Laneast: escaping a life of farm labouring

John Couch Adams

Laneast is one of those small agricultural parishes to the west of Launceston. However, even small parishes could often take pride in some claim to fame. Laneast was the birthplace of John Couch Adams (1819-1892), a Cambridge professor who predicted the existence of the planet Neptune. Most residents of the parish in the mid-Victorian years were a little more anonymous than Adams.

Three quarters of Laneast’s adult men in 1861 worked on the farms of the parish, while almost a quarter of the women were domestic servants on those farms. Most of the rest, with the exception of half a dozen dressmakers, worked at home caring for their families.

The parish only provides two people for our database. Both were born into farm labourers’ families, both survived into the twentieth century, but neither ended up in a labouring family. Mary Creeper was born in the parish and trod the familiar path by leaving home to work as a domestic servant in the nearest town. In Mary’s case this was Launceston where, in 1871, she was employed in the home of a banker, who was a Wesleyan local preacher.

In 1872 she took the next expected step and got married. Her husband was Joseph Harry who hailed from Lifton, just across the Tamar in Devon. Joseph was a carpenter and the pair lived at Newport in the valley between Launceston and St Stephen’s in 1881. Ten years later they were to be found on the steep hill leading up to St Stephen’s church. By this time, Joseph had done well, employing at least one other carpenter.

The other Laneast labourer’s child also managed to avoid a life of labouring. Matthew Spear was the son of a farm labourer also called Matthew and had been born in St Clether parish, on the edge of the moors. Matthew senior had managed to scrape together enough cash to rent a small farm by 1871. The younger Matthew was working as a farm labourer in 1871, presumably also helping his father on his 12-acre holding.

However, during the 1870s, Matthew was able to switch to became a highway surveyor. By 1881, he’d moved with his sister to St Austell, before marrying Emma Clarke, 15 years his junior, in 1886. By 1891 he was well enough off to employ a servant. Matthew died in October 1900, leaving £429 (now equivalent to £56,000) to his widow. At some point between 1891 and 1900 Matthew and Emma had moved to Truro, where they ran an inn on Quay Street.

One thought on “Laneast: escaping a life of farm labouring

  1. So the dressmakers are in “other” for the women?

    It would be interesting one day to learn more about the daily life of a housewife. I imagine it involved a vast array of activities. Hauling water, making the fire, cooking, baking, milking perhaps, cleaning the house and yard, tending livestock (cleaning, taking out to graze or feeding it in situ), making butter etc. washing clothes, taking care of the children, etc

    The very word “housewife” suggests being married to the home, a huge amount of dedication. For me it is very important to recognize how much was involved in being a housewife … a woman may well have worked many more hours than her husband.


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