HISTORY OF CORNWALL AND ITS PEOPLE


It all began in about 350 BC (Iron Age) when tribes wandered across Europe looking for tin. Eventually they found an abundance of tin in Cornwall and settled there and as a result left a legacy in the form of the Celtic Cornish language. The next race to emerge in Europe was the Romans, but they had little to do with the south-western extremity. Romans occasionally came for tin but they could obtain it easier in Spain.

Next came Saints from Wales and Ireland bringing Christianity. Settlements formed at places of worship which grew into communities known as Churchtowns. These soon grew into Parishes, made up of towns. If you are interested I have a copy of a map showing all the Parishes, (1000 x 900 pixels, 37K) that existed. Cornwall continued to remain Celtic and the Chieftains (notably Arthur) fought the incoming Saxons valiantly, but were eventually conquered in 838. From 1066, the Normans brought changes. William the Conqueror gave faithful Barons lands and manors and some still survive. Later Edward III's son, the black prince, was created the first Duke of Cornwall. This title is inherited at birth by every male heir to the English throne.

In the following centuries Cornwall enjoyed relative peace. Its tin trade was the largest in Europe. Stannary towns grew around the places where tin was brought to be tested for purity. The reformation brought sad times for Cornwall with churches closed and the bible the New Prayer book printed in English, a language which the Cornish neither liked nor wanted. The Cornish language was mostly extinct by 1800. No specific genealogical sources are written in the language, but its influence does appear in the inheritance of names. There is an over-abundance of simple patronymic surname - Thomas, Roberts, etc.

The county of Cornwall is in the extreme south west of Britain , with the Tamar river as its border. By Australian standards it is a small area. Its length from Lands End to the southern boundary with Devon is 70 miles and it is about 25 miles wide, although only 7 miles wide at the narrowest part. The long and rugged coastline is an important factor in the lives of the people. Ships were wrecked so frequently providing "wrecking" or the gathering of wreckage as a lucrative pastime. Smuggling was a recognized sport and fishing a huge industry.

Even in the beginning of the 18th century the roads into Cornwall were in a primitive state. There were two main roads, one which followed the backbone of the county out of Launceston and the other which followed the South Coast. In the absence of roads suitable for wheeled vehicles, practically all goods from county districts were carried on mules and ponies.

The name and language of Cornwall has an interesting history as well. Cornwall takes its name from Cornovii, meaning hill dwellers and Waelas, meaning strangers. Interestingly Wales takes its name from Waelas.

Cornish FlagCornwall has its own flag, the flag of St Piran, patron saint of the miners. Its simple white cross against a black background, represents the triumph of good over evil and the dressed tin over the darker tin ore. Cornwall also claims to have its own Cornish National Anthem, called ‘The Song of the Western Men’. The national emblem consists of a shield containing fifteen golden balls and bearing the motto "One and All". This represents fifteen golden balls raised by the Cornish as ransom for a Duke of Cornwall captured by the Saracens during the crusades.

Prior to the Roman invasion the inhabitants of Wales, Devon and Cornwall retained much the same language and culture. Following the invasion the language took on different forms. The Welsh language survived and its usage is promoted and encouraged with the re-awakening of Welsh nationalism.The Cornish Language managed to survive until the 18th Century. It is now being revived through the medium of Cornish language classes, within a burgeoning nationalist movement. For those interested the Cornish language may also be studied in Australia.

It is said that Cornwall has stimulated writers of greater outpourings than any other English County; and certainly as many as either Scotland or Wales. Thomas Hardy, the great Victorian novelist and poet wrote in 1870 "The place is pre-eminently the region of dream and mystery" Even today this mystical land continues to exert a strange influence over those who come to visit its secret and sacred places, to marvel at the breathtakingly beautiful coastline or simply to bask on its sun-drenched beaches.You are never more than 20 miles from the sea in Cornwall-and never more than a short walk from antiquity. Yet for the interest it engenders, it is an economically fragile area, with high unemployment and is today greately reliant on the tourist trade for its survival. Despite many Cornishmen (and women) driven to emigrate, Cornwall still continues to hold a great fascination.

As Bendigo's most eminent Cornishman, Sir John Quick, predicted on a lecture on Cornwall in Bendigo in 1913, "It is a land of cherished and immortal memories which will be dear to Cornish people and their descendants through generations". An observation warmly applauded.

It is said that Cornwall was once known as the Kingdom of Kernow - land of Mystery and legends; included in which are those of King Arthur and the lost land of Lyonesse - said to lie submerged off the tip of the county. I recently came accross an article titled "Legends of Long ago" from Cranstar’s Historial Cornwall. It mentions that Cornwall was home to a number of legends. These included;

Jack the Giant Killer - According to Cornish legend, Jack was a farmer's son who lived near Land's End in the days of King Arthur. The folk of the area were being terrorised by Cormoran the Giant of St. Michael's Mount, who stole cattle and carried them away either on his back or dangling from his belt. A reward was offered to anyone who would slay the fearsome giant and Jack took up the challenge. He dug a huge pit near Morvah and covered it with sticks and straw. Then he lured the Giant away from the Mount by blowing his horn. The angry Giant rushed down the Mount and fell into the pit. Jack then struck him a mortal blow with his pick- axe and filled the pit with earth. For his brave deed he was given a magnificent sword and belt, embroidered "Who slew the Giant Cormoran".

The Lost land of Lyonesse - There are many legends of towns and countries submerged beneath the waves,but the legend of the lost land of Lyonesse is possibly the most famous. Lyonesse,we are told,was once a country beyond Land's End that boasted fine cities and 140 churches; then on November 11th 1099 a great storm blew up and the marauding sea swept over it,drowning the luckless inhabitants and submerging the kingdom beneath the waves,until all that remained to view were the mountain peaks to the west,known to us now as the Isles of Scilly.Only one man survived. His name was Trevilian and he rode a white horse up to high ground at Perranuthnoe before the waves could overwhelm him. A 16th century writer tells us that Land's End once stretched far to the west with a watchtower at the farthest point to guide sailors. The rocks known as the Seven Stones were believed to be the remains of a great city,called "The Town" by sailors,who told of dragging up window, doors and other domestic items in their nets.They also related how they had heard the church bells of Lyonesse ringing beneath the waves.

The lady of the Lake - Dozmary Pool is a natural moorland lake situated to the south of Bolventor on Bodmin Moor. Once it was home of ancient man,who has left remnants of his presence in the shape of hut circles and other prehistoric remains.Local folk long believed that the strange, mysterious Pool was bottomless and had a whirlpool in the centre. It is hardly surprising,then,that it has become an integral part of two major Cornish legends. John Tregagle,the evil disciple of the Devil was doomed to bail out the endless waters of Dozmary Pool with a leaking limpet shell for eternity,in penance for his crimes.It was into the depths of Dozmary pool,too, so legend tells us,that King Arthur's sword Excalibur was cast by his loyal lieutenant Sir Bedivere on the orders of the dying King. A hand and arm rose up from the surface of the lake,clad in the white samite, caught the sword and drew it underneath.

Other legends included the stories of giants roaming around Cornwall and mermaids especially off the caost of Lands End. There is one particular legend involving the Mermaid of Zennor, which is close to St Ives. Even today this mystical land continues to exert a strange influence over those who come to visit its secret and sacred places, to marvel at the breathtakingly beautiful coastline or simply to bask on its sun-drenched beaches. Ancient and modern, past and present,Cornwall remains truly a Land of Legends.Long may it be so.

I mentioned earlier that Cornwall was becoming known for its mining, especially of tin. It was for centuries the mainstay of Cornwall's economy. The early tinners, as they were known did not have the knowledge or the tools to dig deep shafts. They merely sifted the particles of tin from where it had lodged in streams, which was known as streaming. Another method employed was to crush the tin bearing rocks and harvest the fragments. When enough had been collected, it was smelted down by means of heating it in a kiln. It was then mixed with copper to form hard wearing substances suitable for arrow heads and tools. Soon they learned to follow the lodes and dig deeper and deeper. By trial and error, which undoubtedly led to many accidents and deaths, they learnt how to shore up the sides of the mine for safety.

With time and necessity, mining methods and implements also improved and the Cornish miners became experts in their field. Because of the nature of the terrain in Cornwall, they also became experts at hard rock mining. It is therefore clear that the great Cornish contribution to Bendigo was for two reasons. The first is the similarity of the hard rock. The second was their knowledge of deep shafting in the mines.

Photo of Cornish Mine On the left is a photograph of a typical Cornish mining scene, with the ocean in the background. Some Cornish mines actually ran under the sea. The introduction of steam powered engines had an enormous effect on Cornish mining and they were improved upon so that they could be used to solve the problem of water seepage. Cornish engineers such as Richard Trevithick, were at the fore in the invention and implementation of mining technology, which of course found its way to Bendigo. As a result of the new technology and the improvements in mining, Cornish miners began digging deeper and deeper. This of course did little for the health of the average Cornish miner. Miner’s disease (a mine related lung disease), as it was known then was common and led to the early deaths of many. A study carried out in 1906, showed that Cornwall and Bendigo had the highest incidence of mine related lung disease.

It is interesting that the decline of the mining deposits of Cornwall coincided with the discoveries of gold in Australia and the United States. Not all Cornish miners made their money as miners. Because of their knowledge many became Mine Managers. In one year alone, 1875, over 10,00 people left Cornwall for Australia. Dr Philip Payton in his excellent book "The Cornish Miner in Australia" states that between the years 1836 to 1886 in South Australia alone, of the 162,853 migrants who settled, 12,967 (8% of the population) came from Cornwall. When taking into account the possible migration from other states together with missing data a figure of perhaps 16,000 is quite likely. Furthermore Dr Payton suggests that from an analysis of population estimates and surname origins it is possible that in 1900 some 30,000 people may claim to be of direct Cornish descent in the colony of South Australia alone.

The fact that such a great migration did occur is well documented, but what were the factors that instigated it? With the foundation of the colony of South Australia in 1836, a well orchestrated campaign of recruitment was initiated in the county. Agents were appointed initially by the colony and later by the mines themselves to recruit suitable employees from the Cornish mines. Meetings and lectures were held at the principle towns proclaiming the virtues and prospects of the new colony and the flow of emigrants started. When combined with the failure of the potato crop in 1840 and the hardship thus incurred this flow became a veritable torrent. Meanwhile other factors were at play and to see these it is necessary to look at the employment trends in the county at that time.

It is interesting to note that securing employment was not the only problem facing the Cornish families, for the collapse of the copper price roughly coincided with a dramatic increase in the price of some basic commodities. For example, the monthly salary for a hard working miner in the St Just area in 1865 was about £3-3-0, but by 1867 this had fallen to £2-10-0. Whereas during the same period the price for a sack of flour had risen from £1-10-0 to £2-10-0. The consequence of all these factors can be seen by the predictable increase in the number of paupers receiving indoor relief at the workhouse.

It is interesting to see how the miners and their families lived and survived. Early homes were very basic. They usually contained two rooms, one for eating and living in and the other for sleeping in. Large families were of the norm, so children often slept in lofts built into the rafters. As with the rest of England, sanitation and drainage were primitive, which led to the outbreak of numerous infectious diseases.

If you were fortunate enough to have access to some land, it was usually used for growing fruit, vegetables and crops. Some miners were privileged enough to have a pig, which was used for its meat. Portions of the pig were even sold for a small price. It was also fairly common for families to have shares in a cow, which would supply both milk and even cream, a luxury in those days. Another type of food peculiar to Cornwall was the hevva cake; and most importantly by Cornish standards, the bright yellow saffron cake or bun. Its' origins are lost in time, but despite the cost of procuring the saffron, it still retains its popularity.

I suppose I cannot talk about food, without mentioning the Cornish pastie. Pasties evolved as a means of providing a nourishing meal and were eaten either warm or cold. It was a convenient wholesome meal, easily packed to be eaten at meal time down the mines. The pastie was of particular value to miners and amidst such poverty the filling consisted of whatever happened to be available at the time. It is interesting to note that during the 1890's, following a Cornish Pastie Competition, there were numerous articles published in the Bendigo Advertiser, on the correct way to make a Cornish pastie. Interestingly and though it may have some relation to womens reluctance to seek publicity, all the letters were from men. In fact one actually suggested that people should apply to Mr. J. Jewell for the correct information. One could not even hazard a guess at how many Cornish pasties have been baked and eaten over the years. Not surprising the Cornish pastie of today bears little or no resemblance to the product baked and sold under this name today.

On reading Ruth Hopkins book "Where Now Cousin Jack?", I came across a poem, which was written about the cornish pastie. It goes like this;

"Cornish Pastie"

Crusty, juicy succulent,
Cornish pasties ever meant
The heartening of gallant men -
Cornwall's famed Tre Pol and Pen,
Toothsome provender I ween,
Titillating nostrils keen
Piping hot and good to see
How your savour calls to me.

Photo of Cornish BakersOn the right is a copy of a photograph featuring a group of Cornish Bakers in Bendigo.

The Cornish were an inherently religious and superstitious people and no part of south-west England is so rich in memorials of the Celtic era as Cornwall. However it may have been this religious prosperity, which on the surface at least, allowed the Christian missionaries from Ireland and Wales to eventually convert the Cornish people. There is no doubt that many pagan customs were retained and the missionaries themselves utilised some Celtic traditions to aid in their acceptance.

Other reminders of Cornwall's religious predilections lie in its Celtic crosses, numerous churches and such memorials as stone circles, the last of which are thought to have been ancient meeting places of religious astronomical significance. Having survived the ravages of time and the indifference of subsequent generations, the one near Penzance known as the Merry Maidens, has been deemed by a different religious ethos as nineteen maidens doomed to remain as stone monuments to their wickedness, through dancing on the Sabbath.

According to my research, the most common religion in Cornwall is Methodism. It is said that the Methodist religion began with a dedicated evangelist, in the late 1700's, John Wesley. When he first visited Cornwall he was met with stones and abuse, but following his persistence his message gradually took hold of many Cornish men and woman and Cornwall became a stronghold of Methodism - the name generally applied to the methodical practice of religion preached by Wesley and his followers. Methodism is still practiced more widely in Cornwall than any other part of England.

According to my research the Jewell family were members of the Bible Christians, a movement which of course has its origins in Cornwall. It was founded in 1815, as the result of an earnest young Wesleyan lay preacher's concern for the miners and the farmers in the outlying districts, who had no Methodist church in their vicinity. The name of the founder was William O'Bryan.

Cornish people were and still are, great lovers of music. Local inns resounded nightly to traditional and introduced airs. The harmonising voices of the miners could be heard as they trudged back and forth from the mines. As a result of the Cornish people’s love of music, John Wesley and his followers were heard to utter "make joyful noise unto the lord".

Indeed John Wesley and more particularly his brother Charles, were involved on the arrangement and composition of many fine hymns. It could be said then that the Methodist religion's success may be in part, due to the innate Cornish sensibilities, spiritual and musical; which along with forceful dramatic preaching were vital to whipping up emotional style conversions, which were indeed ‘mate and drink’ to many Cornish.

It is also evident that the Cornish, in conjunction with their singing, had a love of the drink. A somewhat exaggerated account of Cornish drinking habits at the beginning of the 18th century states "If there be but three houses together two shall be ale houses".

There is no doubt that throughout the years Cornishmen (and women), have always seen themselves as outsiders to the rest of England. If they had their way, the United Kingdom would be made of England, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. According to Robert Hunt the folk historian writing of Cornwall claimed (around 1871) that "England with many persons, appeared to terminate on the banks of the Tamar". I was also reading a book, in which it is said that a Mrs. Martin, a Cornish woman from Wendron, living in Bendigo, was heard to say of a family who recently emigrated from England, that they were nice people 'for foreigners'.

I would like to finish off with another poem I read in "Where Now Cousin Jack?" It goes like this:

Oh know ye the county of pastie and cream -
with hay in the meadow and tin in the stream,
In the beautiful county of Cornwall
The land of pasties and cream,
The land of the miners and fisherman bold
The land of the smugglers in stories of old...

Please note that sections of this chapter were based on the many books I have read on the History of Cornwall including "Where Now Cousin Jack?" by Ruth Hopkins and "Legends Long Ago" from Cranston’s Historical Cornwall.

For further information try the;

or one of the many sites I have listed in my "Links to other Cornish & Genealogical Sites", which contains numerous links to other Cornish Sites.


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© Jewell Family History Centre
Last Updated 25th February 1997