‘The dialect of the people grew more provincial’: the east Cornish mining boom of the 1840s

The 1840s was the first decade for over a century in which population growth in Cornwall, fuelled by the growth of mining, abruptly slowed down. In the 1840s mass emigration began from Cornwall to places overseas. But that overseas movement, stimulated by the economic difficulties of the later 1840s, has masked a parallel contemporary migration stream within Cornwall from the west to the east.

In 1837 rich copper deposits were found at Caradon Hill on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor. This was quickly followed by the discovery of valuable lead reserves a few miles to the south east at Menheniot. The two parishes of St Cleer and Menheniot, together with the town of Liskeard between them, then became the focus of a flock of miners from the west, seeking work in the new mines.

The map below dramatically shows this movement. It displays all those parishes that in 1851 had provided at least ten lifetime migrants to the three parishes of St Cleer, Menheniot and Liskeard borough. The usual short-distance migration was supplemented by equal, if not stronger, flows from the mining districts of St Austell in mid-Cornwall and from further west. It’s noticeable that the strongest flows came from rural mining parishes such as Kenywn and Kea to the west of Truro, St Agnes, Breage and St Hilary. These were also the places that suffered the greatest depopulation in the next economic depression in the late 1860s and 1870s.

The arrival of miners from the west was not always welcomed. John Allen, who wrote a History of Liskeard in 1856, noted that ‘the house accommodation proved very insufficient, small cottages and single rooms became frightfully crowded – fever and immorality were the natural consequences. All kinds of provisions met a ready sale, the markets were thronged, the roads were worn into dangerous ruts, the dialect of the people grew more provincial and Cornish than before, and the singing tone of the West was imported with full effect’

Some years earlier, in 1849, John Allen had been less diplomatic in a talk given to the Liskeard Mutual Improvement Society. ‘These rascals by their uncouth manners, abominable dialect and cheating habits have considerably altered the face of society in this town … I do not wish to bear too hard on any class, but truth compels me to assert whatever the cause may be, that as bigger a set of scoundrels than the miners never trod this lower world’.

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