Little Cornish Gems: The Shallow Pool Dolls

Museum News

Little Cornish Gems: The Shallow Pool Dolls

Amongst the collection of toys available at the museum, you may spot a group of small dolls smartly dressed and tucked away at the top floor. These are the Shallow Pool dolls that were handmade in the small hamlet of Shallow Pool in Cornwall between the 1950s and 1980s by Peggy Price, Joan Rickarby and Muriel Fogarty; three talented women with backgrounds in costume, hair and model making. Designed not for children but for collectors, these delicate dolls are approximately 8 inches tall and detail a range of characters from significant historical figures to those important individuals in the local Cornish community.

As part of my internship with the Museum of Cornish Life, I decided to investigate a couple of items that had caught my attention which included the Shallow Pool dolls. This surprised me since normally I like to focus on objects from the early modern period, as this is my era of interest, yet I found these modern little figures charming. Maybe it is their handmade aspect, with the care and attention to detail making each doll unique or perhaps it is their characterisation, with the clothes and tools bringing them to life that intrigued me. Either way, these dolls managed to capture my attention whilst I was searching the collection and maybe they will catch your eye too next time you visit!

In total we have five dolls in our collection which fall into the latter category of representing those in Cornish society. We have a Cornish wife, a Bal Maiden (‘Bal’ being Old Cornish for mine), a pasty seller and a fisherman as well as a doll of an important Cornish figure, Mary Kelynack, which you will come to learn about below. Not knowing much about Cornish society myself, I found these figures a fun way to learn as through researching the characters the dolls represented, I learnt about the importance of figures like the Bal Maiden and Mary Kelynack. Who knew these petite dolls would reveal so much to me?!

This is a photo of the doll dressed as a Cornish wife and the next photo is of the fisherman doll. I love the red scarf that covers the Cornish wife doll’s head as it makes her look snug and warm, which was perhaps needed for protection from the cool Cornish winds. With the fisherman, I like the creativity involved in the construction of the doll as the fishing rod appears to be a stick.

Here is the doll dressed as a Cornish Bal Maiden, identifiable by the headgear known as a gook (which we have on display in the mining section) and long-handed hammer used by the women for ‘spalling,’ a procedure which saw large rocks broken up. A note accompanying the figure elaborates on the Bal Maiden’s role in more detail, explaining they were older women and girls tasked with dressing tin and copper ores on the surface of Cornish mines which were too heavy for children to carry out.

This doll similarly depicts an important historical figure in Cornish society, though this time it is an individual named Mary Kelynack. Just like the Bal Maiden doll, this figure comes with a note tucked into the basket on her back explaining who Mary Kelynack was, revealing one woman’s incredible journey from Cornwall to London. The story goes that Mary was an eighty-year-old Newlyn fishwife who walked to London and presented Queen Victoria with half a pound of tea, which is pretty remarkable if you ask me!

Lastly, we have a woman selling a pasty, one of the most recognizable foods from Cornwall that are enjoyed across the world today (and by me!). Those in the past similarly enjoyed pasties with records from the thirteenth century detailing royalty indulging in it, though the Cornish pasty as we know it was created in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the wives of Cornish tin miners. Therefore, we have these ladies to thank for creating that delicious pastry meal.

As you can see then, we have an interesting array of Shallow Pool dolls which you can find at the museum in the toys section, so come along when you have the chance, you never know what else might surprise you!

Ellie Davison

I am a recent history graduate from the University of Exeter on an internship supported by the University’s Pathways to Arts, Culture and Heritage Programme.

Museum of Cornish Life