St Agnes: travels and travails

The generation born around 1850 in St Agnes could have had little inkling of the economic disaster that lay in store for them. In 1851 71 per cent of the adult men of the parish worked on and in the tin and copper mines of the parish, one of the most intensive concentrations of miners in Cornwall. Over half of employed women found work as bal maidens. Yet by 1881 the numbers of miners had halved, bal maidens were fast becoming a rarity and copper just a memory.

Although mining for copper became a thing of the past in St Agnes in the later 1800s, local tin mines survived and the district remained one of Cornwall’s mining districts into the 1920s. This is Wheal Kitty in 1903.

In these circumstances, there was only thing for it – leave. And this is what many did. The population of St Agnes fell from over 6,600 in 1851 to just over 4,200 by 1891. Of 13 men born around 1850 who are present in the Victorian Lives database and who were still alive in 1891, nine were living in the United States with only two still found in Cornwall. (No doubt many of the 22 untraced men in the database had also emigrated.) Meanwhile, women were somewhat less likely to emigrate; one in four were living in North America with seven left in Cornwall.

Thomas Cook, from Mithian in St Agnes, was one of those who left. He had emigrated in 1868, a couple of years after the first economic storm hit. Landing up in the already populous Cornish colony at Houghton in Michigan, he married Mary Bennetts, another emigrant, originally from Ludgvan. The couple brought their five children up in Michigan, where Thomas, still working as a miner, died of an embolism of the lung in 1907, a week after being operated on for appendicitis.

Thomas Cook’s death certificate

If miners wished to carry on mining but not go overseas they had to head north. Elizabeth Barkle was the daughter of John, a tin miner, and his wife Eleanor. John and Eleanor and some of the family moved to Cumbria, probably during the depressed year of 1873. In 1874 Elizabeth married Thomas Parsons from Illogan, who had also made the move to the north of England. Thomas was an iron miner and the pair brought up their growing family while continuing to live at Dalton-in-Furness into the new century. Usually, once settled for a few decades, migrants stayed put, but Thomas and Elizabeth were an exception. During the short-lived mining recovery after 1906 they returned to Cornwall. Thomas, along with his married son Edward, found work at the Basset Mines at Carnkie and a home a mile or so away in Trefusis Road, Redruth.

Afternoon core at the Basset Mines in the inter-war years. Would one or more of Thomas Parsons’ sons have been among them?

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