A few years ago I researched my family tree extensively using a commercial genealogy website, parish and cemetery records and other census information I found online. It was a fascinating process and I was able to track down many of my ancestors to well before 1700. I discovered that both my father and mother’s families originated from rural areas in the counties of Cornwall and Devon, lying in the south western ‘toe’ of England.

Beautiful Cornwall

Unfortunately, I started my research long after my parents and grandparents had died, so I was unable to ask any older living family members about our ancestry. I spent many hours at the computer, studying census documents and contacting registry offices, requesting documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates.

1911 Census

It didn’t take long before I began to feel a strong affiliation with some of my great, great grandparents and beyond, even though I had obviously never known them personally. Reading about their lives was fascinating and they became real people to me, as opposed to simply names on a family tree. I also felt a powerful empathy towards them, learning how tragedy was a frequent visitor, poverty the norm and just how difficult their day to day lives had been. For instance, one of my great, great grandmothers had thirteen children, eight of whom died in infancy or before they were five. This was common in those days and infant mortality was extremely high, as was death in childbirth for women.

The pub at Pillaton

Last summer, I decided to travel to Cornwall in order to see for myself where many of my ancestors had grown up and discover more about how they had lived their lives. For some inexplicable reason I felt an overwhelming need within me to find out more about them, perhaps to learn more about my own identity and what makes me who I am.

Tiny cottages in Calstock

I visited many beautiful places mentioned in the census records, including Calstock, Gunnislake, Lezant and Pillaton. The little whitewashed cottages were just as they were when they were built a century or more ago. It somehow felt good to walk where my ancestors had walked, to sit in churches where they had married and where their children had been christened. I felt a real, personal sadness when I visited the churchyards where many of them, including young children were buried.

Lezant Church

My ancestors were fishermen, farm workers or tin miners. Tin and copper mining was always very important in Cornwall  and began in the early Bronze Age, approximately 2150 BC. There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea, a tin trader, visited ‘Ding Dong Mine’, one of the oldest in Cornwall. The tin resources are said to be one of the reasons the Romans invaded Britain, although strangely, Cornwall and Devon are less ‘Romanised’ than other parts of Britain. At its height, Cornwall was the largest tin and copper exporter in the world. Tin mining was a dangerous, back-breaking job and many miners died underground due to explosions, falls, floods and the collapse of walls and passage ceilings. Many mines also stretched out to sea, causing drowning in some cases.

The old tin mines

Calstock Viaduct

The industrial revolution, together with the arrival of the steam train, transformed Britain. These changes caused many Cornish people, including some of my ancestors, to move to the industrial midlands and north of England, seeking employment, from the mid 19th Century. They left for the ‘dark satanic mills’ and mines of Lancashire in order to earn money to feed their hungry families. ‘King Cotton’ replaced ‘King Tin.’

A Lancashire mill town

Sadly, their lives were equally harsh ‘up north’, where they had to work long hours in appalling conditions in mills, factories and mines and most still lived in grinding poverty in overcrowded, poor housing. Children from the age of ten worked from six in the morning until nine in the evening in mines and factories, suffering terrible cruelties and were rarely educated. Having seen the rolling hills and the tranquil beauty of Cornwall, I couldn’t help thinking that my poor old relatives must have yearned for their old homeland. I wondered if they regretted moving, but if your children are starving, what parent would not move heaven and earth to improve their lives and put food on the table?

Learning about the poverty and suffering of my ancestors has helped me to appreciate the good life I have in comparison and compelled me to document my family history for my own children and for future generations. If you are reading this and haven’t yet researched your family history, I urge you to do so. Ask your elderly relatives all the questions you can- don’t leave it too late as I did!



I wrote a poem in honour of all Cornish miners.

King Tin Once Mattered

Cornwall, at the tip of

England’s pastures green,

Soaring hills, golden shores,

Awesome sights to be seen.

Whitewashed houses everywhere scattered

Over landscape where King Tin once mattered.

In times gone by, the world’s tin provider,

Now only chimneys are reminders

Of the days when Cornwall led the world,

When miners toiled and died to show

That King Tin really mattered.

Viaducts, chimneys, railway bridges,

Left as witness to a legacy

Of a lost industry, once so

Vital and alive

Now gone, just an archive.

Yes King Tin really mattered.

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  1. Hi Jenny I really enjoyed your blog. My family are from Lancashire and worked in the cotton mills or ‘down the pit’. Yes, you’re right, these people suffered immense poverty yet their community spirit was at its most strongest during these terrible times.

    • Thank you, Lynette. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The Industrial Revolution caused a great deal of human suffering, but Lancashire folk are still the ‘salt of the earth’.

  2. Terrific piece, loved it, and the poem. This subject has interested me, too, since reading Penamarric by Susan Howatch, a family saga set around a family who own a Cornish tin mine. You should read it, it’s a terrific, one of my favourite books.

    • Thank you Terry. Cornwall is a wonderful, magical place and has certainly inspired novelists and poets for generations.

  3. Cornwall is lovely. For thirteen years we went to the same village near Land’s End for our summer holidays when I was a child and a teenager. It was only when I went back again a few years ago that I realised how poor Cornwall is and how much it depends on the tourist trade. When I was a child I picked out the house on a cliff near Sennen to which I wanted to retire.

  4. This is a wonderful post! I’m thrilled you were able to travel to your “roots.” I’ve been slowly (in a hobby way) compiling a family tree. Many, many black sheep to date. 🙂 I can relate to your statement that you were able to find connections with those ancestors you had never met. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Loved this post and the poem. The work in cotton mills was harsh, my great aunt started weaving at the age of thirteen. The rolling hilts of the Pennines are beautiful as well but I bet not many got out there to see them.

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