‘Away in America’

In the early nineteenth century Crowan was a booming mining parish. Its population rose from just under 2,600 in 1801 to peak at over 4,600 in the mid-1840s. Well over half of the households with a male head were working in or on the mines in 1851. While the slumps of the later 1860s and the mid-1870s had reduced this by 1881, about a third of the male household heads were still employed in the mines in 1881.

Yet not all the households were headed by men. In 1851 one in five households had no male head. Four-fifths of the women heading them were widows, with a tenth unmarried and another tenth married but with an absent husband. Most of the latter were probably away working, as ‘husband a miner in Africa’ on one census entry indicates. Although not all were miners. There was one ’farm labourer’s wife’ for example. The median age of the married women was quite old, at 39, with only two under 30.

Things had changed by 1881. There was a disproportionate growth in the number of households headed by women, now amounting to a third of the total. The proportion of widows had fallen and both unmarried and married heads risen. The 35 married heads included four whose husbands were stated to be ‘abroad’, one ‘away in America’ and one a ‘gold miner’s wife’. Another eight were described as miners’ wives. The ages of the married heads were again quite high, at an average of 41, with only two under 30. This no doubt reflects the greater ability or willingness of young married women to migrate, while the additional presence of children made this option less likely.

By the 1880s Crowan was therefore sharing deeply in Cornwall’s migration culture, with husbands regularly disappearing overseas, some temporarily, some permanently. Some wives joined them, some expected their return and others eventually heard that their husbands had died and they had become widows.

A simplified map of Cornwall’s emigration network

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