Given its maritime connections, it’s not surprising that, in the 1800s Falmouth and its neighbouring villages was a shipbuilding location. Yet before the 1850s, in the days of sail, most shipbuilding operations in the Fal estuary were relatively small scale. In Falmouth itself they were located mainly in the area between the present-day Maritime Museum and Trago Mills.
Yet, only around three per cent of men in Falmouth in 1851 were working as shipwrights. In this year, or just before, John Francis May was born into the family of John and Ann May, who lived at Britton’s Yard, Falmouth. John senior was a shoemaker, but John Francis became a ship’s carpenter in his teens. In the 1870s he moved to the Royal Navy Dockyard at Devonport, where he was employed as a shipwright, marrying a local girl, Mary Hennessey, in 1877. They were still there in 1891, sharing a crowded three-roomed apartment in Gloucester Street with their seven children.
The Government dockyard at Plymouth clearly looked towards Falmouth for some of its skilled labour force as John May’s move was not that uncommon. Not every Falmouth shipwright went to Devonport however: Amelia Ann Jeffery’s father was a journeyman shipwright resident in Falmouth in 1851. He was still working as a shipwright while living in Chapel Row in 1871 when Amelia married William Henry Williams.
We don’t know where William worked, as he died in the next decade, sometime after 1874. In the 1881 census Amelia, a widow, was running a small grocery shop in Gyllyng Street in the town. This did not prosper and 1901 found her living alone in a one-room apartment in the High Street eking out an existence as a needlewoman.
While Amelia may have struggled to make a living at the turn of the century, shipbuilding and ship repairing in Falmouth was on the increase. With the extension of the railways, Falmouth had lost the packet service in 1850. Partly to offset this, the Falmouth Dock Company constructed new docks in the early 1860s. Shipbuilding began to expand. By 1881 the number of shipwrights in Falmouth had already doubled and amounted to 7.5 per cent of the total male labour force. In 1878 Cox and Co. had begun shipbuilding, later concentrating on ship repair, becoming Falmouth’s largest employer in the twentieth century.