A factor that has impacted migration to, from and within the UK has been the ready availability of employment. As economic conditions declined in certain regions throughout Europe, people naturally picked up and moved on in search of better opportunities. A prime example of this phenomenon is the migration of the Cornish miners – a migration that has, in fact, had a major impact on the global mining industry for over a century.
In the early 19th century, the mining industry in Cornwall was thriving. The industrial revolution had produced an enormous demand for copper, and at that time, Cornwall was the greatest producer of copper in the world. Thanks to heavy demand, copper prices were high, and since Cornwall’s copper deposits were so large, there was little competition elsewhere in the country.
So huge was the industry that not only was copper mined in Cornwall, but for a long while, the metal was smelted there as well. At the peak of the copper mining boom, up to 30% of the county’s male workforce was employed by the mining industry.
By the mid-19th century, however, the best copper deposits in Cornwall had been mined out, and huge copper deposits had been discovered in other countries around the world. Fortunately, in digging deep for copper, miners had run across significant tin deposits. The mining industry was able to maintain thanks to tin; however, the tin industry was no match for copper. Cornwall’s mining industry progressed at a much smaller scale and employed a much smaller work force.
The tin mines were also extremely deep, and this led to high costs and drainage problems. Interestingly enough, however, this problem turned out to be something of a boon for Cornwall’s miners as the problems drove folks like Richard Trevithick to begin innovating. His high pressure steam engines revolutionized the world of mining, and many of the systems were built locally providing much-needed employment.
As mining companies around the world began to take note of Cornish technology and skilled labour, they began to cash in on their own mining booms. And since work was scarce for miners in Cornwall, they were eager to look elsewhere for better pay and conditions.
The Cornish flocked to work wherever it appeared, rehabilitating mines as they went. In the 1820s they took over abandoned, derelict mines in South America and restored them to high levels of productivity.
Peru began to import the now-perfected high power steam engines for their silver mines; however, their mining region was hardly industrialized. Because of that, they were forced to import from Cornwall everything from the steam engines and boilers to the staff that was required to work the mines, process metals, and even organize and administrate the enterprise. Gold mining companies in Brazil also contracted hundreds of Cornish miners to work in the Morro Velho and Gonco Soco mines.
The Cornish became the first hard rock miners in the USA, and were considered some of the best in the world. Many migrated there, finding work in the lead mines in Illinois and Wisconsin, and the copper fields of Michigan. Eventually, the Cornish even joined in on the California Gold Rush, offering their expertise and technology.
Cornish miners also turned to the copper and lead deposits in Norway and Spain in the 1830s, then to the huge copper boom in Australia in the 1840s. In fact, Australia might not have its status as a major copper region if it were not for the expertise of the Cornish miners who migrated and settled there.
When diamonds and then gold were discovered in South Africa in the 1860s and 1870s, the Cornish miners were ready. Their perfected hard rock mining techniques were just what were needed to retrieve the precious stones, and many Cornish immigrants flocked in to make their fortunes.
To this day, there are active, thriving Cornish communities throughout North and South America, Australia and South Africa. The Cornish ex-pats, fondly known as “Cousin Jacks”, brought much of their heritage with them, making their presence and culture a prominent feature in their communities around the world.