St Michael Penkevil: Closing the door on the closed parish

Like the Williamses at Caerhayes, the dominant family at St Michael Penkevil had amassed a fortune from Cornish mining in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The difference was that the Boscawens, raised to the peerage in 1720 as Viscounts and then Lords Falmouth, were an established family and already one of Cornwall’s elite. They managed to combine canny financial investment with maintaining the outward appearance of a traditional landed dynasty. Holders of the title pursued political and military careers, safely distant from the sordid business of money-making, which was kept well out of the public eye.

The Boscawens had bought the estate at St Michael Penkevil as long ago as 1334, adding a new house to the existing medieval building at Tregothnan in the 1600s and in turn largely rebuilding that in the 1810s before enlarging it again in the 1840s.

The cottages huddling near the parish church were on a distinctly more humble scale. By mid-Victorian standards however, they were well above par, most having been replaced in the mid-century by the estate. Elizabeth Langdon may have lived in one of these newly planned cottages in her childhood years in the 1850s. In 1851 she was staying with her grandparents, a shepherd and his wife, while in 1861 she was back with her parents – her father was a gardener – but still resident in the churchtown.

Elizabeth left the parish soon after, possibly identified with the Elizabeth Langdon from Cornwall who was working as a servant in Hove, Sussex in 1871. Ten years after that she was definitely in service in the rather grand house of George Chetwynd, third baronet, of Grendon Hall in Warwickshire. There she worked with a large establishment of 13 other servants plus a governess and even an organist. How did Elizabeth end up working for the Chetwynds? Were the Chetwynds acquainted with the Falmouths (perhaps via political connections)? Or had the latter vouched for Elizabeth, daughter of one of their gardeners? Elizabeth eventually married in 1888 and stayed in the English Midlands.

Grendon Hall was demolished in 1933 (image copyright Warwickshire County Council)

Unusually for a rural farming parish, none of the other three St Michael Penkevil children have been traced past 1881. But all three had by then left the parish for freer air elsewhere. Samuel Bassett had become a shipwright in Portsmouth. The other two girls had gone by 1871, Fanny Nile to St Agnes and Catherine Anderson much further, returning with her Scottish father and his family to Edinburgh. He had been temporarily working in St Michael Penkevil as a surveyor in the late 1850s.