Communities and Culture.  HES.


Communities and culture

The bid for World Heritage Site Status is based on the landscape of Cornwall and West Devon, but it is also very much about its people. At a time in which thousands of Cornish miners, industrialists, foundrymen and farmers were reshaping their landscape to meet the challenges of a rapidly-evolving world, they, too were being changed forever. The society which emerged in Cornwall during this period was unlike anything seen in the region before and was typified by the young men from Lanner, Gunnislake or St. Just who took ship thousands of miles from home to work in lands whose geography, language, and customs were unfamiliar and where little might await them but hard work and an early grave.

Life was undoubtedly tough in those days. Miners were old men by their forties, if they lived that long. Dust, fumes, hard work deep underground and a poor diet since childhood saw to that. And everyone had to contribute. Young women took work as bal maids, and even though they took pains to protect the faces from the sun, wearing cardboard hoods to shade their complexions, contemporary writers usually noted their rough, chapped hands. Fancy gloves bought from the chapman weren't a luxury for these women, but a way of trying to stay young and attractive.

Children were soon involved in the world of work. By eight or nine, a miners' son or daughter was old enough to make their contribution to the family's meagre income, shovelling, hauling, doing menial, poorly-paid tasks, working alongside brothers, sisters, uncles, fathers, learning the world of work and the skills they would need to survive. Mining was frequently a family affair. Eventually these practices were outlawed by legislation. Women and children were replaced by machines and only the men kept their jobs.

Home life was almost always a struggle. Mining was a precarious occupation, subject to the vagaries of international metal prices, to world politics, to accidents of geology, to the evaporations of shareholder confidence. If anything was guaranteed for a miner, it was uncertainty about the future. Homes were often small, cramped and unsanitary, rented on terms that guaranteed no promise of security, and were quickly relinquished when the need arose. Miners and their families soon learnt to be mobile and adaptable, and to cope with hard work, unemployment, poor health and an infant death rate we would find shocking today. Diseases like cholera and typhoid stalked many of the new mining villages and towns with their lack of sanitation, uncertain water supplies and overcrowded homes, preying on the most vulnerable - the young, the undernourished and the elderly.

But life was not ubiquitously 'nasty, brutish and short', whatever the local tombstones suggest. These conditions bred a strong sense of self reliance, whilst shared experience built strong communities. Feasts and celebrations emerged - many marked by drinking and fighting, games, fireworks and singing; often also a joyous sense of local identity. For the more abstemious, there were new roads to self-improvement - Miners and Mechanics Institutes, reading rooms, music and poetry, and above all, Methodism.

Migration was always an attractive proposition for young men seeking the best wages and conditions. 'Cousin Jacks' were not slow to seek their fortunes wherever skilled miners were needed and as the mining fields of the New World began to give up their riches and the old mines of Cornwall stopped paying dividends, so young men and their families - miners, foundry workers, carpenters and farm boys alike - took ship to the Americas, Australasia, Asia and Africa. Such were the numbers that emigrated in this way that entire communities of Cornish men and women soon became established in Mexico, Australia, the Rand - the list of countries is endless. With them they took their way of life - one based on mining and non-conformism - a tight-knit culture which worked hard and played hard and in which people kept in touch, not only with the traditions of their homeland, but with those they had left behind. 'Home pay' from the Rand or South Australia kept many wives and children from the workhouse and sustained an economy whose mainstays were rapidly falling away as mines were abandoned by the hundred in the closing years of the 19th century.

So it is that pasties are eaten from Mexico to Queensland, magnificent, but indubitably Central American Methodist chapels are to be found in deepest Mexico, rugby was spread the world over, brass bands and choir singing are heard in the outback and the veldt. Whole communities of Australians, Africans, Americans still count themselves Cornish at heart and celebrate that fact.

And what of the small group of men whose foresight, inventiveness, business acumen or plain luck made them fortunes or reputations during this period? They were few in number, but it would be a very different place without John Taylor, Richard Trevithick, the Wesleys, William Murdoch, Arthur Woolf, Humphrey Davey, Sir Charles Lemon, 'Guinea a minute Daniell', Francis Oates, John Williams or the Daubuz, Grenville and Basset families. Some were working at the boundaries of technologies so new that only a handful of people in the world could appreciate their discoveries, some saw opportunities for riches, grasped and pursued them, building fortunes which made them the new elite of their societies. Some like Captain Thomas of Dolcoath could make or break a mine, others like Billy Bray the preacher changed hearts and minds. All played their part in Cornwall's transformation.

Most of all, however, this is the story of the lives and experiences of thousands of ordinary Cornish men, women and children who made it work, whatever the difficulties, and whose character, moulded during this period, helped to make possible our modern world.