Miner’s cottage, manor house and famous neighbours

As the examples in the previous blog showed, some of the children in our Victorian Lives database did not move far beyond the confines of the district in which they grew up. Others, for a variety of reasons, broke away and by the time they were 40 their childhood landscapes were just fond memories (or perhaps something best forgotten.)

Duloe, a parish in the countryside between Liskeard and Looe in east Cornwall, provides us with an example of someone who flew a considerable way from their original nest. Although not so far as their Cornish contemporaries who hopped from continent to continent at the drop of a hat in  the period 1800 to 1914.

Mary Ann Opie was the daughter of a silver/lead miner who was probably employed at the Herodsfoot mine on the border of Duloe parish in 1851. Her father was already widowed by that date and ten years later we find Mary living with her maternal grandfather – John Broad – who farmed 160 acres at Caglenna, aided by four servants, a housekeeper, a domestic servant and no doubt the young Mary and her sister.

Morval House

Mary inevitably went into service and in 1871 was one of the 19 servants working at the nearby big house – Morval House. This was the home of the Bullers and could be dated back to the 1400s but with several rebuildings and additions since that time. Mary was a humble laundrymaid in 1871 but by 1881 had moved on to become a more senior servant at Antony Vicarage near Torpoint. This must have been a substantial property as she was one of eight servants of the Reverend John Kitson (63 years old) and his 34 year old wife, their six children, two in laws and two visitors.

In 1891 we find that Mary had moved again and was one of another large complement of eight servants whose job was to make life comfortable for a retired Indian civil servant and his wife and child who lived at Wimpole Street, a long, straight and, according to Tennyson, ‘unlovely street’ in central London. There, Mary was a lady’s maid. Wimpole Street was home in the 1800s to the novelist Wilkie Collins and the poet Elizabeth Browning among others. Later, Paul McCartney spent some time there in the 1960s. That’s not to mention the fictional Henry Higgins of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

What would Henry Higgins have made of Mary’s east Cornwall accent? Or had she lost it during the twenty years or more she had spent catering for the landed and professional classes?

‘when the world seems tumbling to ruin,and civilisation rocks on its foundations, one has only to go to Wimpole Street’ (Virginia Woolf, 1933)