St John: from hand sewing to machine sewing

One of Cornwall’s smaller parishes, St John is found nestled on the coast in south east Cornwall. While around half of the households in the parish in 1861 were headed by farmers or farm labourers the local economy was relatively dispersed. As in the neighbouring parish of Sheviock, there were some navvies probably working on the nearby main railway line, plus a handful of navy men and other mariners. There were more than the usual number of domestic servants in this part of Cornwall where the gentry were thicker on the ground than elsewhere. In addition there were the expected craftsmen – blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers and the like.

View of St John village, Elizabeth Stephens’ home in 1861

As a result the parish did not experience the same level of depopulation as did much of rural Cornwall in the later 1800s. Nevertheless, neither of the two St John 11-year olds of 1861 in our database were still resident in  the parish by the time they had reached middle age. One of them – Hannah Keast – hadn’t even been born in the parish but at St Stephens by Saltash. She was staying with her uncle, an ex-navy man, and his wife at the lime kilns at St John in 1861 but by 1871 was living with her mother at Kingsbridge in south Devon. There, she made a living as a dressmaker and mantle maker, presumably referring to mantuas, the loose full-length gowns worn over a petticoat, rather than the mantles fitted to the gas lights in people’s houses.

The other St John resident was Elizabeth Stephens, who married someone with a very varied occupational history. Elizabeth herself was from a farm labourer’s family originally from South Petherwin near Launceston. In the 1860s, she left Cornwall for London, where she worked as an under-housemaid with five other servants in a house in up-market Wimpole Street. Ten years later she was back in Cornwall at the Carews’ Antony House, by which time she had progressed to become an upper housemaid.

A house in Wimpole Street, the street where Arthur Conan Doyle began to write the Sherlock Holmes stories

In 1883 she married Samuel Clements, an innkeeper at the Kings Arms in Torpoint. Samuel was also trading as a coal merchant, but his business activities appear to have foundered, as in 1901 he was described merely as a carpenter. In the next decade he and Elizabeth moved across the river to Devonport, where he became a ‘canvasser’ for Singer sewing machines,

Sewing machines had been invented in America and introduced into British households in the 1860s. Competition between British, German and American sewing machine manufacturers was fierce from the 1870s. Eventually, the American company Singer won out, with a large factory near Glasgow churning out the machines and an army of door-to-door salesmen and demonstrators such as Samuel Clements.

3 thoughts on “St John: from hand sewing to machine sewing

  1. Surely a mantle = coat or cloak. This is a relatively common meaning and not to do with mantua (which was common in earlier years). We also say, the ground was mantled in snow / cloaked in snow.

    I am also surprised you think a carpenter is a lowly job. I believe it is a skilled artisanal trade. Making furniture etc is a real and wonderful skill and not comparable to the skills required for selling coal. I can imagine that this person delighted in training to be carpenter and fitting out their house /selling their wares.


  2. Read it again. I didn’t write ‘a mere carpenter’ but ‘merely as a carpenter’. Apologies for any unintended ambiguity but I meant that he was described only as a carpenter rather than with multiple occupations such as the ‘innkeeper AND coal merchant’ of the previous census


    1. Without the above trades, the Cornish would never have made a go of it in the colonies. In today’s world, practical skills are highly valued.


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