St Anthony in Meneage is a small parish on the Lizard peninsula. In Victorian times it was home to a farming community together with a mix of craftsmen and a sole coastguard boatman. The coastguard was William Johnson from Norfolk, married to Mary from Wicklow in Ireland. The couple’s eldest children had been born in Ireland and the younger ones in Dorset at Lyme Regis. Although not Cornish, the youngest child – Alfred – was destined to find his niche in a quintessentially Cornish activity – Wesleyan Methodism.
Before that, the young Alfred had moved with his parents across the Helford estuary to Mawnan when William Johnson retired from the coastguard service. Alfred was then a pattern maker although whether for a local engineering foundry, a shipyard or another business is unknown. Whatever the case, he had given this up by 1881 after qualifying as a Wesleyan minister. By that year he had been sent to Wrexham in north Wales with his wife Jane who was from Falmouth and the child from Jane’s first marriage, the pair presumably marrying before their move. After Wrexham, Alfred served the Wesleyans at Taunton in Somerset and in the 1900s was found preaching at Acton on the fringe of west London.
A Methodist Minister’s life was by its nature peripatetic. The majority of people from the Lizard were less so and moved in more geographically restricted worlds. But that didn’t necessarily mean they remained stuck in the same socially restricted world. For example, Ellen Richards was the daughter of William and Elizabeth. She had been born in the neighbouring parish of St Keverne but her father, moving his family to wherever his farm labouring job took him, had ended up in St Anthony in 1861 via the other neighbouring parish of Manaccan. The year 1871 saw him back at Manaccan with Ellen at home helping to look after five younger children, one of whom may have been her illegitimate daughter.
In 1876 she became the second wife of a mason – James Nicholls – and moved to his home at Porthallow in St Keverne. James prospered and by 1891 was described as a master builder, helped by his four sons. By the 1890s the family was comfortably enough off to employ a young domestic servant to help Ellen with the household tasks, quite a social step up from her farm labouring childhood.