The villages and hamlets dotted around the moors and valleys of Sancreed parish in the heart of West Penwith in the mid-1800s housed a population of miners (around half of the labour force), farmers and labourers. In this part of Cornwall, the boundaries between these occupational groups were quite porous. The majority of farmers only farmed small amounts of land; labourers sometimes turned their hands to mining; miners might also have had access to a smallholding or rented a cow. In short, society was relatively egalitarian.
Take the life history of James Wallis for example. James was the illegitimate son of Mary Wallis, who cared for him in his early years in her parents’ household. James’ grandfather was variously a farm labourer and a road labourer. On reaching his teens James became a live-in servant at a 55-acre farm in the parish.
In 1877 he married Elizabeth from Zennor. A labourer in 1881, John was a dairyman and agricultural labourer in 1891 and then by 1901 a farmer. This steady rise in social status occurred just over the parish boundary in the neighbouring parish of Paul, to which they had moved. However, it probably does not signify any huge leap forward in material comfort. Although the acreage of his farm is unknown, it’s unlikely to have been large; no servants or labourers were employed.
Sarah Ann Olds grew up on Brane Common in the parish, one of the ten or more children of a butcher who also farmed some land. In 1869 she married William Chappell, from the same parish. William was a farm labourer and the pair stayed in Sancreed, renting houses around the hamlet of Drift, for 20 or 30 years before heading off to Perranuthnoe on the east side of Mount’s Bay. Although they had three children of their own, in the late 1880s they had adopted Annie Blackwell, born ‘somewhere in the north of England’.
Adoption was relatively informal at this time, although legislation occurred in 1871 to regulate the placing of infants in foster care by single mothers. This followed sensational trials of ‘baby farmers’ in the 1860s, accused of adopting illegitimate children, only to murder them. As it turned out, the new law did little to change informal adoption and fostering, as the local authorities usually failed to enforce it.