Major new Cornish mining migration exhibition opens
A major new exhibition and documentary film focusing on Cornish mining migration was officially opened on Friday 9 July on behalf of the Heartlands Trust at the Heartlands site at Pool, by Karen Maddocks, H.M. Ambassador to Montenegro. This permanent new feature is the result of a significant Culture Recovery Grant awarded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2020. It is intended to compliment the Diaspora Gardens, and specifically highlights the fascinating story of mining migration. This is a theme of great significance in the social history of Camborne and Redruth and the mining villages ringing these twin towns. This area was historically known as the Central Mining District.
For years I have longed to see a dedicated exhibition devoted to a story that has indelibly shaped the people and settlements of the area into which I was born and bred. Like countless other Cornish people from a mining background in Camborne-Redruth, migration has shaped the branches on both sides of my family tree. Literally hundreds of my forebears left home during the exodus dubbed ‘the Great Migration’, which spanned the century after 1815.
There are many tales of trials and tribulations, tragedies and triumphs in my family tree, and here are just a few of them. Three Inch brothers, the sons of Wheal Buller Mine Captain, James Inch, migrated to work in the Tamaya Mines in Chile in the late-nineteenth century. One moved to Bolivia where he had an illegitimate second family, a descendant of which became a Bolivian Government minister and was murdered in his La Paz apartment in 2013.
In 1907, Bill Harvey, a brother to my great grandmother, was killed in an underground explosion in the Dreifontein Mine, South Africa, just weeks after his brother John Michael had died of enteric fever in nearby Randfontein. Both had previously worked in the United States before returning home, then migrating to the Transvaal, leaving their wives and children close to family in Gwennap. Bill left four children and his widow expecting their fifth at Pennance, while John was survived by two daughters at Carn Marth. After these tragedies, the brothers’ wives and their children returned to Michigan, causing yet more heartache as the family never saw them again. It was therefore a source of immense joy on both sides of the Atlantic when one of Bill’s grandsons came ‘home’ to Redruth from America to visit his cousins in the mid-1990s.
Stephen Polkinghorne, a humble Tregajorran miner who converted to Wesleyan Methodism at age 14 and became a local preacher, gained entry to Richmond College and migrated to Michigan where he spent his career preaching to his fellow Cornishmen. He achieved the American Dream – his daughters both became PhDs – the first I know of in my family tree.
In 1915 my great grandfather, Wilfred Bray, a mine mill fitter, was heading back to Busveal from McGill, Nevada, to be conscripted into the British Army. He later had cause to count his blessings for not being able to afford the fare aboard the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by the Germans off Cork en route to Southampton. He took a cheaper, and ultimately safer, passage aboard the St Louis steamer instead.
These familial experiences and events have forged my Cornish identity and cultural heritage and eventually helped to shape my career. As a local girl with an authentic and in-depth knowledge of this truly remarkable period in Cornish history, I was delighted to have been engaged as the consultant to devise and produce the historical content for a 12 minute documentary film and the new exhibition. Displaying many historic photographs that have never been seen before in Cornwall, and utilising the most up-to-date maps ever produced to illustrate the global spread of Cornish mining migration, the exhibition depicts the mining areas that local families migrated to, and explores the profound and lasting effects migration had on individuals, their families, and settlements, both at home and abroad. It is entirely fitting that this major new exhibition is sited at Heartlands, the very heart of Cornish mining, engineering and migration, and a gateway site for the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.