Sometime around 1850, Josiah John Johns operated the Plough Inn, on the narrow road leading past Teague's tollgate between St. Austell and Truro, near Hewas Water, in Cornwall, England. There wasn't a true village here -- the direct road slipped down into the valley and took a straighter path between the larger cities. Josiah Johns was a busy man; he was a blacksmith and a farmer and brewed beer behind the inn, so no doubt his wife, the former Peggy Coad, was the real innkeeper. Dominating the local countryside was the huge brick chimney of the Great Hewas Copper Mine, which provided employment for the miners living in stone cottages in the area. The hillsides near Hewas Water were farmed in small patches, with most families having at least a truck garden. The hedgerows which divide the fields today were often in the same locations in 1850.
Josiah was married to Peggy Coad, and they raised a family of nine children - four boys and five girls. Two of the girls - both named Elizabeth - died in childhood, but the other seven grew to adulthood. The boys became smiths, farmers, butchers. One of their daughters, Peggy Real Johns, married a "sojourner" and a miner, William Rowe.
It's interesting to speculate about those who worked above ground, as did most of the Johns family, and those who went deep underground to mine tin and copper, as did most of the Rowe family.
Tin mining in Cornwall goes back about as far as it can, for Cornish tin helped to usher in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the Phoenician galley found off the coast. Ancient tinners were called streamers, because they worked the exposed beds of tin ore that had eroded down from the mountains and formed 'streams' of ore going down towards the sea. Eventually the rich deposits of surface tin were played out, and the miners had to start tunnelling to follow the veins of ore. Sometimes the mining came to a halt, waiting for some new technology to enable the miners to tunnel deeper and pump out the water which continually tried to flood the mines. The mines were more than a mile underground, and eventually other ores, including copper and even titanium, were discovered in the Cornish hills. Because the mining started to diminish in importance in the nineteenth century, it's easy to forget that -- not just for centuries but for millenia -- Cornwall was the mining centre of the world.
And what was a miner? By tradition in Cornwall, he (or she) was an independent contractor, or a member of a small squad of contractors, who were paid on a piecework basis. No doubt Cornish mining traditions have helped to shape the economy of miners and prospectors elsewhere, because in the nineteenth century 100,000 Cornish miners spread all over the world, wherever there were mines. The Cornishmen were, in general, not the mine owners or capitalists. That lot fell to the London adventurers, who dominated the worldwide mining industry. (Herbert Hoover, educated as a mining engineer at Stanford, nevertheless had to come to London to live and work as a mining capitalist in the years before the Great War.) But the Cornish miners were, in their own way, the risk takers. Even though the lot of most of them was miserable and poor, if they should happen to find a rich vein of ore they would be rewarded accordingly. The Cornishmen were also fiercely independent, having derived their own sets of stannary laws and courts in the middle ages to resolve mining disputes.
By the nineteenth century, though, mining was difficult for the adventurers, who were beginning to feel the competition from other parts of the world, and found each technological advance required the investment of greater sums of capital, which might or might not be justified by the ores extracted. It was much more difficult for the miners, who descended to the working depths on intricate hoists, and spent a full eight hour shift in a hot, dark, dirty environment, with the air pressure much higher than at the surface. Counting the time to descend and ascend, and a break for lunch, plus the walk to and from their homes, the miners seldom worked less than twelve hours. There was not even a change of clothes or a wash, just dinner and to bed until the day started over the next morning. The boys started working in the mines as young as 10, pushing barrows with rubble to clear the work area, while the mine girls (or old women) broke up the ore with hammers near the entrances.
In the 1861 census, we found William Rowe and Peggy Johns, with their seven children, living near the mines. William and his oldest son, Tom, worked as miners, and their oldest daughter Elizabeth, was a mine girl. Within the next four years two or three more of their children would be working in the mines, no doubt. The Plough House, 2003
Today, we visited Hewas Water with Paul, a local genealogist, an expert on the area near Creed Parish, where the Plough Inn had been located. Turning off the highway onto a quieter side road, we saw a comfortable looking white house with a metal silhouette of a farmer and plough on the side. Inquiries produced a warm welcom from the current owners, Terry and Carol, who invited us in for conversation and coffee.
Although the current sign is modern, and the name has been changed to The Plough House, it's the same house occupied by the Johns family, remodeled and extended over the years. The thick stone walls and timbered ceilings testify to its age and quality. The oldest part has been converted into a small cottage for Carol's 90-year-old father. A portion at the other end which used to be a dairy barn is now the dining room. The remodeling has been thoughtfully done, so that the stone fireplace and low ceilings reminded us of the age of the original building.
The present owners have lived here only a few years, and were eager to learn more of the history of the house. They had come to Cornwall to retire, since Terry had fond memories of annual holidays in Cornwall as a child. They are making great efforts to fit into the local culture, buying eggs from the egg lady, and hiring local workmen ("I'll do it d'reckly" means, in Cornwall, something like "within the next few weeks, unless something more urgent comes up". It reminded us of our landlady here). Paul happens to teach a class on the subject in St. Austell, and was able to direct Terry and Carol to just the right resources to learn more about the history of their house. Unfortunately, the records of Edgecombe Manor have been lost, so they may never be able to completely reconstruct the chain of owners over the years. Horse-drawn plough sign
The house has been, variously, an inn, a dairy, several times a house, sometimes a shop. There's a well under the rubbish bin in the kitchen, which the owners have learned to step over. There's no mining here any more, so the entire town is quiet; most residents are retired or work in Truro, about a half hour away.
After lunch at the Hewas Inn, Paul drove us to the top of the tallest hill to look out over Cornwall. The rain had stopped and the sun was coming out. Far away we could see the glint of sunshine on the ocean, between two hillsides. Nearby, the little hamlet of St. Stephen in Brannel was tucked away in a small valley. In another direction we could see the gigantic tailings of the china clay works, still in operation providing, among other things, material for coated papers and textiles.
What did Josiah and Peggy Johns think of the life of their daughter Peggy, married to the miner William Rowe? No doubt there was considerable culture clash between those who ventured underground and those who followed the trades on the surface. Neither side could fully appreciate the life of the other. Did Josiah think that Peggy had made a poor choice?
Throughout the nineteenth century mining was on the wane in Cornwall, and William resolved to do something about it. First he needed some money, and although the family worked hard, it was hard to save cash as a Cornish miner. So in 1865, William and Tom headed for America, where they found work in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. With a combination of savings and loans (we think), they had enough to pay the passage for the rest of the Rowe family. In 1866 Peggy and the other six children took a train to Liverpool and boarded the S.S. City of Boston for New York, where the family was soon reunited.
We picked up the trail of the Rowes in Lafayette County, Wisconsin, where thousands of Cornish miners were working the lead mines in towns with names like Mineral Point and New Diggings. But then, in 1870 William Rowe, 54 years of age, purchased a 138-acre farm near Chapin, Iowa. He had given up the dangerous life of a miner. Peggy's parents were dead by then, but at least some of her brothers were back in Cornwall. Her brother Peter became a traffic clerk at Falmouth Docks. Her brother Josiah inherited the family farm, and was a butcher. We don't know if any of her other siblings left Cornwall; we rather doubt it. No doubt Peggy wrote home proudly to announce that her family were now landowners and farmers.
Young Tom, who with his father had helped raised the passage money for the rest of the family, married a girl from Yorkshire and homesteaded in Wilson, Kansas, where they raised three daughters, the oldest of whom was our grandmother Ella.
It's been pretty exciting for us to piece together more of our Cornish Ancestry. We'll be leaving tomorrow for London, where we'll take advantage of the fine genealogical libraries and the huge national archives to continue our genealogical research. We also plan to do some sightseeing, which we'll tell you about in future reports.