Truro: The life of servants, part 1

Our next parish – Kenwyn – is a bit of a hybrid. In the nineteenth century half of its people lived in Truro with the usual mix of urban occupations. The other half lived in the countryside to the west and north of the town, where mining was the major concern at mid-century.

Kenwyn’s urban parts allow us a glimpse into the lives of domestic servants, often ignored in the historical literature and leaving few direct accounts of their own lives. Truro was a major draw for women seeking work as domestic servants, with over 40 per cent of women with paid employment in the town working as domestic servants in 1861, in Cornwall second only to Penzance.

In 1861 there were 269 domestic servants in the urban part of Kenwyn. Almost half of these worked alone, the sole servant in a household. For these women it could be a lonely life, up at dawn and working until evening, with maybe a day off a week. The duties of a single maid of all work might include cooking, cleaning, sewing, washing, ironing, child care, carrying coal and tending the grates, hauling water and slops, going on errands and dealing with tradespeople.

The majority of Truro’s domestic were young, the average age being around 23. The youngest recorded in 1861 was ten year old Harriet Lowry, described as ‘house servant’ to a returned migrant from Mexico and her daughters. Overall however, around a quarter of the servants were over 30. As well as being young and often alone, two thirds of Truro’s domestic servants came from places outside Truro and its immediate neighbours of Kea, Kenwyn and St Clement. The town attracted women from across mid-Cornwall.

Birthplaces of Truro servants 1861

There was an interesting contrast between the wealthiest parts of urban Kenwyn – Lemon Street and Strangways Terrace – and the other streets of the town. In Lemon Street and its environs only one in four domestic servants worked on their own, compared with over 60 per cent in the smaller housing of the other streets. Moreover, servants in Lemon Street and Strangways Terrace tended to be older, with an average age of around 26 or 27 compared with the 22 or 23 in the other streets.

If you were a servant it was clearly preferable to find a post in a posher house.

Lemon Street and the surrounding area in 1878

2 thoughts on “Truro: The life of servants, part 1

  1. Just what I love, the lives of others – the often unnoticed yet in their lives they were everything to themselves and those who cared for them. Harsh lives, too, imagine cleaning a whole house as a ten year old. Great analysis of how many servants x type of household.

    I am puzzled by the map of Truro. At the bottom end of Lemon Street (as I perceive it) which is to the top of this map, has the river been paved over?

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    1. Lemon Quay was filled in during the 1920s. Before that time Truro’s role as a port would have been obvious. The by-pass (1960s?) finally obliterated the oriiginal townscape.

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