Monday 16 October 2023


In my research for 'Mine to Die' (my latest book, due to be published in February 2024 - see this website link here), I discovered the remarkable life story of Charles Wilfrid Tregenza (1891-1974). His father was a mayor of Penzance and a Wesleyan Methodist, a man of standing in the local community. The family lived in Boslandew House in Paul, near Mousehole. Wilfrid Tregenza (as he was known to all) was the eldest of four brothers, all educated at the Truro Wesleyan College and all became conscientious objectors during the Great War (1914-1918). 

I knew enough about this remarkable man for my research purposes but I did not realize until the early summer of this year when I read the inscription on the bench outside by the kitchen door (see the end of this blogpost) that he had been a worshipper at the very same Friends Meeting House that I was now attending.    

Before Charles Wilfrid, aged 24, volunteered for battlefield ambulance work in 1915, he had enjoyed the glittering prizes that came his way as a fine athlete and a gifted scholar. By the time he was thirteen, he was winning swimming races; at eighteen, he was the school football captain and excelling in swimming, cricket, and athletics, as well as achieving outstanding public exam results. He became the first Cornish boy to win a scholarship to Cambridge where he read Mathematics at Downing College, gained a Cambridge blue and graduated with a double First in 1910. By 1914, he was mathematics master at King Edward's Grammar School, Chelmsford and a year later, mathematics master at Queen Mary's School, Basingstoke. To many observers the pathway to a headship must have seemed clear.

Charles Wilfrid Tregenza (1891-1974)

However, in 1914 a war in Europe began that was soon termed the Great War and then, in time, the First World War. In August 1915, Charles Wilfrid Tregenza signed up as an orderly for the British Red Cross Society and was soon working with the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). His Methodist Christian faith had led him to an active pacifist position. A year later, conscription was introduced by the British government and when he heard rumours that conscientious objectors (COs) were being shot for desertion, he and several other FAU men decided to return to England to challenge the principle of conscription. Back in Cornwall, the tribunal he faced did its best to get him to compromise and return to the FAU but he refused - and by 1916 he was serving a hard labour prison sentence that saw him jailed at various times in Wormwood Scrubs, Wakefield, Dartmoor, and Dorchester. Whilst in Dartmoor, he was in a group of COs who found themselves being stoned by local villagers on an escorted visit to the local church one Sunday. The Bishop of Exeter had refused to allow the COs to use the prison chapel and one inmate describes them 'going up to the church for a service and being stoned on the way. The parson was standing on a flat tombstone. I won't say cheering them (the local villagers) on, but any rate encouraging them'. Every village in Cornwall was losing menfolk in the trenches and at sea. Pacifists were not popular. 

Charles Wilfrid Tregenza - working with the FAU, but not yet a Quaker Friend, still a Methodist 

Conscientious Objectors who had been jailed in Dartmoor Prison were instructed to serve their hard labour by digging 'the road that led to nowhere' on the moor. It still exists - and is known by that name. Charles Wilfrid Tregenza is not in this photograph. 

Charles Wilfrid Tregenza was eventually released from Dorchester prison in April 1919 and soon afterwards joined the Religious Society of Friends. He married Mary at Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire in 1920 and unlike many COs in teaching positions managed to reengage with his career, serving as mathematics master in schools in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire before taking up the headship of a secondary school in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, from 1930 to 1934. He was an active supporter of the League of Nations during these years as a maths teacher and then Head. In 1934, aged 43, he joined the elite group of His Majesty's Inspectors of Schools in which he served until his retirement. His final triumph was to serve as the Chairman of the Butler Committee on Education whose Report led to the Butler Education Act in 1944, establishing the tripartite system of education - Grammar, Technical, and Secondary Modern schools - that has helped define my life and the lives of so many others. 

The Butler Education Act of 1944 laid the social foundations for the young even before the Second World War was over - this was a nation looking to the future with optimism and hope.

On retirement, Charles Wilfrid Tregenza was awarded a CBE. He returned to his native Cornwall, living first at St Just and later at Heamoor, near Penzance, in Holly Cottage in the village of Madron where he worked on the genealogy of the Tregenza family and created a collection of archival material. He was a founder member of the Penzance and District Christian Council and became very active in several Old Cornwall Societies as well as Marazion Friends Meeting. He died on the 10 April 1974 in Holly Cottage, Madron, Penzance. 

There are still links to Charles Wilfrid Tregenza in the Marazion Friends community today. His great niece and goddaughter, Vivienne Tregenza Reid, is one of our attenders. She remembers Wilfrid as a kind and interested godfather, who was close to her grandfather, John. Both brothers lived in St Just in their retirement and Wilfrid was often at Tregeseal House with the family enjoying tea and cake while helping her growing interest in mathematics. He died when she was 13 in 1974. Wilfrid had been a graduate of Downing College, Cambridge and in subsequent generations was followed at Downing by both Dr. Nick Tregenza of Mousehole and by Vivienne's daughter, Lamona. 

One of our elders, Tony Fitt, remembers him vividly as a man of great presence and powerful faith who would always complete his hour of worship on his knees in prayer. And then we have the memorial bench I referred to at the beginning of this blogpost. As you look at the image below, imagine between six and a dozen Friends gathered around in and around this area outside the kitchen door in a communal gathering every Monday during the Open Doors event in the hot months of this summer. 

In 2014, there was an exhibition at the Marazion Meeting House centred on the First World War and the pacifist response, featuring Charles Wilfrid Tregenza and others. Well over five hundred people attended during the week. 

The Centenary Exhibition in the Marazion Meeting House - 2014

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