Kea: when the fish and tin had gone, what did the Cornish boys do?

When South Crofty mine closed in the late 1990s some poignant graffiti appeared on a wall.

So what did ‘Cornish boys’ do when the mines were no longer the obvious career route? One option, as we have seen, was to follow the mines overseas. Another was to stay put, or move within the UK, and change occupation.

Kea was a mixed rural mining and farming parish stretching from the mining villages of Blackwater and Chacewater east to the Fal estuary. The health of the local mines began to falter in the later 1860s and in the 1870s and afterwards recurrent depressions became the norm.

Some miners, often with smallholdings, had always been adept at switching to the traditional alternative of farming. John Wasley was born into a mining family originally from St Blazey that had moved west to Kea in the early 1840s. By the age of 11 John was already working and described, as was his father and a brother, as a ‘miner’. This implied he was underground as a sister working on the mine surface was distinguished by the occupational description ‘mine work’. John was still mining in 1871 by which time the family had moved to the newer settlement of Baldhu in the parish.

But, by 1881, John, who had married Mary Grose in 1872, had moved to the neighbouring parish of Kenwyn at Three Burrows, north of Truro and was described as a tea dealer. Ten years later he was a farmer. A gap in the children born to John and Mary between 1877 and 1883 might suggest a spell spent overseas when John made the money to venture into farming or expand an existing smallholding.

The Carnon Valley downstream from Bissoe which is in the upper right of this aerial photo

This was not the case for Joseph Jeffery. Joseph had been born in Kea in 1849 and was also working at a mine by 1861. Marrying young in 1871 Joseph and his wife Christen first lived at Bissoe in the Carnon Valley. However, sometime between 1876 and 1879 Joseph and Christen and their young family departed for Parton on the Cumbrian coast. There in 1881 Joseph was making his living by being an agent for one of the insurance companies that were rapidly expanding their business in the later 1800s in the absence of a welfare state. Joseph died in Cumbria at the relatively young age of 38.

4 thoughts on “Kea: when the fish and tin had gone, what did the Cornish boys do?

  1. Thinking of the man who tried to become a tea dealer as an escape from the mines .. (and escape is the word) …

    My ancestors on both sides of my father’s parents were miners and (women) working in cotton mills around Kearsley and Manchester (1840s-1910s) approx. Whilst they had different life trajectories, it is clear some tried to get out of mining through trying to become grocers. In one tragic case one of my ancestors tried to run such a shop for a short while but failed and was killed in a massive mine accident only three weeks after going “underground” again.

    On the other side of the FT my great grandfather Joseph (1846-1920) worked underground during his childhood and into his twenties or so. His first wife – it is horrible – lost 5 children aged 0 to 3 – three lived – before dying herself at 38 (no doubt in childbirth as there is a roughly 18 month succession between childbearing events and her own death). This incredible and appalling death rate is matched by her brother’s experience who also lost many children (but surely it is the women who truly suffered through continual pregnancy and childbirth and loss).

    In the statistics provided so far through this amazing research in Cornwall, I don’t think we see these horrific deathrates. There may have been peaks due to scarlet fever or similar but not this grinding down over two decades or so of childbearing.

    Joseph’ second wife (my great gran who died in 1936) and Joseph got out of mining through opening a grocery and baker and then a grocery and drapers. Both are mentioned in these occupations in the census. They evidently succeeded as they had their shop for many years.

    So, the date being presented in the Victorian lives series related to Cornwall has some overlaps and some divergences from the lives of working class people living at the same time around Manchester who were also in mining. Both seem to have tried to “get out” but in the Manchester case fishing and farming were not fallback options, and disease and death may have been rampant due to the close living conditions, lack of innoculations etc.


  2. Hello Bernard , my name is Alan Caddy. There is not many of us about here in Australia. I think we came from three Cornish brothers who were miners, Edwin , my middle name, is my grand father’s name. From what I have learned they came from Currie. I don’t know if that’s the correct spelling. Best regards Bernie , Alan


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