A close correlation seems to have existed between economic downturn in Cornwall associated with potato blight, deficient corn harvests and general economic malaise and the rise of opportunities overseas. South Australian mineral discoveries of the 1840s (especially at Kapunda and Burra in the Mid North) and extension of the farming frontier, were a magnet to the Cornish.

Emigration and Opportunities

This pattern was repeated in the 1860s when Cornish mining collapsed in the face of diminishing returns while rich mines in the Americas and Australia opened, including the copper mines of northern Yorke Peninsula. In turn, the Cornish emigrated from South Australia as local economic circumstances declined and opportunities arose elsewhere, such as the Victorian goldfields in the early 1850s, and gold discoveries in Western Australia and the rise of the Great Barrier silver–lead mines around Broken Hill in the 1890s. Employment opportunity was thus a leading cause of population movement among the Cornish mining community.

'Little Cornwalls'

South Australian Cornish migrants, however, did not only seek their fortunes underground. While predominantly miners, their role as farmers, pastoralists, skilled artisans, seamen, manufacturers and professionals all added to the contribution of the ‘Cousin Jacks and Jennys’ to the local economy and society. Their endowment went further than ensuring the economic development of South Australia, although it is easier to quantify the contribution of mining to national income and balance-of-trade than to measure the cultural veneer that rubbed off onto the wider community. Such cultural facets were obvious in the nineteenth century, for the close-knit mining communities of Burra and the Copper Triangle towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina on Yorke Peninsula were viewed as ‘Little Cornwalls’ that sat somewhat independently in the wider society. In particular, they displayed a sense of political liberalism emanating from a strongly non-conformist religious conviction that viewed radicalism as a practical extension of Christian charity and conviction and was reflected in the rise of trade unionism and development of social welfare concerns. This outlook was demonstrated by the introduction of welfare programs in Cornish-dominated mines and the emphasis on self-funded organisations associated with friendly societies including the Rechabites and Oddfellows. By the end of the nineteenth century forty four such lodges operated in the vicinity of the Copper Triangle.

Politics and Heritage

The oratory and conviction associated with Methodism also provided many notable politicians, including the leader of the first Labor government in South Australia (1910–12), John Verran, who was born at Gwenap, Cornwall, in 1856 but honed his skills at Moonta. That heritage extended over generations, with premier Don Dunstan of South Australian-Cornish extraction, being the exemplar of liberal/democratic ideals in the 1970s. Bob Hawke, president of the ACTU and prime minister of Australia in the 1980s, represents another with South Australian-Cornish antecedents. John Langdon Bonython, owner of the Advertiser and member of the first Commonwealth parliament, was also a founder and leading light of the South Australian Cornish Association. An interest in ‘things Cornish’ still survives, illustrated by the biennial Kernewek Lowender Cornish Festival at Moonta. This major tourist attraction has spread the word about ‘Australia’s Little Cornwall’ throughout the world and helped cement the Cornish identity. While drinking ‘swanky’ and eating Cornish pasties is synonymous with the festival, Kernewek Lowender also celebrates the Cornish contribution to the social, economic and political life of South Australia.

By Mel Davies

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 5 June 2015.

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