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Dolly Pentreath - the Fish-Wife of Mousehole
An Old Cornish Character: Dolly Pentreath of Paul, Cornwall - by J. Henry Harris
Dolly Pentreath, 1675 - 1777, the fish-wife of Mousehole, had an unenviable reputation. She belonged to the adjoining parish of Paul, and so there is no statue to her in Mousehole Market-Place. Here she sold fish, smoked her pipe, and drank her flagon of beer with the best, and talked the old Cornish with a real twenty-two carat stamp upon it. This was the real old lingo: hot, sweet and strong, so that those who heard her never forgot. Dolly lived to one hundred and two, and then departed, carrying with her, in her queer old brain, the completest vocabulary of the Cornish language on Earth. This is her legend, to which it may be added that she had the reputation of being a witch. Even now there exists an ancient corner of the village where Dolly would be at home again if she could come back. Dolly Pentreath died poor, and was buried in the parish churchyard of Paul, where people came in shoals to see her monument and read the inscription.
Dolly Pentreath was a fine woman, with a voice you could hear as far away as Newlyn. She had the heart of a lion, and it was said that when a press-gang landed in search of men for the navy, Dolly took up a hatchet and fought them back to their boats, and so cursed them in old Cornish that the crew never ventured back again. She was artful as well as brave, and saved a man, wanted by the law for a hanging, by hiding him in her chimney. Dolly lived in an old house over-looking the quay, the walls of which were thick, and in the chimney was a cavity in which a man could stand upright. It was a convenient hiding-place for many things. So, when a man rushed into Dolly's cottage, saying the officers were after him, and would hang him to the yardarm of the ship out in the bay, from which he had taken French leave the week before, he did not appeal in vain.
There was no time to lose and Dolly rose to the occasion. Up the chimney she popped the man. Then, taking an armful of dried gorse, she made a fire in the wide open grate and filled the crock with water. Into the middle of the kitchen she pulled a tub which she used for washing and, when the naval officer and his men burst into the kitchen, Dolly was sitting on a stool, with her legs bare, and her feet dangling over the tub. "A man, indeed!" quoth Dolly, "and me washing my feet!" She was only waiting for the water to heat and they might all wash their own, if they liked. Search? Of course they might, and be sugared. Would they like to look into the crock, and see if a man was boiling there?
Search they did, and found no man; but Dolly found her tongue, and let them have it; and then she found her thick shoes and let them fly. Then she made for the chopper, and that cleared the house. Dolly made the most noise when she heard the poor man cough in his hiding-place. The aromatic smoke from the burning gorse tickled his throat and, though life depended on silence, he could not keep it. Then Dolly gave tongue, and old Cornish - the genuine article - rattled amongst the rafters like notes from brazen trumpets blown by tempests. She threw wide her door and, with bare legs and feet, proclaimed to all the world the mission of the young lieutenant and his men, who now saw anger in all eyes, and made good their retreat whilst their skins were still in one piece. Then Dolly liberated the man from the chimney. In the dark night a fishing lugger stole out of Mousehole with the deserter on board, and made for Guernsey, which, in those days, was a sort of dumping-ground for all who were unable to pay their debts at home, or were wanted for the hangman.
There still exists the very room in the Keigwin Arms in which Dolly was wont to take her pint and her pipe at her ease, and the window out of which she would thrust her hard old face and shout to the fishermen when they came to their landing-place. The old lady was keen on her bargains, and when she had bought her provisions, she trudged into Penzance with her wicker basket on her back, and profited from the gullible, according to the rules of the wily.
Edited from "Cornish Saints & Sinners" (1906)
Note: Dolly Pentreath is remembered also in "The Dolly Pentreath" a traditional Cornish fishing lugger, built in St. Ives, Cornwall in 1993 from plans housed at The British Science Museum of a 100 year old Lug Rig called "The Godrevy".