With 12 books and two television adaptions to date, Ross Poldark must figure among the most famous fictional Cornish heroes. It will be a surprise to many to learn that, 20 years before Winston Graham created him, another Cornish writer created an 18thcentury hero, a dark curly haired adventurer who rode across the Cornish cliffs on horseback, smuggled contraband from across the Channel, and embellished tales of his overseas adventures for the price of a flagon of ale in local hostelries. Ortho Penhale became the hero of a trilogy of novels written by Crosbie Garstin, the son of a Newlyn artist, Norman Garstin.
Crosbie did not excel at school, but had an adventurous spirit, and in 1910 aged 23, he set off for Canada where he tried his hand at gold mining before becoming a bronco buster and a lumberjack! He later settled in South Africa where he managed a cattle ranch. The First World War intervened and he returned to Britain and joined the army, where his writing skills led to a series of sketches describing life at the front, which were published after the war as The Mud Larks and The Mud Larks Again.
He wrote a book about his experiences in South Africa and then began research about life in West Cornwall in the 18th century, leading to the first of his Penhale novels, The Owls’ House, published in 1924. The novel tells how John Penhale, facially disfigured in a shotgun accident, marries Theresa, a tempestuous gypsy girl. They have two sons, the adventurous Ortho, and Eli, the stay at home farmer. Ortho’s adventures take him all over the world, from North Africa to the West Indies, Spain and the west coast of Africa. Between 1926 and 1927 Garstin wrote the second and third novels, High Noon and The West Wind. The plots are full of twists and turns, some it must be admitted slightly implausible, but he was a great descriptive writer.