Curator's Choice: Five Cornish miners from the Cornish Global Migration Programme

By Jamie Maddison | 29 May 2012
a photo of a man in a corduroy jacket and striped t-shirt
Michael Kiernan, Director of the Cornish Global Migration Programme based in Murdoch House, Redruth© Photo Jamie Maddison
Curator’s Choice: In his own words... Michael Kiernan, Director of the Cornish Global Migration Programme, relates five of his favourite stories about Cornish miners, migrants, murderers and divorcees, plucked from the 170,000 individuals currently recorded on the project's database.

The Cornish Global Migration Programme is based in Murdoch House, Redruth. The project charts the movements of the vast numbers of Cornish pioneers who left their home shores in search of mining work abroad.

Nicholas & William Thomas: "A little bit of a problem [is] working out who is a migrant. We all know what the word means, but when we get into it in detail it becomes a little bit of a nightmare, so we have classifications of different migrants. We have return migrants for instance, those who went overseas, worked for a few years and then returned back to Cornwall.

There’s an example of this from California where two young men, brothers, Nicholas and William Thomas, were from the parish of Northill; they went to the Californian gold rush in the 1850s. There they worked hard for about two years and they both came back to Cornwall bringing in with them the equivalent of £1,500, which was a tidy sum in those days.

Nicholas was a married man with three children. He left his family in Cornwall, penniless and destitute, but his wife, by "industry of her needle" and the help of some good friends, managed to support herself and her family decently.

When Nicholas arrived back at his house the family was just about to start a frugal dinner of red herrings and potatoes. Nicholas was able to sort out the position and so his migrant experience was a very happy one, although for a short time his family suffered."

John Whitford: “One of the problems often overlooked with looking at migration - which involves of course family histories - is that there is an uncomfortable side of it. When a man goes away for many years to try and earn money to support his family, separation can do strange things.

In the early days before divorce became readily available for most people - which was in about 1870 - people could not get divorced, they got separated. There was obviously not a written record made of these, but we do find clues.

For instance, there was a John Whitford: he went to the Gongo Soco mines in Brazil and he followed the path, when his wife strayed, by inserting an advert in the West Briton newspaper. The adverts give a clue as to how the couple have split up. It usually reads something like: ‘I will not be answerable for any debt which may be incurred by my wife.’

So we have unhappy experiences like that; there are quite a few of those, sadly, and they can get serious. Illegitimate children born while a husband was absent were another problem, but on the whole these were rare instances. The men tended to be extremely supportive, and a characteristic of the Cornish man going overseas was his remittances home.

The amount of remittances - money sent back to Cornwall - was quite tremendous, so on the whole they were good chaps.”

a black and white photo of men and women outside a tin roofed house with a porch and veranda
© Courtesy The Cornish Global Migration Programme
Thomas Eudy & Thomas Michell: “Wherever the Cornishman goes he takes certain habits and customs with him. We know a lot about the pasty, but we also know about wrestling.

There were some amazingly high-value wrestling matches, particular in America, and very large prizes were given at these matches, and [the men] came back to Cornwall to show off their skills.

For instance, Thomas Eudy of St Austell had a championship match with Thomas Michell of Gwinear. Both had just returned from California and they were wrestling for a prize of $275. The West Briton described this event as: “Thus Cornishmen uphold the fame of their native country for wrestling when they emigrate to distant lands.”

William Rogers: “Tragedies happen. Imagine the places that the Cornishmen were going to. They had to cross vast distances of land and even as late as 1894 terrible things could happen. The American newspapers in Arizona were full of stories of two Cornishmen who sadly died of thirst whilst trying cross the Arizona desert.

William Rogers actually had letters and messages on him when he was dying, and he did write letters back to his home. In his dying note, he sends his regards to his mother; in fact he says ‘mother I am dying,’ which is a rather stark thing to say.”

Richard Jenning: “Another aspect is that the wild frontier - and I am talking both Australia and other places that were being developed - could lead to some pretty nasty incidents. We have murderers unfortunately, and being murdered.

For instance, Richard Jenning - obviously a Cornishmen [and, incidentally, a miner] - was in Austin, Nevada when, over a gambling incident in a saloon, he shot and killed a man called John A Barrett.

Richard was detained and thrown into the local gaol by the sheriff, but unfortunately a group of local men dragged him out of the gaol and lynched him from the nearest tree. So there are desperately unhappy events like this.

But in our records we tend to find that more people were murdered than were murders, so perhaps the statistics balances things out.”    

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Jamie Maddison is the Culture24/Cornish Mining World Heritage 2012 bursary journalist, filing stories about Cornwall's UNSECO World Heritage Site mining landscape. Contact him at Read his blog at

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