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the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

Advert from above for Royal Mail & Pacific Lines, 1926

A poster for the Royal Mail & Pacific Lines, 1926

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articles > Maritime history and the emigration trade...

Maritime history and the emigration trade: the case of mid-nineteenth-century Cornwall

Philip Payton, Department of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter in Cornwall

Although, as Stephen Fisher observed in the introduction to his edited volume Recreation and the Sea, published in 1997, the boundaries of maritime history as understood by its practitioners had expanded in recent years, there was still an emphasis on artifacts – not least ships and their technical features – at the expense of people and human behaviour. Almost ten years on, the diversity of maritime history has developed still further, although in 2005 we might be forgiven for detecting a temporary narrowing of focus on Nelson and Trafalgar and the Royal Navy as 'heritage'. Fisher in 1997 noted the appearance of seaside 'leisure and recreational activities' (1) an important sphere of human behaviour – in mainstream maritime history. This article seeks to highlight a further aspect, the emigration trade, by focusing on the specific case of mid-nineteenth-century Cornwall.

In the years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, European emigration developed apace. Some 50 million people left Europe for overseas destinations between 1815 and 1914. Of these, some 10 million had emigrated from Britain – with a further 7 million from neighbouring Ireland – at least a third of these arriving in the United States of America, the rest heading overwhelmingly for the British territories of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. (2) The Cornish contributed significantly to these emigrants. About a quarter of a million people left Cornwall for overseas during this period (with a similar number migrating to destinations within the British Isles), an extraordinarily large number given that the population of Cornwall at no time reached half a million during those years. As Dudley Baines concluded in his study of emigration from England and Wales, 'Cornwall was probably an emigration region comparable with any in Europe'. (3)

There were various reasons for this large-scale emigration from Cornwall. Foremost amongst these was the rapid development of the international mining frontier after 1815 – initially in Latin America, then lead in Wisconsin and copper in Michigan by the 1840s, copper in South Australia in the 1840s and 1860s, the goldrushes to California and Victoria, diamonds and gold in South Africa towards the end of the century, and so on – in which highly skilled Cornish miners were much in demand. The potato famine hit Cornwall in the 1840s, a further impetus to emigration from both the mining and agricultural communities, while the catastrophic crash of Cornish copper in 1866 and the faltering of Cornish tin in the 1870s created a large body of miners and their families anxious to emigrate. Added to this was the radical Methodist mood of nineteenth-century Cornwall, where emigration was regarded as a means of self-improvement, the overseas destinations seen as opportunities for achieving socio-economic mobility and civic and religious liberty. (4)

Early in this period an 'emigration trade' trade emerged in Cornwall to manage – and make money from – this mass movement of people. (5) All manner of people and agencies were involved: government officials, mine managers, shipping agents, ship builders, local provisioners at ports and harbours, newspapers, publicans, coaching operators, clergymen, solicitors, learned societies and a host of other public and business interests. In the economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars, for example, businessmen were anxious to diversify their interests when new opportunities emerged. When, in June 1820, it was reported that a party of emigrants had left the south Cornish port of Fowey, bound for Baltimore, it was also noted that the applications for the passage had been handled by Messrs Pomery & Walkom, drapers from St Austell who were busy diversifying at a time when business generally was dull. (6) Similarly, shipping and legal interests were also keen to become involved in this potentially lucrative trade, as in March 1837 when it was advertised that the vessel Caroline of Gweek (a small harbour on a creek of the Helford River) was due to sail shortly for Philadelphia. For further details, enquiring passengers were requested to contact the Gweek offices of the Penzance solicitors, Messrs Cornish & Borlase. (7)

Padstow, located strategically mid-way along the north coast of Cornwall, became an important centre of this emigration trade. Between 1831 and 1860, for example, 6,200 emigrants – many of them from Cornwall and Devon – sailed from the port for the eastern seaboard of Canada. Indeed, in 1841 Padstow was the third most important departure point for Canada, surpassed only by Liverpool and London. (8) A distinctly Padstonian variant of the emigration trade had emerged by then, with emigrants ships sailing for Quebec or Prince Edward Island and returning two or three months later laden with North American timber. (9) Ships such as the Clio, the Economist and the Springflower were then familiar sights in both Padstow harbour and the ports of maritime Canada. Some had been built in Padstow by local shipbuilders such as John Tredwen, but others had been built in Canada by emigrant north Cornishmen such as James Yeo from Kilkhampton. The Alchemyst, one such ship, was built in Prince Edward Island but registered in Padstow. (10)

Emigration agents, appointed to recruit emigrants for the emerging British colonies, gave an 'official', governmentally sanctioned dimension to this emigration trade. In March 1839, for example, Isaac Latimer – a journalist on the West Briton newspaper in Truro – was appointed as agent in Cornwall by the Commissioners for the newly proclaimed (in 1836) colony of South Australia. Latimer placed advertisements in newspapers – including the radical West Briton, which lent its editorial voice to the cause of emigration – and issued handbills and posters as well as organising public meetings up and down Cornwall. In a meeting in St Austell Latimer read from '[m]any letters of the most pleasing nature . . . which had been received from Cornish emigrants, who all spoke in the most flattering terms of the province, and invited their friends to come over and join them'. (11)

To this 'official' emigration trade was added a further 'unofficial' dimension, the role played by Cornish mine captains (managers) in recruiting miners for new ventures overseas. In 1835 the Union Gold Mine in Virginia advertised for a number of miners, prospective applicants being advised to contact William Petherick at the Redmoor Mine, Callington, or William West at Fowey Consols mine. (12) In March 1838 the West Briton announced: 'Wanted to go to Mexico immediately, 2 pitmen, 4 engine-men and 5 sump-men. Apply to Mr Thomas Lean, Marazion.' (13)

The various strands of this emigration trade had coalesced by the 1850s to construct enduring conduits of emigration between Cornwall and overseas destinations. When, later in the nineteenth century, the collapse of Cornish mining created widespread unemployment, Cornish society was well-placed to turn to the cause of emigration as a means of relieving distress at home. (14)


1. Stephen Fisher, 'Introduction', in ed. Stephen Fisher, Recreation and the Sea (Exeter, 1997), p. 1.

2. Dudley Baines, Emigration from Europe, 1815–1930 (1991), pp. 7–8.

3. Dudley Baines, Migration in a Mature Economy: Emigration and Internal Migration in England and Wales, 1861–1900 (1985), pp.157–159.

4. Philip Payton, The Cornish Overseas: A History of Cornwall’s Great Emigration (Fowey, 2005).

5. See for comparison Mark Brayshay, 'The Emigration Trade in Nineteenth-Century Devon' in ed. Michael Duffy, Stephen Fisher, Basil Greenhill, David Starkey, Joyce Youings, The New Maritime History of Devon: 2: From the Late Eighteenth Century to the Present Day (1994), pp. 108–118.

6. West Briton, 23 June 1820.

7. West Briton, 10 March 1837.

8.See Margaret James-Korany, 'Blue Books as Sources for Cornish Emigration History', in ed. Philip Payton, Cornish Studies: One (Exeter, 1993), pp. 33–36.

9. Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle: A Fragment of the Great Migration, (Newton Abbot, 1967.

10. John Bartlett, Ships of North Cornwall(Padstow, 1996), pp. 84–90.

11. West Briton, 30 Aug. 1839.

12. West Briton, 13 Feb. 1835.

13. West Briton, 23 March 1838.

14. See Philip Payton, 'Cornish Emigration in Response to Changes in the International Copper Market in the 1860s', in ed. Philip Payton, Cornish Studies: Three (Exeter, 1995), pp. 60–82.

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