At the beginning of the 1800s Callington in east Cornwall was little more than an overgrown village. In the 1790s it was described as ‘shabby’, with ‘one short street of very poor houses’. Things had not improved much by 1824 when a visitor noted the ‘one broad street; and being very irregularly built, and very much out of repair, [the town] has rather a poor appearance’.
However, Callington’s dependence on farming and woolcombing was then supplemented by the expansion of mines to the north and east of the town. By 1851 households headed by miners accounted for just over a third of the parish’s population, outnumbering farming and labouring families by over two to one.
Although the usual proportion (over six out of ten) of the 28 Callington children who qualified for the Victorian Lives database have been traced, only two of those were from mining families. John Trevithick was one. Born in neighbouring South Hill, he was the son of a miner who was also a Methodist local preacher. John was already working as a miner in 1861, aged 11, probably going underground with his father. He’s missing from the 1871 census, no doubt mining either elsewhere in Britain or overseas, but by 1881 he was back in Callington. In 1891 John was still able to find work in the local mines, most probably at Callington United, a re-working of Holmbush, Redmoor and other mines around Kelly Bray. This company ultimately failed in 1893.
In contrast Ellen Lee was born into the family of farm labourer William Lee and his wife Mary. Though living in Callington in 1861, ten years earlier the family were found at St Mellion, to the south of the town. The differing birthplaces of her two elder siblings indicate the frequent moves of William in search of farm work. By the time Ellen was 20 she had left the family home and was working as a general servant on a large farm at Smeaton in nearby Pillaton.
However, her next move was much more radical. On marrying William Sandercock, a carpenter from Plymouth, in 1875, the pair decamped to Nelson in Lancashire. They were not alone; they were accompanied by Ellen’s parents and a younger brother. The couple remained childless and Ellen worked as a cotton winder in the mills of Nelson, providing them with a level of comfort somewhat above the norm.