Morcom/Morcombe One-Name Study

Why did so many Morcom/bes leave the West Country

The scale of 19th century migration from Cornwall and Devon

A.C. TODD believed that about one third of the county population went abroad during the Cornish Diaspora. Bernard DEACON estimated that between 1840 and 1900, over 240,000 had gone abroad, and there were about another 250,000 internal migrants from Cornwall. During this period the populations of mining areas such as Breage, Tywardreath, St Just-in-Penwith, Perranzabuloe, and St Clear were reduced by between a fifth and a quarter. Between 1861 and 1901, the whole of Cornwall lost 10.5% of it's male and 5.3% of the female population overseas, while another 7.0 of the male and 7.1% of the female population migrated to other English and Welsh counties. This population reduction was far greater than from any other county. Between 1850 and 1900 the population of England and Wales, excluding the South West, doubled. But this was not the worst of the picture. If we limit our account to those aged 15 to 26, between 1861 and 1901 44.8% of the male population had left for overseas, and another 29.7 to other counties. For females the figures departing were 26.2 overseas and 35.5 to other counties - a devastating blow for the Cornish economy. These emigrants included farmers, merchants and tradesmen, but miners made up most of the numbers. Hence the Cornish definition of a mine as "a hole anywhere in the world which has at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it."

Philip PAYTON believes this degree of migration was helped by a "Culture of Mobility", the seafaring Cornish in earlier centuries having become accustomed to ventures abroad, and to miners moving to other mining areas in the UK during the 18th century. Cornwall was probably an emigration region, comparable only in Europe to Southern Italy. However, the Cornish miners, unlike most other S W England and European migrants, were fortunate because they possessed skills which were in demand overseas.

Although convict deportations figure prominently in the histories and mythology of Australia between 1780 and 1860s, they had little impact on the population of Cornwall. The county was probably no different than others in the percentage of, largely minor miscreants deported, however, I have not yet found a single MORCOM/BE among them, compared with the hundreds of self-motivated migrants (some of them ill behaved!) who emigrated from the 1840s to the end of the century.

Migration from rural areas of Devon and Cornwall

There are two fundamental misconceptions about migration from the South West. It is often assumed that the story is solely about the decline of the mining industry. Secondly, emigration is emphasized with little attention to internal migration which occurred in parallel. The decline of the agricultural economy pre-dated that of mining, and resulted in significant migration, especially from North Devon and the north eastern parishes of Cornwall.

The North Devon exodus

Poverty and unemployment had hit the sparsely populated rural region of North Devon during the economic depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Without imports from Europe during the Wars prices had been high, rent and rates could be paid, poor land brought into cultivation, and rural employment and pay had been relatively good. But, by the 1830s, the situation was reversed and the potato blight in the late 1840s also increased rural poverty. The peak of emigration was between 1830 and 1855, approximately 10,000 people leaving North Devon for Canada and a lesser extent the USA and Australia. While this may not sound a very high figure it had a great impact on a sparsely populated region where the two biggest towns, Barnstaple and Bideford did not have many more people between them. Emigration was assisted by grants from government, local Boards of Guardians and various emigration societies. Many of the families who emigrated prospered, former farm servants, labourers and small tenant farmers often acquiring their own farms through land grants. Many chose to travel over 300 miles westwards from Quebec because the Ontario government was offering freehold Crown land. Unlike the miners, who often, at least initially, left their families behind, the hopeful farmers usually took their families with them to work the land. Maybe, a measure of their improved circumstances is that few of these emigrants ever returned permanently to Devon. Most of the emigrants were non-conformists, particularly Bible Christians, who were generally literate because of the importance their faith attached to being able to read the Bible. There was an additional reason for Bible Christians emigrating. The rapid growth of the movement began to be seen by land owners as a threat to the status quo, with resulting discrimination against followers.

Ships were already importing Canadian timber into Bideford and Appledore for the shipbuilding industry in the Torridge estuary. The ship owners were glad to fill their holds with migrants on the return journey, so not only were the ports closer to North Devon than Bristol and Plymouth but, as an additional attraction, transatlantic fares were only about £4. However, as the timber and shipbuilding industry faded in the 1870's, so did the North Devon's emigrant trade. In addition so large had been the exodus, that by the 1860s many farm workers were deciding to remain at home, because labour shortages, due to the earlier exodus, had increased farm pay.

There are several examples of MORCOM/BE families from rural Devon leaving for America and elsewhere in this period. Two of the sons of William Guest MORCOMBE(05696) of Okehampton, who himself never rose above servant or agricultural labourer, emigrated and their descendants prospered. William MORCOMBE(08220) left for Canada in 1854, and raised a large family, farming near Whitby, on the shores of Lake Erie. His brother George MORCOMBE (04716) departed for South Australia in 1855. George worked as a miner in South Australia, but a great many of his descendants are now prosperous farmers and professionals in Western Australia. George and his wife Catherine were Bible Christians. Richard MORCOMBE(06300), from Moretonhampstead, arrived in Montreal in 1830, but died shortly after. His wife and six year old son, James Dodd, survived. After 20 years in Ontario, and about ten years in Wisconsin, James Dodd finally settled on a farm at Pleasant Hill in Winona county, south Montana. Most of his almost 400 descendants, and their close relatives, have lived in Montana to this day.

This database does not include any MORCOM/BEs but you may find it helpful if you are researching other North Devon families

North Devon Exodus Database

Rural emigration from Cornwall

I will discuss this subject fairly briefly as the MORCOM/BEs seem to have been few on the ground in 19th century N.E Cornwall. The depression in grain prices as foreign competition returned after 1815, had much the same effect as in neighbouring North Devon. There were few mines in this part of Cornwall to offer alternative employment, so many emigrated. A larger proportion of the total population, in this sparsely populated area, emigrated between 1815 and the 1840s than from any other region of Cornwall. Again, emigration was most common in the Bible Christian Heartland N.E, of Padstow, as these fervent Nonconformists, who were mainly small yeomen farmers, particularly resenting having to pay tithes to the Anglican Church. As emigration from the mines increased, farmers, shop owners and many other trades in the county found that the demand for their products and services was falling, which further increased those leaving Cornwall though, not necessarily, for overseas.

Not all rural migrants were poor. Bernard DEACON cites a revealing quotation from a Cornish farmer who, in 1830, had migrated to Ontario and purchased a 200 acre farm for £275: "I shall have no rent to pay, no poor rents, no tithes, no Church rates, no land tax and only about five shillings a year to Government. I may fairly hope to do well...I would not return to England if I could have the land I rented in St Neot given to me"

The decline of the mining industry

Mines in the Mid-19th century

Map of mines in mid-19th century

Mines in the early 20th century.

Map of Mines in early 20th century

Both maps from the "Historical Atlas of South West England" edited by Roger KAIN and William RAVENHILL. Published by the University of Exeter Press. Maps © Helen JONES

Cornwall was one of the European regions which saw the most emigration during the mid and late 19th century, and one of the most distinctive in its characteristics, the "Cornish Diaspora" having consequences worldwide. There is an old saying "Wherever there's a hole in the ground, you'll find a Cousin Jack at the bottom of it, searching for metal". "Cousin Jack" is said to have originated from Cornish miners overseas being asked if there was anyone back home in Cornwall who their mine might recruit, replying that they had a cousin they could pursued to join them. There are still distinctively Cornish communities overseas, especially in the States and Australia. A.L Rowse wrote that "the story of the Cornish migration is the biggest and most significant Cornish theme". Even today, most "native" Cornish families will have memories, however vague, of relatives who departed overseas long since. Central to this story was the decline of the once prosperous mining industry. However, while miners were the most distinctive group of 19th century emigrants from Cornwall, a very diverse range of men and women from other occupations were probably more numerous. But the social effect of emigration was undoubtedly greatest in mining communities. Today there are over six million people of Cornish descent overseas.

In many ways it was fortunate for many Cornish miners that there was a symbiotic relationship between the decline of the Cornish copper and tin industry, and the growth of its overseas competitors. Unemployed or underpaid miners were likely to find better prospects if they were prepared to emigrate. The mass exodus of miners started as foreign competition from Lake Superior and Chile began to threaten many of the Cornish mining areas in the 1840/1850s. The need to mine increasingly deeper adits made Cornish mining areas even less competitive. The potato blight put extra pressure on families. The decline of the industry accelerated with the catastrophic crash of copper prices in 1866 (which led to c.11,400 lost jobs in mining within eighteen months), and peaked with the final decline of both copper and tin in the 1870s. Tin mining was struggling with the increasing competition from Malaysia, Australia and Bolivia. The Exodus was encouraged by the radical Methodist mood of 19th century Cornwall, where emigration was regarded by most as a means of self-improvement, socio-economic independence, and civic and religious liberty. There were others who regarded emigration, at least partly, as a means to escape the stifling constraints of Methodism.

Emigrants were, on average, more literate because they needed to be able to read about conditions and opportunities abroad, and how to access whatever financial help was available to assist in the voyage and in settling abroad.

The "pull" factors of emigration

The availability of work

Miners had begun to leave, even between 1815 and the 1840s, while Cornish mining was still booming, as they were attracted by better job opportunities in emerging deep mining industries overseas. The modern industrial skills of Cornish miners were particularly valued in overseas mines. Miners were used to moving from one Cornish mining area to another as mines failed, and this, probably, made the idea of overseas and UK internal migration easier to contemplate. But during the early years of the 19th century there was also greater inward migration into many Cornwall and Devon mining communities. For example, between 1801 and 1841, the population of Gwennap increased from 4,594 to 10,794. This was partly because in Cornwall, in 1841, mining wages were on average one third higher than those of agricultural workers.

This early emigration was increasingly encouraged by a variety of agents, including governments, offering free or supported passages; recruiters for overseas mines; mine captains encouraging skilled miners to travel with them to open up new mines, supportive newspaper reports, chapel and masonic networks, etc. It is difficult to judge how far the decision to emigrate was influenced by the experiences of members of an individual's extended family or by neighbours, because the decision of members of a close community to leave might be due to a single recruiting agent, or to a local mine captain who wished to take a familiar and trusted team with him. The knowledge that a large proportion of the mine managers in North America were Cornish was also a factor encouraging emigration. Positive letters from abroad must have encouraged others to follow, especially if they were read aloud at public meetings, published in Cornish newspapers, or reproduced in in handbills and posters. For whatever reason, relative and friends often embarked together.

There must have been a large element of "Everybody else is leaving, then why shouldn't I?". But the Cornish migration story was repeated again and again overseas, as mines closed migrants had to move on repeatedly. In the States, this degree of mobility. combined with inaccurate census transcriptions, and patchy birth/marriage/death records, often makes it difficult to follow the movements of individuals, and even families, during the 19th century.

Assisted emigration

By the 1830s the UK Government, fearing that the country could not support a growing population, launched Government sponsored travel schemes to British possessions, while the colonial governments also offered free and assisted passages and land settlement offers. Migrants were often required to have some capital to exploit the virgin land before they could get land grants. The financial inducements often encouraged whole families to emigrate so as to maintain, as far as possible, a balance of ages and sexes in the new colonies. With the withdrawal of these financial incentives, and the faster journey times to North America and South Africa, there was an increasing tendency by the 1870s for young adult males to leave their families behind in Cornwall. They might go and return several times. There is a possibly apocryphal tale of a St Just girl being asked if she had ever visited Land's End, five miles away, and replying "Aw no..We St Just people don't travel much, only to South Africa". People in St Just also referred to North America as "the next parish".

The role of recruiting agents, mine managers and mine captains.

By the 1830s there was a recruiting agent, often a local shop keeper, in almost every Cornish town and in many Devon towns. They were able to advise potential emigrants about the location and tenure terms of available Crown land in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and they also administered the "Assisted Passage" schemes. It was quite common for those applying for a grant to lie about their age and work experience to gain a passage. I have come across a number of MORCOMs, arriving in the USA, who appear to have been rejuvenated by the sea air.

The major mine owners and managers had mines in Cornwall, elsewhere in England and Wales, and abroad, and they often recruited for overseas ventures from their own Cornish labour force or from neighbouring mines. John TAYLOR, manager of Consolidated Mines in Gwennap sent men to Cardiganshire and Mexico. The WILLIAMS family of Scorrier, paid attractive wages to men who were prepared to go to Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina. These mine owners usually appointed Cornish captains to their mines, who, in turn, preferred to recruit Cornish immigrants with their knowledge of newly developed mining technology. For example, Captain Samuel MORCOM(04735) arrived at Reedy Creek mine in South Australia c.1848 with 250 men.

From where did they go?

In the early 19th century emigrants mainly travelled on small freight vessels from minor West Country ports, Padstow and Falmouth remaining important transatlantic ports until as late as the 1840s. But as the numbers travelling multiplied, increasingly large passenger vessels met the demand. These ships could only depart from major ports such as Plymouth, London, Liverpool, Southampton and Bristol. By the 1860s the expanding national rail network made it easier for migrants to travel to these ports from the South West.

The social and economic consequences of emigration from Devon and Cornwall

By the end of the 19th century a "dependency culture" had developed in the former mining areas of Cornwall, a large proportion of the population depending on remittances from relatives abroad, and especially from South Africa where miners' wages were £30 to £40 a month, at a time when wages could be as low as two or three pounds in Cornwall. One researcher has estimated that by 1900 as much as a million pounds annually was being sent home from South Africa alone, to support wives, children and elderly parents. It has been calculated that, by 1891, 90% of the houses in Lanner village, near Gwennap, were supported by foreign money. Compared with other counties, comparatively few Cornish families went into work houses. This was partly because the Poor Law Commissioners preferred to provide passages for families to emigrate to Canada rather than accommodate them indefinitely in work houses. Miners in America also sent pre-paid passage money to enable their families to join them. These vouchers would not only pay for the transatlantic voyage, but for the more expensive journey inland to Michigan and beyond.

Some mining communities would have almost become deserted villages by 1900, if the women and children had emigrated to the same extent as the men. A resident of Lanner described her terrace of houses as being entirely occupied by women and children. The remittances were usually sufficient to ensure a reasonable standard of living, but families could be suddenly impoverished if payments were delayed, or their provider overseas was killed in the mines, died of tuberculosis or other diseases, or was even sometimes murdered, especially on the Rand in South Africa, the most frequent destination by the end of the 19th century. But the ill-fated Jameson Raid of 1895 and the Boer Wars forced most Cornish miners to return home, creating a fresh economic crisis in the mining villages. I have been unable to discover what happened to quite a number of MORCOM miners who went to the USA, and the same must have been true of many families whose remittances suddenly stopped. However, today there are also many Cornish families who still keep in touch with their second or third generation "Cornish Cousins" overseas, and some houses still bear exotic foreign names given by returning migrants.

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