Germoe: coping with crisis

After a run of coastal parishes, we’re back in mining country. Germoe is a small parish in terms of area, almost entirely surrounded by its big brother Breage and consequently often ignored. However, the struggle of Germoe folk after the 1860s is indicative of the adaptations that Cornish people had to undertake when mining began its drawn-out decline. In that way it was central to the question that drove the Victorian Lives project. How did people react and adapt to the economic changes of the third quarter of the nineteenth century?

The economic crisis caused by the contraction of mining was felt most keenly in rural industrial parishes such as Germoe where there were few alternative occupations. The population of the parish collapsed from over 1,000 in 1861 to just 347 by 1901. The number of men working as miners in the parish went from 218 (or 80 per cent of the total) in 1861 to 56 (or 40 per cent) in 1891.

So how did people adapt to these changing times? One option was to switch occupations. John and Jane Mollard were aged around 30 in 1851. In 1861 John was working at the mine with two sons underground and a daughter on the surface dressing tin. Another daughter, Alice, one of our database, was still at home and going to school.

In 1867 John died, leaving his wife and grown-up children, who all worked at local tin mines in 1871, including by this time Alice. Ten years later and Alice was still at home, but now working in the fields as a farm labourer as mine work dried up. A younger sister – Elizabeth – was living with Alice, her mother and another sister. Elizabeth had married a mason, but he had gone abroad in search of work, leaving her to cope with three young children. That would have been a lot easier with the help of her family. A year later Alice married John Henry Williams – an agricultural labourer – and her connection with mining was severed, although she remained in the parish of her birth.

Coniston Water, near to which James was living in the mid-1870s

The other option was to leave. James Johns‘ father John was a miner, working in Perranzabuloe at the aptly named Silverwell in 1851. John must have been a competent miner as he was employed as a mine captain by 1861, by which time the family had moved to the churchtown at Germoe. The census of 1871 found John, his wife Jane and James living in nearby Crowan. Perhaps John could sense the way things were going and advised his son to take up another calling. This James did, becoming a carpenter. In the early 1870s, during the serious economic depression that gripped the Cornish mining districts in those years, James left for northern England. He married Mary Forsyth, from Dalton in Furness, in 1877 and the couple’s first child was born at Coniston in the Lake District. Between 1878 and 1881 they moved to Glossop in Derbyshire, where James was a cabinet maker, employing one man. Perhaps that venture was not a success or perhaps Mary was homesick, as they were back in Furness, at Barrow, by 1886. And there James remained, employed as a house carpenter, although the 1911 census states he was working as a carpenter at Barrow steelworks.

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