Some short lives at Illogan

Not every Cornish miner died young. On the other hand not many lived to their allotted span of three score years and ten. The median age of miners in Illogan parish in 1861 was just 24. This means that half the miners were younger than 24 and the other half older. The Cornish mines workforce was a predominantly young one. Only 10 per cent were aged over 50.  

Palmer’s engine house at South Crofty around 1900. The Cornish mines were kept going by a young workforce
William Penaluna’s moves in Camborne

A handful of the Illogan boys in the Victorian Lives database carried on mining until their 50s or close to it. William Penaluna was one, having been born in 1850, the son of a copper miner at Stithians. By the age of 11 William was already working as a copper miner, by now at Carnkie working the Great Flat Lode. In 1870, like many young miners, he was earning sufficient to get married. So he wedded Clara Ann Rabling. The young couple moved to Camborne, William living successively at Albert Street, Centenary Row and Adelaide Street.

Clara did not live to sample the pleasures of life at Adelaide Street or possibly even Centenary Row either as she died before 1878. William then married Elizabeth Cornish as he continued working in the local mines. His 20 year old son Ernest was killed in a mine accident at Stray Park shaft in 1900 but life went on for William who had married for a third time in 1888 to Eliza Hicks, on the death of his second wife. William survived until 1905, still working as a tin miner according to the 1901 census.

Francis Piper was another Illogan resident in 1861, living in the back part of Higher Pumpfield Row at Pool. Born at Liskeard, his father Richard had been lured from his home parish of St Agnes to the booming lead mines of east Cornwall in the 1850s. After returning west to the tin mines of Illogan, Richard died in 1867. His widow moved back with Francis to St Agnes, the two of them living at Trevellas Downs, while Francis worked in the local tin mines.

Trevellas Downs nowadays, any remaining miners’ cottages having been removed to make way for a WW2 airfield in 1941

He married Rose Wills, a local girl, in 1872 but left soon after their daughter Annie was born in 1873. At least one return trip must have occurred in the late 1870s as another daughter was born in 1880, despite the absence of Francis from the 1881 census. Rose soon joined him overseas, a son being born in Michigan in 1883. However, a year later they were all back at Trevellas Downs, two more children arriving before the 1891 census, when Francis was described as a ‘gold miner’. There weren’t too many opportunities for gold miners in St Agnes but we don’t know if Francis went overseas again before his demise in 1896, aged 46.

Mining wasn’t the only occupation with a poor life expectancy. In 1861 William Phillips died in Illogan parish aged just 11 and a year later he was followed by John Francis at Illogan Downs, aged 12. Both these boys had been employed as ‘ropers’ in 1861. What was so dangerous about ropemaking?

4 thoughts on “Some short lives at Illogan

  1. As ever, very interesting.

    But regarding the two young boys (ropemakers) – surely rapid demises in a community could be to do with cholera or scarlet fever or another such illness? I wonder if it is possible to map oubreaks of disease with unexpected mortality over the age of five?


  2. There were many hazards to ropemaking as this article in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine from 1951 shows. One can imagine that the working conditions were far worse one hundred years previously.
    “The Hazards of Ropemaking” by James A. Smiley

    Click to access 265.full.pdf


    1. The article is remarkably interesting. I had not the remotest idea of ropemaking and how strenuous it is / was.


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