St Minver: Second homes and servants

Walking through the coastal communities of St Minver on the Camel estuary in the dead of night in winter can be unnerving. The place is eerily quiet, not a light to be seen in the empty houses staring out to sea. The parish now exists in a curious limbo – in Cornwall but eerily not of Cornwall. Its beaches at Polzeath and Daymer Bay were long popular with the folk of east Cornwall. But they had little inkling of the tsunami about to arrive. The parish attained the status of Cornwall’s second home capital in the late twentieth century with up to 70 per cent of the houses in its coastal parts unoccupied for large parts of the year. Moreover, these are not any old second homes. For St Minver, safely distant from down-market Newquay, has become the bolthole of choice for a rash of brash £million celebrity houses.

St Minver churchtown around 1901, the coach picking up or depositing its passengers. Early visitors?

In the mid-nineteenth century the natives were easier to spot. The majority of them wrested their living from the soil, although the parish was otherwise economically diverse. Its children appear to have been attached to their roots, with six of the nine database survivors in 1891 still in Cornwall and another two in Devon.

Hubert Dawson was living with his mother in St Minver churchtown in 1851. His father John was absent at the time. John was a butler, the highest grade of domestic servant. A butler in a house with a large complement of staff was responsible for supervising the male servants, storing the wine and serving it at meals and having charge of the silverware.

By 1881 Hubert had joined his father as a domestic servant. John, now 65, was the butler in the house of a banker at Cirencester in Gloucestershire, who employed 13 other servants. Among these Hubert acted as valet, slotting into the servants’ hierarchy just below his father and responsible for maintaining the clothing and providing personal attendance on the household head. Their wages would have been between £25 and £50 a year with food and accommodation provided. However, by 1891 both John and Hubert had given up domestic service and were living in Exeter. John had retired and Hubert was recorded as a timekeeper, although what he was timing is unknown. Hubert died in 1894, just six weeks after his father.

Living very near the Dawsons in the 1850s was a family of farm labourers. Eliza Sleeman, like Hubert Dawson, went into domestic service in the 1860s. But her experience would have been very different as the sole housemaid (probably earning £9-14 a year) at a small farmhouse in the parish. She soon left to marry James Cleave Dyer, a local stonemason. The pair settled at Trevanger near the churchtown and raised their family. But by the 1900s Cleave, as he was known, had left, being recorded in 1911 as ‘in Africa’. No doubt this meant South Africa, a place where many Cornishmen went in the 1890s. By then, the children had left home and Eliza was working as a laundress earning a little to supplement any remittances she may (or may not) have been receiving.

Not so quiet in 2016 as civilisation (?) advances

2 thoughts on “St Minver: Second homes and servants

  1. It is really amazing as ever to see the photographs from now and then. I see on the St. Minver one that the house to the left appears to be a temperance building (?) and the coach is marked ER, which must mean Edward Regina surely. Polzeath is still somehow recognizable though of course much changed. I wonder what people living then would have made of the “then and now” photographs. The only message to me is to be really conservative with development. Once gone it is gone forever.


    1. Yes, the building was a temperance hotel and I did wonder about the coach. The ER makes it look like something official, although mail coaches had been phased out in the 1850s. Unless it was coincidentally the initials of the proprietor. If anyone has suggestions …


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