More than half a million people left Cornwall in the nineteenth century and headed to destinations both overseas and within Britain. Kresen Kernow has a range of records covering the process of migration, as well as those relating to individual families both in Cornwall and overseas.
At one point, migration was so commonplace that a great deal of infrastructure existed in Cornwall to support it. In our collections you can find newspaper adverts and articles offering advice and information to migrants from Cornwall as well as records of tickets bought and families (usually poor) chosen for a new life abroad.
Kresen Kernow is also home to the Scoble archive, a rich collection of correspondence and other documents that clearly demonstrates the impact of migration on one family. The collection includes more than 50 detailed letters full of information about life on the mining frontier sent home from Richard Scoble in North America to his family in Devoran. Our collections also contain other correspondence from migrants overseas to their families in Cornwall, as well as diaries, pictures and photos. Not all migrants were miners; we hold letters and diaries from tailors and other professionals who had sought a new life abroad.
We are currently exploring our collections to see what they reveal about Cornwall’s connections to the British Empire and colonialism, and the impact this had on populations overseas, and at home. This is an ongoing project, but you can read more about it on our Black histories page, or download the Kresen Kernow collections guide – the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Caribbean and the Kresen Kernow collections guide – Africa to find out about our discoveries so far.
If you are interested in finding a migrant ancestor, the census can be enormously helpful, and can be accessed online at Kresen Kernow or via subscription sites at home. You can read our Family History collection guide for a little more information. We do not hold any passenger lists, but many of these can be accessed through Ancestry.co.uk for a fee. It is often worth checking the records of the countries you think your ancestor went to.
Not all migration was voluntary. The Bodmin Gaol registers and Quarter Sessions records (see the Crime and Punishment, Law and Order collections guide) contain numerous references to people sentenced to be transported overseas. It is almost impossible to know what happened to many of them.
Key search terms: migration, America, Australia, Africa (and countries involved as well as towns and places), migrant, emigration, emigrant, colonialism
Key collections: AD833 (Scoble family), AD1875 (James Keast, South Africa), AD1207/6 (County Distress Fund records), X955/1-2 (photograph albums featuring industrial and colonial scenes in Africa and South America)
Recommended reads: Cornish overseas by Philip Payton, 1999; Cornish Miner in America by AC Todd, 1967; Cornish Farmer in Australia by Philip Payton, 1987; Cornish pioneers in South Africa: ‘Gold and diamonds, copper and blood’ by Richard Dawe, 1998
Watch: you can watch films about items in our collections as well as our Cornwall at Home…and Away talks series (recorded live in 2021), on our YouTube channel