The parish of Illogan is in the heart of what was once called Cornwall’s Central Mining District, serving as a useful barrier between the towns of Camborne and Redruth. It is the location of South Crofty, the last working Cornish tin mine, which closed in the early 1990s. On the coast we find Portreath, formerly known as Basset’s Cove. Now the resort of choice for Redruth residents on a rare sunny day, in Victorian times it was a busy industrial port, Sir Francis Basset having poured money into its pier and harbour in the 1780s and 1800s.
Coal porters and dock labourers made up over 40 per cent of the labour force of the village in 1861, working to shift the coal and other goods from the ships that succeeded in negotiating the narrow and perilous entrance to the port. Mary Mitchell was the daughter of a coal porter, living in Railway Terrace in 1861. Mary married Richard Barrett, a miner, in 1870 and the couple left Portreath to live in Camborne.
In the early 1870s they joined Mary’s younger brother John and his wife and the two families made the trip north to Durham, where the men got work in the coal mines. In 1881 the two families of nine people shared a house. By 1891 they were in different houses. Mary and Richard, their six children and an adult niece of Richard’s were living cheek by jowl in a three roomed house at Cornsay, Durham.
The number of dock labourers and coal heavers in Portreath in 1861 was equalled by the combined total of farm labourers and mariners. James Henry Mayne was the son of a mariner, also called James, living in River Row, Portreath. James followed in his father’s footsteps, being recorded as a mate aboard the SS Fanny off the Durham coast in 1881. He had married Emily Violet Chappel three years earlier. While James was away at sea Emily was living in Kingsteignton in Devon with her mother, originally from Truro.
By 1891 the couple had settled at Newport in Gwent, where James was master of a steam tug. During the 1890s he gave up his maritime activities and turned to running a sailors’ home, moving to the general ‘refreshment business’ in another part of Newport by 1911. James’ transition from seagoing to catering mirrored the changes in his proletarian home village in the later twentieth century. Then, the rows of terraced cottages on both sides of the valley got overshadowed by more expensive and grandiose housing up the hillsides. Meanwhile, the coal yard was swept away to make room for new housing, around a quarter of which are second homes or holiday lets.