In the back of Joseph Thomas’ book of poems entitled “Randigal Rhymes” you will find, along with a list of Cornish proverbs and charm for toothache, a glossary of Cornish words. The first one that you should look up of course is randigal and you will find that it means “a rigmarole, a nonsensical story”.
Joseph Thomas spent his life listening. He listened to the stories of fishwives and tin-miners, circus performers and princes, old men and school children and what he heard inspired his writing.
Joseph almost certainly didn’t write with any expectation of publication, indeed we can only read his poems now because they were printed by subscription by his friends after his death. My copy of his book was printed in 1895 and is rather battered and bruised but you can find reprints of “Randigal Rhymes and a Glossary of Cornish Words” here.
Joseph Thomas wrote because he loved it and because he seemed to want to record the comedy, beauty and whimsy of his world.
He was born near Mullion Cove, a picturesque fishing village on the Lizard in July 1840. His father John was a local land steward and Joseph followed in his footsteps obtaining a position as an agent for the St Aubyn family on St Michael’s Mount. He and his wife Mary spent their lives in this quiet coastal community but Joseph absorbed everything that surrounded him.
Most of the material for his poems comes from overheard snatches of conversation or superstitions and reminiscences that were told to him and he wrote them down in idle moments to amuse his friends.
But there is an art and a beauty to his writing, his love for the county and his people, even when he is poking fun at it all, shines through.
For those without a copy of the book to help with translation:
- Shiner: an occasional sweetheart
- Bosy: smart, conceited
- Prinky: attentive to dress, natty
- Coxey: saucy
- Murfles: freckles
- Fligs: fancy clothes
- Slocked: enticed
- Slawterpooch: an ungainly, slovenly person
His love of stories and people was unfortunately a contributing factor in his death. At a fair in Penzance during the winter of 1894 he spent the day talking to the visiting entertainers as well as watching the usual crowd of miners and farmers going about their business. Sadly that day he caught a chill which turned to pneumonia and he died shortly after.
Joseph was buried on St Michael’s Mount in the private graveyard, so I am sure he is kept entertained by the conversations he can overhear these days as the crowds of visitors from all over the world go by.