Where’s Bessy?


Credit: Fred James. Used under this licence.

It was one of those chance internet encounters that led me to a Cornish village with a quaint name. The place you can see to the left is Bessy Beneath.

The only suggestion I have found online for the origin of the name is that a witch called Bessy is buried there. After all, one is supposed to bury witches at cross-roads, isn’t one? The explanation seems to me to be highly improbable to say the least.

Craig Weatherhill’s A Concise Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Cathair na Mart: Evertype, 2009) suggests bosveneth = “hillside dwelling”, but accompanies this etymology with a ? It is quite a phonetic leap from bəzˈveneθ to ˈbesi bɪˈniːθ and, as I have never been there, I don’t know if “hillside dwelling” makes sense as a name for the place. You can see the location of the village on the map below.

12 thoughts on “Where’s Bessy?

  1. I wonder if the phonetic leap really matters. A hint of alliteration is perhaps all that’s needed, and some humour to produce an amusing anglicisation, rather than a slavish phonetic transliteration. Folk etymology finishes the job off by providing a good story. All those ingredients are present in Bessy Beneath.

    You have these places on your doorstep. The only example I can muster happens to have no phonetic leap at all, the allegedly old name for Falmouth, Pennycomequick, transliterated directly from Pen y cwm cuic. But nevertheless amusing and complete with popular story. And not quite clear whether whether it’s English transliterated from Celtic, or Celtic transliterated from English. And is cwm the Cornish celtic spelling, or perhaps a slip in Wikipedia? Cum?

  2. Sidney,

    Yes, I guess you’re right about Bessy Beneath. I’ll have to trawl over there sometime to see what the place is like and if the bosveneth idea is feasible.

    As for Pennycomequick — I think I’ll have to do a separate post about that. It seems a little complicated.

  3. If you try to match the name with the topography, ‘bosveneth’ looks unsuitable because the site is on a kind of plateau or flat ridge, not on a hillside. Padel in “Cornish Place-Name Elements” suggest the name contains the elements bod + anneth, meaning a small dwelling.

  4. Terry,

    Thank you for that information. I don’t know why I didn’t think of consulting Padel on the matter.

  5. Hi there,
    I came across this while doing a search for my Mum. She lived in Bessybeneath (the cottage on the corner for many years. In fact my step father was born there and brought his own 3 daughters up in the house.
    The name is BessyBeneath and has been for many years, not due to a phonetic name change or a witch but a highway woman who was hung on the corner and buried there. The houses pictured used to by the blacksmiths and an inn. The outhouses still have some of the original blacksmith workshop tools and I have seen my step father use them many times. The garage over the road, used to have a highway woman as its logo.

    I hope this is of some help.

  6. Whilst not seekng to put you down, Tracy I rather think that a Highway Woman – or even a highwayman – would be hanged.

    To be hung you might have a painting in the National or any other gallery.

  7. I lived a Veryan village for about twenty years, and the story that I was told was the one about the Highway Woman, called Bessy. Apparently, she had been shot in a hold up nearby, and had been mortally wounded. She sought shelter at the cottage that is there, but of course it was just as serious an offence to give protection to a Highway Man, as it was to be one. Anyway, the kind people gave her shelter and tried to give her medical attention, but she had been so badly wounded that she died. The residents of the house could not admit to giving her shelter, so to dispose of the body they buried her under the kitchen floor, and supposedly since then the place/house has been called Bessybeneath.

  8. Suzanne,

    Thank you for the story. I think it’s a more likely explanantion for the place-name than the one about the witch.

  9. My ancestors lived here in the 1840’s and it was often called Betsy Bonath – just to confuse things !!!

  10. I was born at Trengrouse Farm a half mile away – i was always told of the story of a woman called Bessy who was buried underneath the house on the corner which used to be the old smithy. We always assumed she was a witch – why else would you bury someone? I must ask my Uncle he has great tales of the area

  11. In the late 1940’s my family stayed in Veryan a few times, and we kids were farmed out to sleep at “Betsy Beneath”, pronounced that way but I never saw it written. I was never sure where it was (we were taken in a car), but always wondered about the name. A few weeks ago I was in Veryan again and found out just where it is, with the change to “Bessy”. The stories are intriguing to say the least, thank you all.

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