Margaret Balfour

Marie Margaret Melville Balfour

Marie Margaret Melville Balfour was the daughter of Marie Clothilde Balfour and James Melville Balfour. A niece of Robert Louis Stevenson, she was born in Villa du Calvaire, St. Servan, near St Malo, Brittany in 1898. In 1901 she was in Morningside, Edinburgh, and lived there at least until her father’s death in 1907. Before long her widowed mother moved to London and Marie Margaret was sent to a boarding school in Devon.

Her mother was a successful writer of novels and collector (in Northumberland) of folklore. It seems likely she gave Marie Margaret both an example and contacts in the world of publishing. By about 1921 Marie Margaret was beginning a career as a writer, at Eversley Cottage, Combe Down, near Bath.

When living in Combe Down, Marie Margaret followed her mother’s example as a writer of novels, historical scholar and, collector of folklore. She was also a published poet. Her most successful works were her collection of poetry London Pride: Songs of the City and The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow (1938).

Marie Margaret died in September 1940 in Combe Down.

The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow

M. Melville Balfour, The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow and other truthful narratives (London, Faber and Faber, 1938)

‘The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow’, published in 1938, is a collection of 16 tales. Seven of the tales are set in Cornwall, most in the West Country. The first chapter shows that the author is familiar with classic Cornish and Welsh legends asshe mentions (but does not repeat), well-known Cornish folk tales, so giving her own words context and credibility. The tales mentioned include:

i. The Mermaid of Padstow.

ii. The Merry Maidens.

iii. The White Rabbit with the Charmed Life.

iv. Jan Tregeagle and the Bottomless Pool.

v. King Arthur.

Balfour is a fluent and charming storyteller. She has a good sense of place and landscape that informs her storytelling. Often her well-crafted stories often seem to have their origins in local geographical features, structures or historical incidents. The sub-title ‘other truthful narratives’ is an interesting, perhaps challenging, addition.

Notes on the Stories

  1. The Vanishing Mayor of Padstow. The claim that Padstow ‘once had a mayor but now has none’ is historically correct. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the municipal rights having been allowed to lapse by desuetude, the town was placed under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates. Padstow does now have a mayor!

  2. The Squire’s Tomb This is a historical narrative set at the time of Monmouth’s rebellion (1685), principally contested in the West Country between Bath and Bridgwater.

  3. The Attorney and the Dragon This tale is set in the time of Arthur, and involves typical Cornish references.

  4. Dog Trusty and His Bone This tale is set ‘more than 500 years ago’ in Bristol.

  5. The Man with Shark’s Teeth This tale is set around Bratton Court near Minehead and Dulverton in Somerset in the 13th century.

  6. The Silver Ship Set in London at the time of the Great Fire (1666).

  7. The Watcher of the West. ‘The Watcher of the West’ is a rock formation on Pentire headline on the north side of the Padstow estuary.

  8. The Vineyard of Ding Dong Dell. The author writes this is a tale of France learned from her mother, Clothilde

  9. The Three Drums This tale is a recasting of the Devon legend of ‘Drake’s Drum’.

  10. The Clothier’s Bridge This is a skilful reworking of a well-known Cornish tale about the construction of the bridge at Wadebridge.

  11. Green Lanes This tale is set near Bristol. This seems a modern tale written to promote the ‘otherness’ of supposedly old country ways and lore.

  12. When Sir Hamo Smiled Mentions Trevanion and Arundell, good Cornish seamen and locations in the Wadebridge - Padstow area. The Hamoaze is the name of the channel by Torpoint, where it is crossed by Brunel’s famous railway bridge.

  13. Fairy Physic Set in Bristol in about the 17th century.

  14. The Talking Stones of Egloshayle Egloshayle is near Wadebridge. The two Cornish wheel-crosses are either side of the church path.

  15. Turn Again Whittington A retelling of Dick Whittington.

  16. The Attorney and the Giant. This tale, set around Boscastle and Tintagel mentions Arthur’s court. It was possibly the author’s invention.