In the mid-1800s Gwithian, on the eastern shore of St Ives Bay, was a quiet backwater, before dynamite works made it rather noisier for a short time from the 1880s. The expanse of bleak towans bordering the sea was home to wildlife not people, while seals basked undisturbed in the coves near Godrevy Point. It was an uncrowded landscape that had seen little excitement since the production of the distinctive post-Roman pottery of west Cornwall known as Gwithian-ware.
While wide open spaces dominated outdoors, it was a different matter in many of the small cottages dotted around the parish. These could sometimes be exceedingly overcrowded. Ann Goninan was born in one of these cottages, shared with her parents William and Grace and their four other children in 1851. In 1861 Ann was already out at work ‘at the mine’. At that census she and a brother were living with their grandparents, although their parents were still alive and still in the parish. But with seven other children competing for space this was a sensible strategy to ease overcrowding. Ann married Edward Roberts from St Anthony on the opposite coast of Cornwall. Edward was a farm labourer and herdsman. The couple, with their steadily expanding family, moved regularly but only short distances within the neighbouring parish of Phillack.
Grace Cock was another Gwithian girl born into a large family headed by copper miner Josiah Cock, who gave up mining in the 1850s and turned to farm labouring. In 1861 there were eight children with ages ranging from two to 23 plus their parents in what must have been an overcrowded house. One of Grace’s brothers eased the overcrowding by moving to Australia but sadly died in 1868 aged only 24.
Perhaps this put Grace and her other siblings off emigrating and she married Henry Andrewartha in 1875. Henry was a tin miner who managed to continue to scrape together a living from mining in the difficult years of the 1880s and early 1890s. Henry and Grace had no children which meant that their three roomed cottage at Connor Downs served them fine. Indeed, in 1891 they had taken in a widowed uncle, a retired engineman who had lost his sight. They were still in Connor Downs in 1911, although Henry had given up mining by then and was making a living as a self-employed mason.
Overcrowding is now a thing of the past – indoors at least. Connor Downs is by far the largest settlement in the parish, with many new houses recently built. However, beyond it, in the more rural and coastal parts, in 2011 up to 40 per cent of the houses had no usual resident, being second homes or holiday houses. Overcrowding has now been transferred outdoors. The endemic congestion caused by flocks of people who regularly descend on Gwithian’s coast summer and winter, parking on any available spot, walking their dogs, gawping at the lighthouse and annoying the colony of seals, could surely never have been imagined by Ann Goninan or Grace Cock.