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Gwavas, Williamfree

  • Matthew Spriggs

Gwavas, William (1676–1741/2), Cornish language scholar, was born on 6 December 1676 at Huntingfield Hall, Suffolk, and baptized on 1 January 1677 at Huntingfield church. He came from an old Cornish family originally from Gwavas in Sithney. He was the eldest child (of eleven in total) of William Gwavas (c.1638–1684×95) and Anne (b. c.1652, d. in or after 1711), daughter of William Chester of East Haddon, Northamptonshire. Like his father and grandfather on the Gwavas side, he became a barrister of the Middle Temple, purchasing 4 Brick Court there as his chambers. He retired to Penzance shortly before he married Elizabeth (bap. 1685, d. 1752), daughter and heir of Christopher Harris of St Ives, Cornwall, merchant, on 29 April 1717. They had two daughters, Elizabeth (1719–1791) who married William Veale, and Anne (1723–1797) who married the Revd Thomas Carlyon. Their son, William, died aged four months in 1727. As Gwavas recounts in an autobiographical piece (Gatley MSS), the family's Cornish property was heavily in debt at his father's death because of thirteen lawsuits, but he paid off the creditors and redeemed the mortgage on the rectory of Paul. He spent much time involved in a chancery suit over the right of the rector of Paul to the tithes of fish landed at Mousehole and Newlyn in that parish. The suit had started in 1680, was revived in 1725, and went before the House of Lords early in 1730, with victory going to Gwavas over the local fishermen. After a period of obedience while William was alive, the fishermen again resisted the tithe and the dispute with his heirs continued until 1830 when the tithe was abolished.

Gwavas was an assiduous collector of Cornish language information and kept up an important correspondence on, and to an extent in, Cornish with other enthusiasts such as John Keigwin, John and Thomas Boson, and most importantly Thomas Tonkin. Much of the GwavasTonkin correspondence, mainly dating from 1733 to 1736, survives in two manuscripts, one in the British Library and one in the library of the Diputación Foral de Bizkaia in Bilbao in Spain. These show that Tonkin's 'Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica', later to be published in part by William Pryce in a book of the same name, was very much a collaboration between the two of them, although Tonkin was the lead partner. In the Bilbao manuscript is a Cornish vocabulary by Tonkin with Gwavas's corrections and additions, and the letters contain their collaboration in translating the Cornish preface from Edward Lhuyd's 'Archaeologia Britannica' into English. Also in the Bilbao manuscript is Tonkin's 1736 dedication of the vocabulary section of his work to Gwavas where he is fulsome in his praise of the latter for providing much material in Late or Modern Cornish, as it was then spoken in the westernmost parts of Cornwall. Even earlier, in 1733, Tonkin acknowledged him as 'perhaps the only gentleman now living who hath a perfect knowledge of the tongue' (Tonkin, Carew's survey, vi). Some of the specimens of Modern Cornish written or collected by Gwavas were published in Pryce and Polwhele, and more recently in various issues of Old Cornwall. Gwavas was not a native speaker of Cornish and had learned it from other scholars such as Thomas Boson, John Boson, and Edward Lhuyd.

Gwavas died at Chapel Street, Penzance, and was buried at Paul church on 9 January 1742; his widow was buried there on 9 December 1752. The various Cornish language pieces Gwavas collected from a range of people in the western parts of Cornwall are an invaluable source for the final stage of Cornish as a living language. Within sixty years of his death the language was effectively dead. The twentieth-century revival of Cornish owes an enormous amount to scholars like Gwavas who observed the language's decline and made efforts to record it for posterity.


  • W. Gwavas, ‘Liver ve’, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, Gatley MSS
  • BL, Gwavas MS, Add. MS 28554
  • T. Pawlyn, ‘The Cornish pilchard fishery in the eighteenth century’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 3rd ser., 3 (1998), 67–90
  • T. Tonkin, ‘Bilbao MS’, Diputación Foral de Bizkaia, Bilbao, Spain, MS BDV m/s Bnv–69
  • H. Jenner, ‘The Cornish manuscript in the Provincial Library at Bilbao in Spain’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 72 (1925), 421–37
  • T. Tonkin, ‘Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica’, 1736, Royal Institution of Cornwall
  • W. Pryce, Archaeologia Cornu-Britannica (1790)
  • T. Tonkin, The first book of Mr Carew's survey of Cornwall, with large notes and additions, 1733, Diputación Foral de Guipúzcoa, San Sebastián, Spain, MS FDG m/s B–11
  • Boase & Courtney, Bibl. Corn., 1.200–01; 3.1213
  • O. Padel, Exhibition of manuscripts and printed books on the Cornish language, Royal Institution of Cornwall (1975), 2–4 [unpaginated]
  • W. Borlase, ‘Autobiographical notice of William Gwavas, extracted from his common place book, 1710’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 21 (1879), 176–81
  • parish register, Paul, Cornwall RO
  • H. Jenner, A handbook of the Cornish language (1904), 33–46
  • F. W. P. Jago, An English-Cornish dictionary (1887), vii, xi–xiii
  • R. Polwhele, The history of Cornwall, 7 vols. (1803–8), vol. 5, pp. 35–6
  • P. A. S. Pool, The death of Cornish (1600–1800) (1982), 16–17
  • R. M. Nance, ‘The Cornish language in America, 1710’, Old Cornwall, 1/1 (1925), 37
  • R. M. Nance, ‘A Cornish letter, 1711’, Old Cornwall, 1/3 (1926), 23–5
  • A. K. Hamilton-Jenkin, ‘William Gwavas poetises on Penzance’, Old Cornwall, 1/4 (1928), 30–31
  • R. M. Nance, ‘A Cornish letter from John Boson to William Gwavas, 1710’, Old Cornwall, 1/7 (1928), 24–7
  • R. M. Nance, ‘Two hitherto unnoticed Cornish pieces’, Old Cornwall, 1/10 (1929), 22–4
  • R. M. Nance, ‘Two new-found Cornish scraps’, Old Cornwall, 1/12 (1930), 29–30
  • R. M. Nance, ‘A puzzle solved’, Old Cornwall, 2/1 (1931), 23–4
  • R. M. Nance, ‘An unprinted Cornish scrap’, Old Cornwall, 2/3 (1932), 43
  • R. M. Nance, ‘More Cornish from Gwavas’, Old Cornwall, 2/12 (1936), 34–6
  • E. G. R. Hooper, ‘The Cornish of William Gwavas’, Old Cornwall, 9/11 (1984), 529–30


  • BL, papers, Add. MS 28554
  • Penzance Library, MS relating to Newlyn quay
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, lease of tithe, MS HA/8/19
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, on fishing, MS HA/8/25
  • Bodl. Oxf., Richard Carew's Survey of Cornwall (1602), notes and poems by William Gwavas interleaved
  • Cornwall RO, 1708 catalogue of Gwavas's books, MS Dd.CN.3460
  • Cornwall RO, William Borlase's ‘Memorandums relating to the Cornish tongue’, MS Dd.Enys.2000 [contains material from William Gwavas's writings]
  • Diputación Foral de Bizkaia, Bilbao, Spain, Bonaparte collection, Thomas Tonkin's ‘Bilbao MS’, MS BDV m/s Bnv–69
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, George Borlase's MS copy of some Gwavas papers on Cornish
  • Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, Gatley MSS, W. Gwavas, ‘Liver ve’


  • portrait, 1697–1741, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro; repro. in Pool, Death of Cornish, 16–17
G. C. Boase & W. P. Courtney, , 3 vols. (1874–82)
Cornwall Record Office, Truro