From Cornish Mines to the World

The area of Britain where you’ll find the most Tickle families is Lancashire, but the name is also commonly found in the counties at the far southwest of England – Cornwall & Devon – although Cornish people will tell you that Cornwall is not a county, but a duchy! It has a distinct history and culture and is recognised as one of the Celtic nations, with its own language, still spoken a little today. 

Cornwall is wild and beautiful, with a rugged coastline. In the past, it had a large pilchard fishing fleet. During the fishing season, which ran from summer to autumn, millions of fish were landed at the four main Cornish ports of Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance and St Ives. The fishermen at sea were helped by “huers”, lookouts on the cliff tops, who helped to locate shoals of fish. Huer’s huts are still to be found near some Cornish fishing ports.

Rich deposits of copper, tin, and other minerals, such as arsenic, silver, and zinc, were mined in the county as far back as 2000 BC. Mining reached its peak in the early 19th century, after the industrial revolution. Metal was in demand and the price was high. At this time, Cornwall was one of the most industrialised parts of Britain and the biggest producer of copper in the world. There were almost 2,000 working mines and copper mining employed up to 30% of Cornishmen. Many of these mines were deep, and sometimes even ran beneath the sea. The invention of pumping equipment made it possible to remove underground water in order to mine far deeper than was previously possible. Then, in the mid 19th century, bust followed boom. Large copper deposits were discovered in other parts of the world and the competition depressed the price to a level that made the extraction of Cornish copper unprofitable.

Tin ore had been found in some of the deeper Cornish mines and tin mining began to take over from copper, although it was on a smaller scale and so did not require such a large workforce to extract it. To access the tin, miners had to go to deeper levels, which led to more problems with drainage. The working conditions were extremely poor. Underground it was hot, damp, and dusty. Miners often suffered from diseases such as bronchitis, silicosis, TB and rheumatism. Coupled with the dangers of flooding and collapse of the mines, this led to a short life expectancy. J.C. Burrows took some wonderful photographs in 1890 showing conditions in Cornish tin mines. 

photograph of Cornish miner
Miners in a Cornish mine, photograph by J.C. Burrows, 1890s.

The historical novels, Poldark, by Winston Graham (and the BBC TV adaptions of the novels) are set around this time. They show something of both the risky capitalism involved in mining and the hunger, hardship, and danger faced by the miners.

Tin mining increased rapidly until around 1870, when vast new discoveries in Australia and elsewhere led to the collapse of Cornish tin mining in a similar way to the earlier collapse of the copper mines. The insecurity of employment during the 19th century led to huge numbers of miners emigrating. Cornish mining expertise was highly valued and mining companies in several countries employed agents to recruit men from the Cornish mines. Cornish engineering companies developed an export trade in mining machinery and skilled men were needed to install and work the machinery. 

Cornish miners became dominant in the 1850s in the iron and copper districts of northern Michigan in the United States, as well as in many other mining districts. In the first six months of 1875, over 10,000 miners left Cornwall to find work overseas, and it is estimated that 250,000 people left Cornwall between 1841 and 1901. They are known as the Cornish diaspora, and are found elsewhere in Britain, as well as in the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, Panama, South Africa, the Samoas and Brazil.

The emigrants were mostly miners, although they also included farmers, merchants and tradesmen. By the late 19th century it is said there was barely a mine in the world that did not have Cornish labour, and many had Cornish mine captains. There is a common saying in Cornwall that “a mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it!” 

Sometimes men would travel abroad alone, working for short periods before returning home. A Cornish miner who made these journeys became known in Cornwall as a “Cousin Jack”. Some men moved almost permanently and left their families behind, sending back money to support them; others brought their family out once they were settled. Those who were single often married into the local communities. 

The majority of people in Cornwall belonged to the Methodist Church and the Cornish emigrants took their culture with them. Cornish communities were founded in Canada, the Mid-West of the America, and South Australia. Methodism was part of this strong cultural identity and may identify the origins of families in these countries as Cornish. 

As many Lancastrian Tickles were miners, I initially wondered whether some Tickle families might have migrated to Cornwall from Lancashire to work in the mines. Although that’s possible, I haven’t yet found any connections between families in Lancashire and Cornwall. Perhaps DNA will provide answers to questions about ancient links? If you’re a male Tickle or Tickell descended from a Cornishman, do please consider participating in the Y-DNA project.

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