St Hilary: managing without men

Much has been written about women in Victorian Cornwall who survived without the presence of men. Emigration and early death of a spouse employed in dangerous occupations such as mining or fishing meant that the likelihood of a woman spending part of her life without a father or husband around was hardly rare. During these times strategies of survival would have involved balancing kin support with charitable help and resort to the poor law when remittances from overseas were delayed or when the limited earning opportunities for women were unavailable.

Sometimes women spent long periods managing without men, whether by choice or through unavoidable circumstances. St Hilary in west Cornwall was a predominantly mining parish at mid-century, with two out of every three households headed by miners. The contraction of mining and onset of economic depression hit this rural parish hard and the number of residents fell sharply after the 1860s.

One resident was Jane Freethy, born in next-door Perranuthnoe in 1850. Her parents were both dead by 1852 and her early years were spent with an aunt and uncle. In 1871 she was staying with her grandmother, the widow of a miner. By this time she was herself working as a bal maiden at a stamps dressing tin. She also had a 16 month old child Caroline, who had been born in the workhouse at Madron.

The year 1881 saw Jane living in Penzance and getting by doing odd jobs as a charwoman. Two years later her daughter Caroline was placed in service a few thousand miles away in Ontario. A report of that year stated that Jane was living in two rooms ’with three children’ (by this time she had had two boys) and living ‘in the greatest poverty’. The circumstances of Caroline’s removal and placement are not entirely clear but it’s likely the poor law overseers had a hand in her emigration, a convenient way of ensuring she didn’t later apply for poor relief and become a burden on the ratepayers. The New Poor Law of 1834 had made things worse for single mothers by denying them poor relief outside the workhouse and deeming them solely responsible for illegitimate children. At the same time it made it easier for men to escape contributing to the support of their offspring.

Nevertheless, Jane survived, helped by the labouring of her sons and occasional rent from lodgers. In 1911 she was still alive and living with her daughter-in-law in Penzance. However, after a hard life, she expired a year later at the age of 52.

Bal maidens at Dolcoath, Camborne at the end of the 1800s. What stories were masked by their remarkably smart clothing?

3 thoughts on “St Hilary: managing without men

  1. This is a very interesting post, especially about social welfare. I know that in 1800s NZ, Cornish widowers such as William Morshead would remarry and then the new wife would have the previous wife’s children plus her own to look after. The English life was very hard. Jane somehow avoided the usual marriage cycle.


    1. And it is quite likely that the new wife would not have paid as much attention to the former wife’s children. Not saying this always happened, some would have been very loving I am sure, but certainly not always. And if could have been really hard for the new wife to manage a whole bundle of kids, too.


  2. It is sad to think of Caroline leaving Cornwall to become a servant at the age of 12 or 13 in a very distant land. And possibly to an existence without much love and little opportunity for escape due to a low or non-existent education.

    Where to start on the thinking behind the Poor Law that made women, not men, responsible for illegitimate children?!


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