Looking Up My Cornish Family History

Some of my ancestors came from Cornwall and today we had some fun looking at the locations where they lived and worked.

My mother’s maiden name was Davey and it is quite a popular Cornish name. We can trace her family back to the area of Crowan in Cornwall over at least seven generations but I have focused on my Great, Great Grandfather (Stephen Davey) as we know more about him than any of the  others. One thing that I have learned from this trip is that they came from the general Parish of Crowan; not necessarily the village itself

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Stephen Davey was born in Crowan in 1820 and was the son of John and Elizabeth Davey.  He married Ann Bassett (another strong Cornish name) in Breage, Cornwall in 1842 at the age of 24 years. Amongst other children, they had a son (also Stehpen) and they emigrated with members of their extended family to Australia, arriving on Brunel’s great ship, the Great Britain,  in December 1861. They re-settled at Eaglehawk near Bendigo where their mining skills had value.

We drove across to Crowan to find a bigger village than I might have expected. It is really only a small hamlet of  30, or so houses and a church. but I only expected to find about half of this. The very striking Anglican church in the centre of the village is surrounded by a large churchyard (graveyard). On a table at the back of the church is a folder containing a directory of the inscriptions of all the headstones in the churchyard but there were no Daveys listed in that register. I am not surprised at this as the family were strong methodists and it would have been unlikely that they would be buried in an Anglican cemetery.

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The records of the 1851 census show Stephen Davey and Ann Bassett as living in ‘Horse Downs’. This was a hamlet near the town of Leedstown. I could find a road by the same name and the signpost pointed to Horsedowns as being 1/2 mile down the road rom Leedstown. We found a crossroad there, but not much else. I suspect that this hamlet died out when the tin mines closed along with a general trend for people to move away from the country and to the city. This photo shows Horse Downs Road leading to the site of the original hamlet.

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Stephen Davey and his father were both tin miners. A little way up the road from Horse Downs is the historic site of the Bunner Downs Mine. I walked around the area but there is nothing there other than a mullock (tailings) heap. I don’t whether Stephen would have worked there, but it is only a few hundred yards up the road from where he may have lived.

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Mining began in Cornwall in the days of stone age man. Originally the tin, and copper, was found as alluvial deposits in the gravels of stream beds, but eventually underground working took place to follow the mineral seams / leads. Tin lodes outcropped on the cliffs and underground mines sprung up as early as the 16th century.  

Most old mining sites are marked by the ruins of tall buildings that originally housed the steam engines that powered the mining operations. Inevitably the mine shafts dropped below the level of the water table, and the water had to be pumped out if mining was to continue any deeper. Hence pumps and the houses for the engines that drove the pumps were a necessary part of mining. These engine houses were the sturdiest buildings in the mines, as they had both to house the machinery and support the massive oscillating beams that worked the pumps.

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It was in the 19th century that mining reached its peak, before foreign competition  (especially in Malaysia and South America) depressed the price of copper and later tin, to a level that made Cornish ore unprofitable. At its height, the Cornish Tin Mining Industry had around 600 steam engines working to pump out the mines.  Entrepreneurs put up the capital, and the mine would hopefully return them a profit. During the 20th century various ores became briefly profitable again, and some mines were reopened, but today none remain. The collapse of the world tin cartel in 1986 was the last nail in the coffin of tin mining.

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Old maps show that pits existed all over the place. This view towards the hill of Carn Brae and its memorial cross shows some of the remaining engine houses. These were not necessarily separate mines. A typical mine had up to three of these structures – one for the mine head (where the ore was hauled to ground level), one for the pump house (with its Cornish boilers and beam pump) and the third for the treatment plant where the ore was refined and tin / copper waa extracted.

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Leedstown is the closest town to Horse Downs. We wee going to stop there for lunch but the only place to eat (the pub) was only open for lunches on three days each week. There is a large Methodist Church in Leedstown, but I don’t think that Stephen Davey would have worshiped in this building as it wasn’t built until 1862 (a year after he emigrated to Australia). 

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Wesleyan Methodism was very strong in Cornwall. John Wesley’s main preaching was directed at the poor and uneducated miners and fishermen and their families in Cornwall. The Established Church, the Church of England (Anglican) was the church of the more prosperous. John Wesley preached eighteen times to mainly miners, and farmers and fishermen, too, at the Gwennap Pit, a large circular depression, probably a partial collapse of an underground mine, about two and a half miles from Redruth. September 6th, 1762 was Wesley’s first visit to Gwennap Pit. His last was in 1789. The congregation sat, or stood, on the inclined sides of this pit which was described by Wesley in his journal as being about fifty feet deep and two hundred by three hundred feet across the top. After Wesley’s death the local people turned the pit into a regular circular shape with turf seats.

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2 comments

  1. Trina Bruce · ·

    Rob’s grandfather was from Redruth and his home in Ballarat was called “Carn Brae”

  2. Pamela Saunders · ·

    Quite a moving exploration for you Bruce. And what a stark reminder to many of us who now enjoy one of the best standards of living and education in the developed world that is was not many generations ago that our ancestors came from stock that worked in terrible conditions, were often of no great means and were of humble education. Current-day Australians are infinitely wealthy in so many aspects from the fortunes of being born in this southern land and being the beneficiaries of hard working but insightful migrants.

    I think I am correct in understanding that it is hard if not impossible to gain a mortgage for properties (houses) built over old underground mines in the UK.