Cornwall has a rich heritage and has maintained a fi ercely independent spirit over many centuries, as Helen Angove explains

Header Image: The disused Crowns Engine Houses, near Botallack, in western Cornwall

Helen Angove, a writer and family historian, who specialises in the history of Cornwall.

Helen Angove

a writer and family historian, who specialises in the history of Cornwall.

In the early days of its history, Cornwall’s geographical position – a peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean – put it firmly on the ancient maritime trading routes, and it enjoyed a special place in the history of Britain as a centre of trade. The fact that it was surrounded by sea also predestined fishing to become one of the major industries of the region.

In later centuries, however, this topographical quirk became a liability, for a journey from London to Cornwall could take weeks; and despite the mineral richness of the granite batholith on which the county is perched (making its mining industry a matter of national importance) the region lapsed into poverty, isolation and fierce self-sufficiency.

Fishing remains an important industry for Cornwall’s economy – this picture shows Polperro Visit Britain/Daniel Bosworth

These ironies make Cornwall a fascinating region of study for the family historian. Its importance, combined with its isolation and independence, and its mineral richness combined with its frequent periods of economic depression, created a culture with an unusual degree of depth and integrity, and a remarkably vivid history.

If you have Cornish ancestors, there’s a good chance they were miners. The tin industry is perhaps the defining one of Cornwall, but the same geology that produced tin also produced copper, china clay and slate, each of which led to its own industry.

As a result, the Cornish economy was one of the first in the world to industrialise. The Industrial Revolution introduced innovations to mining that brought wealth to Cornwall (for a few) and also brutal poverty. It also, however, brought Methodism, which was embraced by the Cornish and developed with a strong and distinctively egalitarian ethos.

cornish miners
Cornish miners in an engine-powered life, c1900

It could be that you are reading this article in Australia or the USA, in which case perhaps your ancestors left Cornwall and emigrated to the New World in the wake of the potato famine (less well documented than the famine in Ireland, but devastating, nonetheless) and the slumps in the tin industry of the first half of the 19th century. So many miners left Cornwall that it was said “wherever in the world there’s a hole in the ground, you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it”.

If not miners, then perhaps your Cornish ancestors were fishermen. The exporting of salted pilchards to the rest of Europe was a staple industry of Cornwall for many years, and is still remembered today in the making of stargazey pie, in which the heads of the pilchards are left on, peeking through the piecrust, so that the rich oil in the fish heads will continue to drip back down into the pie while it is being baked.

The distinctive industries of Cornwall led to the development of a fascinating folklore. The Knockers were underground spirits which lived in the mines and had to be appeased by gifts from the miners’ lunches, and a Cornish fisherman would never whistle on board his boat, for fear of bad luck. The local blacksmith in my father’s village had a reputation as a charmer who could heal ringworm and remove warts, and my grandmother Selina would never do any washing on Boxing Day, for fear of a death in the family.

Many of the myths of Cornwall are rooted in the history of its landscape, in the stone circles, cairns and barrows that are found on the moors. Later history is recorded in the landscape too: the Celts are represented by mysterious fogous (underground passages found in Iron Age settlements) and standing stones, the early church by ancient stone crosses, and the Industrial Revolution by disused quarries and clay pits, and the ruins of pit heads.

The isolation of much of Cornwall’s history bred an intense independence. The Cornish have often had reason to resent the imposition of law and taxes by the far-off and seemingly irrelevant English government, but never more so than in the 15th to the 17th centuries, during which time there were several serious Cornish revolts. They started with the blacksmith Michael Joseph An Gof and his revolt against King Henry VII in 1497 – I like to fancy he is an ancestor of mine, although ‘An Gof’, of which ‘Angove’ is a corruption, simply means ‘smith’ and refers to his occupation rather than a formal surname. The Cornish continued the theme by rising up in support of Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, later that same year. This was followed, in time, by the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 (the unhappy Cornish complained that compared to the solemnity of the Latin Mass the new liturgy in English was “but lyke a Christmas game”) and the Civil War a century later, in which the Cornish played an active part.

Behind all these rebellions lay the discontent fostered by Cornwall’s poor economic status and its sense of alienation from the English-speaking government in London; for Cornish was still spoken in parts of the region at least into the 19th century. Even in my grandmother’s time, her language was still heavily salted with dialect words such as ‘crinnicks’ (burnt gorse, for firelighters), ‘quilloways’ (styes, in the eyes), and ‘crib and drinkings’ (food and drink). The disaffection that Cornwall felt with the centralized government of England is probably also responsible for the illegal practices of plundering shipwrecks and smuggling (although, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that ships were deliberately lured onto rocks).

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By the middle of the 17th century, however, the defeat and loss of life of the previous 200 years of rebellions had taken their toll, and the Cornish no longer tried to defend their identity by force of arms. The unique culture and identity of Cornwall remains strong, however, to this day. Even the language is enjoying a revival.

If you choose, then, to research your ancestors in Cornwall, be prepared to find tales of intense individuality and independence and stories that reflect a culture that has remained uniquely alive.

An Gof leads the Cornish rebellion against Henry VII
The Cornish rebel against the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer
The Spanish land at Mounts Bay, and raid nearby settlements
Mining is revolutionised by the use of gunpowder
John Wesley first visits Cornwall, bringing Methodism
James Watt further develops the steam engine, which would be used to improve mine drainage
Cornishman Richard Trevithick takes out a patent for his high pressure steam engine
First steam powered railway line in Cornwall connects Bodmin and Wadebridge, starting a trend that would end Cornwall’s geographical isolation
Famine in Cornwall causes great hardship and prompts mass emigration to the New World

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