At the start of the 19th century, Cornwall’s mining industry was thriving. The industrial revolution and the development of high-pressure steam power meant Cornish mining was becoming world-renowned for its sophistication.
The global mining industry was heavily influenced by Cornish miners for almost a century.
However, later that century, new deposits discovered across the world globalised the mining market, creating increased competition which took its toll on Cornwall’s industry. As the export of Cornish technology had enabled other countries to capitalise on the mining boom, so Cornish miners began to migrate in search of better pay and conditions.
A skilled workforce on the move
The extraordinary story of Cornish migration is inextricably linked to the rise and subsequent decline of its mining industry. Skilled Cornish miners had been migrating from the 1700s within Cornwall and then to other parts of the British Isles . In the early 1800s the industrial region of Cornwall and west Devon possessed the best contemporary mining expertise in Europe and had begun to export its technology, capital and skilled labour.
It was the export of high pressure steam engines perfected by Richard Trevithick and his contemporaries to the silver mines of Peru in 1814-18 that marked the transatlantic migration of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of the latest technology in less industrialised mining regions necessitated the export from Cornwall of everything from steam engines and boilers to ropes and crucibles together with the staff to mine, process, organise and administer these enterprises. This heralded the beginning of a modern, integrated global mining economy and paved the way for British capital investment in overseas mining enterprises from the early 1820s. As a result, the global mining industry was heavily influenced by Cornish miners for almost a century.
Lead, copper, gold and diamonds
The Cornish rehabilitated abandoned mines across Latin America in the 1820s and were the first real hard rock miners in the USA. They worked lead deposits in Wisconsin and Illinois and copper and lead deposits in Norway and Spain in the 1830s, as well as copper fields in South Australia and in Michigan in the 1840s.
Cornish mining technology aided the Californian gold rush.
Without the introduction of the Cornish engine, deep lode mining in California after the 1849 gold rush (e.g. Grass Valley and Nevada City) would have been considerably delayed. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in the late 1860s followed by the Transvaal gold rush a decade later created opportunities for significant migration from Cornwall in the three decades following the 1880s. The migration of Cornish miners gave rise to Cornish communities that are still active all over the world.
Today there are thought to be over 6 million people of Cornish descent worldwide.