St Columb Major: somewhat off the beaten track

In earlier times St Columb in mid-Cornwall was located on one of the main east-west routes across Cornwall. But by the nineteenth century travellers were no longer avoiding a bleak journey and skirting around Bodmin Moor. In consequence, travellers on the main road no longer needed to pass through the small town of St Columb, in addition by-passed by the railway. In consequence it became a bit of a backwater largely unaffected by the economic tides of boom and bust that buffeted other parishes. Nevertheless, it could still be mooted as late as the 1870s as a potential site for the cathedral of a new Cornish Anglican diocese.

That was not to be and St Columb sank back into slumber. Maybe that’s a bit unfair as several new buildings were constructed in the 1870s and 80s, when it saw a mini-revival based on its role as a market centre for the surrounding tract of countryside. The population of the parish didn’t actually grow before the 1900s but it stabilised and did not experience the steady falls seen in most of rural Cornwall.

The ‘splendidly showy’ bank building of 1873 at St Columb, opposite the Red Lion Hotel, the town’s hostelry of choice in the late 1800s

Perhaps because of this St Columb residents were less prone to move far from the district. A half of the survivors from 1851 were found living in the parish in their middle age, while over three-quarters were still in Cornwall, with just a handful in England and a couple overseas. This relative stability enabled some cultural traditions, such as hurling and wrestling, to cling on in St Columb even as they were fast becoming a memory in some other parts.

William Bullock, born in 1850, was the son of John, variously a shopkeeper and tin mine captain at Ruthvoes in the rural part of the parish. By 1871 John had moved to the neighbouring parish of St Enoder, on the northern edge of the clay country, and turned from tin mining to clay, becoming a clay captain and a farmer of 35 acres. William followed his father into the clay industry and was a clay captain himself by 1876. In that year he married Annie Staple, the daughter of a carpenter. By 1911 he was living at the village of Fraddon and described as the manager of a clay works.

Mary Jane Salmon came from a poorer background but also ended up with connections to the clay industry, her husband being a clay labourer. She had been born just outside the town at Halveor Lane, the daughter of a miner who had unfortunately died before she was two years old. Her mother then moved into the town, boarding with others and eking out an existence as a charwoman while bringing up Mary Jane and her younger brother.

Mary Jane had an illegitimate daughter Annie in 1869 but married Thomas Webb from the parish in 1872. Thomas was a farm labourer but life must then have become a little more secure for Mary even though things were no doubt very tight. The pair moved from St Columb to St Merryn in the late 1870s and at some point in the following decade Thomas found work as a clay labourer in St Enoder, which is where, like William Bullock, they ended up.

St Columb’s relative stability during Cornwall’s industrial period was no doubt a factor in the survival of hurling and wrestling in the district long after these pursuits had disappeared from most other parishes

2 thoughts on “St Columb Major: somewhat off the beaten track

  1. I notice from the 1851 Census something else a little odd about St Columb: it hads a woolcombing industry of sorts -something no other town in Cornwall (as far as I am aware) had. There were thirty or so combers, a couple of wool staplers and a wool dealer in town. One of the staplers was from Morchard Bishop in Devon and may(?) have been at the centre of the trade.


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