St Keverne: from rebellion to respectability

In the late 1400s and early 1500s the parish of St Keverne on the Lizard peninsula was at the heart of Cornwall’s several ‘commotions’. Men and women from the parish enthusiastically rose in revolt against the taxation of Henry VII in 1497 – not once but twice. They were closely involved in the explosion of anger over religious change that led to the murder of archdeacon William Body in 1548 at Helston. A few executions following that episode weren’t sufficient to quell their spirit or prevent their participation in the more general rising of 1549.

Setting out for London in 1997 in a re-enactment of the 1497 rising

By the middle decades of the 1800s things had quietened down considerably. By this time most people in this large rural parish concentrated on farming and not on politics. Three out of every ten men were farmers or farmers’ sons while another four out of ten were farm labourers. Nonetheless, St Keverne folk were still ambitious for change, albeit individual betterment rather than through collective action.

The rocks known as the Manacles off St Keverne could be unforgiving. In 1898 the SS Mohegan on its way from London to New York ran aground here with the loss of 106 lives. A mass grave was dug in St Keverne churchyard

John Williams, son of a farmer at Chyreen in the parish left the farming to his elder brothers. Instead, he moved to Lewisham, a suburb of London and became a clerk while boarding with his sister and brother in law. After marrying Mary Olivey from Mylor, John had advanced to become a ‘bank inspector’ as they moved closer to the centre of the city, first to Streatham and then Islington. The single servant employed by the childless couple in 1881 had become two by 1891 and by 1901 they had moved out to the new suburb of Ealing.

Victorian bank clerks were deemed to be ‘the aristocracy of the clerical profession’. Before professional banking examinations, the banks recruited through word of mouth and personal recommendations of ‘good character’. The two most important attributes necessary for a mid-century bank employee was their intangible ‘moral decorum’ and their more objective penmanship. (At least one clerk was dismissed by Lloyds Bank for poor handwriting in the 1840s.) But paternalistic employers and demanding expectations of behaviour were compensated for by higher wages than other clerks, shorter hours, more attractive working conditions and opportunities for career advancement. This is something that John Williams seems to have taken full advantage of in the final years of Victoria’s reign. Or did he? For by 1911 William and Mary were staying at a large hotel at Lancester Gate in Paddington when he was recorded not as a banker any more but as a buyer in the woollen trade.

Porthallow, where Susan Brooks spent part of her childhood, in 1920

While John Williams found his niche in banking, Susan Brooks went from a farm labouring family to running the farm. Her father John was a farm labourer at Porthallow on the coast at mid-century. Susan found work as a general servant at the nearby farm of Treglossick, run by Sampson Nicholls and his son John. Susan evidently made an impression on John and, luckier than many other servants who could find themselves with an unplanned child and the loss of their place, married the son of her employer in 1874. When Sampson, already 75 years old in 1881, died John and Susan took over the farm. In the 1890s John passed on in turn, but Susan carried on running the farm with the help of her children.

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