Bal Maidens at work (c1842)
Cornish Centenarian Who Came from St. Agnes (West Briton newspaper, 31st October 1935)
“I can’t tell how it is I’ve lived to be 100,” says Mrs. Susan Robins to a West Briton representative, when he called on her at her moorland home at Minions, near Callington. A delightful little lady, nimble, active, upright, she celebrated her centenary on Monday. “All I say is I’ve taken care of myself. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve gone to bed early, and risen early. I’ve kept pretty much indoors out of danger. That’s the best recipe I can give for old age. No doctor has ever visited me for illness. I’ve never had a bottle of medicine in my life. I don’t believe in medicine. The local doctor called the other day. He was tired, he said. You wouldn’t be tired if all your patients were like me, I told him”.
“And would you care to begin again?” she was asked. She smiled.
“No, I don’t think I should,” she decided at length, “at least, not under the same conditions. You see, I am one of eleven children. My father was a miner. He only earned 15s a week, and yet he reared a family. He taught us to read and write. I can picture him now, writing with a smutty stick. I went to work when I was six. About twenty of us, boys and girls, ‘dressed’ tin at works near St. Agnes beacon. I left home every morning at six, walked three miles to work, and trudged home again, at six in the evening. Long hours were they with never a thought of a holiday. Our wages were tuppence ha’penny a day, and if we happened to be a few minutes late or dawdled at work, we were ‘docked’ a quarter! Times were hard in those days. Often there was little food to eat, but we were happy and contented. No, we never needed a doctor. We couldn’t afford to! My mother had all sorts of pet recipes and knew what herbs to prescribe for a cold or other ailment. Those were the days of crinoline and the poke bonnet. They were my wedding garments when I was married at Stoke Damarel Church, Plymouth, seventy-five years agone.”
“Are you tired of life?”
“Not likely,” replied this hale and hearty centenarian, whose intellect is unimpaired. “I don’t want to leave yet. I want to go on working to the end, and when the end comes, I hope it won’t be more than a day’s illness.”
She told our representative of how she rises at 7 30. as regularly as the farmer milks his cows. She dresses herself, tidies her room, washes the dishes, helps to prepare the meals, and only wishes she could stand at the wash-tub or scrub the floors as she did not so very long ago. Then, up to bed at nine sharp! Her eyes have become dim, and her hearing is slightly affected otherwise she is healthy, walks as upright as a soldier, eats, drinks and sleeps well, repeats hymns and poems she learnt in her girlhood, and bears little sign of great age.
Unlike most natives of Cornwall, she has no use for superstition, and scorns the power of the ill-wisher and the charmer. She admires the home-loving woman, the woman who sews and knits and does her own housework and puts her children early to bed. “There is too much ‘gadding about’ today,” she said, “too much dancing and card-playing, too much pleasure. I’ve never been to the ‘pictures’, and I’ve only rode in a motor car once, and yet I’ve always been happy and found plenty to do in the home.”
There was great rejoicing in that humble dwelling on the bleak, cold, wild, Cornish moors, on Monday, when Mrs. Robins gathered her five grown-up children, relatives, and friends around her to celebrate her birthday. Her only son, Mr. James Robins, came from Lisbon for the great event. There was a ‘whopper’ cake with 100 candles. What a time Mrs. Robins had lighting them all, and how delighted she was to be able to cut the cake herself.
Born in St Agnes district, Mrs. Robins is loyal to the county of her birth. She began life on a farm in a mining locality, and she is ending her days in like scenes. Other places, maybe, have their attractions,” she says, “but give me Cornwall every time.”
A Long Memory; Cornish Centenarian Recalls her Childhood (West Briton, 29th October 1936, p. 6 )
“The years fly by now – different from the dreary days of the Hungry Forties, when I was a girl.” This is what I was told by Mrs. Susan Robins, of Minions, Cornwall, who was 101 years old on Wednesday. Born at St Agnes when King William the Fourth was the reigning monarch, this remarkable old lady has lived through what is probably the most momentous period of English history. One of the eleven children of a Cornish tin miner, whose wages of 15s weekly were insufficient to buy more than bare bread for his large family, Mrs. Robins was sent to work as a ‘bal maiden’ in a mine when she was six years old, washing and dressing tin at 2½d per day. Out of this fines were deducted for lateness and idleness at work.
“I had to walk three miles to the mine,” she told me, ‘and it meant starting at six in the morning in all weathers. Before setting out, however, we were not allowed to waste our time so as a whole family we would sit around the kitchen table at four in the morning, knitting the striped stockings which nearly everyone then used to wear. We worked by the light of a tallow candle, and were paid a penny for every ounce of wool we knitted. I had time to go to school for a short time, but I never wrote a line, and my father taught me to write with a bit of burnt stick. We had very little to eat in those days not like the children of today who are never hungry and never have to worry about the next meal. Bread and swedes we lived on chiefly, and sometimes we had pilchards when the farmers went to St Agnes to fetch fish to manure their land. They let us go behind their cart and pick up any fish that were shaken off into the road. Today, I can’t touch brown bread – we had so much of it, made with coarse bran that now it makes me sick.”
Mrs. Robins has never had a days illness in her life, except childish complaints which her mother cured with herbs and country remedies. Seventy-six years ago she was married at Stoke Damerel Church to a Devonport dockyard worker, and has vivid recollections of the poke bonnet and crinoline she wore for the occasion. Of her eight children, five are alive. She lives with two of her daughters and her son-in-law, who are all extremely proud of the old lady and careful not to allow her to do too much. This is rather a problem, for Mrs. Robins is as active as many a woman of seventy. She rises in the morning as soon as her son-in-law has brought her a cup of tea. This may be at six o’clock, or even earlier, but ten minutes afterwards Mrs. Robins is dressing. She has never been known to be later than seven. Although her window faces the bleakest part of the Cornish moors, where in winter the wind is bitter, she never washes her face in anything other than cold water, and has never had a hot water bottle. If, by the time she is dressed, her daughters are not up, she calls them. Then she busies herself with household duties. When I saw her she had just finished peeling two gallons of apples, and was looking round for the next job. Before she goes to bed at nine o’clock, she walks around the house and makes sure all the windows and doors are fastened securely.
“Go to bed early, and get up early. Don’t worry, and you’ll live to be a hundred,” she told me. “people rush about too much these days. Changes are upsetting too. I have never had a holiday in my life, for there is nothing to me like my own bed.”
Centenarian, Susan Wills, was born in St. Agnes, Cornwall on 28th October 1835 to Benjamin and Ann Wills. Susan was one of eleven children and at the tender age of six, she joined her two older sisters, Esther and Lydia, as a bal maiden washing and dressing tin ore in the local tin mine for tuppence ha'penny a day. In 1860, she met and married James Robins (the author's G-G-G Uncle) in Stoke Damerel and they raised nine children together. After James died in 1902, Susan was living with two of her children, William and Mabel, in Plymouth during the 1911 census. Later, she moved to Minions, Liskeard on Bodmin Moor, presumably to be close to other Robins relatives living there.
Susan's nephew, Charles Richard Robins, came to live in Minions in 1921 to escape the troubles in Ireland where he had been commander of a coastguard station. Susan's great-great-niece, May, also lived in Minions for a year as a young child during the late 1920's. When interviewed in 2011, May recalled the "old Robins lady in Minions who lived to be over 100 years old" as this was quite a notable event. May also mentioned that "Susan Robins lived with two of her daughters, one thin and one well-built, and one was called Emily".
It was in Minions that Susan was interviewed by the "West Briton" newspaper on the occasions of her 100th and 101st birthdays. The transcripts of her two interviews are shown below. Susan died in Minions on 3rd April 1937 in her 102nd year, and is buried in the nearby St Paul's churchyard at Upton Cross.
Photo of Susan Robins is from the West Briton newspaper and is
courtesy of Neil Williams at Cornish Studies Library
Susan's headstone is located in the south-west corner of the nearby St Paul's churchyard at Upton Cross, Linkinhorne parish, Cornwall. No other 'Robins' headstones are apparent in the graveyard which is still in use.
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