Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
There was, however, a certain gloomy air about the ruinous walls and neglected gardens embowered in aged trees, which might have conduced to such unaccountable stories of apparitions and other unnatural occurrences, as were said to have taken place there.
Some three or four centuries ago, it was the property and residence of an ancient family of the same name; little more is known of these old Penroses than what can be gathered from wild traditions related by the winter's hearth. The following among many others were often recounted by old folks of the West.
About three hundred years ago, the owner of Penrose was a younger son who had been brought up to a seafaring life, which he continued to follow till his elder brothers died unmarried and left him heir to the family estate; then preferring a life on the wave, he kept a well-armed, fast-sailing, craft for fair-trading, or what is now called smuggling; she was manned with as brave a crew as could be picked out of the West Country; most of them are said to have been the Squire's poor relations. A favourite cousin, called William Penrose—who had been his shipmate for years—was captain of the merry men all.
The Squire often took trips to France and other places, whence
his goods were brought, and it is said that in his days Penrose crew were never concerned in any piratical jobs; though we know that about that time smuggler, privateer, and pirate, meant very much the same thing, whilst the two latter were then convertible terms with most of our rovers on the deep.
Penrose and his seamen passed but little time on shore except in the depth of winter; yet the board in his hall was always furnished with good substantial fare and the best of liquors, free for all corners.
Over a few years, when the good man was left a widower, with an only child—a boy about seven or eight—he seemed to dislike the very sight of land, for then, even in winter, with his little son, his cousin William, and two or three old sailors, he would stay out at sea for weeks together; leaving, as usual, the care of his farms and household to the care of a younger brother and an old reve or balif.
In returning from one of these trips, in a dark winter's night, their boat struck on Cowloe and became a wreck. The Squire swam into Sennen Cove with his boy, and in endeavouring to save his crew got drowned himself.
The only remaining brother, known as Jan of Penrose, constituted himself sole guardian of the heir, and master of the place and property.
Now this Jan hated all whom his late brother favoured; and in consequence of his ill-will William Penrose left the West Country for the sea it was supposed—but whither he wandered was unknown, as no tidings of him were received in the West.
The new master, however, soon got a large smuggling craft and manned her with a crew who cared but little what they did for gold or an exciting life; being well-armed they feared nothing that sailed the ocean.
Jan of Penrose never went to sea; but gave the command to a wretch—known to have been a pirate—who was cast on Gwenvor sands from his ship wrecked in Whitsand Bay, on the night that the good Squire Penrose was drowned.
This pirate-smuggler and his desperate crew boarded many a rich merchant-man going up Channel, from which they appropriated whatsoever they pleased, and sent all who opposed them to the other world by water.
There was no Preventive Service then, to be any check on our free trade. If Revenue Cutters came near our western land, their crews dreaded to fall in with Cornish fair-traders more than our smugglers feared the King's men. As for riding officers they would ride anywhere else rather than on the cliff, when beacon fires blazed from the cairns of dark nights to guide fair-traders’ boats into the coves.
When the rich goods and plunder were landed, and any over-curious person remarked that they were not such as seemed likely to have been purchased from our neighbours across the Channel, the jolly crew would, give themselves credit for being valiant privateers, and as such be much renowned by simple country folks, and their plunder passed as lawful prize.
People came from all over the country to purchase the goods, safely stowed in vaults and other hiding places about Penrose; and in winter the crew spent much of their time there in drunken rioting with all the reckless youngsters of the neighbourhood.
After the good Squire was drowned his brother appeared to show every kindness to the orphan heir; yet it was remarked that the child seemed instinctively to avoid his uncle and the captain, who consorted much together when the smugglers were ashore.
Whenever the boy could elude the old steward's vigilance he would go away alone to the rocks in Sennen Cove where his father was drowned, or shut himself up for hours in his father's bed-room, or wander about other parts of the gloomy north wing, which was almost in ruins and seldom entered by other inmates.
One winter's day, the ground being covered with snow, Penrose's people and many others of the neighbourhood joined for a wolf-hunt. Traditions say that in those times terrible havoc was often made on flocks by these fierce beasts, and that children were sometimes carried off by them when hard pressed with hunger.
Neither John Penrose nor the captain went to the chase; when at night the game-laden hunters returned and blew their bugle-horns, they remarked with surprise that the young heir—who was a general favourite—did not, as was his wont, come into the court to meet them. The boy was sought for in every place whither it was thought he might have strayed. His uncle seemed to be much distressed, and continued the fruitless search until it was surmised that the child must have missed his way in returning from Sennen Cove, wandered out under Escols Cliff, there got drowned by the flowing tide, and carried out to sea on the ebb.
After this, Jan of Penrose, having all his own, became more riotously debauched than ever; and his gang having taken a somewhat strange aversion to their captain, he left and was no more seen in the West.
The tapestry chamber and all the northern wing was shut up, or unoccupied, as it had the reputation of being haunted. None of the servants nor even the devil-may-care smugglers would venture into it after night-fall, when unearthly shrieks would be heard there, and strange lights seen flashing through the casements till near morning. Lights were also often seen in an orchard just below the town-place when no one was there.
These unnatural occurrences, however, put no check to the excesses of Penrose's band and the lawless castaways who joined them. By way of variety to their fun, they frequently disguised themselves and made nocturnal excursions to some village within a few miles, where they would alarm the quiet folks in the dead of night, by discharging their fire-arms in a volley; and make a bonfire of a furze-rick, out-house, or thatched dwelling.
The poor villagers in their fright, would mistake these wretches for outlandish people, come again to burn and pillage as in days of yore.
They were all the more ready to think so because about this time the. Spaniards had great fondness for roving round the western coasts, and often did much damage in defenceless places; it was in Jan Penrose's time, too, that a few Dons, high by day, put off from a galley in Whitsand Bay, landed on Gwenvor Sands, and destroyed Velan-dreath Mill. To return to Penrose crew, at the height of the fright and confusion they would carry off such young women as they had before agreed on; the gallants would take their fair-ones before them on horseback to Escols Cliff or the hills, where they would be left alone by daybreak, to find their way back afoot. Having carried on this sport a long time with impunity, they became so bold at last as to make an attack on Buryan Church-town; fortunately, however, Buryan men were apprised of their intentions in time to be armed and ready to give them a warm reception; in short they lay in wait for the smugglers, drove them all into a vacant place near the cross in Church-town, and there surrounded them; when thus hemmed in the band fought desperately, and till nearly every man of them was killed or disabled they continued shouting to each other, "cheer up comrades, die one, die all, and die we merrilly; "and so many of them met their end in this encounter that Penrose band was soon after broken up.
One night of the following Christmas, whilst a large company was assembled at Penrose, keeping high festival after a day's hunt, loud knocking was heard at the green-court door, and soon after a servant conducted into the hall an elderly wayfaring man who requested a night's shelter from the snowstorm.
John Penrose received the wanderer with hospitable courtesy; and charged his steward, the old reve, to provide him with good cheer; the guests continued their glee and paid but little attention to him, for begging homeless pilgrims were all too plenty here at that time.
The company was also entertained by professional droll-tellers and ballad-singers; persons of that class were then—and long
after continued to be—received, as substitutes for minstrels, in gentlemen's houses of the humbler sort.
The stranger, however, regarded the company with attention, and noticed that the master of Penrose looked wretched and haggard amidst all the merriment. His scrutiny was interrupted by the steward who conducted him to another room where a well furnished board, beside a blazing fire, awaited him.
The stranger having refreshed himself, told the old steward how he had just returned from a long pilgrimage in foreign lands, and had seen many places spoken of in miracle-plays, which were acted in the Plan-an-Gware at St. Just, and how he had that morning arrived at Market-jew on board an eastern ship that traded there for tin.
He also said that he once had friends in the West Country; whether they were alive or dead he knew not, but hoped to obtain some tidings of them on the morrow.
The wanderer's voice seemed familiar to the old steward, and recalled former times; but, ere they had time for more discourse, they were invited to return to the hall and see a guise-dance, which was about to commence.
The stranger seemed interested in the quaint performance of "St. George and the Turkish Knight." A droll-teller in his character of bard, took the part of chorus; explained the intent of coming scenes; instructed and prompted the actors as well.
The play being concluded and the guisards well rewarded by the wayfarer, he withdrew and told the steward that he felt weary after if long walk though the snow and would be glad to lie down; if all the beds were occupied, he could repose, he said, in a settle by the fireside, for a few hours only, as he intended to leave early in the morning.
The old man replied that he feared any other accommodation in his power to offer was not such as he might desire,—although the house was large, with ample bed-rooms for more guests than it now contained—because a great part of the northern end was shut up for a reason that the inmates did not like to talk about. Yet as he believed the pilgrim to be a prudent man, who was, no doubt, learned in ghostly matters, he was glad to unburden his own mind and have his visitor's counsel, with his prayers for the repose of the unquiet spirits that disturbed the place.
Then he told how many of the upper rooms, though. well furnished, were unused and falling to ruin on account of the unnatural sounds and sights before mentioned. To which the stranger answered that as he had a mind at ease he had no reason to dread any ghostly visitants; if the steward would conduct him to a room in the haunted wing he did not fear for his rest.
The old steward, taking a lamp, led the way to the tapestry chamber—being the best room in that part of the mansion. A faggot of dry ash-wood—already laid in the large open fire-place—was soon in a blaze, and the room well aired and somewhat comfortable.
The old man brought in bread, meat, and wine, that the guest might take more refreshment during the night, and supply his wallet in the morning if he started before breakfast. After returning with more wood and bog-turf to keep in the fire, he bade the guest good-night, sweet rest, and pleasant dreams.