Eliza Elizabeth Jane Bennett grew up in the back streets of Penryn. She got married at 18 in the town’s Wesleyan Methodist chapel to Richard Datson, a journeyman stonemason. A child was soon born but died within days.
Richard had emigrated to Richmond, Virginia before 1871, to be shortly followed by Eliza, who bore him another child there in 1872. Eliza then returned to Cornwall. In 1876 she gave birth to an illegitimate child at Mylor, where she was later working in 1881 as a cook in the household of a Royal Navy lieutenant. Richard had apparently stayed in the States.
However, in 1893 Richard Datson managed to obtain one of the 500 divorces a year granted by the civil divorce court that had been established in London in 1857. Although divorce had become a little easier, the legal and travel costs involved meant it was still expensive. Nonetheless, Richard had made enough money to initiate divorce proceedings. It was claimed during the divorce case that Eliza ‘had committed adultery on divers occasions’. The named co-respondent was a William Medlin, who was claimed to be the father of two of her children, born in 1886 and 1892.
Things had not gone well for Eliza after returning to Cornwall. In 1880 she was committed to the assizes and given 21 days hard labour for larceny. In the 1890s she was living at Falmouth workhouse although whether she was a cook or a pauper inmate is ambiguous. Things improved in the new century when she married again in 1902, although her husband died in 1910, after which she survived on her earnings as a caretaker in Falmouth.
Another Penryn resident who spent time in Bodmin Jail was Henry Rundle who was found guilty in 1871 of deserting his family. Henry – described as having a scar on his nose, a brown moustache and tattoos of an anchor and his initials – spent several months picking oakum as a result. The son of a journeyman miller, he had gone to sea in the late 1860s. It’s not known what his wife, who he had married in 1870, felt on hearing the news that he had drowned in 1874.