Three golden ages and six turning points: a history of Cornwall in 500 words

Yesterday, I was asked to give a short talk on the history of Cornwall. How do you sum up 2,000 years of history in 45 minutes? Tricky. This was my attempt.

A golden age is a period of victory or defeat (or both) which later becomes mythologised and looked back on with pride. A turning point is a time when the flow of history seems to change course.

Cornwall’s first golden age was between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the arrival of the English in the 800s. This was when Cornwall had an independent existence. At first it was the centre of a larger kingdom of Dumnonia, with an elite trading post at Tintagel and colonies in Brittany. When the Mediterranean trade dried up it became a decentralised collection of communities bound together by early Christianity rather than by kings and administrators.

Three turning points then occurred over the next half millennium. The Normans arrived in 1070 and gradually extended their overlordship from their early base in the far east at Launceston. Population, trade and towns grew until the shock of the Black Death in 1349. Cornwall recovered rather better than other places. It was during the late 1300s and 1400s that the Cornish language held its own after an earlier retreat, backed by the patronage of Church and Crown. The third turning point arrived with the religious reformation of the 1530s.

This heralded Cornwall’s second golden age, one viewed by some as a romantic period of struggle against the encroaching English state. Risings in 1497 and 1549 both failed, their leaders executed for treason. Yet in 1642 the Cornish avenged themselves. They became the spearhead of the royalist army of the west, thus unfortunately backing the wrong side in the British civil wars. The following century was more subdued, at least politically.

Another turning point followed in the 1730s, when steam technology began to be applied to the long-established business of mining. Deep copper mining drove the precociously early industrialisation of Cornwall, its third golden age. This created a distinctive rural-industrial society, where elements of the new and the traditional were stitched together. Population growth and new settlements laid the ground for the enthusiastic reception of John Wesley and the wholesale transfer of allegiance to a vigorous, revivalist Methodism. Meanwhile, Cornish engineers were raising the efficiency of steam engines to hitherto undreamt-of heights in the generation after 1810.

The fifth turning point brought this to a juddering halt in the 1870s when a calamitous fall in the price of copper made its mining uneconomic. Tin mining survived but underwent periodic crises, as in the 1890s or 1920s. Population fell as emigrants fled to the mining frontiers of the New World. The first wave in the 1840s and 1850s had sought a better life on the basis of the demand for their mining expertise. The second wave had little choice but to go as opportunities closed down at home.

A century of de-industrialisation was ended by the final turning point – the counter-urbanisation that set in from the 1960s onwards. This began half a century of mass migration to Cornwall, when it became a preferred site for holidaying and second homes. Demographic change accompanied a social transformation that we are still living through and struggling to cope with.

Did the mass migration after the 1960s threaten the Cornish identity or stimulate its renaissance?

Pondering on potatoes

There’s some potato harvesting going on nearby. A bit different from the 18th century however. Now heavily mechanised, then it would have been labour intensive, the fields full of people rather than a few lumbering tractors and their associated gizmos.

Potato cultivation was widespread in Cornwall by the 1750s. An observer in the early 1800s wrote that it was the ‘blessing of the poor … cheap, wholesome and nutritious’. As in Ireland, it helped to feed a rapidly growing population. Unlike Ireland, in Cornwall the labouring poor also had resort to salted pilchards. So the effect of the potato blight in 1845, although helping to trigger the last occasion of widespread food rioting in 1847, was not disastrous.

The 1790s and war with France made grain imports difficult and resulted in high prices. The period saw an extension of potato production as a result. This was mainly by small farmers for the market and smallholders in the mining districts for their own consumption. According to the Cornish historian Samuel Drew, writing in the early 1820s, farmers in west Cornwall were planting two crops of potatoes a year. Kidney potatoes were planted in December and taken up in May. The second crop of potatoes went in at the end of April or beginning of May and might be harvested as late as December.

The spring crop was the forerunner of the early potato trade. Farmers in the Penzance district began to grow potatoes with an eye on upcountry markets. As early as 1808 it was reported that Cornish farmers were supplying potatoes to Plymouth, Portsmouth and London. That early potato trade really began to get under way with the introduction of steamers in 1837 when boats from Hayle and Falmouth began to pick up potatoes from Mounts Bay and deliver to the London market. After the 1850s of course, the railway took over.

Potato harvesting at Gulval, early 20th century