St Keyne: farm labouring, shoemaking and gender relations

St Keyne is a small, easily overlooked parish in the south east Cornish countryside. In the 1800s its economy was almost entirely dominated by its farms. Farmers, their sons and farm labourers made up fully 92 per cent of the working male population in 1861.

St Keyne Well, made famous by Robert Southey’s poem of 1798 – ‘If the Husband of this gifted Well, Shall drink before his Wife, A happy man thenceforth is he, For he shall be Master for life. But if the Wife should drink of it first,—  God help the Husband then!’ … “You drank of the Well I warrant betimes?” He to the Cornish-man said: But the Cornish-man smiled as the Stranger spake, And sheepishly shook his head. “I hasten’d as soon as the wedding was done, And left my Wife in the porch; But i’ faith she had been wiser than me, For she took a bottle to Church.”

From the bare historical record Emma Jane Hender of St Keyne looks to have had an uneventful life. Her father, David, was a farm labourer all his life: Emma however reinforced the conclusion reached by the Commission on Employment in Agriculture of 1868. This stated that in Cornwall ‘the women are not so much employed as formerly, it is often difficult to get them when wanted’. In the 1871 census Emma was clearly not wanted in the fields as she was returned as ‘unemployed’.

When they were employed on the land it was usually for stone-picking for a few weeks in late spring and also for the apple harvest. One woman in Cornwall who had worked on and off in the fields since she was 12 reported in 1868 that in addition to stone-picking, she had been employed to weed cornfields and pick potatoes and turnips. She added that she would never send her own child out to field work. If they were employed women could earn eight pence a day in the 1860s (the weekly wage for a male farm labourer in east Cornwall was stated to be 12 shillings.) Boys of nine could earn the grand sum of two or three pence a day or a shilling a week and some meals if hired by the week.

Avoiding field work, Emma took on the responsibility of caring for her father when her mother died in 1878. By 1891 Emma and her father were living in a two-roomed cottage and still in St Keyne. When David Hender’s life ended in 1893 Emma stayed on, recorded as a char in 1901, two years before her death at the age of 50.

Not everyone in St Keyne was from a farming or labouring family. Anna Maria Harris was the daughter of a shoemaker in the parish. Anna appears to have been an independent young woman, in 1871 running a grocery shop and a day school in the village while living on her own. Soon after, she married Gideon May and moved to his home parish of nearby Duloe. Gideon was a shoemaker but his description as ‘shoemaker and grocer’ in 1891 strongly suggests that Anna had continued to run a grocery store while Gideon concentrated on making shoes, the absence of children making this even more likely.

One thought on “St Keyne: farm labouring, shoemaking and gender relations

  1. Wonderful account – I love such insights into women’s and men’s lives. Quite a pay gap between women and men and adults and children. Women’s work would have been very laborious and repetitive, as it still is in many agrarian economies around the world.

    Some European images of women’s work around that time. Spring in the Alps 1897 by Giovanni Segantini (Italian) The Gleaners 1857 by Millet (French) Two Women Working in the Field 1890 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch)


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