The Great Emigration

Cornwall was one of Europe’s major emigration regions between the 1840s and the 1910s. The impact of emigration on Cornish society was seen in the tendency to attach the word ‘great’ to the word emigration and its interpretation as a heroic outpouring of Cornish skills and energy across the globe. While post-colonial doubts and chronic twentieth-century economic problems have to an extent blunted that imperial self-congratulation, the process of mass emigration irrevocably shaped modern Cornwall.

Another measure of its impact is to assume that the migration had not occurred and ask what the population of Cornwall might have been had it grown at the same rate as England’s. The answer is 1,240,000. As the current estimated population total, even after half a century of well over average growth, is around 550,000 this implies that Cornwall would have been a mightily crowded land.

How many went? The table below shows the net migration totals from Cornwall in the period 1850 to 1900.

Net overseas migration Net migration to England/Wales Total
1850s          28,000 (est)         15,400 (est) 43,400 (est)
1860s 38,100 15,900 54,000
1870s 35,700 37,500 73,200
1880s 30,000   7,000 37,000
1890s 14,800 22,200 37,000

If we assume a return rate of between a quarter and a third, we may well be looking at an absolute figure of between 285,000 and 310,000 people leaving Cornwall in those decades. In this table the net overseas total will include a number of those who left for England and Wales in previous decades, meaning that in fact the numbers who went directly to the mining and farming frontiers overseas was about the same as the number going to England or Wales, about one in six of whom then later emigrated overseas. Nevertheless, in most decades more Cornish went overseas than to England or Wales. They were predominantly young – aged from 15 to 30 – and around 60 per cent of them men. The exceptional decades were the 1870s and 1890s when economic crises in mining triggered a greater desire to emigrate although people could not afford to travel overseas. As an alternative many went north to the coalfields of south Wales and Durham, the iron mines of Cumbria and the factories of Lancashire and Yorkshire, intending to use those places as stepping stones for their journey overseas.

The history of the Cornish mining industry is key to understanding the history of Cornish emigration. As early as the 1820s Cornish miners were sought after for their skills and migrated, often on temporary contracts, to Central and South America as well as to metal mines in Wales and northern England. In the 1830s and 40s, this trickle became a flood as mass emigration began to North America. Some of this was at first from marginal and impoverished farming districts in north Cornwall but the majority was from mining areas that at this time were still growing. Later, when the economic tide turned against Cornish mining in the 1870s, it was the declining rural mining parishes that supplied the bulk of migrants.

Most emigrants from the 1840s to the 1870s went to Australia or North America, although the Australian stream was reduced thereafter while emigration to the States continued at a high level. In the 1890s there was a short-term surge to South Africa as gold mines were opened up in the Transvaal. By the 1900s inter-continental movement of Cornish miners was well-established, moving between overseas destinations and returning to Cornwall, depending on the changing fortunes of the global mining economy.

The late nineteenth century figure of the rambling miner was always accompanied however by the movement of families and non-miners, more often to the growing industrial regions of urbanising England, complementing an older tradition of female migrants and craftsmen to towns such as Plymouth, Bristol, Portsmouth and London.

For a more detailed description and quantitative analysis of Cornwall’s migration system in the nineteenth century see here.