Heading for the bright lights

In the 1800s in the British Isles there was a general drift from the countryside to the towns. We can see this process at work even in remote parishes such as Altarnun in east Cornwall. Altarnun has the distinction of being Cornwall’s largest parish. It includes farms, hamlets and villages scattered below the northern and eastern flanks of Bodmin Moor and sprawls up to take in large chunks of the high moors. The parish was also remarkable in that 13 of 15 11-year olds living there in 1851 were still alive in 1891, and all still in the British Isles. As we’ll discover in other parishes, this was an exceptionally high proportion traced.

But, while most of Altarnun’s offspring could still be found, they had by no means been immobile. For example, the one lost case – Emlin Doney – had disappeared in the 1880s after last appearing as a cook and master’s assistant at Totnes workhouse in Devon. Moreover, Mary Jeffery, born Jago, had died just a year before, probably in the neighbouring parish of Blisland, as that was her residence in the previous census.

Location of places mentioned in this blog

Another Mary, Mary Hayman, had already by 1861 made at least one move from her birth parish of Launcells on the border with Devon to the village of Five Lanes in Altarnun. There, her father Reuben had given up farming to become an innkeeper. In 1871, aged 55, he was described as ‘retired’ and had taken his family to live at Buckingham Place in Stonehouse, between Plymouth and Devonport.

Mary married Samuel Miller in Plymouth in 1873. In 1881 the pair cannot be found in the census but the record in the 1891 census of the birth of a 10-year old daughter in Ireland suggests they were in that country. Samuel’s presence in an increasingly restless Ireland, resentful of English rule, may not have been that welcome to its inhabitants as he was there as part of the military. For, in 1891, we find that he was an army officer living with his family at a barracks at Heston just outside London. At some point however, Mary returned to Plymouth, where her death was registered in 1909.

The fast-growing ‘three towns’ of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport, with their greater job opportunities, were clearly attractive destinations for folk from Altarnun, as they were for people from other rural parishes in east Cornwall. Five of our 13 survivors were living there in 1891, with only three left in Altarnun itself.

As an example, Thomas Tucker was the youngest of the seven children of Uriah, a farm labourer, and his wife Mary and grew up in 1851 and 1861 at the hamlet of West Carne. In 1871 Thomas had moved to another part of the parish where he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. By 1878 he had married Emma from north Devon and taken his trade to Devonport, where he was employed as a blacksmith at the barracks. Ten years later Thomas and his wife were sharing an overcrowded two-room apartment in Tavistock Street, Devonport with their four children and a nine-year old nephew.

From West Carne, now a quiet hamlet of neat and well manicured farm buildings
To the hustle and bustle of Tavistock Street

5 thoughts on “Heading for the bright lights

  1. Fascinating topic. Although they are difficult to trace, I’ve increasingly found relatives who moved (sometimes only temporarily) from the Camborne area to places over the Devon border like Devonport, Bere Ferrers etc, as early as the 1780s. A hundred years later my own great-grandfather moved from Camborne to Exeter to work as a prison warder.


  2. I have a similar pattern in my family tree. My earliest Downing ancestors can be traced to a marriage at Egloskerry in 1608. The family stayed in that area, and my great-grandfather Richard Downing (b. 1881) was one of five children born in Trewen or Lewannick. But after centuries of living within a radius of a few miles, there was a move. Beginning in 1886, 10 more siblings were born in St. Germans! The family lived in a tiny cottage at Cutmere, that now serves as a garden shed. Five of the boys, including my GGF, came to the U.S. or Canada. One of the girls went to China as a missionary, before settling in Australia. And another one of the girls moved to Australia with her husband.


  3. Your link that explained the initial process of people were moving between towns was enlightening. This trend before the permanent migration overseas suggests that there may have been multiple factors that created social unrest. It also explains why my 1841 NZ Symons and Morshead relations seemed to have a range of skills. I knew that the Cornish missionaries like William Colenso had multiple skills, it must have been a time of great learning.


  4. I was hoping that my grandmother’s eldest brother Henry Wadge born in Penpont Cottages in Altarnun in 1849 would be one of the alternate ones chosen for this study. He emigrated to Ballarat in the 1871 where he married Prothesia Jane Viant from Lamerton In Devon. He followed his mother’s brother William Reynolds who had emigrated there with his family to work in the mines a few years earlier.


    1. Henry must have just missed out on qualifying for the database or, if recorded as 11 years of age in that census, been one of the 50% not included – remember that it’s a one in two sample so doesn’t include everyone born in 1849/50. But interesting to learn of one overseas migrant from Altarnun.


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