St Martin in Meneage: the state of agriculture in the ‘Great Depression’

As we saw in the previous blog, farmers in south-east Cornwall were getting along relatively well in the face of the so-called ‘Great Depression’ of British agriculture that began around 1873. Were farmers in the west at St Martin in Meneage equally fortunate?

On the Lizard it was reported in 1882 that more farms were let on an annual lease. Rents were around 50 per cent higher than in south-east Cornwall. Nonetheless, the Royal Commission on Agriculture found that only ‘very few farmers have recently become bankrupt’ even though there had been no general reduction in rent. ‘No farms’ were left vacant although it was stated that ‘a goodly number, slightly more than usual’ were changing hands.

William Davies’ 30 to 50 acre farm at Barrimaylor was not one of those changing hands. On growing up, his son – Hannibal Lyne Davies – helped his father on the farm and then his mother, who took over in the 1870s when William died. She survived into the 1890s with Hannibal not long outliving her, dying in 1897 at the same farm.

The neighbouring holding of Tregevis was being farmed by another Hannibal Lyne, almost certainly Hannibal Lyne Davies’ uncle on his mother’s side. Edwin Peters from St Keverne was being employed by Hannibal as a young farm servant in 1861 and was still there in 1871. If Edwin had started on the farm at 16 his wages would have been £12 a year (about £1,500 now) with board and lodging. This would rise to £16 by the time he was 18. Farm servants were employed driving oxen and plough horses, harrowing and feeding the stock, working throughout daylight hours with an hour off for dinner.

The Lizard was not the last place in Cornwall where oxen were used as draught animals. That honour fell to Bodrugan Farm up the coast near St Austell, where these oxen and their young driver were photographed at work around the end of the 1800s

Farmers may have been surviving, although one witness to the 1868 Commission on agricultural conditions felt that small farmers were worse off than labourers. Not that conditions for the latter were a bed of roses. Once they had graduated from farm servants to being independent farm labourers, their wages in the 1860s on the Lizard were around 12 shillings a week (or just over £70 now) or up to 20 shillings during harvest month with meat and drink. Cottages, usually with two bedrooms, cost £3-4 a year to rent. That implies housing costs were at that time just over ten per cent of the income of a labourer if in full employment, which actually compares quite favourably to a similar calculation for 2022. Currently the average rent in Cornwall consumes over a third of the average net household income.

It looks as if Edwin Peters was not too keen to spend the rest of his life as a farm labourer. In 1872 he took the opportunity to emigrate, marrying Emma Page in Indiana in 1877. The couple moved to New York State where Edwin was farming at Rye in Westchester County in 1880. For some reason the farming venture was abandoned and Edwin and Emma had moved into New York City by 1885, when a child was born to them in Manhattan. By 1910 Edwin was a moulder at an iron factory and living in the Bronx, his days in rural St Martin as a farm servant merely a fond, or perhaps not so fond, memory.

The old quay on the St Martin side of Frenchman’s Creek, which drained into the Helford estuary. Living in the Bronx must have made for a stark contrast with the landscapes which Edwin Peters knew as a child

5 thoughts on “St Martin in Meneage: the state of agriculture in the ‘Great Depression’

  1. In brief, what are the reasons for the great depression in agriculture? I would have thought that the vastly and rapidly expanding cities would have needed enormous deliveries of food. Perhaps you have a link to an article on this?

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      1. That is really interesting, thanks! So there was a certain irony in farmers from Cornwall – as you have detailed over the past few months – going over to the US ito work in agriculture over there in competition with their brethren!

        In 1970 when I was exceedingly young my parents rented a tiny cottage which abutted onto the graveyard at Cardinham from Ella Bate. For many years it lay derelict but has recently been purchased and done up. Ás a child, ample thought of ghosts and so on. In any case, Ella must have been a direct descendent of the Bate you mention in your link (even granddaughter or potentially even daughter if he was young at the time of the survey)

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  2. Tiny correction. Rye is in Westchester County. And it would be interesting to know where in the Bronx he was living. Although “Bronx” is used today to summon images of urban drear, in that time there were still large swathes of remaining farmland and beautiful shoreline, particularly in the southern and western parts of what was known as the “Beautiful Bronx”. Excursion day-trips left lower Manhattan for a day of picnics and swimming in the area between the Bronx and Rye.

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    1. Thanks for the correction, Richard. I think I must have auto-corrected Westchester to Winchester! Useful information that potentially sheds a different light on Edwin Peters’ life. Although the fact he was described in the census as working as a moulder in an iron foundry perhaps suggests an urban context was more likely. Incidentally, his address in 1910 was Washington Avenue, in assembly district 33.

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