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.
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.
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.
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
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.