St Just in Penwith: next stop, America

St Just can be found on the westernmost edge of the Cornish peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. In the 1800s it was sometimes said that the next parish to its west was America. This wasn’t just whimsy as St Just in the nineteenth century was anything but a remote, out of the way place. It was not unusual for its children to spend time in America or other mining frontiers across the world.

The copper and tin reserves of the parish that extended out under the ocean began to be exploited at depth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the mid-1800s the parish was a hive of activity. Smoke billowed from the engine houses although it was speedily dispersed by the ever-present breeze. The ancient small fields of the parish became scarred by mounds of attle (mine waste). The prehistoric stone monuments that are a feature of the local landscape were joined by rows of small cottages housing the growing mine labour force. The hammer of new foundries added to the thump and hiss of the steam engines, the rattle of carts carrying coal, timber and ore to and from the mines and the clatter of the stamps.

St Just has been described as a ‘bleak, grey town of chapels and stone buildings

The population of the parish peaked in the early 1860s at over 9,000. Almost four in five of those residents were directly dependent on the health of the local mines. By 1901 that health was not too vigorous. St Just was still a mining parish but the number of working mines had almost halved since the 1860s. As a consequence, the population had fallen to under 5,700. (It was fewer than 4,000 for a time in the 1960s and 70s.)

It comes as no surprise therefore to find that of the 72 St Just children in the database who were still alive in 1891 at least 27 were living overseas with only 31 still based in Cornwall. Some, such as James Grenfell from Trewellard, had gone to the States. He emigrated along with his grandmother, aged 65, in 1875. Once established in Gilpin County, Colorado, James married Jedidah Kent, who had been a neighbour back at Trewellard. Meanwhile, about the same number had ended up in Australasia as in North America.

Others, such as Catherine Trezise from Boscaswell settled in one of the English or Welsh coal mining districts. Catherine had been a tin dresser. After the death of her first husband in 1876 she moved to Gloucestershire, where she married Charles Nelmes, a local coal miner, and settled in the small mining district of the Forest of Dean.

Elizabeth Jane Waters
Thomas Leggo

Others went overseas or upcountry but then came back. Elizabeth Jane Waters was the daughter of a dairyman, farm labourer and cart driver at Botallack. Eschewing the local mines, she was in service in 1871 at the house of a retired merchant in St Just churchtown. Marriage in 1874 to Thomas Leggo, a miner, was rapidly followed by their departure for Pennsylvania, where in 1880 they were living in Hopewell, now a suburb of Pittsburgh. But at some time between 1888 and the census of 1891 Elizabeth Jane returned to Botallack with her six children, all born in America. Thomas had joined them by 1901 by which time he was renting a small farm at Nancherrow in the parish.

For a slice of St Just dialect in the 1970s here’s Ted Gundry ‘interviewing’Willy Warren and Billy Waters at St Just

4 thoughts on “St Just in Penwith: next stop, America

  1. Dear Mr Deacon
    Greetings and very best wishes.
    I have been reading your posts and enjoying them immensely for quite some time.
    Thank you so much for your wonderful work.
    I hope you and yours have a lovely Christmas and a wonderful new year.
    Sincerely Alan.
    Victoria Australia .


  2. Dear Mr Deacon,
    I am the Great Grandson of Thomas and Elizabeth Jane leggo, they were married on the 23 July 1873 at Pendeen and departed Bristol for America on the ship called ‘Arragon’ and arrived in New York 21 August 1873. Elizabeth Jane died at the end of 1932 aged 83 years and Thomas died early 1933 aged 81 years, both were still living at Nancherrow Farm.
    Kind regards
    N Paul Leggo.

    Liked by 1 person

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