Rowena Cade – the extraordinary woman behind the Minack

By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:

The Minack is a glorious concept and construction down at Porthcurno; it is all the more so when you hear the story of its inspired creator, the incredible Miss Rowena Cade.

Born in Spondon, Derbyshire, in 1893, Rowena Cade was one of four siblings. Her sister, Katharine was also interesting, for she wrote speculative/dystopian feminist fiction (dying in Blyth, Suffolk, in her 60s). Her two brothers were Charles – who died aged 74/5 in 1966 in Switzerland,  and Alan, who died aged 47 in Salisbury. Rowena reached a good age of 89, dying in 1983.

She was the amazing woman whose legacy is the marvellous ‘labour of love’ Minack Theatre in Cornwall, where she was the ‘master builder’ who conceived building ideas and worked in all weathers to achieve them. She even left behind sketches after her death of how the theatre could be covered for bad weather (this never happened and somehow it is better for it). 

Miss Cade

Her full name was actually Dorothy Mary Rowena (‘Dofferty’ as she was affectionately known as a child, which she seemed to dislike) Cade.

A physical description on this website suggests she was slight in stature, big on ideas, a self-confessed tomboy who always dressed in breeches, with the only feminine touch her hair. It also suggests she was very religious, going to 8 o’clock Sunday service at either St Buryan or St Levan. It sounds like she lived very frugally,  disregarding any pleasure from food in later life, for mentioned is the shock of seeing her having a very rare two sugars in a cup of tea. She did have King Charles Spaniels, however, and enjoyed being pushed around in a wheelbarrow in her later years, so had a sense of glee well into older age, enjoying the company of people and her dogs. It was written by Virginia Nicholson in her 2008 book Singled Out that Miss Cade regretted staying single, saying: “I should prefer to have been a man: then I could have had a career and marriage, too”. This was the problem for many women who were contemporaries of Miss Cade – they sadly could not have it all.

Rowena Cade

The genteel and privileged Cade family (her father was a cotton mill owner) later (1906) moved to Cheltenham when their father retired from his role, to a house owned by Sir Walter Scott, called Ellerslie (now apartments) which backed onto Pittville Pump Rooms. Her great, great grandfather was the artist Joseph Wright. After some idyllic years, her father died, so her widowed mother sold the house and rented one in Lamorna, Cornwall, as they had enjoyed holidays in the south-west. Rowena had volunteered or been selected at the outbreak of World War I, to select and train warhorses, an arduous and probably heartbreaking task,  but by World War II, she was the local billeting officer for hundreds of distressed evacuee children sent to Cornwall, escaping from London and the Blitz, while the army used the actual theatre she had created as a lookout post given its position.

Rowena’s family moved around west Cornwall. She inherited money when her father died, so she and her widowed mother bought the nearby Minack headland for a mere £100 (worth around £11,000 today), Rowena building a rather elegant and sizeable house for them using granite sourced from the local St Levan Quarry. She later extended it to accommodate her sister’s return from Australia and built a ‘wendy house’ for her sister’s children in the 1920s. She also joined a drama group. It must be said, at this point, that the area is fairly inaccessible and remote, even more so back then. The ladies would have had time on their hands, and needed to make their own entertainment. Rowena designed and made the costumes for her amateur dramatics friends to entertain the locals in a ‘homemade’ fashion. The first performance by the drama group was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1929, when Rowena Cade decided that in future, the cliffs below her garden would be an ideal setting. 

A granite construction, this open air theatre with concrete seats (as she could not afford stone), perched on the edge of the cliffs above beautiful Porthcurno,  was perfect for Shakespearean drama. The Tempest comes to mind. What a setting!

The Minack (from Meynak, meaning ‘rocky place’) was created by a woman with vision, determination, resilience and the kind of sheer hard graft that is of its time. It is now almost a place of pilgrimage for lovers of theatre and open-air performance, but it is also a ‘must-visit’ place in Cornwall.

It is also an unforgettable tale of female achievement, for it was built by hand and the odd stick of dynamite (not huge machinery) and became Rowena’s life’s work. An artist, too, she etched complex designs into the wet concrete seating. The backs of seats were inscribed with the names of plays performed, offering a remarkable chronology of performances, while the walkways and steps were decorated with hand-chiselled seaside designs. 

This info on the Minack website shows what an incredible feat she set herself:

“… my gardener, Billy Rawlings, [and] another Cornishman cut up [huge boulders] by hand, much as the English cut butter.  A few slices fell into the [sea] as they split, followed by some good dialect expressions of regret; most were handled into position inch by inch with bars, on the slippery slope where a careless step would have meant a ninety foot fall into the churning sea.  I filled in behind them with earth and small stones.”

 

Katharine Burdekin – her sister

Katharine, her sister, had quite a different existence. She was educated by a governess at home and later attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College, as did Rowena for a while. She hoped to study at Oxford, like her brothers, but her parents forbade it.

In 1915, she married an Olympic rower and barrister called Beaufort Burdekin (the marriage lasted 7 years) and had two daughters. She returned from Australia, to where she had travelled with her husband, when their marriage failed. Although she worked as a nurse during World War I, she is best remembered for her writing. Her Swastika Night arrived before Orwell’s 1984, and envisaged a nightmare world after hundreds of years of Nazi rule. Katharine was another remarkable Cade family member, but this one often kept her identity secret when writing. Her pseudonym was not confirmed until two decades after her death.

Later, Katharine became romantically involved with a woman who became her lifelong partner. In 1955, she suffered an aneurysm and nearly died, but survived bedridden until her death in 1963. Like her sister, Rowena, Burdekin was said to have worked at great speed. She would apparently work on a book for no more than six frenzied weeks, then fall into a depression. She was described as “tall, dark, very strange and clever”. Where Katharine took to the pen, Rowena took to building from stone.

The Minack

Feeling the gardens were not the right setting for her productions, Rowena ambitiously decided to stage Shakespeare’s The Tempest above Minack Rock, and set about making a stage and some rudimentary seating (old photos show people with deckchairs) which took her six months. The first real performance was in 1932, lit by a makeshift concoction of batteries and car headlamps. It is hard to imagine a more suitable site for The Tempest, especially if the sea fancied whipping up a storm.

The germ of the Minack theatre had begun. Innovative Rowena, by then 38, a philanthropist, without a husband or children, began to build her dream.

The work would have been back-breaking, as anyone who has climbed the granite steps from Porthcurno beach to the Minack could only begin to imagine. It is hard to contemplate this frail-looking woman bringing up bags of sand (for the cement) from the beach and huge wooden beams from the shoreline, but she did. Reputedly, she carried a dozen 15ft beams from a wrecked Spanish freighter to create a dressing room. The police, investigating the removal of the beams understandably did not believe her when she admitted to this, so she was cleared of suspicion of taking it! She is said to have exclaimed: “well, I did not tell a lie!”

It was post-war when Rowena built the steps up from Porthcurno beach (all 90 of them) with the help of her aid, Billy, who died in 1966. Tom Angrove took his place as ‘builder’s mate’ until 1993.

Rowena continued working until her mid-80s, dying just before she hit 90. Her plans were eventually to have covers for the theatre to keep off the rain during performances, but they have never been actioned. She was also a whizz with cement, using a screwdriver to create her own designs before it set. The theatre has steep paths and steps, with seats containing her ‘screwdriver’ designs. 

What sustained this amazing woman? Rowena had two devoted local craftsmen, Billy Rawlings and Charles Angove, to help fulfil her vision and create equally incredible gardens. The Minack has an exhibition dedicated to this remarkable lady.  Photos of her in her later years show her sitting in a wheelbarrow, reading, frame slight, hair crazy. Earlier photos showed her as the elegant, ladylike – looking woman one might have expected.

During World War II, the Minack was chosen to be part of the coastline defences, which destroyed much of the theatre, later rebuilt by Rowena Cade. By 1944, it was chosen (though not used) as a location for Love Story, starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger, which was, perhaps, its salvation, as investment came with it. Rowena came from a time when little was wasted, so even the box office was made from a converted gun post. The theatre reopened in 1949.

On a sunny day, the place is absolutely awesome with a mesmerising turquoise sea below.  Dolphins, basking sharks, and seals have all been spotted, along with a variety of seabirds. The flora and fauna have helped settle the place into its coastal environment, within which it is totally sympathetic and in keeping. Down at Porthcurno Beach, as the huge waves roll in with an offshore wind blowing back the spray, rainbows often develop, a mind-blowing magical sight which is almost super-naturally-magical.

Lessons learned … 

 

There are lessons we can learn from the Rowena Cade story, which reiterate lessons learned from amazing women everywhere. 

 

First, that age is no barrier to achievement. 

Second, that our creativity and desire for action also do not necessarily diminish as we grow frailer. Indeed, the spark may even burn brighter. So many of us stop at the first hurdle, fail, and give up, but we can instead be fuelled by positive emotions such as love, vision, and creativity. 

Third, focus. As a friend commented, Rowena had the eccentricity of gentility, the capacity to focus on her vision, and not be sideswiped by life’s trifles. Despite her wealth, and expected life of inactivity, Rowena showed spark and ‘grit’ from an early age. She did not expect – or want – an easy life.

It must be said that Rowena Cade was utterly consumed by her project.  The Minack was, to her, not a hobby, it was a passion, a lifelong obsession. Anything less would have not have sufficed to create this amazing artistic space.

Quite simply, some people have ideas and energy to spare; they are the folk who become truly inspirational.

 

1 Comment

  • Mandy whiskin says:

    Truly amazing!
    I visited The Minack in August and was blown away by its sheer beauty and ruggedness. Rowena had such a vision and worked hard to make her dream a reality. How she has given so many people such enjoyment is a real gift.

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