Wendron: two exceptional emigrants

Most mining parishes in Cornwall saw at least a quarter of the generation born in the mid-nineteenth century leave for places overseas. In that regard Wendron was no exception. In 1861 around two thirds of its adult men were employed in the mines of the parish, most of them in pursuit of tin. By the end of the century the percentage was far lower, with many Wendron men and women having gone abroad in the meantime as the mines closed down around them. The proportion remaining in Wendron itself (around one in three) was actually rather higher than usual, partly because many families in mid-century Wendron combined mining with smallholdings and they clung on to their stake in the land for as long as possible.

Basset and Grylls Mine in Wendron around the beginning of the 1900s

While most emigrants trod the familiar paths to North America and Australasia the Wendron children of 1861 found in our database provide two exceptions to that rule. John Henry Martin had been born in the neighbouring parish of Stithians in 1850 but his father, a carpenter, took his family over the parish boundary to Wendron sometime in the late 1850. John learnt the carpenter’s trade but in the 1870s responded to another calling and became a Methodist missionary. Sent to Kenya in 1877, according to a newspaper report John trekked through jungle and rivers to reach a sick colleague who he then nursed back to health. Unfortunately, in doing this he contracted malaria, was taken back to the coast and died in 1879 at Ribe near Mombasa.

From east Africa we move to South Africa and from the Bible to the gun. James Frederick Penaluna was the son of a copper miner in the north of Wendron parish, born at Lancarrow near the village of Four Lanes. He then turned up in Plymouth running an inn for a spell. He must then have gone to South Africa, where the gold mines were beginning to attract numbers of miners from Cornwall.

In 1899 the Boer War broke out between the British and the two Boer republics. The largest of these, the Transvaal or South African Republic, was by this time the temporary home of hundreds of Cornish miners attracted to its gold mines. Most of them are said to have left for home when the war broke out and rarely took an active part in it.

Mounted infantry during the Boer War. These were South Australian but the South African force would have been equipped in similar fashon

James Penaluna was an exception. He joined the colonial armed forces in 1899 and served as a trooper with an irregular force of mounted infantry. These units were used to hunt down the Boer guerrillas who fought a bitter and protracted two-year campaign against the occupying British forces. During this time, the British adopted a scorched earth policy, in the process leading the way into the twentieth century by inventing the concentration camp.

After the war, James seems to have travelled several times to and from South Africa, returning periodically to his wife and, after her death, to his daughter in Redruth. In 1910 he made his final trip, dying a few months after returning to Witwatersrand Mine in the Western Cape. Gold mining had not made James’ fortune as he left just £108 (around £14,000 nowadays) to his daughter.

Record of award of medal to James Penaluna during the Boer War

One thought on “Wendron: two exceptional emigrants

  1. A fascinating delve into the colonial story.

    Incidentally the Reverend Densham spent some years in South Africa (around 1920), visiting a brother who got killed by a buffalo at some point, and I believe that the Rev Den’s great interest in Gandhi – and his own deep compassion, vegetarianism and non-violence (very like ahimsa) stemmed from his stay on the Cape where everyone would still have been talking about Gandhi. Gandhi spent quite some time in South Africa where he became a revolutionary.

    Ahimsa is very different to the brutal wars you describe above!


    Ahimsa: Ahimsa (also ahiṃsā, ahinsa, Sanskrit:अहिम्स) is a Sanskrit word which means “non-violence” or “non-injury”. The practice of ahimsa is an important aspect of religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. A person who practices ahimsa generally eats vegetarian foods. A religious person who practices ahimsa does not take part in animal sacrifice.


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