"WHAT motivates a benefactor?" That question shaped itself as I stood in front of a portrait of Rosemary Cobbold Sawle in the hall of her old home, Penrice, on a recent Friday afternoon.
The remarkable thing about this bespectacled lady was the diversity of her causes and the generosity of her spirit. When she died in 1971, this newspaper ran the headline: "St Austell loses a great friend."
The Sawles came to Penrice in the 1500s. Prior to that, it was the residence of the Cosgarne and Dalmaine families. Then in the late 16th century the Sawles rebuilt, but the present mansion is believed to be two centuries later. The front, like the tower of St Austell Church, is made of Pentewan stone, the family coat of arms prominent.
Standing in 75 acres, it has beautiful grounds and is approached by a private drive six furlongs in length through a combination of flowering shrubs and woodland. It's hard to appreciate that St Austell town centre is only a mile and a half away.
I just wish John Betjeman had come here when he visited the area in the 1960s researching his book on Cornwall. He would have recognised the qualities of this tranquil colony. It is quite simply one of our treasures. How such properties add to Cornish history and heritage.
The pleasure of my Penrice visit was heightened by the company of two friends, Valerie Jacob, the St Austell historian, and her photographer husband Brian. What splendid ambassadors they are for china clay country, and St Austell in particular. We all agreed this is a special location, gulls and crows adding to the atmosphere of the experience.
There is a strong sense of place, so much so you begin to wonder what it is that invests a certain building or piece of landscape with such significance. In the case of Penrice it's probably a cocktail of history and rich ancestry, the house and the grounds coming together elegantly, naturally. You can somehow visualise riders and horse-drawn carriages; the old stables are now in ruins, but it was good to see two equines grazing not far from the remains.
According to a piece of journalism by Dr AL Rowse more than three decades ago: "The Sawles were an old stock even when they came to Cornwall in the 17th century and acquired much of the Duchy manor of Trewington after the Civil War.
"This covered a good deal of the southern half of St Austell parish: and out of it they created the historic place as we know it, planted woods, formed a deer park, broke in and cultivated the soil."
Dr Rowse worked Penrice into his poem Home:
Along the road a line of oaks
Sturdy and strong were here,
Beside the deer park of Penrice –
Now vanished like the deer.
This poem was, in fact, read at the great Cornishman's memorial service in St Austell Church in December 1997.
The Sawles intermarried with other celebrated Cornish families: the Tremaynes and the Rashleighs, the Kendalls and the Trevanions of Caerhays.
The Trevanions had close links with the eminent Byrons and there was an early portrait of Admiral Byron (grandfather of the poet) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Plymouth fame.
It was a studious feature written by Dr Rowse and published in the Western Morning News in 1978 that revealed the initial change in the family name: "The male line came to an end with Mary Sawle in 1803, who left her estate to her cousin, son of Admiral John Graves and Elizabeth Sawle. This lucky fellow brought in all those fascinating associations with the naval history of the 18th century."
One family member was at the Battle of Quiberon Bay, scene of Cornishman Admiral Hawke's famous victory.
Another fought under Howe at the Glorious First of June, while a third served with Lord Nelson at Copenhagen.
This descendent of the Sawles and the Graves was appointed a baronet in 1836. Thereafter they were called Graves Sawle. Rosemary's only brother, Richard, lost his life early in the 1914-18 war. Richard's death meant the male line of the joint families had ended.
We are indebted to the diligent research of Elaine, who types this column, for these fascinating name details.
Rosemary, the widow of Colonel Ralph Patteson Cobbold DSO, was the daughter of the late Rear-Admiral Sir Charles John Graves Sawle and Lady Muriel; in 1932 she and her soldier husband both decided to take the name of Cobbold Sawle.
Getting back to the Cornish Guardian article announcing her passing: "Freeman of the Borough of St Austell with Fowey and one of St Austell's most generous benefactors, Mrs Rosemary Cobbold Sawle of Penrice died in St Austell Hospital on Tuesday evening. Aged 80, Mrs Cobbold Sawle, one of the most loved personalities in the district, was taken ill suddenly at her home on the previous Wednesday.
"Despite her great generosity to the area, Mrs Cobbold Sawle was of a retiring nature. She never sought the limelight and hated making public speeches but did so in the interests of the many causes she supported.
"It was from her parents that she inherited her love of St Austell Hospital, for which she worked so assiduously as founder-chairman and then President of the League of Friends."
When she heard of problems over the site of a new hospital, she gave ten acres of land off the Porthpean road: "How she wished she would be able to see a complete new hospital on that site."
She was a driving force as president of the women's section of the Royal British Legion, and achieved immense success as the organiser of the Poppy Day collections in and around St Austell for many years.
It is impossible to do justice to her in the space of a 1,000-word profile. How and why she was never given something in the Honours List is a baffling injustice. Dame Rosemary would have had the right ring.
She was deeply interested in education, a governor of Penrice Secondary School. Politically a loyal Conservative, she gave the St Austell Women's Conservative Association its own home.
Sport was a significant part of her life. She captained Cornwall Ladies on the golf course, was president of the County Ladies' Association and helped St Austell Rugby Club with a new ground on the old circus field on the bypass.
A religious woman, the church – not just one church – received her support. She made herself responsible for the upkeep of Porthpean Church.
Her greatest legacy has to be her treasured home, Penrice, which she left to create an old people's home.
It was opened as such an establishment by the then Lord-Lieutenant Lord Falmouth in 1978, and remains a living memorial to her.
On the evidence of my recent visit, under matron Clare Rowe-Hall it provides highly professional care with "a personal touch". You sense compassion and comfort as soon as you come into the hall, dominated by that portrait of this amazing lady.
Profiling her is a Guardian Country pleasure and challenge. That is the measure of her stature.