The Cornish diaspora

Cornwall–that nobbly foot sticking its toes into the waters of southwestern Britain–lost about a third of its population in the nineteenth century. 


The background stuff

To come up with that number, we have to use a flexible definition of the nineteenth century, then we have to admit that no one actually counted heads. Yes, you can document the number of people who left Britain, which ports they left from, and where their ships were bound, but no one asked where they were from. Or if they did, they didn’t write it down. 

You can guess more or less reasonably that most people leaving from Cornish ports were Cornish, since Cornwall (being foot-shaped and sticking into the ocean) isn’t on the way from anywhere except Cornwall, but not everyone would’ve left Cornwall from Cornish ports. Plymouth, which is in Devon, is temptingly close. 

Never mind. A third is close enough, so let’s call that calculated.

Irrelevant photo: A wild primrose. Although it’s in Cornwall, so let’s call it semi-relevant.

Are we ready to start yet?

Nope. To understand the story, you need to know although England swallowed Cornwall centuries ago, it never managed to digest it completely. 

Cornwall was once its own country, with its own language, and even today it holds onto its identity. The last native speaker of the Cornish language, Dolly Portreath, died in 1777, not all that long before the period we’re talking about, and I’m reasonably sure that “native speaker” here means that Cornish was her only language, not that she was the last person who spoke it fluently, because the language survived in isolated communities into the nineteenth century.

If we’ve got the pieces in place now, we’ll go on.


Early emigration

In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and instead of joy and relief, peace brought a depression. For farm workers, that meant low wages and unemployment. For farmers, it meant being squeezed between high rents and high taxes. 

In Britain, remember farmers were likely to rent their land, not own it. 

For Cornwall, it meant the start of wholesale emigration, with families headed to the U.S. and Canada. 

The West Briton (that’s a newspaper) wrote in 1843, “The spirit of emigration continues active in the neighbourhood of Stratton. High rents, heavy rates, and obnoxious and impoverishing taxes are driving some of the best of our agriculturalists to climes where these demons of robbery and ruin are unknown.”

Agriculturalists? That translates to farmers. And Stratton’s in North Cornwall, not all that far from where I live.

But if poverty and depression were the primary forces driving people out, they weren’t the only ones. Cornwall was a stronghold of Methodism, and even though they no longer belonged to the Church of England, they still owed it a tithe, which was basically a tax the church levied. You could quit the church if you liked, but your money couldn’t. If you left England, though, you could shuck off that history and those obligations and be free in your religion. 

Still, if leaving England gave people a whiff of freedom and the promise of a decent living, or at least a full meal, it also meant leaving their families, their homes, and their culture. It’s the story of immigrants everywhere, and as always, hope mingled with grief.

Between 1815 and 1830, Latin American countries were winning their independence, and some of them drew Cornish emigrants. Copper, gold, and silver were being mined in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and Cornwall was hard-rock mining country, from prehistory onwards. Cornish miners had the experience mine owners were looking for. The saying is that you can go anywhere in the world and if you look into a hole in the ground you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom, digging. 

In the 1840s, the same potato blight that devastated Ireland hit Cornwall. Potatoes had become a staple in the Cornish diet as well as a cash crop and pig food. With the blight, people faced starvation in Cornwall, although not in the same devastating numbers as in Ireland. But if you’re starving, you don’t stop to argue if somewhere else more people are even closer to the edge than you are. There were food riots.

At about the same time, the Australian government offered free passage to anyone who met their standards. They wanted people who were “healthy, sober, industrious and in the habit of working for wages.” To prove that they qualified, applicants needed two signatures from “respectable householders,” one from a physician or surgeon, and one from a clergyman. Presumably the clergyman was supposed to attest to the sober and industrious part.

Don’t get me started.

They wouldn’t have needed to say this, but they also wanted people who were white. 


And the later waves

In 1859, Australian mines started producing copper–lots of copper–and the price dropped worldwide. Cornish mines closed. Then in the 1870s, the price of tin collapsed. More jobs lost. More emigration. 

Reverend Hawker, from a North Cornwall parish, wrote in 1862,

“They come to me for advice. If they have a few pounds out of the wreck my advice always is ‘Emigrate!’ And accordingly nearly a hundred in the current year go across the seas. Our population in 1851 was 1,074 in 1861 it was 868.”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Cornish began emigrating to South Africa to mine diamonds and gold. By then, steamships had made the trip faster, and miners were more likely to go abroad and return home rather than sink permanent roots in new countries. 

Wherever they went, though, and for however long, many emigrants sent money home. At the end of the nineteenth century, 7,000 miners in South Africa  sent £1 million a year to Cornwall. In 1898, the West Briton reported a rush to the banks after mail came from South Africa. 

By the time World War I ended, emigration had slowed down, but the population of Cornwall kept on shrinking until the late 1960s. By one estimate, between 1815 and 1920, 250,000 people left Cornwall for other countries and almost the same number left to find work–mostly in mining–in other parts of Britain and in Ireland. 

A different source estimates that between 1861 and 1900 44.8% of the Cornish male population who were between fifteen and twenty-four left to work overseas. So did 26.2% of the female population in the same age group. Another 30% of men and 35.5% of women left for other parts of Britain. 

By the time you add all that up, you have something like half a dozen people left at home to keep the fire going.


Cousin Jack

Outside of Cornwall, the non-Cornish considered the Cornish to be clannish. Somehow immigrants are always accused of being clannish. They cluster together to share their customs, their food, their memories, their language, their joys, and their grief. They lean into each other for familiarity and for help–material and emotional–in negotiating the transition. And they’re resented for it. It’s an old story, and it seems to play on a loop throughout–well, I can’t speak for all of human history but the parts of it that I know about.

This led to the belief that Cousin Jack, the common name for a Cornishman, especially a miner, came from Cornish miners always lobbying for some other Cornishman to be hired–his cousin Jack. 

The parallel name for a Cornishwoman is Cousin Jenny.

The story’s vivid enough to be convincing, although that doesn’t make it true. Especially since different sources trace the origin of the phrase to Australia, to the California gold fields, and to Devon, Cornwall’s neighboring county. 

The historian and archeologist Caitlin Green traces it to either Cornwall itself or to Devon and wonders if it didn’t start out as a name to mock Cornishmen, which was then stolen and repurposed by the community it was meant to mock. 

Cousin, she reminds us, didn’t just mean a family member at the time. It was a friendly way to address someone who was close but not family.

I’ll leave you with a link to a beautiful and heartbreaking song about Cornwall, mining, and emigration, “Cousin Jack.” It’s by the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish singers who are the subject of a movie made a few years ago. It’s got a joke embedded in it about Cornish and English nationalism, although maybe you have to have spent time in Cornwall to get it.


My thanks to Pete Cooper for sending me a link about the origin of the phrase Cousin Jack, which got me going on this.

48 thoughts on “The Cornish diaspora

  1. An interesting look into the history of your adopted homeland. And the Fishermen’s Friends links are good, too – I enjoyed the movie, which is a nice feelgood watch. The original version of the song was by the folk band Show Of Hands: I’ve seen them perform it live, and it is spine-tinglingly good 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve been reading a book I ran across as I was (supposedly) downsizing my “library” : “The Celtic Myths” by Miranda Aldhouse Green. There were enough mentions of Cornwall and its separate-ness thatI was intrigued – and now you furnish this ! Thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this post about Cornwall – Pretty and I were faithful Poldark followers and were struck not only with the incredible scenery but also the poverty of the miners throughout the series. So interesting to know the miners followed their work to other countries to survive. And yes, clearly the stories of immigrants must be the same regardless of the century or circumstances. Woeful tales, and yet courageous.
    The Fishermen’s Friends movie was a good one, too.
    I am a typical American who can’t resist the BBC.
    Have a good weekend. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might (or might not–it depends how seriously you take Poldark) enjoy some of the things people have done with it on Youtube, stripping out the dialogue and substituting absurd conversations in overdone Cornish accents. The people who think they’re funny go to pieces over them. The rest of us arch our eyebrows and try not to start an argument. I’m not sure how to find them, mind you, but they’re in there somewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’d heard of ‘cousin Jack’, not ‘Jenny’ though. A nice little potted history of a place where I’ve had two or three beautiful holidays. I remember going to St Ives and understanding why so many artists migrated there; the light is spectacular and on a wholly different spectrum to that found oop north!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess my family story. Is much more common than I realized. My great-grandfather was a gardener on an estate in Cornwall. In the 1890s he left and ended up as a tin miner in Calumet, Mi. After a few years, he decided he didn’t like mining. He moved down state and bought a farm. It was not a success. Eventually, most of the family ended up in the Detroit area. A Cousin Jack is still someone from Cornwall to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect farming in Michigan would’ve been a whole different thing from gardening in Cornwall. The climate, the plants, the pests, the soil–all of them are different. Interesting to hear that the phrase Cousin Jack still survives in your family. Thanks for sharing a bit of your–and his–tale. I’m in awe of the bravery of immigrants who leave home with no knowledge of what they’ll find where they’re going, and no safety either.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Another wonderfully informative article, Ellen, thank you!

    Colour me intrigued, though, on two points:
    1. What was the ‘joke embedded in it about Cornish and English nationalism’? (or can you not divulge that as it might cause offense?).
    2. (Speaking of embedding): I’m wondering why you didn’t embed the ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ video into the post rather than just link to it (I never pass up an opportunity to do that, I think it adds colour to a post — I always enjoy your ‘irrelevant photos’).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, hell, you really think I remember what joke I embedded? I hate to admit to being clueless since, um, I wrote this mess, but I don’t remember embedding one. Want to give me a hint? I’ll keep my eyes closed and see if I can guess.

      I probably should’ve embedded the video, but I’m not sure about (a) the mechanics, although I’m reasonably sure I could work them out, and (b) the copyright issues. I’m not sure it’s kosher to embed someone else’s music that way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The joke? It wasn’t yours, it was in the video (so you said — or did I misunderstand?).

        Embedding a YouTube video in a post is simple. You just put the link in a ‘block’ on its own. You can even do it in comments, by simply entering the address, like this:

        (Here’s hoping that actually works. Because, sometimes, it doesn’t!)

        Liked by 1 person

              • The whole who/whom thing is dying out–mostly, I suspect, because the language doesn’t like it. It rejects it and grammarians have to keep gluing it back on. You weren’t wrong in using whom, but if you said the phrase aloud you’d strongly suspect something was wrong with it. Basically, it’s clunky. It’d be easier to say, “Whom to come to,” except that–okay, I’m a fan of the spoken language, and I don’t know anyone who’d actually spoke that. Or no one who’s still talking to me anyway. And vice versa. I’d go with “who” and to hell with the hairsplitters: “I’ll know who to come to.”

                The rule–for what it’s worth–on who/whom is that if you could substitute him or her for who[m], then whom is correct. Whom have I stopped speaking to? I’ve stopped speaking to her/him. But who has stopped speaking to me? He/she has. It’s a fairly elegant way of remembering.

                And now forget it, because it’s a dying bit of the language and it can’t die soon enough.

                Not that I’m opinionated or anything.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Ah, I’ve always had little sympathy for the ‘language evolves’ argument; it’s just an excuse for those who get it wrong to continue to do so. I think it’s why I see so many problems in computer systems these days: lazy programmers and systems designers who think that syntax and basic user interface principles are unimportant.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’m passionately committed to both sides of this argument. On the one hand, the spoken, evolving language is where the life is. On the other hand, I have no sympathy for sloppiness. I worked as an editor and it drove me nuts. On the third hand, overly correct language is at least as bad as sloppy language, and that drove me nuts as well.

                Catching the spoken language isn’t an exercise in sloppiness–at least not if it’s done right. It’s hard damn work and it takes a good ear. Which is lucky, because I’ve used all my hands and I stole one of yours.

                Liked by 1 person

          • … as for your point about copyright issues, I don’t think there’s a problem there. The uploader of a video on YouTube can choose to use a setting that forbids embedding (as is the case in my ‘Towel Day’ post last month§). If the uploader (assuming they are actually the copyright holder, which I accept is often not the case) chooses not to do that, to my mind, that’s a license to distribute.

            § … though the comment I made there about the transcription of the video I made may have been on shaky legal grounds; I’m unclear of the legality of publishing a transcription of copyright content (I’ve been looking into that lately, and am working on a post on the topic: the law is always playing catch-up with technology — and it’s often an ass).

            Liked by 1 person

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