The Genealogical Background
One of the more interesting, and relatively unexplored, facets of the Rame Peninsula is its genealogy. From a cursory glance at a map one might imagine that the origins of the inhabitants would be straightforward and similar to that of most Cornish coastal communities and drawn either from farming or fishing. But this is not the case.
The peninsula’s geographical location at the south-eastern tip of Cornwall makes the picture much more complicated. Two factors in particular made significant contributions to the genealogical mix. The establishment of the dockyard in 1690 is the major of these but the role played by Millbrook in drawing people into the peninsula should not be underestimated.
During the medieval era, Millbrook situated at the top of its tidal creek and protected from the pirates who infested the seas at this time, developed as the main centre of a population which was founded upon the fishing industry. With it came all the associated trades; ropemakers, boatbuilders, blacksmiths etc.. These soon diversified to service the agriculturalists; wheelwrights, slaughter-houses and tanneries, all linked to Plymouth and the outside world by the water.
In Tudor times Millbrook was eclipsed by Cawsand as a fishing centre but its fortunes were revived by the building of dockyard and the resulting influx of workers. -in the early days of the dockyard Union Street was a marsh and Stonehouse creek extended up to Pennycomequick so it was easier to travel to Millbrook than it was to Sutton Harbour where most Plymouthians lived- By 1796 the population of Plymouth Dock, as it was known, had grown to 20,000 and it was granted the name Devonport in 1824. This expansion and the requirements of the Fleet had other far-reaching effects on the peninsula’s population.
In the mid18th century Southdown was unpopulated but conveniently situated in relation to Dock and considered to be a suitable place for building a gun-powder mill and the ‘The King’s Brewhouse’ where all the navy’s beer was brewed. In 1835 the navy moved out to the newly-built Royal William Victualling Yard at Stonehouse and the premises were taken over by a series of industrial enterprises which included the smelting of metals and manufacturing of soap, chemicals, fertiliser, glue, candles and, finally, bricks, many of these requiring skilled workers brought in from outside.
All of this had a massive effect upon the region’s genealogy. Directly in the case of sailors and dockyard workers and indirectly with the construction of defensive fortifications in the peninsula and the soldiers needed to man them.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries the proximity of Plymouth and high import tariffs resulted in a boom in smuggling. By the 1820s the activities of these ‘Free-traders’ were costing the government so much money in lost revenue that the Coastguard was established to stamp it out. Three coastguard stations were built, at Cawsand, Polhawn and Portwrinkle. To prevent corruption the men, most of whom were naval pensioners, were rotated with other coastguard stations as far apart as Waterford in Ireland to Sheerness in Kent. The men’s families moved with them and this contributed to more movement in and out of the peninsula.
A study of the Rame Family Tree reveals that the population of the Rame Peninsula is not at all ‘inbred’ as one might imagine, but that our ancestors came from far and wide. And the pattern continues to this day, but there is a difference. Formerly the cause of immigration into the area was employment but nowadays it tends to be retirement.
The Village Family Tree project was formed in 2007 and was the brainchild of Andrew Copp. Soon afterwards Tony Carne and Ray Hancock came on board and they were later joined by Dave Peach, whose role as researcher is central to the whole project. The recruitment of John Shepherd to the team linked it to the Rame Heritage website where photographs of the peninsula and its people provide a further dimension.
The project is housed in, and is part of, the Maker with Rame Institute where a drop-in centre is manned every Wednesday morning from 09:00 to 12:00 for visitors seeking information about their ancestors. The Family Tree currently has details of over 4,000 people in more than1,000 family groups. We also hold an archive of photographs of both people and places.
We make periodic use of this archive by putting on slide shows featuring life and scenes in the Rame Peninsula, past and present. Articles are also published in our parish magazine, the ‘Maker with Rame Courier’.