The area around St Ives was at the height of its prosperity
during the first quarter of the 19th Century, with all the mines working, and
fishing and agriculture very profitable. However, before the middle of the
century, decline had set in. Steam navigation was the death-blow to her large
fleet of sailing vessels and ship-building interests, and then mining and
fishing also began to fail. The decline was followed by a heavy and prolonged
emigration: North America and the Antipodes were popular destinations for the
Cornish emigrant, as was South Wales.
The following is the text from an article by JOHN BIGGANS*.
Emigration from Cornwall in the 19th Century
Miners, agricultural workers and tradesmen emigrated from Cornwall throughout the last century but there were particular periods during which the numbers emigrating from these communities were very high. The descendants of these emigrants, some of them members of the Society, are now world-wide and it is hoped that what follows may provide them with a general background for the family history of their Cornish ancestors who emigrated.
From the Farms
Much has been written and said about the emigration of Cornish miners in the last century and little about those from the farming community who left in large numbers before the great exodus of miners began. During the long period of the Napoleonic Wars which ended with the victory of the British and their allies at Waterloo in 1815 the farmers were prosperous. There was no competition from imported grain so prices were high. In turn rent and rates could be paid, poor land brought into cultivation and work provided for many. With the coming of peace after 1815 and the return to normal international trade, grain was again imported and it was not long before prices fell and farmers could not afford to employ so many as before. The position was made worse by the severe competition for land of good quality which became available and younger members of farming families who would have branched out on their own could not afford to do so. It was the extreme poverty and its consequences, which stemmed from this agricultural depression, that left many families with no alternative but to look elsewhere for the means of survival.
Farming was carried on in all parts of Cornwall but the parishes where agriculture was predominant were in the north east corner of the county and in the coastal areas generally. The first phase of the emigration of members of the farming community started soon after 1815 and reached its peak in 18223 and continued until the 1830s. In the next decade came the ‘Hungry Forties' which lead to another wave of emigration of agricultural workers which was repeated during the farming depression which started in the mid-1870s and lasted for nearly twenty years.
During the times when the agricultural industry did not prosper some farm workers who lived in the mining areas were able to obtain work in the mines but the numbers of unemployed that could be absorbed were limited. Mining fortunes rose and fell and many who started on the land must have emigrated later as miners.
From the Mines
Cornish miners left the county because their mines ceased to be worked or there were better opportunities abroad (not necessarily in mining). The principal mining areas were in the west of the county - St Just and towards St Ives, around Hayle and Helston, Camborne and Redruth and Gwennap, in particular, St Agnes and Pernanporth. There were mines centred on St Austell and around Liskeard further east towards the border with Devon.
Depending on the price of tin and copper the fortunes of the inhabitants of these mining districts rose and fell but it was not until the 1870s that the final decline set in which was accompanied by a mass exodus of miners from the county. Mining, at least for the working miner, had always been hard and hazardous with just enough reward, if he was fortunate in the kind of ground he had to break or the quality of the ore he dug out, to keep him and his family above the poverty level. So even when the miner was in work he had little to lose in deciding to emigrate to another country where minerals were being discovered and nothing at all when his mine closed down and he had no hope of alternative employment.
Those affected by the farming slumps had to decide whether to emigrate and face the unknown - although this was sometimes slightly unveiled by the reports sent home by those who had preceded them - or, to remain workless in Cornwall which meant destitution. In practical terms there was no real choice and the parting from relatives they might never see again, an uncomfortable and hazardous sea voyage, an overland trek and the hardships of their new life, were side issues. The early emigrant farm workers had the choice of Canada or America as their destination and by the late 1830s they also had Australia and New Zealand.
To start with there was little or no governmental involvement with emigration. The would-be emigrant had to make his own way abroad once he had a few pounds saved or borrowed. At this time a cheap passage - and a very uncomfortable one -could be obtained from Padstow and Bideford to Canada and the United States on vessels returning there after having brought cargoes of timber to these ports. They were convenient, situated as they were on the north coast of Cornwall and Devon, as outlets for emigrants from the nearby farming districts.
By the 1830s the transatlantic passenger trade was developing and local newspapers carried regular advertisements for vessels about to sail for Canada or America from Cornish ports particularly ~ and Falmouth. These boats were an improvement on the timber carrier but for £3 a head (children at reduced rates) comfort and amenities must have been of the barest. By the end of the 1830s emigration agents, appointed by the Colonization Commission, were to be found in most towns of the county. They were able to give advice on settlers about the situation and terms of tenure of available Crown land in Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as on other matters. They also administered the 'Assisted Passage' schemes introduced to help those unable to afford their passage but who were considered likely to make good colonists.
Some sixty years separated the first and third waves of emigration brought about by the fanning depression that followed victory at Waterloo in 1815 and in the 1870s. During this time the Colonies and America had developed greatly both economically and socially and travel to distant shores was less of an ordeal. Ships were larger now on the transatlantic run and to the East so emigrants instead of being able to set off from some convenient Cornish port had to make their way to Liverpool, Southampton or Plymouth to join their boat. With the spreading network of railways this was not difficult.
Miners left Cornwall for Mexico, in 1825, sailing from Falmouth. They were not numerous and went out on a special contract as did others to Cuba in the 1830s. More went to Brazil in the 1840s, leaving from Falmouth, and to Chile and Peru. A trade depression in England in the period 183844, which seriously affected the Cornish mining industry marked the beginning of the emigration of the Cornish miner on a large scale.
The extent of this exodus at any one time was influenced by the price of copper and tin at home and the opportunities presented by new discoveries abroad or by a combination of both
In the 1850s and early 1860s the mining of copper and tin was profitable. Then the import of copper from the newly found and vast deposits at Lake Superior and from Spain depressed the price with the inevitable consequences. This virtually marked the end of copper mining in Cornwall and the beginning of the second great wave of emigrants. Then in the following decade it was the turn of tin and the biggest exodus of all, for between 1871 and 1881 it was estimated that a third of the remaining mining population had left the county.
Of the discoveries of minerals overseas the first to attract the Cornish miner abroad in any numbers was the finding of copper in South Australia in 1845, gold in California in 1848 and Australia 1851 and in New Zealand in this decade. Then followed diamonds and then gold in South Africa in 1869 and tin in Australia in 1872. Over and above the surges of emigrants to these countries there was a steady stream to the less spectacular but still important new mining centres of the world and in particular the United States of America and Canada.
Whereas the farming community tended to emigrate in families it was not quite the same with the miners. Unless bound for an established mining district the married miner left his family at home, more often than not, and sent them remittances from time to time. If he could see a future for the family in the new country he sent for them else, in due course, he returned home. no such ties the unmarried miners stayed and settled, once they had married and established families of their own
The farmers and farm workers who emigrated left from the parishes in the north east of Cornwall and the miners mainly from the far western parishes, St Just, Morvah, Towednack, Lelant, Phillack and Gwinear. From Breage, St Hilary and Germoe and further to the east from Wendron, Gwennap and Kea to mention but a few. Within its long coast line there were a number of small ports from which emigrants sailed to all parts of the world from Cornwall. These were Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance, St Ives, Hayle and Padstow. Those, who for one reason or another, left the country from Bristol or Liverpool were usually able to make their way there by ship from Hayle.
The agricultural and mining depressions which beset Cornwall in the last century directly affected the farm workers and the miners. When they left the demand for all kinds of labour declined and many employed as masons and carpenters, blacksmiths, general labourers and in many other ways were thrown out of work But the emigrants in their new land recreated this demand and reports came back - from Australia for example, in 1839 - ‘The demand for carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers is unlimited' and mechanics could ask anything they liked Land workers, general labourers and servants were also required at wages unheard of in this country at the time. As the result of this situation many miners and their families decided to exchange a hard life in Cornwall, with little or no future in it, for a new one and another occupation overseas. For this reason many miners emigrated to South Australia and Victoria before the discoveries of copper and gold were made, but when these were known in these States they were quick to revert to their old calling and to make use - often with much profit - of their old skills.
* I have tried to find John Biggans to ask for
his permission to publish this article here - unfortunately to no avail. On the
basis that this site is used by a small number of researchers, I trust
that he will forgive me.