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A Brief History of Cornwall

Updated on March 14, 2015
Ancient standing stones
Ancient standing stones | Source

For anyone who has a sense of place and history, entering Cornwall from England will give the feeling of crossing a cultural border. Changed though it is by recent Anglo-American influences, by the communications and transport revolution, by the international media and by the inward migration of the twentieth century, Cornwall remains nevertheless decidedly special.

Cornwall's name is probably originates from the tribal name 'Cornovii' meaning the 'horn people' - most likely deriving from their location at the end of the south-western peninsula. The Anglo-Saxons took the first part of the name and added to it 'Wealas' (or Welsh) meaning 'foreigners'. This has been commonly misconstrued as the Welsh of the West. Evidently, though, the Anglo-Saxons recognised that the Cornish were of different stock.

The immense number of early archaeological sites in Cornwall is ample evidence of long occupation. Although few traces of the Early Stone Age people have been found here, a new race came to Britain from Europe around 8000BC and some found their way to Cornwall. By 4500BC new migrants arrived from the Mediterranean and stayed. One of their settlements remains on Carn Brea, near Redruth. Bronze Age village remains have been found upon Bodmin Moor and in West Penwith.

The Celts - the first invaders

In around 800 BC the race of people called Celts by the Romans arrived from across the English Channel, and they are usually considered to be the real ancestors of today's Cornish, Welsh and Breton people. As invaders they needed to defend themselves, and examples of their hill castles and coastal forts survive to this day. Eight centuries of Celtic life was relatively little disturbed by the Roman invasion, but the English invaders who followed brought with them a new language and whole new way of life, forcing Celtic life and language to retreat westwards - leaving Wales and the land west of the Tamar as its lasting home. Ironically perhaps, it was this act of invasion which in effect clearly defined Cornwall from that point in time as different from England.

England after the Romans left was a pagan country, but not so Cornwall, where Christianity continued its growth. Parish churches named after Celtic saints abound here.

Until about the mid-1300s Cornish was the most widely spoken language west of the Tamar but the use of English gradually spread. In 1547 King Edward VI commanded that the Book of Common Prayer should be introduced into Cornwall and that the old Celtic customs and services in Latin should be discontinued. Protest and militant action did not prevent the change, and this effectively spelled the end for Cornish as the common language of its people.

Cornish mine engine house
Cornish mine engine house | Source

The Mining Industry

Among the most idiosyncratic historic relics to be scattered across the Cornish landscape are the engine houses of old mines. Heritage trails have been created around some sites and one can only try to imagine the clatter, the din, the smoke and the grime which once pervaded the now peaceful retreats. It is not known when minerals were first extracted in Cornwall, but Bronze Age settlers found tin and began trading in it. After centuries of processing tin taken from the mud of streams and by crushing tin-bearing rock to powder, the quest for the many valuable metals to be found underground in Cornwall really began in the 14th and 15th centuries. Underground water limited deep mining until more powerful steam engines were developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to take over the task of pumping from the horse and ox whims used before.

Hard to believe now but this was the period when Cornwall was at the forefront of industrialisation. It brought William Murdoch, a Scottish engineer to Cornwall on behalf of the great Boulton and Watt engineering company to supervise the installation of their steam engines. Murdoch was the first to light his house in Redruth by gas - in 1784, effectively providing the foundation of the world's gas industry. Richard Trevithick, born in Illogan in 1771, became the true father of the world's transport revolution when he succeeded in running a steam car up Camborne Hill on Christmas Eve 1801. In 1804 he built and successfully tested a rail locomotive at Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. In London, on the site of Euston Station, he erected a circular track and ran an engine and coaches, charging passengers a fee for a ride on his 'Catch-Me-Who-Can'.

Cornwall, a magnet to tourists
Cornwall, a magnet to tourists | Source

Tourism and the decline of industry

By the 1840s Gwennap parish was the world's leading producer of copper ore, and during the century Cornish mining and engineering expertise was in demand all over the world, leading vast numbers to immigrate to the Americas, Australasia and Africa - indeed wherever new mineral wealth was discovered. Many Cornish also left for the new opportunities to own land with less restrictive practices of farming in 'the new world'.

The twentieth century saw Cornwall's heavy engineering industry in slow decline, and the growth of light industry. Its young people were forced to leave for higher education and many did not return. The railway era brought holiday-makers to its magnificent coast, and towns such as Newquay, Bude, Falmouth and Penzance, responded, providing hotels and guest-houses. Improved trunk roads brought easier access for the import of goods once provided locally, but also for the export of products which were once only viable closer to the main markets. The same roads encouraged the boom in second home ownership which, combined with the lowest wage levels in Britain, increased the problems for the less well-off in Cornwall's society, and leave too many small coastal hamlets almost empty of residents during the winter months.

Regeneration programmes promise a new future in the twenty-first century for towns like Redruth, Camborne, Falmouth and St. Austell, and there is a new awareness that Cornwall's unique history and heritage can be a valuable asset in that future.


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