A Very Cornish Story – Finding Living Relatives


Ever since finding the information for my elusive Captain Priske, I had been searching for living relatives.   In my previous posst, “Finding the Elusive Captain Priske” I left off with our plans to visit our newly-found relative in Cornwall.

After contacting our Cornwall relative and having made plans to meet in Truro, we cancelled part of our plans to sightsee in London and arranged for a flight to Cornwall out of Heathrow.  We had made plans to meet in a parking garage in Truro and had exchanged brief descriptions of each other.   I really didn’t need a specific description, it would have been enough to say, “Just look for the excited Canadian woman jumping up and down”, but she didn’t know me well enough at that point to know how apt that description was!

After our initial meeting, we briefly toured Truro, going to the location where Cecelia Prisk (my great grandmother and the Captain’s mother) had her bake shop.  Of course there was nothing left to show a bake shop was ever there, but I could easily visualize my great grandmother with a basket on her arm delivering baked goods to the gentry who lived on Lemon Street (the main street of Truro at that time).


After touring Truro, we went to Pamela’s home, a 200-year-old tin mining cottage and visited briefly as this was just a fast-one day visit.  But we knew that this would not be the last time we met, so we left with plans to return again soon.

Shortly after our return home there was an e-mail from Pamela with a copy of an article she had written for the Village Newspaper.   From reading that article, I am sure she enjoyed our visit as much as we did!

“The phone rings one Sunday afternoon in April.

“ Hello!”

A woman’s voice: “Is your name Priske?”

A rapid reaction on my part. Commercial?  Bang the receiver down?  No. They don’t start off like this – and they don’t usually harass one on a Sunday.

“Yes.” Doubtfully.

“Did you have a grandfather called Thomas Montague Priske?”

“Yes.” Still wary because he was born Thomas Teague Priske though he also called himself Montague to the confusion of his family. A legacy?  Dismiss it, he’s been dead seventy years.

“Did you know that he was once married before he married your grandmother?”

Silence on my part.  Identity theft?  Then, “No!”

“I’m calling from Canada. I believe I am a distant cousin of yours.”

“Good heavens!” My flabbergasted reaction.

My grandfather died when I was seven. He was born in a baker’s shop in Truro, the only son of a second marriage. He ran away to sea (so he said) at the age of twelve and rose to become a merchant marine captain and commodore for The Federated Navigation Steam Company, later part of the New Zealand Shipping Line. At the age of thirty-two he married a ships’ chandler’s daughter at Victoria Docks Parish Church, London. They had several children who died in infancy before successfully rearing two sons, one of whom was my father.

As London children, my sister and I were fascinated by the idea of our Cornish ancestry. To us, Cornwall was a mysterious, exotic world, not made any the less strange by this taciturn old man sitting in a rocking chair in a conservatory under a grapevine, wrapped in a false leopard skin rug with a fur cap on his head. To complete the picture he occasionally burst out singing “Doing the Grecian Bend”, if my sister can be believed.

Now, seventy years on, he springs this revelation from the grave upon us. Another wife! But not a wife!  The marriage was annulled.  There never was a marriage!  A shipboard liaison on the way to Australia between the first mate and a travelling maid servant. Illegally wedded by a benevolent captain (not allowed under maritime law) and repudiated by an enraged father in England. But his father had been dead eleven years.  By whom then?  An elder half-brother?  The details remain shadowy.

There is certainly an illegitimate son by this liaison born in Kent and called Sydney Montague. He is brought up in Canada under a stepfather’s name and does not know of his true father. When he discovers his illegitimacy at the age of twenty-two, he changes his surname to Priske and refuses to speak to his mother ever again. I have seen the official certificate. My grandfather refused to speak of his past. My father never knew this story and I suspect my grandmother was kept in ignorance too.

Sydney must have had many children  and his sons also because I am told that there are now hundreds (literally) of Priskes and even a Priske County in Ontario.  And I had thought that I was the last of my line and that my surname would die with me!  Now all these distant cousins, the seed of one Cornishman! “The old reprobate,” said my sister, “I always wondered what he had got up to”.

This passion for respectability would have been characteristic of lower class Victorians. Sadly, I was never told that my great- and great- great grandfathers were tin miners until I came to work in Cornwall (by pure chance) and found the records in Truro, yet this is a source of pride to me.  Why did Thomas Teague  substitute Montague for his middle name and why did he add  an ’e’ to the Prisk which was the surname of my ancestors?  I imagine the answer is gentrification.

Such matters were discussed for hours by my half-second cousin Kathy (nee Priske), my Canadian caller, and myself when she came to see me two weeks after having contacted me. She was fascinated by the mementoes I have of my grandfather, his sextant, his sea-chest, his Tantalus, not to mention his photograph (looking very Cornish).

We toured Kenwyn churchyard for my great grandparents’ grave but failed to find it amongst the six acres of bluebells. The shop in Truro has long been demolished and the A 30 has left little of Blackwater intact where they both were born. The Priske grave in London’s docklands also remains undiscovered if it wasn’t blitzed to pieces.

Kathy has the disposition of a terrier for such things and is a wizard with the computer. If anyone can locate the Symons, my grandfather’s half-brothers and sisters, she will. I am just glad that she found my sister and myself, eighty-three and seventy-four respectively before yet more was lost. Above all, I am rejoicing that those genes of one Cornishman are so enthusiastically propagating themselves in the New World. As I say, a very Cornish story!

Pamela Priske”*

 *  Note:  Pamela is my half cousin once removed.   In other words, she is my father’s half cousin as they are of the same generation.

Yes, we did return to Cornwall to visit Pamela a few years later and hope to return again.   In a future post I will relate the story of the gift of Captain Priske’s sextant which now has a place of honour in our house.

Posted in Family Stories.