CORNWALL is one of the most beautiful of English counties. Girded by the Celtic Sea on the north and the English Channel on the south, and with its western tip thrusting toward the Atlantic Ocean, its often wild and rugged coastline has inspired writers of fiction for more than a century, from the Poldark novels by Winston Graham to the romantic works of Daphne du Maurier.
Cornwall's history is ancient. It had its own Cornish language, a branch of the Celtic family separate from Welsh but related to it. As English as the lingua franca pushed its way into the area from around 1300 AD, Cornish gradually diminished and virtually fell out of use by 1800. Today there are efforts to revive it as a second language to English. Prefixes from the original language - Pol (a pond), Tre (a settlement) and Pen (a hill or headland) - are common today in family and place names, such as Poldark, Trelawney and Penzance.
From Roman times through the Industrial Revolution, Cornwall was a treasure trove of valuable minerals, most notably tin and copper. The Romans introduced advanced mining techniques to this outpost of their vast empire, exploiting Cornwall's rich mineral deposits by establishing a network of mines and smelting sites. Many villages in the county still bear traces of Roman mining activity, and the brick chimneys of old mines from a later period dot the landscape.
During the medieval and Tudor periods, the mining industry entered a new phase of expansion. But when English King Henry VII curtailed a special tax exemption on Cornish tin miners, it resulted in the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, in which 10,000 Cornishmen marched on London. They were routed by the King's army at the Battle of Deptford Bridge and the leaders hanged.
Nevertheless, mining continued to stimulate local economies until the boom times of the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-1800s, Cornish miners were regarded as among the best in the world. Technological advancements revolutionized mining operations, allowing for deeper and more efficient extraction of minerals. Steam-powered engines transformed mining from a labor-intensive endeavor into a mechanized industry. This era marked the zenith of Cornwall's mining dominance, with the region supplying vital resources to the global market.
Mining provided employment for generations of villagers, creating a sense of identity and shared purpose. It fostered a unique culture characterized by camaraderie, resilience, and a deep connection to the land. Churches, schools, and other communal structures emerged as cornerstones of these villages, providing spaces for education, worship, and social interaction.
However, Cornwall's reserves of tin were already beginning to decline by the latter half of the 19th century. Coupled with a drop in the global demand for Cornwall's minerals, the result was the closure of numerous mines. This decline had a ripple effect on the villages, as the once-thriving communities grappled with economic hardship and social upheaval. The economic outlook was much like the coal and shipbuilding industries in County Durham a century later - grim and uncertain. By the end of the 20th century, metal mining had ceased in Cornwall.
Cornwall did have other industries. Pilchard fishing and processing were significant contributors to the economy for more than a century from 1750. And while the county's westerly position and its granite uplands made most of it best suited to pastoral farming, there were stretches of arable land elsewhere, especially along the south coast, that produced good crops. Barley, wheat and oat yields were sufficient to provide for the local population and significant exports in a good year. In other years, such as the failed harvests of 1727 and 1728, grain had to be imported.
Smuggling along the wild coastline and secluded inlets had long been a feature of Cornish life, and substantial numbers of families became engaged in the practice to supplement their incomes with tax-free goods smuggled from the Continent.
Top: St Mary's Callington. The inside view is looking over the pulpit.
Above: St Hugh's, Quethiock, the remaining public building in the village.
Cornwall is distinctive for the small, spotlessly clean villages across the county, and for fishing villages along the coast. Many country villages are situated on lanes that are so narrow that two cars cannot pass. Almost all of them have an ancient parish church.
The decline of mining had a sobering effect on these villages. It wasn't just the miners who suffered. All of the local businesses that supported them - grocers and butchers, shoemakers and dressmakers, stone masons and blacksmiths - all suffered when jobs were lost from the primary local industry. On top of that, fluctuations in food prices caused periodic riots when miners took to the streets in protest against farmers and grain merchants for manipulating prices. Eventually, as agricultural methods improved and the tourism industry was born, the economic outlook improved. Still, Cornwall remains one of the lowest per-capita income areas of the United Kingdom.
The town of Callington and the villages of Menheniot and Quethiock are associated with some of the families on this website - notably the Henwoods, a family name that goes back in Cornwall at least to 1500. All three places are within a few miles of each other.
Of the three, Callington, set on the eastern fringes of Bodmin Moor, is by far the most substantial. It has been associated with the legendary King Arthur, and was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. It was established as a market town in the 13th century, and was a major hub of mining activity in its heyday. Callington featured in the food riots of 1847, with 200 miners gathering at the town hall and forcing farmers to sell at prices the miners thought were fair.
Today, the town is still graced by its ancient church, consecrated in 1438. St. Mary's is the parish church where Joanna Henwood married shoemaker Henry Wright in 1803.
Menheniot is a much smaller village than Callington. Its dominant feature is the parish church dedicated to St Lalluwy. Once again, there are historical references dating back to the Domesday Book of 1086. Menheniot - meaning "sanctuary of Neot" and pronounced locally as "Men-en-yut" - is surrounded by disused mining shafts and engine houses from the time that lead seams were discovered in the 1840s. For 30 years, the village was the center of a mining boom.
Between Menheniot and Callington is the village of Quethiock. The name, from old Cornish, means "forested place." It is a quiet village, dominated by its remarkable church dedicated to St Hugh, with its narrow and distinctive tower. Apart from the church and a small school, there are no other public buildings in Quethiock. The village has not had a pub since the 1920s and the village shop closed in 1980. The 400-or-so people who live there are either retired or travel to work in nearby Liskeard or even Plymouth in Devon.
All three of these places saw boom times when mining was king in Cornwall. Now, tourism and agriculture keep the economy afloat.