What do they know of Cornwall, who only Cornwall know?

"What do they know of Cornwall, who only Cornwall know?" For nearly two centuries Cornwall has experienced close links with both the Australian & American continents (with America often referred to as the next parish), and from a study of available statistics it is clear that over this period hundreds of thousands of Cornishmen and their families left their beloved county. The fact that such a great migration did occur is well documented, but what were the factors that instigated it?

With the foundation of the Australian colonies in the 1830s and the opening up of the American continent, a well orchestrated campaign of recruitment was initiated in the county. Agents were appointed initially by both the colonies and the mining companies to recruit suitable employees from the Cornish mines. Meetings and lectures were held at the principle towns proclaiming the virtues and prospects of the new ventures, and the flow of emigrants started and when combined with the failure of the potato crop in 1840 and the hardship this incurred the flow became a veritable torrent. Meanwhile, other factors were at play, and to see these it is necessary to look at the employment trends in the county at that time.

A rather simplistic view of the development of large scale mining in Cornwall during the early nineteenth century indicates that there was a definite west to east movement. Census returns show us that as each new area developed, a predominately young male workforce moved into lodgings in the locality. Once these mines proved themselves and offered some sense of security, the wives and families followed. Meanwhile, the unattached young men naturally married into the local stock. As each area peaked and subsequently declined the redundant workforce moved to the developing mines to the east leaving their families behind, with the cycle repeating itself many times over. Meanwhile, there were on occasions other factors influencing events. For example, upon studying the 1841 and 1851 census returns for the parishes of Breage and Germoe in the west of the county, a 27% reduction in the population is noted. However, this was not due to the working out of the lode, rather that Wheal Vor, the largest mine in the area with a total workforce of well over 1000, closed due to legal disputes between the years 1847-53. If we then look further afield to the developing mining districts to the east, a substantially higher proportion than normal of the immigrant labour can be seen to have originated from these hard suffering parishes. Unfortunately, with the crash of the price of copper in 1866, little opportunity existed for alternative employment in the county, and many Cornishmen were forced to find work elsewhere. The concept of seeking employment overseas was nothing new to many Cornish families with most having some relatives far from home. Nevertheless, there were opportunities in the other mining areas of Britain, such as the Mendip lead mines (worked since Roman times), the South Wales and Northern coal fields and the tin and copper deposits in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Anglesey.

A major employer during the late 1860s was emerging in the form of the northern collieries, who were experiencing a period of industrial unrest, with their workforce becoming more militant in the strife for better pay and improved working conditions. After numerous disputes the employers became less "tolerant", and in many instances their solution was to sack all those on strike and replace them with unemployed Cornishmen. Due to the nature of remuneration in the Cornish mines, namely the tributing system, where each tributer was in effect self employed, the trade union movement never succeeded in establishing itself in the Cornish mines. On the few occasions when more enlightened individuals attempted to introduce the concept of unionism to the workforce, the various mine owners in that particular vicinity quickly united and crushed it in its infancy, with the ring leaders being barred from employment in any mines in the county. A prime example of the mass movement of Cornish miners to the North of England is that of the Cramlington collieries in Northumberland, where on the 5th December, 1865, 300 men together with their families arrived by train, to be followed on 27th December by 128 men, 111 women and 248 children. It appears that it was only when the striking workforce were evicted from their homes to make way for the Cornish that the exact circumstances of their employment became apparent. An extract from "The West Briton" dated 20th September 1865 sums up the situation well.

"Employment is more difficult to obtain, emigration is going on upon a scale hitherto unprecedented, and many of the small undertakings are being wound up and the large ones becoming unprofitable. Trade is falling of by degrees, and credit is considerably dearer, while the small trader is suffering from heavy bad debts suddenly made through customers emigrating. Respecting the mining interests, there is but little of an encouraging character, and until a reaction sets in, things must go from bad to worse".

It is interesting to note that securing employment was not the only problem facing the Cornish families, for the collapse of the copper price roughly coincided with a dramatic increase in the price of some basic commodities. For example, the monthly salary for a hard working miner in the St Just area in 1865 was about 3-3-0, but by 1867 this had fallen to 2-10-0. During the same period the price for a sack of flour had risen from 1-10-0 to 2- 10-0. The consequence of all these factors can be seen in the predictable increase in the number of paupers receiving indoor relief at the workhouse.

Having made what must have been a traumatic decision to uproot and seek a fortune elsewhere, the actual journey itself was not without its problems. Many ships were totally inadequate for the type of voyage ahead, and this must have been something of a shock to those committed to the journey. Despite the obvious possibility of shipwreck, sickness was a constant companion, and data published for the Port of Quebec (commonly known as "The Blue Papers") gives us some idea of the likelihood of mortality on such a voyage.

Port of embarkation.................................................. Percentage mortality rate during voyage

English Ports - Excluding Liverpool_______________1.0%


Irish - Including Liverpool (en route)_____________10.49%


Cork - Ireland_____________________________18.73%

Padstow (CORNWALL)_____________________0.22%

From these statistics many questions might be asked, but the most obvious is, Why was there such a staggering difference in mortality rates between the ports of Cork and Padstow? One possible answer might be a combination of the seaworthiness of the Cornish fleet, the state of health of the Cornish migrant and the fact that the Cornish, being a maritime culture, were more prepared for the journey ahead. (However, this begs further research at a later date.)

There must be many readers with details and stories of their mining ancestors suitable for submission, and as all printouts detail the data source, there exist the possibility of linking with other lines. If you have a story to tell on behalf of your ancestors please contact me, so that I may add your details to the 14,000 already on database.

Ian Richards, Higher Stanbeer, Henwood, Liskeard, Cornwall, PL14 5BH, UK,