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The

Why
Cornish Diaspora
"Co
usin
Jack
Emigration was one of the major
"?
factors that shaped Cornwall as we
Expl
anati
know
ons
it today. The county was a
migration hot spot in the British Isles
vary
during
as to the 19th Century, the period of
the
the
origi
“Great Migration” from Europe.
Although
ns of relocating was not a new
thing for the Cornish - they could
the
nick
already
nam
be found living in the
eAmerican colonies and Caribbean
plantations - the numbers involved
“Cou
sin
were
Jack
unprecedented.
”.
Emigrants waiting to depart from
In each decade from 1861 to 1901,
Som
Redruth station, Cornwall, c1900.
e say
around 20% of the Cornish male
that
© Cornwall Centre Collection, Redruth
population
Corn migrated abroad – three
times the average for England and Wales. In total, the county lost over a quarter of a million people between
ish
mine
1841
rs and 1901. The emigrants included farmers, merchants and tradesmen, but miners made up most of the
numbers.
beca
me
kno
wn
Economic factors were the driving
as
“Cou
force
sin
behind the Cornish diaspora, as
this migration is known. By the mid-19th Century, the mining industry in Cornwall was in decline. Copper
Jack
deposits were beginning to run out, and in 1866 the price of copper crashed. This depression coincided with the
s”
beca
discovery
use of new mineral reserves overseas, and increased competition began to drive prices down.
they
A wealth of opportunity
were
alwa
ys
Struggling at home, Cornish miners were not slow to grasp the opportunities created by the discovery of gold,
askin
gsilver
for and copper in the New World. Moving offered the chance of better pay and conditions, and the
a job
opportunity
for to rise to a position of responsibility more quickly. Some men like Richard Trevithick returned to
Cornwall having made great reputations for themselves.
their
cousi
n
The
Jack Cornish led the world in mining technology and innovation at this time, and had been exporting machinery
since
back the early-19th Century. Richard Trevithick took high-pressure steam engines to the silver mines of Peru in
1816, heralding the start of a global mining economy. This export of technology paved the way for the “export”
at
hom
of
e. miners, as skilled men were required to install and work this sophisticated machinery.
Othe
rs
think
The Cornish expertise in hard rock
it
was
mining
beca
was highly valued. Agents
were employed by the mining
use
the
companies specifically to recruit
mine
employees from the Cornish mines.
rs
used
Meetings
to and lectures were used to
proclaim the merits of these foreign
addr
ess
ventures
each to the hopeful miners.
other
by
Often it was lone men who would
the
old
make the trip, particularly in the later
greet
19th
ing Century, when improvements in Poster advertising emigration from
of Cornwall - for free!
transport meant that they could work © Richard Williams, Poldark Mine,
“cou
for
sin”,short periods of time abroad before Cornwall
and
returning home to their families. Some
Jack
was
the
most
popu
lar
Chri
stian
nam
e in
Corn
wall.
men left families behind, however, sending back money to support them. Others brought their fiancées or
families out once they were settled, and many married into the local communities.

“Cousin Jacks” travelled extensively


from Cornwall - from the mountains of
Latin America to the Transvaal, and
from California to Canada. Large
communities gathered in some areas:
the “Copper Triangle” on Australia’s
Yorke Peninsula became known as
“Little Cornwall”; and in the 1890s it
was estimated that in Grass Valley,
California, over 60% of the population
was Cornish.

Life was not always easy when the


Cornish miners working in Rowe's
settlers first arrived at their destination. Shaft, Kolar Gold Fields, India, in the
In Australia’s “Copper Triangle”, 1890s.
some Cornishmen were unable to find © Richard Williams, Poldark Mine,
Cornwall
affordable accommodation and had to
burrow into the sides of river banks
and live there. Further movement was sometimes a necessity as well. When the minerals ran out in a particular
place, miners had to move on to find work or struggle to make a living from farming.

Wrestling, pasties and Cornish carols

Wherever these “Jacks” ended up they


had a great impact. Their cutting-edge
skills and technology accelerated the
development of deep mining in the
areas they settled in. Local economies
therefore benefited greatly from the
Cornish presence. A statue erected at
Bendigo, Australia, in honour of the
Cornish miners, bears an inscription
thanking those miners “who created
the economy from which grew a
beautiful city”, and who laid the
foundations for Victoria to become an
The boiler house at Mountain Mine,
industrial State. Berehaven, Ireland
© Diane Hodnett
The Cornish economy also profited
from the miners’ work abroad. Some men sent back “home pay”, which helped to keep their families out of the
workhouse. At the end of the 19th Century, about £1m a year was sent back from the Transvaal in South Africa
alone. Other miners eventually returned home and used the money they had earned to buy land, invest in the
mines, or set up small businesses. This helped to rejuvenate and diversify the local economy. Money was also
invested in local hospitals, schools, and other improvement schemes.
The miners left a visible mark on the
landscape wherever they went. Cornish
engines and engine houses dominated
horizons from Spain to Central
America. Some of these constructions
are still standing today. Cornish-style
cottages can also be found across the
world, and even house and street
names bear witness to this Cornish
invasion.

As well as their mining skills, the


Another Cornish engine house in
Cornish emigrants carried their culture Linares, Spain - you can't get away
and way of life with them when they from them!
© Richard Williams, Poldark Mine,
travelled. They formed tight-knit Cornwall
communities, and did not lose contact
with either the people or the customs of their home land. Wrestling competitions took place in the new
settlements, Cornish Methodist chapels were constructed even in deepest Mexico, pasties and saffron cakes
became well-known to natives of Australia and America alike, and the air resounded with the sound of brass
bands and Cornish carols, wherever the miners went.

Cornish legacies

Many of these Cornish customs still thrive today. In the Grass Valley, California, the tradition of singing
Cornish carols lives on – one local historian of the area says the songs have become “the identity of the town”.
Some of the members of today’s Cornish Carol Choir are in fact descendents of the original Cornish gold
miners.

Emigration from Cornwall may have


declined after the First World War, but
the global connections are still very
strong. Statues and monuments in
many towns pay tribute to the
influence of the Cornish on their
development. In Moonta, Australia, the
Kernewek Lowender (meaning Cornish
happiness) – the largest Cornish
festival in the world – attracts tens of
thousands of visitors each year. In its
first year, so many pasties were eaten Pasty making in Michigan
© Daryl Laitila, Pasty Central,
that the local bakery almost ran out of Calumet, Michigan
flour!

Certainly many of those with Cornish ancestry are now reviving their heritage. A plethora of Cornish family
history and genealogy groups exist, in which Americans, Australians, and South Africans are digging deeper
into their lineage. Who knows, maybe you too have a “Jack” lurking somewhere in your past!

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