St Kew: a meandering monk

In the late sixth century the wandering monk Samson, arriving from Wales, visited a monastery at Landocco, thought to be sited in St Kew parish to the north of the Camel estuary. The abbot at Landocco was none too pleased to receive his eminent but unexpected visitor. He told Samson he was ‘better than us, you might condemn us’ and advised him to push off for Brittany instead, which Samson did, converting some pagans and slaying some serpents on the way.

The Life of Samson is evidence for an early Christian presence in the parish (although not for the existence of serpents). By the 1800s peripatetic saints had been replaced by Wesleyan and Bible Christian local preachers, perambulating the roads and lanes of the parish to serve its largely agricultural population. Nonetheless, Samson’s life of service was echoed in many of the lives of the parishioners although not necessarily in a religious sense.

St Kew around 1900. The St Kew Inn is on the left

Mary Snell was the daughter of a farm labourer and before she was 11 years old had been packed off to be a live-in servant at a nearby farm. Before marrying in 1872 she had worked as a domestic servant for a solicitor’s clerk near Wadebridge. Even after marrying, when she continued to reside at St Kew, Mary was rather unusually described as a char, working as a cleaner or doing similar jobs and hired by the day or for short periods of time. This added to the wages of her labouring husband, although with four children still at home conditions could not have been easy.

Domestic servants like Mary rarely enjoyed the lives of servants portrayed in Downton Abbey. In a time before household appliances and electricity domestic work involved heavy manual labour. Moreover, a general servant was expected to be up first in the morning, to make the fires and heat water and then be on call in the evening. Sixteen or 17 hour days were not unknown.

The same view as above in 2022

Before becoming market gardeners in the 1840s Samuel Derrent and his wife Amelia had run the St Kew Inn just about visible in the above photos. Their son Samuel Derrent from St Kew ended up providing services of a different kind. We have seen how men from farming communities were a principal source of recruits for the new urban police forces of the nineteenth-century. Indeed, it was stated in 1868 that ‘the best young men, i.e. those best educated, go away to the police, railways etc.’. Samuel also took this route but, more unusually, in Portage Indiana, where he joined the city police after emigrating in 1888 with his wife and family.