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Home Life

Morwellham by Kirstin PriskLiving conditions for many families were shockingly hard due to a lack of sanitation, uncertain water supplies and overcrowded homes. But life wasn’t just brutish and short – these difficult conditions bred a strong sense of self-reliance, whilst shared experience built stronger communities.

Cramped living

For mineworkers and their families, homes were often small, cramped and perhaps unsanitary. Often rented on terms that guaranteed no promise of security, families involved in the mining industry had to learn to become mobile and adaptable.
Beyond the towns and villages, mining families often lived in granite or cob cottages on smallholdings with, perhaps, three to five acres of land to tend. This brought a degree of self-sufficiency where families could grow their food and perhaps keep a pig. Others lived in terraces or rows of cottages, whilst many lived in towns where gardens were small or sometimes replaced by courtyards – offering little opportunity to supplement their diet with garden produce.
Accommodating big families in damp overcrowded cottages with a lack of adequate sanitation meant a daily struggle. Sleeping arrangements were often complicated with several children sleeping in one bed. There would be no indoor water supply or bathroom – the lavatory being an earth closet outside – and the only heat came from an open fire.
Miners’ families often took in lodgers to supplement their incomes. In 1861, over 60% of the lodgers employed in the mining industry in Camborne and Redruth were accommodated in the houses of fellow miners.

In damp, overcrowded cottages, diseases such as typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were widespread.


Much of the Cornish mining landscape – over 80,000 hectares – is in upland rough ground; commonly treeless, exposed, and very wet with thin acidic soil. This ancient landscape was once heathland and, until the late 18th century, was largely unfarmed and used for common grazing.
Most of the mining industry’s housing was formerly located within existing market towns and villages in the mining districts, but during the early 19th century the Cornish copper mining industry was expanding into entirely rural areas. Mines were being opened up remote from established settlements, so entirely new villages and towns were developed to accommodate the new industrial population.

Mining wealth accrued by the landowners or mineral lords enabled the construction of grand new estates and gardens, while many older estates underwent elaborate transformations. Mineral lords, such as John Francis Basset, also made available previously uncultivated land for use and over 50,000 hectares were taken into cultivation during the 18th and 19th centuries. The impact on the landscape was considerable at this time with much moor and heathland coming into production for the first time.

Mining radically changed the population distribution within Cornwall, and as the mining industry gathered pace, there was a marked movement of mine workers and their families from west to east. Camborne grew from a small village to one of the largest towns in west Cornwall, witnessing significant inward migration from eight other districts.

In damp, overcrowded cottages, diseases such as typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were widespread.

Methodism encouraged pride and thrift, meaning that a miner’s home was usually clean, his children as well fed as possible and their clothes, although old, laundered and neatly patched.

Sewage and health problems

Such rapid industrialisation helped to create social problems similar to those encountered in other industrial areas of Britain. In the mid-19th century, the ratio of number of toilets to the number of houses was surprisingly low by modern standards. For this reason, people were forced to relieve themselves behind walls and hedges, making many suburbs offensive.

To make things worse, the towns’ wells were sometimes contaminated with sewage from overflowing communal cesspits, which were sometimes sited uncomfortably close to people’s doors. The suggestive names of such Redruth housing – Dung Pit Houses, Poverty Court and Dirty Court – reflect the poor 19th century living conditions in this part of the town.

In damp, overcrowded cottages, diseases such as typhus were endemic, and typhoid, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were widespread. During the cholera outbreak of 1848/9, figures for the Cornish Registration Districts show that locality was strongly linked to the level of fatalities, which were usually highest in densely populated, unsanitary large towns and mining districts.

Many rural areas were little better. The public outcry against the serious housing shortage and gross overcrowding in the Tavistock area was one reason which prompted the Duke of Bedford to construct purpose-built accommodation for his estate and mine workers.

It was only with the increased public health legislation of the late 19th century that conditions began to improve, but it was not until the mid 20th century that many mining villages received piped water or sewage systems. This did not occur in some of the former mining villages of the St Just and Gwennap districts until the 1960s.

Rough neighbourhoods

Many of Cornwall’s mining towns and villages were rough places where rioting, fighting and heavy drinking were commonplace. Mine workers often met in local pubs or ‘kiddleywinks’ (beer shops) to split their monthly earnings. Gambling, singing and heavy drinking often ensued, leading to ‘Maze Monday’ when men were still too inebriated to turn up for work. Too much drink on payday was often the cause of disturbances, which led to Temperance Societies in some towns setting up Coffee Taverns as an alternative to the pubs. 

Prostitution also flourished in many mining towns. The row of stones opposite Wheal Betsy engine house at Mary Tavy earned the sobriquet ‘Annie Pinkham’s Men’, an echo of the former prostitution in the village. Desperate times often called for desperate measures and reports of the concealment of births by women who had become pregnant out of wedlock made their way into the 19th century press with depressing regularity.

A closer community

Although many had a reputation for roughness, Cornish mining villages were usually close-knit places where people were often related and looked out for one another. 

Episodes of crime, rioting and prostitution were only one side of life in mining communities. Mining towns and villages were also places where people could forget their worries and problems by attending events organised by local chapels, such as improvement societies, bazaars, penny readings and choral ensembles. Feasts and celebrations emerged – many marked by games, fireworks and singing – which were often a joyous sense of local identity. 

The annual Sunday School Tea Treat, parish feast day and annual harvest were keenly awaited events in the social calendar. Lamp societies were established to raise money to put up gas lighting in mining villages in the late 19th century and women were involved in charity organisations such as the Dorcas Society to raise money for clothing and bedding for the most needy. 

Methodism encouraged pride and thrift, meaning that a miner’s home was usually clean, his children as well fed as possible and their clothes, although old, laundered and neatly patched.

There were also new roads to self-improvement; Miners and Mechanics Institutes, reading rooms, music and poetry, and above all, Methodism. Although residing in humble surroundings, pride and thrift were qualities encouraged by Methodism, meaning that a miner’s home was usually clean, his children as well fed as possible and their clothes, although old, laundered and neatly patched.

Later in the 19th century, civic pride resulted in towns such as Liskeard, Truro, Redruth and Camborne making great attempts to outdo each other, erecting grand municipal buildings and elaborate shop fronts, as well as improving facilities such as public parks and gardens.