The history of Pencarrow

Gilbert and Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame is known to have composed some of his famous work here. In 1882 he wrote some of Iolanthe while staying at Pencarrow as a guest of Andalusia, Lady Molesworth. She was the widow of Sir William Molesworth, the 8th baronet who died in 1855 at the age of 45. Pencarrow was left to Andalusia for her sole use during her lifetime. She lived mainly in London but came down to Pencarrow for the house parties, for which she was well-known.

The Composition of Iolanthe

Andalusia’s guest book, The Legends of Pencarrow, contains Sullivan’s signature with the date, 30th July 1882. Sullivan is said to have been invited to Pencarrow after the death of his mother, needing peace and seclusion to begin work on Iolanthe. He had received the first lyrics from W. S. Gilbert earlier in the same month. The opera opened in London at the Savoy Theatre on 25th November that year and was an immediate success running for 398 performances. George Grossmith (of Diary of a Nobody) took the role of the Lord Chancellor. Jessie Bond was Iolanthe and Alice Barnet the Queen of the Fairies.

Iolanthe Returns to Pencarrow

A hundred years later, Iolanthe returned to Pencarrow when half a dozen singers from the D’Oyly Carte company came to mark the opera’s centenary. Lady Molesworth St Aubyn had travelled to their London office to give her personal invitation – a request they could not refuse! Iona and her late husband, Sir Arscott, were at that time still living at Tetcott, more than an hour’s drive away. She remembers having to feed the cast, which entailed rising at four in the morning to cook meals to bring over to Pencarrow.

Lady Molesworth also recalls one or two tense moments. Once such instance was when Duchy Opera, who provided the chorus, informed the cast that they couldn’t pay petrol money. This had, however, been part of the agreement and understandably caused friction. The cast threatened industrial action, to which Lady Molesworth responded ‘If you go on strike, so shall I and you won’t get dinner!’ The performance went ahead, needless to say. By the end of this highly successful visit the attitudes had rather dramatically turned around. Sir Arscott, who had been very lukewarm about the event, was happily claiming the idea as his own!

Since then, Iolanthe has been performed in concert at Pencarrow by local groups, most recently in 2018. This was by a group of Plymouth based singers, The Wand’ring Minstrels. This group are part of the larger PGS Productions amateur theatre company, which has been performing G&S since it was founded in 1923.

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