Lostwithiel was a town planned in the 1100s by the Cardinham family who controlled Restormel Castle overlooking the River Fowey upstream of Lostwithiel. In the later 1200s the town became the de-facto administrative capital of Cornwall when the Earl of Cornwall and then the Duchy made it their headquarters, later constructing the Duchy Palace near the river. But it was also important economically, the lowest bridging point of the Fowey River and a point to which traders could sail their boats in medieval times.
By the nineteenth century the river had silted up long ago but echoes of Lostwithiel’s former economic glories rippled down through the ages and could still be observed in the presence of merchants in the town.
According to the 1851 census George Nicholls had been born in Quethiock, like all six older siblings and his mother. By the 1861 and succeeding censuses George’s place of birth had changed to Lostwithiel. His baptism in the town in September 1849 suggests that, if not born there, the family must have moved to Lostwithiel very soon after George’s birth. His father was a fellmonger in 1851, a dealer in sheepskins, who was also farming in 1861. George duly followed him into the dealing side of his business.
Around 1873/74 George married Hannah and the census shows him as an established wool merchant living on the edge of Lostwithiel and visiting Plymouth on business in 1891. George died in the 1890s however, leaving behind him his wife and children, including the two youngest sons who were blind from birth.
John Mitchell Carnall became a merchant by a more roundabout route. His father was a master sailmaker at Fowey, where John was born. The family had enough money to employ a servant and to send John to a small private school at Duke Street in Lostwithiel, where he was a boarder in 1861. It looked as if John might have gone into farming, as he was assisting his uncle on his farm at Duloe in 1871 but, although living on his brother’s farm at Lescrow, Fowey in 1881, John was by then a general merchant.
By 1891 he was back in Fowey employing others in his merchanting business. This remained the state of affairs into the new century, John remaining single and living with his mother who was 81 years old by 1911. By that time John had retired from the merchant’s trade.