For many men in Victorian Cornwall freewill must have been a remote concept. With predictable regularity son followed father into the father’s occupation, generation after generation. Social mobility may have been an alien idea for the vast majority but some men broke the bonds and switched jobs. But who?
William Francis Burnard grew up in the wide open vistas of Cornwall north of Bodmin Moor, first at St Clether and then in the parish of Davidstow, which sprawled southwards onto the high moors. William’s father John had already shown ambition. A farm labourer in the census of 1851, he was reported as farming ten acres of land and given the status of farmer ten years later.
We don’t know how far John Burnard could have made such a holding succeed, let alone prosper, on the poor acid soils of Davidstow, the rainiest part of Cornwall. His son didn’t try to repeat his father’s experience. Perhaps chastened by watching the struggles of his father, he agreed to become apprenticed to a carpenter at St Juliot, a few miles west near the coast.
By 1881 William Burnard was a master carpenter at Boscastle, now married to Elizabeth Ann Gard and with two apprentices of his own (not to mention three children). The 1891 census found him described as a builder and carpenter, implying that he had done well and his carpentry business had expanded into general building work.