How short were the Cornish?

What was the height of the Cornish in times past? As an east Cornwall man born and bred, when I first moved to west Cornwall way back in the mid-1970s I was struck by the number of rather short men and women I saw. This may be merely anecdotal but there’s a persistent belief that the Cornish more generally tend to be shorter than average. Is this more than just a myth?

The naturalist W.H.Hudson, who visited Cornwall in the winter of 1905/06 wrote of the short and dark ‘type’ he encountered on the coasts of west Cornwall. Hudson’s breathtakingly racist remarks about the Cornish might be taken with a pinch of salt. But we have some more objective data from a century or so earlier.

Crowds of (short?) locals gather on a stormy day at Marazion beach

In the 1780s, the Sherborne Mercury carried a series of notices requesting information on apprentices who had run away from their masters. The descriptions gave their heights. If we take all the young men listed aged 18 to 20, we find their median height was five foot, six and half inches, ranging from the shortest at five foot to the tallest at five foot, ten. The likes of Richard Trevithick, six foot in height, would have been a rarity at this time.

We are fortunate in that there exists a set of data for this same period giving the heights of recruits to the English army aged 18 to 20. This tells us their mean heights from the 1760s to 1830s varied from five foot, three inches to five foot, seven, no taller than our Cornish sample. Incidentally, this compares with a mean adult height nowadays in the UK of five foot, ten inches for men and five foot, four and a half inches for women.

What about further back in time? According to a paper from researchers at Oxford University, the average height in England peaked in the mid-1600s, before falling back to a low point in the early 1800s. Earlier, around the time of the Norman Conquest, they estimate the mean height of men was just over five foot, seven inches, if anything slightly taller than in 1800. This was, however, an increase on the average height of five foot, five inches for men in Roman Britain.

This makes some skeletons discovered at Padstow a few years back of interest. These remains have been dated to between 666 and 876 and included three adult men and three adult women. One man was six foot and the others around five foot, six and a half inches. The height of the three women varied from five foot, two and a half inches to five foot, five. These results are not markedly shorter than the average for the time and, if anything, a bit taller.

Maybe the Cornish weren’t shorter than average after all.