St Germans: London links by servants and main lines

The parish of St Germans was dominated by Port Eliot, the stately home the Eliots had built on the remains of buildings attached to the medieval priory they had bought when it was closed in the 1500s. The impressive church next door had served as Cornwall’s first cathedral in the tenth and eleventh centuries and before then had been a monastery and a centre of learning.

The Norman door of the former priory church

The presence of the Eliots introduced new people to the parish. As well as visiting landowning families there were employees from further afield. One such was Walter Prior, originally from Hertfordshire in south-east England but living in St Germans in 1876 when he married local girl Frances Hawke. Frances was the daughter of a master carpenter with a business in the village of St Germans.

The two then turned up in 1881 at Grosvenor Gardens in the west end of London, where Walter was a coachman, in charge of the covered coach that would convey his employers to and from their cultural and commercial engagements. Those employers were very likely to have been the Eliots, staying at their London residence at the time of the 1881 and 1891 censuses. Yet all bar one of Walter and Frances’ six children listed in the census had been born in St Germans. The exception was London born. This pattern indicates regular trips to and from the big city. By 1901 Frances again back in St Germans, the absent Walter being described as a head coachman.

William Penwarne’s police pension certificate

Not all their offspring were destined to serve the aristocracy. One at least became a railway clerk. Yet the difference may be overstated. Railway companies insisted all their employees were called servants into the 1940s and acted as stern but paternalistic employers much like the landlords of the time. The Cornwall Railway line to Plymouth (taken over by the GWR in 1876) ran through the parish. It complemented the Eliots’ links with London by making getting there much quicker and easier. It also offered employment to other St Germans residents. One was William Penwarne, who spent time as a railway labourer around 1891 at which time he was living in Plymouth.

Like Frances Hawke, William had also lived for a time in London. He had left St Germans where, like his father, he was a farm labourer, to head for the big cities of England. At first in Birmingham, where he married Elizabeth Jones, he had then moved to Islington in London by 1875 and joined the Metropolitan Police, for whom he worked until 1890. After that, the family moved to Plymouth, where William found labouring jobs on the railway and in naval stores, supplemented by his police pension of £26 a year (worth around £3,500 these days).

The other side of life at St Germans. Cave dwellers on the beach at Downderry in 1903. ‘These were mostly Irish people who came from Plymouth and lived in the caves on the beach from March to September harvesting shellfish. They wore rags on their feet instead of shoes and walked to the railway station at St Germans to send their harvest to Plymouth.’