‘Head-hunted’: how Cornish mineworkers were sought to advance welsh metal mining in the 19th century


In summer 2016, The Man Engine, the giant mechanical miner, the height of two and a half double decker buses and powered by Volvo, steamed from the Tamar to the very tip of Cornwall to mark the tenth ‘tinth’ anniversary of the Cornish mining landscape gaining World Heritage Status.

Now, the colossal miner is preparing for his Resurrection Tour across Cornwall and West Devon, before he drives further, into Somerset, South Wales and up to the North of England (from Saturday 31st March 2018), along the paths that many Cornish miners originally trekked to discover their futures, and perhaps their fortunes.

Much is known about the Cornish Diaspora who in the 19th century headed off to far-flung ‘exotic’ locations such as Mexico, South Africa and South Australia to name just a few but not so much is known about how these workers hugely influenced other areas of the UK, such as Wales.

These migrants were often entrepreneurs or experts with sought-after mining expertise, technology and skills and for many, there was the benefit of resettling amongst Cornish neighbours who had, perhaps, themselves been ‘head hunted’ in a similar vein.

Despite this, for a mine worker and their families in those days, relocating from Cornwall to Wales would have been perhaps as daunting as setting sail from Cornish shores to strange lands. Many most likely assumed they would one day return. Some did, but many stayed in their new homes.

Some examples of the influence that Cornish miners had on welsh mining can be seen at Parys Mountain in Anglesey, North Wales, where James Treweek of Gwennap reshaped copper mining and for forty years managed the mines introducing Cornish labour and the tribute system of working.

A Cornish type engine house and mineral harbour are testament to his efforts. In Swansea, the Vivian’s of Cornwall constructed new residential districts for their many workers in the expanding copper smelting works. Elsewhere in Wales, at Penrhyn Du Mine, on the St Tudwall Peninsula, once stood a small terrace of cottages known as ‘Cornish Row’, which accommodated workers at the Assheton lead mines. A lone engine house now marks their efforts.

Here is a very small snapshot of some of these places and their stories, relating to the areas where the Man Engine will be visiting in 2018:
• Swansea – Cornish mining families such as the Vivians and Williams invested some of their Cornish mining profits into establishing huge copper smelting concerns, which had a substantial influence on the development of the industry and the city
• Merthyr Tydfil – Richard Trevithick, the great Cornish Engineer and pioneer of steam locomotion sold his first steam railway locomotive to the Penydarren ironworks in 1804, the precursor to the mass movement of goods and people via railways.

Between 1815 and the start of the First World War, it is estimated that more than 250,000 and 500,000 people migrated from Cornwall and more than half of these migrated to other areas in the UK, yet very little has been researched, or written, about the innovations, entrepreneurialism and success that the Cornish Diaspora brought with them – until now.

The impact of Cornish mineworkers across the UK is a story that very much deserves an audience. The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site team are eager to work with partners to explore this proud industrial legacy and to give it the exposure it is rightly due.

Cornish Mining World Heritage has undertaken considerable research into some of the areas heavily populated by Cornish migrants, investigating Cornish mining families and how they influenced and shaped the mining landscape, culture and technology.