On the fourteenth of June 1818 my great, great grandfather, Richard Nance, sailed from Plymouth aboard the Mary, bound for America in the hope, as he wrote in his diary, that “I am going for a better country where it is possible I may enjoy the Blessings of life in a far greater degree than I can in my native land”.
The hope of a better life elsewhere. An ordinary aspiration, then as now. I often wonder what my great, great grandfather would make of our society today, one in which migrants are classified according to degrees of entitlement, and where the simple hope of a better life is far from synonymous with the right to settle. And whenever I read his diary I am reminded of how much the history of Cornwall, like that of other Atlantic edgelands, is tied up with the push and pull of migration.
Cornwall. A land of holiday dreams, of golden sands and clear waters, of seafood, pasties and cream. And a land where average house prices are ten times local pay, and where ten thousand properties are second homes. A curious fate for what had been one of the first economies in the world to embrace industrialization. Tin had been mined in Cornwall for centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, but the arrival of steam power brought renewed vigour to the tin and copper industry, and saw a skilled generation of Cornish engineers and Cornish companies develop engines, pumps and drills that would transform mining across the world. By the 1820s the parish of Gwennap was producing one-third of the world’s copper ore, and by the 1850s the mining industry was providing direct employment for one-third of the working population in Cornwall, with more still working in ancillary trades. It was not to last.
The drivers of migration are always complex, and the case of Cornwall is no different in this respect. Although the mining industry thrived throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, other sectors, such as agriculture, suffered in the depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Cornwall also had a strong tradition of Methodism and Nonconformism, so some had religious or political motives for seeking home elsewhere. Moreover, at the time of my great, great grandfather’s voyage, the British government had come to see organized emigration as a way of bringing reform and improvement to its overseas colonies. That many Cornish chose this option is clear from the opening verses of R.S. Hawker’s nineteenth-century poem, The Cornish Emigrant’s Song:
Oh! the eastern winds are blowing;
The breezes seem to say,
We are going, we are going,
To North Americay.
There the merry bees are humming
Around the poor man’s hive;
Parson Kingdon is not coming
To take away the tithe.
There the yellow corn is growing
Free as the king’s highway;
So we’re going, we are going
To North Americay.
Due to their expertise Cornish miners were in particular demand in the New World. As early as 1825, three ships sailed from Falmouth with a party of sixty miners and 1500 tons of state-of-the art machinery and equipment, their destination, the silver mines of Real del Monte, high in the mountains north of Mexico City. Over the decades that followed, many of their compatriots would make similar journeys, to Canada, South Africa and Australia, where they came to be known as Cousin Jacks. The story goes that whenever more skilled workers were needed, the Cornish miner always had a ‘cousin Jack’ back home who would fit the bill. And they arrived in such numbers that no-one doubted the old Cornish adage that wherever in the world a hole is sunk in the ground, you’ll be sure to find a Cousin Jack at the bottom of it, searching for metal. The exodus, of course, was now being driven not only by the demand for skilled workers overseas, but also by the decline of an industry at home.
Although the Cornish economy had been one of the first to industrialize, it was highly specialized and hampered by its lack of coal, which meant that the smelting and manufacture of tin and copper products were done in places with more immediate and cheaper access to fuel. Global markets were also changing, as rich deposits of copper ore were discovered in America, Chile and Australia. By the 1860s the copper industry in Cornwall had collapsed. Thanks to technological innovation the tin industry held on for longer, but it too would eventually buckle in the face of overseas competition. In the three years from 1874 to 1876, Cornwall witnessed the closure of 132 mines, and by the turn of the twentieth century only nine mines remained in operation.
The figures for emigration over this period make for stark reading. In the last four decades of the nineteenth century, around 45% of the Cornish male population aged 15-24 left for overseas, with a further 30% leaving for other parts of Britain. The corresponding figures for Cornwall’s female population – 26% and 35% – are equally as striking.
As I walked home from Catalonia to Cornwall this summer I thought often of these Cousin Jacks and Jennies, of the lives they left behind and the futures they sought to forge. Remembering them is important, not for sentimental reasons but in order to understand something of the Cornwall we know today. And they are remembered, not just in more academic histories but also in song. Following the closure in 1998 of South Crofty, the last of the tin mines, one of the walls outside the main gate was daubed with a question: When the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do? The line came from Cornish Lads, a song written in the 1980s by Roger Bryant, who can still be heard singing with the Rum and Shrub Shantymen. Roger answers the question in the final verse of his song:
We’ll do as we have done before,
Go out to roam the wild world o’er.
Wherever sea or ship are found,
Or there’s a hole down underground
Embarrasing though it may be for a Cornishman like me to admit, however, one of the best songs about these Cornish miners was written by a man from Devon: Steve Knightley, of the folk duo, sometimes trio, Show of Hands. So it is his song, Cousin Jack, which makes my playlist for the trail. To soften the cultural blow, the Devon boy is at least joined on stage in this video by a group of fishermen from Port Isaac.
I’ve been enjoying this song for years now, although more recently I’ve found that my thoughts when listening to it extend beyond the Cornish men and women whose story it tells. In an article published on 23 October 1863 the West Briton newspaper acknowledged that the scale of emigration from Cornwall was becoming “a matter of grave consideration”. However, the writer went on to note, with satisfaction, that “wherever the Cornish miner goes he is generally well received, and rarely fails not only to benefit himself, but those of his friends remaining at home”. Might that journalists in Syria and elsewhere be able to write the same about their own skilled citizens who are forced to seek a better life in a foreign land.