Overview Of Cornish History
Last updated: 06/08/2009
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Everyone who has a sense of place and history enters Cornwall
from England with 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 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
Around 800BC the people called Celts by the Romans arrived from
across the 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.
Among the most obvious historic relics to be noticed in 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.
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'.
By the 1840's 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
emigrate 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.