The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

The decline of Cornwall’s staple industries, which had been a feature of the last quarter of the 19th century, continued into the twentieth. Mining, in particular, continued to contract and the disruptive effect of the First World War on the world economy was all too clearly felt by the county’s remaining tinners. In 1920 Cornwall produced 3,065 tons of black tin but in the early months of 1921 the market price fell by half and output slumped catastrophically to 679 tons. Operations came to a halt at the leading concerns of Geevor, Lelant and South Crofty and, with only a handful of smaller mines still working, a mere 370 tons was produced in 1922. There were still, however, a few undaunted adventurers prepared to keep going, particularly in the Wendron area to the north of Heiston. East Lovell and Wheal Enys continued for a few more years and Calvadnack mine until 1930. Even the occasional new enterprise was started, like Poihigey mine which began operations in 1926 and was later visited by the Prince of Wales. In general, though, world economic conditions dictated that, if mining was to survive in Cornwall where unit costs were high, it could only be through rationali­sation and capitalisation with investment concentrated in a small number of the most productive concerns.

Maritime Cornwall, showing lifeboat stations and fishing centres.
Maritime Cornwall, showing lifeboat stations and fishing centres.

The contraction in the mining industry and the social disruption which followed was to a large extent echoed by the demise of fishing. The expansion of pilchard and mackerel drifting during the 1880s and 1890s had brought obvious benefits to Cornwall’s coastal communities, but the increasing mobility of the national fishing fleet was now bringing a marked increase in the number of East Coast vessels working Cornish waters. As these larger steam drifters took an ever-larger share of the catch, tension gradually increased and the Newlyn Riots of 1896, ostensibly over the ‘Yorkies’ reluctance to observe the Sabbath, had already revealed the depth of local frustration aroused by over-fishing and fanned by regional rivalry. A crisis point in the industry was reached in 1905 when catches greatly exceeded market demands and huge quantities of pilchards were either dumped or sold to farmers for manure at giveaway prices. This precipitated a sharp slump as hundreds of fishermen abandoned their calling for other occupations, many leaving the county in the process. The inter-war period continued to witness a progressive decline, the County Fishery Officer described the 1930 season as ‘an utter failure’, and full-time fishing virtually dis­appeared from many of the smaller coves and harbours; even the established ports saw their fleets decimated. Mousehole’s comple­ment of 100 drifters had disappeared by the 1940s, while on the opposite side of Mount’s Bay Porthieven’s fleet of 128 working boats in 1897 had shrunk by 26 by 1957. Inevitably this contraction was characterised by a disruption of community life as many families moved out and ancillary trades laid off workers, a process aggravated by a government policy of so-called ‘slum clearance’ laid down in the Housing Acts of 1930-5. Although primarily intended to alleviate conditions in the inner cities, the legislation empowered all local authorities to participate, and the policy led to the demolition of many of the old fishermen’s quarters. In October 1937 the men of Newlyn sailed the Rosebud the 460 miles to London to protest ‘against the wholesale destruction of our village’, but, despite a ministerial audience and mass public attention and sympathy, they managed only a partial victory. Fishermen, perhaps like Cornwall itself, were becoming peri­pheral to ‘national’ considerations.

The economic contraction of the 1920s and 1930s was followed by the disruptive effects of the Second World War. The Great War of 1914-18 had not been directly felt in Cornwall beyond a modest amount of German submarine activity in coastal waters, but the count­less war memorials scattered throughout the peninsula indicate that the county had given its ‘lost generation’ like everywhere else. While Plymouth was to bear the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s blitzkrieg in the south-west, Cornwall was not allowed to escape from the consequences of curtailing German nationalism a second time. Ports and harbours were inevitable targets; an air raid on Penryn in May 1941 destroyed 23 houses, a shop and the Church Institute, while another on 6 September damaged 13 houses beyond repair. Penzance was also bombed on several occasions, and between 1940-2 the town lost 48 dwellings with 16 fatalities. Fishermen played an important part in the Dunkirk evacuation of June 1940 in an atmosphere of great secrecy. Boats returning from sea were simply instructed to remove their nets, take on fuel, and sail immediately to Falmouth to await further orders. Provi­sion was made for Hitler’s anticipated invasion just as it had been for Napoleon’s a century and a half earlier. The Cornwall County Defence Committee was set up to make the necessary preparations, although it was probably just as well that the inhabitants were unaware of the government’s private conclusion that, if invaded, Cornwall would probably have to be abandoned to the enemy. Fortunately Hitler’s ‘Operation Sealion’ failed to materialise, and on the whole the county escaped lightly, and assumed the ancillary role of catering for evacuees from the cities as well as refugees from France and Belgium.

While the war provided a temporary boost to the local economy, Cornwall’s traditional industries remained highly vulnerable. Fishing was good during the late 1940s after grounds had been rested during the war and stocks had increased, but the industry soon had to meet the challenge of the more advanced continental fleets. Considerable capital investment was also needed to counteract the final demise of pilchard drifting and to switch to other methods and species. In 1947 there had still been 600 drifters employing 3,500 men, but by 1967 only 10 boats and 56 men were left. The 1959 Sea Fisheries Act attempted to stop the rot by introducing government subsidies but, beneficial as it was, the legislation did not cover shellfish, an omission which caused the County Fishery Officer to ‘express his astonishment’. It was to be mother nature, however, not government action, which provided a lifeline for Cornwall’s remaining 2,000 fishermen with the arrival of large shoals of winter mackerel in the late 1960s. While the bonanza proved to be relatively short-lived, the injection of confidence stimulated modernisation of the fleet with greater emphasis on versa­tility. The recent development at the main ports of Newlyn and Fal­mouth, with improved berthing and service facilities, has ensured the survival of one of the county’s oldest pursuits, even if it still remains a precarious and unpredictable occupation.

The fluctuating fortunes in the fishing industry were also echoed in the mining areas. The catastrophic fall in world tin prices during the early 1920s led many to predict the complete demise of the industry as several more concerns ceased production. With the closure of the great Levant workings in 1930 and East Pool and Wheal Agar in 1945, mineral extraction in Cornwall seemed to be entering a terminal phase but, like fishing, tin mining underwent rationalisation with investment concen­trated in a small number of viable concerns such as Geevor, Wheal Jane, Mount Wellington, South Crofty and Pendarves. In 1969 a writer in The Observer predicted that the Cornish industry faced a ‘considerable renaissance’ but, with high production and labour costs, tin mining has always been vulnerable to the vagaries of the world market; a slump in ore prices in 1978 led to the closure of Mount Wellington and Wheal Jane. The latter reopened a year later, and improved prospects saw the birth of a new venture, Wheal Concorde near Redruth; however, another fall in world tin prices at the end of 1985 cast yet another shadow over Cornwall’s mines. The suspension of work at Geevor in April 1986, pushing the local unemployment figure to 40 per cent, sounded the alarm bells throughout mining communities whose immediate future now seemed bleak. China clay, on the other, has been spared from such sharply fluctuating fortunes and its late 19th-century expansion has been consolidated in the twentieth. The First World War was followed by a wave of mergers resulting in the near monopoly of English Clays Lovering Pochin (E.C.L.P.). By the mid-1980s annual profits had reached £75 million, most despatched from the ports of Par and Fowey, and the industry was firmly established as a principal employer in the central area of the county.

Agriculture and its ancillary trades has also consolidated its position as a dominant factor in the Cornish economy, although increasing mechanisation, particularly between the wars, drastically reduced the numbers employed in the industry. In the upland areas, sheep-rearing became more widespread, while other farmers concentrated on meeting the nation’s growing demand for dairy products. In the central and western parts of the county the mild climate has enabled the arable farms to grow two crops in the agricultural year, and since the late 19th century the usual combination has been early potatoes followed by the planting in August and September of either broccoli (winter cauli­flower) or spring cabbage. Between 1890 and 1930 the proportion of broccoli being carried across the Tamar by rail increased tenfold to 32,000 tons a year.

The most striking economic development of the 20th century, and at the same time the most controversial, has been the advent of large-scale tourism. Hailed by many as a much-needed diversification, condemned by others as a despoiler of ‘things Cornish’, a commercial bogeyman which has reduced Cornwall to little more than ‘the playground of England’, the tourist industry has had a major effect on both the economic and social fabric of the county. The combination of a striking landscape and the element of mystery which stemmed from geographi­cal remoteness attracted many intrepid 18th- and early 19th-century travellers; but Cornwall’s connection to the national railway system in May 1859 opened the door to the up-country masses in search of their ‘place in the sun’. Holiday promoters were hardly slow to grasp the opportunities which now unfolded and within six weeks the cele­brated Thomas Cook had organised the first railway excursion across the Tamar. During the 1880s Cornwall became a fashionable haunt for the Victorian intelligentsia, and the output of the recently established artists’ colonies at Newlyn and St Ives stimulated further interest. By the end of the century, with Penzance little more than seven hours away from London by rail, tourism had established itself as a vital counterbalance to the decay of Cornwall’s traditional industries. Many coastal communities which had seemed doomed with the contraction of pilchard seining – Looe, Fowey, Mousehole and Perranporth are good examples – now earned a vital reprieve while Newquay, still a tiny fishing village in the 1850s, had grown into a community of 3,000 by 1901. Truro, with the attraction of its new cathedral and the enhanced status which came from its elevation to the rank of county town in 1889, also expanded as did its near neighbour, Falmouth, which emerged as a fashionable watering-hole for the more affluent. After the First World War the holiday trade grew steadily and then accelerated rapidly after the Second. By the late 1960s the County Planning Officer estimated that over 11 per cent of the working popula­tion were dependent on tourism, a proportion only exceeded by agri­culture and the distributive trades. At the same time there were many who argued that the rise in the number of holiday homes to over 10,000 and the increasing influx of retired people were offsetting the economic advantages of this growth.

If the progressive expansion of the tourist trade has been responsible for the opening-up and increasing commercialisation of Cornwall, it has also contributed to a cultural reaction as enthusiasts have realised the importance of language, local traditions and history as bulwarks against the encroaching tide of trans-Atlantic uniformity. The Cornish language, extinct as a vernacular since the late 18th century and little more than an academic curiosity since, was dusted off and the grammar standard­ised, first by Henry Jenner who helped form the Celtic Cornish Society in 1901 and then by R. Morton Nance. Nance founded the Old Corn­wall Society in 1920 with its purpose embodied in the motto ‘Gather ye the fragments that are left that nothing be lost’, and proceeded to produce a standard form of Unified Cornish. The Cornish Gorsedd was established in 1928, and four years later the Celtic Congress assembled R. Morton Nance in the county for the first time. The post-war years saw the production of a new dictionary, Cornish grammars and conversational booklets, and the language re-entered Cornish life in a mixed assortment of house names, boat names and rugby club mottoes.

The revival of things Cornish, which ran parallel with the re-emergence of political nationalism in Wales and Scotland, also led to the formation of Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) in 1951. A successor to the Tyr ha Tavas movement of the late 1920s, MK pledged itself to main­tain ‘the character of Cornwall as a Celtic nation. . . and to promote the constitutional advance of Cornwall and its right to self-government in domestic affairs’. Initially the party was treated with considerable scepticism not only by outsiders but by most Cornish people them­selves. Gradually, however, it has made a modest place for itself and, while it has been unable to make an impact in parliamentary elections, it has occasionally astounded the established national parties by winning local government contests, first in 1967 and more recently in May 1985 when MK candidate Cohn Lawry unseated a Conservative county councillor in Penzance. Meanwhile, in 1972, the cultural renais­sance received a major boost when the University of Exeter and Cornwall County Council combined to set up the Institute of Cornish Studies at Redruth with the aim of providing ‘a focus for. . . all forms of research into Cornwall’. In 1969 one of the county’s most celebrated adopted writers, Daphne du Maurier, published her rather pessimisti­cally entitled book Vanishing Cornwall, but there are clearly many individuals and organisations determined to ensure that the identity of this special corner of the British Isles does not vanish altogether. Cornwall’s present inhabitants, native-born and newcomers alike, might still manage a wry smile of satisfaction at the opinion of a Plymouth correspondent to the Western Morning News that ‘we may have built the Tamar Bridge between us but there is still something pretty odd at the western end of it’.