Mevagissey: from Cornish fishing village to the city that never sleeps

Victorian Mevagissey has been described as a place ‘dependent on the sea’, with the majority of its men employed as fishermen, boatbuilders and mariners. If we include the whole parish rather than just the coastal settlement this is a slight exaggeration. In fact, almost a half of the parish’s adult men in 1861 found work in other sectors, notably farming and crafts such as building or shoemaking. Nonetheless, mariners and fishermen together did account for almost a half of Mevagissey’s working male population, with shipbuilders and coastguards bringing that total to over a half. They would have dominated the village itself.

Cornish fishing villages in the past are now often stereotyped as stable, inward-looking and with limited marriage horizons. That may have been the case for predominantly fishing (as opposed to seafaring) communities for a couple of generations towards the end of the 1800s. Moreover, it’s not too difficult to find examples of people in Mevagissey who lived out their whole lives in the village.

Maria Kendall was one. Her father was in fact a mariner and was dead before Maria was ten years old. Maria worked as a domestic servant before marrying a fisherman, John Furse, in 1879. That marriage lasted only five years as John died in 1884. Maria then ran a small grocery store from her house to maintain herself and her one child. She was described as a charwoman in 1901 and 1911.

Nonetheless, involvement in fishing did not necessarily entail absence of movement. Mary Ann Ball’s mother Clarinda was a widow who had a bread shop in 1851 at Jetty Ope in the village. She then married Henry Johns, a fisherman, in the 1850s. Henry did not survive the 1860s but Clarinda kept the fishing connection, becoming a fish dealer. Mary Ball left home to marry in 1871 – to Philip Tonkin from St Austell. By 1873 the couple had moved to Plymouth. There they operated as fish sellers. However, Philip broke the link with fishing in the 1880s, changing to dealing in wardrobes, quite a switch. Nonetheless, the family maintained its connection with fishing through the eldest son who continued to make a living from dealing in fish.

A location by the sea could also involve links over that sea. Elizabeth Varcoe was the daughter of a widowed schoolmistress. She married Benjamin Body in 1871 and the newly married couple, together with her brother and his family, all immediately set out for the USA via Liverpool. Unusually, once there, they didn’t move into the interior, settling in Brooklyn in New York, where Benjamin, like his brother in law, was a carpenter.

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