The quickest though not the easiest guarantee of a life of ease and comfort, free from financial worries, is still to be born rich. Nonetheless, education offers a theoretical route to social mobility. This wasn’t an option for the great majority of children in the Victorian Lives database. For them rudimentary learning went little further than instilling the ability to read and write and follow orders without questioning them. Admittedly, some made heroic efforts at self-education, becoming impressive autodidacts in the process, However, they were almost always men. For women, the best and often only path to social advancement remained marriage.
St Issey was a rural farming parish in mid-Cornwall to the west of Wadebridge and provides a couple of examples where women, by dint of marriages in which they combined their skills and drive with those of their spouse, were able to escape a preordained life as the wife of a farm labourer.
Mary Udy followed the normal path for children of farm labourers, entering domestic service with a local farmer in her teens. Yet 1873 found her far away in Herefordshire on the Welsh borders, perhaps having obtained a post at a farm there in the interim. Marriage to blacksmith Thomas Palfrey and taking in lodgers allowed the pair to amass sufficient capital to open a grocer’s shop in Thomas’s home village of Dilwyn.
Another St Issey maid who ended up as a shopkeeper was Eliza Callicoat. Eliza’s first marriage in 1867 was short-lived as her husband was dead within four years. Eliza was then back in the family home and contributing her earnings as a dressmaker to the household income. But in 1872 she married again. William Nankivell was only a general labourer at the time but was clearly keen to try other work. The couple lived at Wadebridge, where William turned his hand to baking and by 1911 they were running a bakery and a grocer’s shop in the town with the help of their daughter and son-in- law.
Other children of farm labourers in the parish were less successful. Paul Rosevear’s father had died when he was an infant. His mother married again, to another farm labourer. In July 1864 the 14 year old Paul was in front of the assize court and found guilty of entering a house and stealing seven sovereigns, a knife and other goods. As a result he spent a few years at Hardwick Reformatory at Gloucester. Reformatory schools had been given legislative backing in 1854 and took juveniles as an alternative to prison. For whatever reason, juvenile crime was widely recognised to be falling rapidly after 1860.
As for Paul Rosevear, he was apprenticed to the merchant navy at Gloucester Docks in 1868 and bound for four years but then disappears from the historical record.