Sancreed: dairy farming and baby farming

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.

The young Sarah may well have taken a walk to Carn Euny, a nearby Iron Age settlement occupied for around 800 years from 400BC. What Sarah would have seen are the remains of the stone houses built from 200 onwards, replacing the earlier all-timber constructions. Although occupied centuries before the English arrived in Britain it’s now bizarrely and distressingly branded as ‘English Heritage’.

3 thoughts on “Sancreed: dairy farming and baby farming

    1. ‘Those in the far west could also take advantage of the farmers’ practice of renting out their cows: “to labourers and poor people at £6 or £8 a cow. for seven or eight months; four, six, eight or ten cows to each person, the hirer pays his cow-rent by milk and butter … These cow-renters have a piece of ground allotted to them by the farmer, in which they grow potatoes. With these, and with the scalded milk which has yielded cream for the butter, they fatten a great many young porkers”‘ (from my The Real World of Poldark, p.50, citing Barham’s Report of 1840)


  1. This is totally fascinating and the economics would have been very complex, for example if a cow died whilst being rented. I presume they took on cows in spring and summer and raised the calves alongside obtaining milk. A delightfully complex barter system. The farmer gets the butter and milk and no work, and the renter – all the work and a number of other benefits. And personal relationships etc would have counted for a lot, and “cow-lore”.

    Any more examples will be eagerly perused!

    In some African countries where I have worked farmers “step up” through barter from raising chickens to goats to cattle (for example). It is a good way of moving up when cash is short. Such a system may have functioned here, as well.


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