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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Cornwall

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Immigration and Emigration
I’m alright Jack

The Cornish Diaspora

Crowds at Redruth station
Emigrants waiting to depart from Redruth station, Cornwall, c1900.
© Cornwall Centre Collection, Redruth
Emigration was one of the major factors that shaped Cornwall as we know it today. The county was a migration hot spot in the British Isles during the 19th Century, the period of the “Great Migration” from Europe. Although relocating was not a new thing for the Cornish - they could already be found living in the American colonies and Caribbean plantations - the numbers involved were unprecedented.

In each decade from 1861 to 1901, around 20% of the Cornish male population migrated abroad – three times the average for England and Wales. In total, the county lost over a quarter of a million people between 1841 and 1901. The emigrants included farmers, merchants and tradesmen, but miners made up most of the numbers.

Why "Cousin Jack"?
Explanations vary as to the origins of the nickname “Cousin Jack”. Some say that Cornish miners became known as “Cousin Jacks” because they were always asking for a job for their cousin Jack back at home. Others think it was because the miners used to address each other by the old greeting of “cousin”, and Jack was the most popular Christian name in Cornwall.
Economic factors were the driving force behind the Cornish diaspora, as this migration is known. By the mid-19th Century, the mining industry in Cornwall was in decline. Copper deposits were beginning to run out, and in 1866 the price of copper crashed. This depression coincided with the discovery of new mineral reserves overseas, and increased competition began to drive prices down.

A wealth of opportunity

Struggling at home, Cornish miners were not slow to grasp the opportunities created by the discovery of gold, silver and copper in the New World. Moving offered the chance of better pay and conditions, and the opportunity to rise to a position of responsibility more quickly. Some men like Richard Trevithick returned to Cornwall having made great reputations for themselves.

The Cornish led the world in mining technology and innovation at this time, and had been exporting machinery since 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” of miners, as skilled men were required to install and work this sophisticated machinery.

Emigration poster
Poster advertising emigration from Cornwall - for free!
© Richard Williams, Poldark Mine, Cornwall
The Cornish expertise in hard rock mining was highly valued. Agents were employed by the mining companies specifically to recruit employees from the Cornish mines. Meetings and lectures were used to proclaim the merits of these foreign ventures to the hopeful miners.

Often it was lone men who would make the trip, particularly in the later 19th Century, when improvements in transport meant that they could work for short periods of time abroad before returning home to their families. Some 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.

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Your comments

1 James H. Oates from Clinton, WI USA - 31 January 2004
"My grandfather, born in 1843 in Cornwall, came to America about 1852, fought from 1861 to 1864 in the Am. civil war, went to the west gold prospecting & farming, then returned to WI to his fathers lead mines. He died in 1924."

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