Cornish Miners

My husband comes from Cornwall and his ancestors were there well over 200 years ago.

This small sample from my husband’s family history looks at how occupations can have a huge impact on the course of one’s life.

Mining has been recorded in Cornwall as far back as 4000 years ago. In the 18 and 19c it was recognised as the world’s leading producer of both tin and copper and was by far the biggest source of employment in Cornwall and West Devon.

Mining was a hard life and it was quite common for women, girls and boys to also be working above ground in the industry. Female surface workers were known as bal maidens, bal being the Cornish word for mine.

But by the end of the 19c other deposits were being found across the world and the industry in Cornwall started to diminish.

Cornishmen then began migrating to other parts of the world as their mining skills were highly valued. Cornish men and women mineworkers were known as cousin Jacks and Jennys.

My husband’s paternal grandmother was born Rubinal May Marks on 18 February 1896 in Camborne, Cornwall. She was the daughter of William Marks and Mabel Gilbert and had 2 brothers.

Ruby died in 1955 but there are family members who remember her talking about her early life spent in South Africa.

Her father, William, had gone out to Natal to work in the mining industry there and the family followed in late 1907 or early 1908. Ruby spoke of the enjoyable lifestyle but that was not to last.

Tragically, William died on 29 July 1908. He is buried near to the town of Benoni in Transvaal Province.

Almost a year to the day Mabel married again to James Henry Bawden in the County of Newcastle in the Colony of Natal. James was a bachelor of full age; his occupation was as a mine fitter.

The new family all returned to Cornwall in 1912, the children’s surname now recorded as Bawden.

While Mabel had been in South Africa, both of her brothers had died.
Joseph Henry Gilbert, a miner, died on 22 July 1909 at the age of 36 in Camborne from Fibroid Phthisis Exhaustion. The informant was his brother Nicholas John Gilbert.

Nicholas John Gilbert himself died in Camborne on the 24th April 1910 from Cardiac Failure caused by Tubercular Endocarditis. His funeral service was very well attended by family and friends as well as other members of the Hope of Cornwall Temple of Honour which campaigned against the consumption of alcohol.


Published in Cornubian & Redruth Times 5 May 1910.

Losing close family members at a relatively young age was the norm for Mabel. As well as the loss of her first husband and then 2 brothers within the space of a couple of years, she had also lost her father, Joseph, in a mining accident in 1879 when she was only 2 years old.


Published in Cornish & Devon Post 16 Aug 1879.

About 3 months after her father’s death, Mabel’s mother,Elizabeth gave birth to another son but he only lived for about a month. Elizabeth then took her family back to live with her father, Nicholas Clymo. At the time, Nicholas kept the Reynold’s Arms Inn at Camborne.

Nicholas’ parents were both born in Cornwall in the 1790’s and had many children as well as Nicholas. At that time mining was the predominant occupation in Cornwall.

Some of Nicholas’ siblings also left England and took their mining skills with them.

His sister, Elizabeth, married and moved to Pennsylvania in the USA in 1880 where his mining skills would have been put to good use.

Sister Jane married Henry Lathlean and they moved to Moonta in South Australia which is a big mining area.

Brother Charles moved to Ontario in Canada in 1871 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Mining was a hard life and often involved all family members.

There is a well known saying that anywhere in the world, if you come across a hole in the ground, there is likely to be a Cornish man or woman at the bottom of it.