, ever! Alright for some s’pose, but tid’n right, all these ‘ere goin’s on

…”

 

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Notes:

Lamorna Wink can stand on its own, but if further explanation is needed, it is below. This is not intended as part of the story, but an explanation of some of the local references.

 

In this story, I hypothesised a possible explanation for Sybella’s unique eccentricity and her fascination with the Romany people. Was she pisky-led as a girl? Is this the answer to her mystery?

 

The names, the places, the people, are all real. In 1861, Sybella would have been nineteen, a year before her marriage. Sybella is a very unusual name, which comes from Sybil, the oracle of the Greek prophetess. Evelyn (later Nina) called her Granny Isa, from Isabella, but birth and marriage records name her, and her mother, as Sybella. The musical soirees and family friendships with the Newlyn artists are also true – Evelyn born in 1900, posed as a model for several of them, including Stanhope Forbes, Norman Gastin and Walter Langley, from around the ages of six- ten years old.

 

Evelyn states that Granny Isa ‘ruined’ Grandpa Thorne, who fled to the Isle of Man; newspaper archives however suggest he remained as a headmaster in Penzance for most of his life, but did become bankrupt in 1894, mostly through poor money management, it seems – then fled, briefly to Bovey Tracey, and died back in Penzance in 1911.

 

 

According to Evelyn, Sybella was beautiful, red-haired, and green eyed, and wore lavish, luxury Bohemian outfits, Liberty fabrics, fine jewellery, and so on – beneath elaborately embroidered Spanish shawls crudely cut as ponchos. She also painted, loved music and was fine musician. Evelyn declares Sybella’s ‘Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ was accepted by the Royal Academy, but I can find no reference to it, as yet. The Pipers sees are also ‘pied’ and entice the unwary girl (and indeed the Merry Maidens) to follows their music.

 

The weekly trips to Penzance to collect seven gypsies in the ‘jingle’ (a pony cart or trap) are also clearly remembered by Evelyn – but why seven gypsies? Maybe she was recalling the old folk tune (of which there are many regional variations):

 

“There were seven gypsies and all in a row. And one sang high, and one sang low, And they sang so sweet and so complete, that they stole the heart of a lady-o …”

 

The golden gorse blossom’ lining all the country lanes throughout the year gave rise to the saying ‘if gorse is in flower, kissing is in season’- as gorse is never out of season.

 

 

The local tradition of walking to Lamorna’ on Good Friday has been going on for time out of mind, and still continues today. My own Grandparents are rumoured to have first met at Lamorna on Good Friday, where many young couples were known to be ‘kayeekin’ or ‘fooling around’. ‘Kayeeking’ was generally understood in my family to mean young people engaging in mischievous play or foolishness, in other words, canoodling – but in any event, something frowned upon by their elders (who had probably long forgotten their own youthful ‘kayeekin’).

 

The ‘evil eye’ was an age-old belief in many cultures.

 

 

“I do not exaggerate when I affirm … my own persuasion that two thirds of the total inhabitants of the Tamar side implicitly believe in the power of ‘mal’ occhio’, as the Italians name it, or the ‘evil eye’ “- so said the Rev Robert Hawker of Morwenstow in Cornwall in Mrs Whitcombes Bygone Days in Devon & Cornwall (1873, p139).

 

The old inn in Lamorna is called ‘The Wink’- a name most likely derived from the fact that the site was used by local smugglers, and ‘tipping the wink’ to the landlord might get you the contraband goods, or a signal to the landlord that you wanted – and were willing to pay for – a shot of something strong and illegal in your drink that couldn’t be mentioned by name, A ‘kiddlywink’ was the common term for a Cornish alehouse licensed to sell only beer or cider, as opposed to an inn or tavern, but they were often known as sites used by smugglers to hide or to sell on their goods in secret.

 

Sybella falls asleep at the foot of an Ash Tree- the ash symbolised as the ‘world tree’, which spans the gulf from the underworld to the upper, known world and on to the heavenly realms. It is one of the three ‘fairy’ trees of the Celtic ‘sacred grove’ of oak, ash, and thorn, and is often connected with enchantment – sleeping with ash leaves under your pillow (which Sybella effectively does) was believed to promote prophetic dreams.

 

The Cornish word for Ash tree is Connen – the name of the Romany who winks at her twice. Sylvanusis a Romany male name – but also a Roman deity, the protector of forests, woods and hedgerows, and a lover of music, being associated with the good Pan; the panpipes, or syrinx, are sacred to Sylvanus.

 

In Sybella’s time, as now, there were daffodil fields on the slopes of the Valley, and further up on the left is the entrance to Boleigh – an Iron Age monument with the rare underground feature of a fogou. This is little understood and often immaculately constructed underground passage, with an inner chamber, or, in the case, a ‘creep’, which has at its end a rounded chair-like stone, fallen long ago from the roof. Given the care taken in their construction, there is much speculation as to their original purpose – storage cellars for food or animals seem a very prosaic use for such elaborate structures, and the theory that they served a more spiritual purpose as sacred-spaces, possibly with feminine overtones such as birthing or transformational chambers of some kind, is now gaining ground.

 

 

         The fluorescent moss in the Fogou at Carn Euny (Photo courtesy of Craig Weatherill)
The fluorescent moss in the Fogou at Carn Euny (Photo courtesy of Craig Weatherill)

The fogou at Carn Euny, a few miles away, has some rare fluorescent moss on the walls of the inner chamber which glows most eerily, and I’ve found some very strange photos of intangible misty light effects in the passage at Boleigh, taken in recent years – this one of the most convincing:

 

“A very strange light effect in Boleigh Fogou. I promise the camera was totally still all the way through the shot. As can be seen by the rocks being pretty much in focus in the background. We had a very strange feeling at the time the photo was taken and were a little taken aback when we saw this phot later”.

 

In 1861, when Sybella entered the fogou so unwisely, the antiquarian and artist JT Blight had only just published the book of travels in West Cornwall, A Week at Land’s End (1861), which included references to Boleigh (then ‘Bolleit’); the nearby house of Trewoofe was not built until 1910. He mentions ‘Bolleit’ as being the scene of a decisive battle when Athelstan’s forces defeated the Cornish under their last king, Howel, around 925AD. Blight was the son of a local schoolmaster, as Sybella was the wife of another, and it is likely she would have known this publication.

 

 

Localised legends of fairies, sprites, piskies (pixies), spriggans (mischievous imps) and knockers (mine spirits), around in West Cornwall. Many of the stories relate to individuals being ‘pisky-led’ … placed under temporary enchantment by mischievous spirits or fairy folk. The Romanies also had strong relationship with, and belief in such stories. Victims who had been pisky-led were often said to be transported into an altered world and timescale, and to witness the fairy folk or spirits conducting their revels, later to awaken back to harsh reality. Similarly judiciously-placed ‘fairies’ treasure’ was shown to me beneath a stone in a lane in Paul by my own Grandfather in my youth.

 

Just past Boleigh Fogou is the Merry Maidens stone circle. The circle of nineteen rough-hewn granite boulders (probably twenty, originally) was also called the ‘Dawns Mên’ in Cornish, the dancing-stones, but they are more commonly known as the Merry Maidens. The legend relates that they were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath Day, as were the two musicians who were playing the music for the dancers, who became the two large standing stones or menhirs visible in the fields at nearby Boleigh Farm, The Pipers. When Sybella awakes in the dark woods, it is Friday evening or early Saturday morning, and hence, the Sabbath, when dancing is forbidden.

 

Penzance Marketplace, (1923), painted by Stanhope Forbes. ‘Marketplace’ was defined as the area running from the side of the Market house Building, around to the front and the far side, and down to Queen Square, almost to the top of Chapel Street.

 

Penzance’s Thursday Market arose from a Charter granted by Henry IV of England in 1404. Thursday is still Market Day in Penzance, over 600 years later.

 

‘Whacko’ was the large round striped pinwheel of sticky boiled mint humbug confectionary, always seen at fairs and markets.

 

‘Fairings’ are Cornish-made spicy ginger biscuits, so named because they too were to be got at the fair.

 

‘Skirt beef’ is a juicy cut of beef marbled with fat and traditionally used to make proper Cornish pasties.

 

A Jowster was a hawker of butter, eggs, and fish.

 

 

“She couldn’t call them ‘ome … “- she couldn’t place where she knew them from.

 

Evelyn (then Nina) reports having a ‘crise mystique’, or a spiritual crisis, many years later when living in France.

 

Throughout, I have had two sources to refer to: Evelyn’s (or Nina’s) own letters and memories, written some seventy years after the events described – so, far away in both time and distance, but nonetheless personal and valid – and the historical and archival records available from my own research. Sometimes they concur, at other times, there are subtle differences. For the purposes of my story, I have used both sources at different times. Nina’s own story is at least as sensational.

 

(Reproduced by kind permission of the Author)