Towednack: all gone

Towednack was an unambiguously mining parish in the middle of the 1800s. Three quarters of the men in the cottages scattered over the downs of this parish south and west of St Ives were employed in the local tin mines. However, when Cornish mining began to catch a cold Towednack suffered a severe bout of flu. Its population plummeted from over 900 in 1861 to fewer than 300 by 1911. This was one of the biggest collapses seen in any Cornish parish over these years and a depopulation on the scale of the contemporary west of Ireland or rural southern Italy.

The scale of the exodus explains why just seven of the 13 children of the parish born around 1850 and present in our database, have been traced, a relatively low proportion. The missing persons were most likely to be emigrants and probably young single emigrants who were prone to disappear from the historical record without trace.

Looking north over Towednack parish these days

Emily Pearce was a typical example. Emily’s father William – a tin miner – and her mother Christiana were bringing up their family in Ludgvan in 1851 but they had moved to Georgia in Towednack by 1861. Emily joined the growing stream of emigrants around 1870, marrying Henry Donald from Perranuthnoe in 1871 after arriving in New Jersey. Henry was an iron miner in 1880 at Randolph, New Jersey and by 1890 a coal miner at Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania. It was in the latter state that Emily died in 1919.

Some Towednack children headed east into England, although fewer than the number choosing routes to the west or to the southern hemisphere. Matthew Thomas was the son of a tin miner at Nancledra in the parish. Unusually for the offspring of a mining family, Matthew turned to domestic service, finding work as a groom in Penzance in 1871. He then moved to Eastbourne in Sussex, marrying Mary Wichens there in 1874 and described as a coachman in 1881.

Was Matthew’s cab like this one, photographed at Redruth around the turn of the century?

By 1891 Matthew had left domestic service and become the proud owner of a cab. The number of cabs (and horses to pull them) in the UK had actually risen over the course of the nineteenth century despite the revolution in transport wrought by the railway. While the trains quickly monopolised long-distance travel, cabs were still essential for short journeys and for taking people to and from railheads. Indeed, the two – railways and horse cabs – were complementary even within Matthew’s household. His son was a railway goods messenger while there was also a railway clerk boarding with the family.

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