The farms, hamlets and cottages scattered across the rolling countryside of South Petherwin just south of Launceston hid a growing crisis in the 1870s. Those farmers that had previously thrived on their earnings from growing cereal crops began to see the price of wheat tumble dramatically. Railways and steamships were combining to bring cheap grain from North America to west European markets.
Half of South Petherwin’s families relied on farm labouring to get by. In the 1880s, when a Royal Commission was set up to investigate conditions on Britain’s farms, it found that farm labourers in east Cornwall were working 10 to 11 hours a day in summer, with an hour and a half meal break, for around 12 shillings (equal to £75 today) a week with a rent-free cottage, or 15 shillings (£94) without. Moreover, farmers were looking to cut their wage bills.
In these circumstances, the children of farm labourers were wise to look to alternatives. John Pett Bath was one who did. The son of a farm labourer, he first turned to carpentry, being apprenticed to a carpenter in the parish in 1871. He then took the skills he had gained and used them in the Royal Navy, which he joined in 1874, when he was five feet six inches tall with dark hair and brown eyes. He became a Royal Navy shipwright based at Plymouth. Leaving the Navy in 1894, he continued to work as a shipwright while living with his wife Harriet in Plymouth.
John Brown was another son of a farm labourer from South Petherwin but took a different path, into the retail trade. By 1871 he was a draper’s shopman. After marrying Jemima Northey from Devonport in 1875 the pair appear to have emigrated to Canada where their daughter was born in 1877. However, by 1881, John and Jemima were back in Cornwall and living at St Austell. By this time John was selling china and doing well enough to employ a domestic servant. During the 1880s the family made a further move to Kensington in London, where he was employed as a commercial agent in the glass and china trade, benefitting from the Victorians’ craze for knick-knacks.