Absent husbands

As we saw in the previous blog, some people in the Victorian Lives project left while others stayed. It’s gradually becoming clear that sons and daughters of farmers were less likely to leave Cornwall than the offspring of the poor or those from mining families. But there were exceptions. Here is the tale of two women who stayed.

Matilda Thomas was born into a poor family at Polladras, Breage. Her mother was a widow, an occasional field hand who was receiving poor relief in 1851. Her brother had already been forced to find work as a tin dresser at the tender age of 10.

For the first 30 years of her life, Matilda moved within the confines of the parish, inevitably including a spell as a tin dresser before marrying John Wills in 1874. In the 1881 census Matilda was found at Breage, although the absence of John and a child born at Millom in Cumbria two years earlier suggests a short stay in the Furness mining district.

Helston”s Red Lion

Maybe John made some money up in Cumbria, as by 1881 he was back in Cornwall and the re-united pair had moved to the urban delights of Helston, where they ran the Red Lion Inn in Church Street, employing a 17 year old inn servant to help them out. (For an intriguing account of this pub in the 1800s see here.)

Ann Williams was less fortunate. She was one of the eight (at least) children of Samuel and Elizabeth. Ann probably followed her sister into mine surface work, although not before she was 11 and if she did it wasn’t caught by the decennial census. By 1871 she had found a place as a servant to a retired farmer’s widow at Clarence Terrace, Penzance but soon after that she married John Rutter.

John disappeared after four years of marriage (going by the birth dates of Ann’s three children). In 1881 Ann was at Cudna Downs in Sithney, the neighbouring parish to Breage, living with her mother and described as a charwoman, surviving by odd jobs. John did not reappear and ten years later in 1891 Ann was still at Sithney, although having moved within the parish. She was describing herself as a widow and working as a laundress to help keep her and her mother, now in her 80s, off the bread line.

Breage churchtown in the 1800s, where Ann Williams spent some of her childhood.