Deindustrialisation and depopulation: the 1860s to the 1950s

In the mid-1860s a major collapse in the price of copper triggered the rapid decline of the mining of that metal. From being Cornwall’s major ore, copper became entirely insignificant within 20 years. As a result of this disaster, the population of Cornwall fell by almost 13% within a generation.

With tin prices also suffering in the prolonged depression of the mid to late 1870s, that decade was the worst. Crisis conditions led to enforced out-migration and soup kitchens in Cornish towns. People did not, as before, head mainly overseas as families lacked the money to pay for the voyage. Instead, migration to the coal and iron mines and textile factories of northern England or the booming mining region of south Wales took its place, as people fled Cornwall in order to make their living.

popn change 1861-91

Things calmed down a little after the disastrous 1870s but population went on falling in the 1880s – by another 3%. The worst hit areas were the rural, mining parishes. Boom times were followed by bust in the copper and lead mining districts around Liskeard and Callington, and the population collapsed in rural Penwith. But even in these dire times, three areas in particular managed to buck the trend. Penzance, Falmouth and Launceston all grew while Falmouth had the added benefit of the expansion of local shipbuilding.

popn change 1891-1921

From 1891 to 1921, while most parts of Cornwall saw continuing population falls, the south east experienced a rise on the back of the growth of Plymouth, across the river in Devon. A second area to gain people was mid-Cornwall, where the clay industry grew rapidly in these years, in contrast to underground mining. However, the most spectacular rise was seen in the Newquay district. Although exaggerated by the rather later date of the 1921 Census, which captured many more temporary visitors than usual, it’s noticeable that other tourist destinations also saw population growth in these decades around the First World War. The writing was appearing on the wall.

popn change 1921-51

The population in Cornwall in 1951 was 8% higher than in 1921. Yet this apparent rise was solely the result of special wartime circumstances, when Cornwall’s place in the front line for D-Day resulted in a large, albeit temporary, rise in the population. In fact, after 1945, the demographic pattern of a slow fall re-asserted itself. Despite a welcome decline in unemployment after the tribulations of the inter-war years, Cornwall continued to export its surplus labour to the factories and offices of welfare state Britain.