St Breock: literacy and good fortune

The non-mining parish of St Breock in mid-Cornwall, which included the greater part of the small town of Wadebridge, was by Cornish standards relatively unusual in Victorian times. Nine of the 13 children of 1861 who survived until 1891 could still be found in mid-Cornwall, a very high proportion. Meanwhile, not one of the St Breock cases in our database had emigrated by that date.

Louisa Menear was one of the few who moved more than a short distance from St Breock. The daughter of a labourer at Wadebridge, she married James Leverton in 1871. Although James hailed from nearby St Eval, the marriage took place well to the east, across the Devon border at Milton Damerel. Neither Louisa nor James, a farm labourer, were able to sign their names on the marriage register. How widespread was illiteracy at this time?

In the year Louisa and James got married, 76 per cent of men and 71 per cent of women who got married in Cornwall could sign their names. Moreover, those who, like Louisa and James, did not were not necessarily illiterate. A study of coal miners in Northumberland and Durham around 1840 concluded that although only half of them could write, almost 80 per cent could read. A minimal ability to read was already well-established by 1870. In that year the state stepped in to ensure schools were available for all those under 13, although they were neither compulsory (for those up to 10) nor free until the 1890s. In any case education was not the only way to better yourself in the nineteenth century.

Mary Cock was another Wadebridge child, the daughter of a stonemason. It isn’t clear where Mary was after she left home, although it’s likely she was a servant upcountry as she married William Pattison, a surgeon 20 years her senior, at Bath in 1882. The couple then moved to Plymouth where William, described as ‘not practicing’ in 1891, were in 1901 lodging at Crescent Place, a short walk from the Hoe and Plymouth’s Promenade.

William died in that same year but Mary stayed on at Plymouth, living on her ‘private means’, presumably investments and capital left her by her husband, and employing a couple as servants. In 1928 she died leaving part of a tidy sum of £12,000 (over £750,000 now) to a lucky younger brother, who was a Post Office clerk at the time.

Wadebridge was at one end of Cornwall’s first steam-powered railway, built in 1834 from the quays at Wadebridge to Bodmin. This photo was taken a decade before it was closed to passengers in 1967, although clay traffic continued to around 1980.

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