Cornwall’s Influential & Inspiring Women – Past & Present

Because of its long established links with so many traditionally masculine industries – farming, fishing, mining – Cornwall can sometimes feel like quite a macho county. In honour of International Women’s Day I thought that I would try to redress that balance by reminding us all of some of the marvellous, talented and wonderful women (past and present) that Cornwall has given the world. Women who, one way or another, have left a legacy and/or continue to inspire today.


Bimini Love

Bimini Love is a young woman from Newquay who is quietly proving that one person really can make a difference to people’s lives. Her Street Cramps project which she started when she was just 16 years old has raised thousands of pounds and is transforming the lives of homeless women in Cornwall. She set up the project in February 2017 after seeing the numbers of homeless people in Cornwall had increased during the winter months.

Bimini also gave a TEDx Talk about the organisation and her reasons for taking action against period poverty in Truro in 2017.

Street Cramps provides homeless women with a box each month containing essential sanitary products – tampons, pads, deodorant, wet wipes, heat pads and clean underwear. Bimini’s idea is changing the lives of women in Cornwall and beyond.

One of the homeless women she has helped described her as “a little girl with a big heart”, I think that she has shown us the power that one person, with strong convictions and the passion to make it happen, can have. I am sure she is going to go on to be an influencer of the future – once she gets her A levels out of the way!

BBC Three recently made a short film about her which will tell you more.

Emma Carlyon

The job of a coroner is undeniable serious and often distressing but it is a role which Emma Carlyon has taken in her stride since coming to office in 1999. Emma is well known for her red hair, her positive attitude and her sunny deposition and she says that the job is perfect for her because of her love of theology, science and the law. A graduate of Cambridge University Emma has deep roots in Cornwall.

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Credit: My Cornwall magazine

The county’s first woman coroner was raised in Truro where her mother, Armorel, was Mayoress twice and her father, Edward, was coroner before her. She is one of only a handful of female coroner’s across England and Wales and made history when her daughter, Charlotte, became the first baby to be born to a coroner still in office.

Sophie Chadwick

The influences of the Cornish landscape and its long maritime history are palpable in Sophie Chadwick’s work. The Seasalt brand, of which she is the co-founder and senior textile designer, is flourishing and its bright and breezy prints are becoming a well-loved and distinctive high-street brand. Sophie was born in Cornwall and raised near Falmouth.

From a young age she knew she wanted to be an artist and Cornwall’s spectacular coastline and rich creative history were an inspiration to her. It helped that several members of her family were artists too.

After graduating from Winchester School of Art Sophie returned to Cornwall and from a cottage overlooking Falmouth harbour she began supplying local shops with hand-painted silk scarfs and cards. The clothing company Seasalt was founded with her husband Neil and from their first store in Cornwall the business has gone from strength to strength. They have now opened 40 shops across the country, have recently employed their 1000th member of staff and the company is also making inroads in Europe.

Pat Smith

This 70 year old grandmother is the driving force behind the Final Straw campaign that is leading the way to a plastic free Cornwall. And cleaner oceans.

Pat Smith who started the campaign in 2017 has spent much of the past year cleaning the beaches of Cornwall and Devon. The plastic free cause is one she is more than a little passionate about.

“I founded the Final Straw to try and raise awareness of the catastrophic damage we are doing to our oceans from our casual consumption of single use plastics. I feel I have a responsibility to my children and grandchildren to do something about it.”

Her 300 mile charity walk around the coast of Cornwall plus her mission to clean one beach every week for a year has earned her the nickname ‘Action Nan’.

Pat says, “I started the Final Straw campaign with the aim of encouraging individuals to refuse plastic straws when offered and businesses to join us and commit to not provide any other straws other than paper ones. . . I feel excited and enthusiastic about encouraging behaviour change in a wider group of people than my fellow environment embracing counterparts.”

Pat has also featured in a short film by the BBC Action Nan.

Rosamunde Pilcher

Rosamunde was born in Lelant in 1924 and attended school in Penzance before training to be a secretary. Writing had been her passion since early childhood and she was delighted to have her first short story published when she was just 18.
During the war she served in the Women’s Royal Navy and met and married her husband. The couple moved to Scotland and not long after Rosamunde had her first book published by Mills and Boon in 1949.

Perhaps her most famous novel is The Shell Seekers which sold more than five million copies worldwide. Her books are extremely popular in Germany and more than 100 of her stories have been adapted for television using Cornish locations such as Prideaux Place, Chapel Porth and Port Eliot. Rosamunde Pilcher was awarded the British Tourism Award in 2002 because of the positive influence her work has had on tourism in Cornwall and Devon. She retired from writing in 2000 and received an OBE two years later. She sadly passed away in early 2019.

Helen Glover

British professional rower and Olympic Gold medallist Helen Glover has been World Number One in her sport since 2015. Helen was born in Cornwall in 1986 and grew up in and around Penzance, her grandfather used to run an ice cream parlour in Newlyn.

Her rowing career began in Bath, Somerset in 2008 and since then she has become two time Olympic champion, triple World champion, quintuple World Cup champion and triple European champion. As of June 2016, she and her partner Heather Stanning became the World, Olympic, World Cup and European record holders. Helen has achieved just about every accolade possible in her chosen sport and become the county’s sweetheart to boot. She received an MBE from the Queen in 2013 and has even had her image on a Royal Mail Stamp.


Helen married wildlife reporter Steve Backshall in Cornwall and the couple now have a son together.

Melissa Mead

When Melissa Mead’s son William died of Sepsis in December 2014 she somehow found the strength to turn the worst kind of tragedy into a positive and long lasting legacy.

Melissa is from Penryn near Falmouth and began a heartfelt campaign for raising awareness of the symptoms of this silent killer and for instituting more vital training for GPs. Her efforts have now received national recognition and the campaign will undoubtedly save lives.


Sepsis is thought to take the lives of as many as 37,000 people in the UK every year. In December 2016 Melissa was asked to head a new awareness campaign launched by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and delivered by Public Health England. Melissa is also an ambassador for the UK Sepsis Trust. As a family she says “we are trying our utmost to channel our pain and grief into something constructive”.


Mary Kelynack

In 1851 at the age of 84 Mary walked from Newlyn to London, to visit the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, a distance of more than 300 miles. The epic journey took her 5 weeks and she arrived in London in September 1851.

Credit: Penlee House and Museum

That year the Cornish fishwife became a minor celebrity and her story was covered in several national newspapers. Mary was even invited to have tea with the Lord Mayor of London, an occasion she found particularly overwhelming especially when he presented her with the fare home to Cornwall.

Crystal Palace, Great Exhibition 1851

Somehow her story reached the ears of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who also donated money for her continued upkeep. There is a plaque commemorating her near her home and her descendants still live in Newlyn and continue to sell fish.

Mary Bryant

Mary Bryant (nee Broad) was born in Fowey to fisherman William Broad and Grace Symons Broad in 1765. After leaving home in search of work she fell on hard times and became involved in petty thievery. She, along with two other women, robbed Agnes Lakeman on a road in Plymouth, stealing from her a silk bonnet valued at 12p and other goods worth £1. 11 shillings. Mary was sentenced to hang on 20 March 1786 but this was commuted to seven years’ transportation.

Credit: Princeton University

In 1781 Mary was a prisoner on the First Fleet to Australia. She gave birth to a daughter on the voyage and soon after her arrival married a Cornishman smuggler, William Bryant. After the couple had another child while at the colony William and Mary began to hatch a plan to escape. William, as a fisherman, had been up in charge of maintaining the colony’s boats and on 28 March 1791, William and Mary Bryant, the children and 6 fellow prisoners (one an experienced navigator) stole Governor Arthur Phillip’s six-oared cutter.


The First Fleet entering Port Jackson on 26 January 1788 by Edmund Le Bihan

This ragtag crew and the little boat miraculously completed a journey of more than 5000 miles in open seas to Timor, Indonesian and freedom. On arrival in Dutch controlled Timor the crew pretended to be shipwreck survivors. The whole epic story of survival against extreme odds was made into a movie starring Romola Garai in 2005.

Dolly Pentreath

There has been a lot written about Dolly Pentreath and separating legend from fact is nearly impossible. Dolly’s name is very well known amongst Cornish people as one of the last speakers of the Cornish language and so is a symbol of the county’s once fading heritage.

Pentreath, Richard Thomas; Dolly Pentreath (1685-1777) (The Last Speaker of Cornish); National Trust, Lanhydrock

Dorothy (known as Dolly) was born in Paul in 1692, the daughter of Nicholas Pentreath and his wife Jone. Her father was a fisherman and she was sent to sell his catch at Penzance market from the age of 12. She remembered that at that time most people spoke Cornish. A Welshman Daines Barrington met her in 1772 and described her as “short in stature” and bent over with old age. He said that she was rather deaf but quite intelligent. When Daines questioned whether she was indeed able to speak Cornish Dolly became rather agitated and shouted angrily at him in a language he describes as similar to welsh.


A group of women standing nearby, overhearing the exchange, began laughing and when he asked them whether Dolly was abusing him they sniggered and replied “Most heartily!” Dolly was well known for being a little ill-tempered and would often call someone who annoyed her “kronnekyn hager du,” or “ugly black toad”.
Dolly lived in Mousehole and ended her days there aged roughly 85. Although some folk tales say that she was 102 when she died, that she was a witch and that she had an illegitimate son called John in 1729. It would be great to think that there are some direct descendants of Dolly still out there.

Emily Hobhouse

Emily was born in St Ive, near Liskeard and became known within the British government as “that bloody woman”. She was a humanist and welfare campaigner who brought to the public’s attention the appalling conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Her constant campaigning for change made her rather unpopular and a thorn in the government’s side.

She travelled to South Africa on many occasions to oversee the distribution of the aid money she collected and dedicated her life to the welfare of the women and children of the camps. As a result she became an honorary citizen of South Africa for her humanitarian work.

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British Concentration Camp

The southernmost town in Eastern Free State was named Hobhouse after her, as was a submarine: the SAS Emily Hobhouse, part of the South African Navy. In Bloemfontein the oldest residence on the campus of the University of the Free State is named after Hobhouse.
She was remembered in Cornwall too. There is a statue of her at the church at St. Ive, Cornwall, where she was born.

Dame Fanny Moody

Fanny Moody who became known as the Cornish Nightingale was born in Fore Street, Redruth in 1866, one of 13 children of a Redruth photographer, James Moody.

Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

It was Mrs Basset of Tehidy who recognised her talent for singing and paid for her to go to London for tuition. Her first big break in show business came in 1887 when she sang for the Carl Rosa Opera Company’s opera ‘The Bohemian Girl’. She became known as ‘the Cornish Nightingale’. She sang at Covent Garden and Drury Lane (1890-94) and travelled to South Africa and sang to the Cornish miners in 1896. Her sweet voice is said to have left the big burly mining men with tears in their eyes.
She also toured North America and was presented with a tiara with the Cornish coat of arms picked out in diamonds. She later donated this tiara for auction during the Second World War in order to raise money for the Red Cross. She died in Dublin in 1945

Further reading:

I am all about celebrating Cornish culture and the wonderful women this county has produced:

Granny Boswell: Cornwall’s Gypsy Queen

Hannah Jory: Mother, Prostitute & Convict

Celia Fiennes: Through Cornwall, side-saddle!

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7 thoughts on “Cornwall’s Influential & Inspiring Women – Past & Present

  1. What about Ann Jenkin (leader of the 1997 Keskerdh Kernow march to London – still alive at 89), Mary Mills artist and illustrator of Cornish books, Phoebe Proctor, Cornish language and dialect, Joy Stevenson Cornish dialect and tales, Audrey Randle Pool, Cornish language and Celtic culture champion. I think you need to look at women involved in more recent history of the 20th century as well as present and far past

    1. Hi Loveday,
      I’m sorry you didnt enjoy the post, I understand your point, however it was never want to be a comprehensive list, just my picks really, women I admire. But thank you so much for your input, certainly gives me some ideas for the future. All the best Elizabeth

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