St Dennis: occupational change and a family mystery

St Dennis in mid-Cornwall was a parish undergoing major economic change in the Victorian era. In the early 1800s it was an upland parish where the locals survived from farming its unproductive soils, supplemented by tin streaming. However, the search for china clay transformed the fortunes of the parish and the occupations of its people. Within a generation from 1851 to 1881 the number of clay labourers in the parish almost doubled, while at the same time the number of men who were mining or streaming for tin fell by three quarters. Even if the male children of 1851 didn’t move, they were very likely to have different occupations from their fathers. For females it was basically the same old drudgery.

At Enniscaven in the parish in 1851 Francis Richards was a railway labourer, perhaps employed on construction works related to the new line to Newquay. He and his wife Ann had given their first child the unusual Old Testament first name of Zillah. Ten years later, while Zillah was receiving some schooling, Francis was working with his father in law as a tin streamer.

By 1871 the family had moved a couple of miles to the west to Gaverigan, just over the parish boundary in St Columb. There Francis found work as a farm labourer before eventually making the transition to clay labouring in his middle age. Meanwhile. Zillah went into domestic service, working at Wadebridge in 1881 before returning to her parents’ home on Goss Moor in 1891.

In 1911 Zillah was living with a nephew at Fraddon and still single, declaring that she had ‘no children born alive’. Yet ten years before she was recorded in the census as living in the household of Mark Richards, a clay works captain, together with a number of other relatives at Gaverigan. There, she was returned as Mark Richards’ ‘mother’. Sure enough, in 1871 there had been an as yet unnamed one month old baby in the household of Francis and Ann Richards and recorded as the couple’s child. As Ann was 50 years old at least at the time, this was unlikely. Instead, this was probably Zillah’s illegitimate child Mark, who was also present in the family home in 1891, a clay labourer like his grandfather.

Zillah Richards’ entry in the 1901 census

Why did Zillah feel the need to deny the existence of her son in 1911, whereas the relationship was openly admitted by Mark in 1901? What does this tell us about the attitudes of the time?

One thought on “St Dennis: occupational change and a family mystery

  1. A very intriguing conundrum ripe for a novelist. Could be attitudes, but since they were living together for many years and everyone must have known the relationship …? Not sure.

    Could be that mother and son fell out, seriously, with each other, and she denied him in later years. He may have made her move out of his home, for example.

    Or, Mark died and she wanted to say “no son alive” (rather than born alive).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.