Migration was a common practice of many Cornish people in the nineteenth century – during the 1800s, an estimated one-third of the population left Cornwall for other countries. Between 1846 and 1850 the number of assisted Cornish immigrants to Australia was 6,700. The Cornish emigrants were often pulled to countries such as Australia by news of mining work, and pushed from their home country by a variety of factors including poverty, famine (the potato crop failed in Cornwall in 1845 and 1846) and the depression and upheaval resulting from the Industrial Revolution.
The Cornish were a significant ethnic group on the Victorian goldfields, not only because of their number, but because of the mining knowledge they brought with them and introduced into Australian mines.
Some of the distinctively Cornish mining practices established in the Victorian goldfields developed from the equipment and techniques favoured by Cornish miners: single-pointed picks; bucket pumps; the ‘hammer and tap’ method of drilling holes in the rock face; the ‘Cousin Jack’ wheelbarrow; and Cornish-designed whims are examples.
The first Cornish arrivals on the Victorian goldfields overlanded from South Australia and its copper mines; they had originally migrated in the late 1830s and 1840s when news of the mineral deposits in the colony reached Cornwall.
Letters home played a powerful role in disseminating news of the opportunities for Cornish miners in Australia. In 1849, a mining man wrote home to Cornwall from Australia:
If … you may know of any Government [assisted] Cornish miner about to seek his fortune in Australia, be pleased to tell him to apply his knowledge of the mode of extracting his ore from his own gravel to the drift and debris on the flanks of the great north and south chain of Australia … for great would be my pleasure to learn that through the application of Cornish skill such a region should be converted into a British El Dorado.
The South Australian town of Burra Burra (more commonly referred to as ‘the Burra’) was a significant Cornish settlement – the majority of its 5,000 residents in the early 1850s were Cornish. From 1851, the Burra’s copper mines lost many of their workers to Victoria’s gold rushes. As one writer describes it:
A deputation of Cornish miners from Burra Burra visited the goldfields to ascertain their worth, and when they returned to the Burra to collect their families and belongings, their enthusiastic descriptions of Victoria precipitated a mass exodus from the South Australian mines.
The next wave of Cornish miners, who journeyed from Cornwall, did not start to arrive in Victoria until the end of 1852.
The Ballarat area received many ‘Cousin Jacks’ from Cornwall, who tended to congregate in particular areas. Mt Pleasant was an important Cornish settlement, and Sebastopol had its own ‘Cornish Town’. The majority of Cornish people in Australia were Methodists or Wesleyans.
As the example of the exodus from the Burra demonstrates, Cornish miners and their families tended to travel together, live in close proximity to each other, and work together. Working co-operatively in groups was a distinctively Cornish mining practice – indeed parties of Cornishmen unearthed two of the biggest nuggets: the ‘Welcome Nugget’ in 1858 and the ‘Welcome Stranger’ in 1869. Parties of Cornish miners went on to form larger organisations, such as the Devon and Cornwall Miners Gold Company.
In her study of the Cornish in Ballarat, Jan Croggon notes that the mining skills and knowledge that the Cornish immigrants brought with them to Australia stood many of them in good stead to become managers of mines in Victoria as the alluvial rushes ended and mining technology developed throughout the 1850s.