St Cleer: to stay or not to stay, that is the question

Whether to stay overseas or return to Cornwall was a question that many Cornish emigrants grappled with. Some seem to have found it very difficult to answer.

The engine of St Cleer’s long-forgotten industrial boom times was South Caradon mine. Its remains stand as brooding testimony to its short 50 year existence, to the riches it made for some and the wages it supplied for many.

St Cleer was a mining parish in east Cornwall on the southern flanks of Bodmin Moor. Life in the parish was revolutionised when its copper reserves began to be tapped in 1837. The district boomed in the 1840s and early 50s. But the good times were relatively short-lived. The copper price crash of 1866 and subsequent depressions in the 1870s meant that many of the miners who had flocked to the parish were on the move again by the 1870s. Among them were two examples that neatly illustrate the dilemma of the Cornish emigrant.

We have already met examples of people who criss-crossed the Atlantic and even further afield in the course of their lifetime. Thomas Stephens from St Cleer was one. In actual fact, Thomas wasn’t from a mining family. His father was a shopkeeper in St Cleer village, doing well enough in 1850 when Thomas was born to employ not one but two domestic servants. Thomas’s parents were clearly intelligent enough to read the writing on the wall and left for America in the early 1870s, taking their five children, including Thomas, with them.

Thomas inherited his father’s entrepreneurial instincts and set himself up as a fruit dealer in Albany in New York State. Moreover, he was a frequent transatlantic traveller. In 1881 he was back in Cornwall, visiting St Germans. There, in September 1882 he married Fanny Polgreen and within a month the couple were on their way to Albany. That wasn’t the end of it. The family travelled to and fro several times after that, departures being recorded in 1894, 1900 and 1906.

The outward passenger list entry for Thomas, Fanny and their children on a boat from Southampton to New York in 1894

Nonetheless, Thomas Stephen’s steamship miles were put in the shade by William Pearn. William was from Duloe but married Emily Wasley from St Cleer. Emily was the daughter of a miner and had been born in Gwennap in west Cornwall but had accompanied her parents to the new mining district of St Cleer in the 1850s.

Emily and William were married in 1872 in New Jersey, where two children were born before Emily and maybe William returned to Cornwall around 1876. However, in both the 1881 and 1891 censuses William was absent, still in the States while Emily remained at Herodsfoot, south of Liskeard. Nonetheless, the periodic birth of children suggest that William was regularly around. This is confirmed by his obituary. His sons recalled that he was ‘unable to definitely determine to remain in Butte’, to which he had moved, working at first as a shoemaker and then running an inn. They claimed that William who, at over six feet and weighing above 200 pounds must have presented an imposing figure, had made an amazing 31 trips across the Atlantic and back. Eventually, in 1900, the entire family went back with him or over to join him at Butte, Montana.

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