Skip to main content

The Cornish Diaspora

The Cornish Diaspora

Philip Payton

Key findings

  • Mass emigration from Cornwall in the century 1815-1914 created a dynamic transnational identity, in which ethnicity (‘the myth of Cousin Jack’) was often deployed as a social and economic strategy
  • Cornish emigrants played a significant role in the expansion of the international mining frontier and its attendant labour market, practices and technology
  • Cornish emigrants were often visible in the social, economic and political life of host societies, especially in the anglosphere


This is a project that I have pursued, on and off, for the past forty odd years, commencing with my University of Adelaide PhD ‘The Cornish in South Australia’ (1978) and my first book, Pictorial History of Australia’s Little Cornwall, published that year by Rigby Ltd in Adelaide. Since then I have published extensively on the Cornish diaspora, much of the research conducted under the auspices of the Institute of Cornish Studies, initially as Director (1991-2013) and now as Emeritus Professor. Recently, I have also been able to pursue my research interests at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. At Flinders I have supervised several postgraduate students working on Cornish subjects, among them Anthony Nugent whose PhD on ‘The Cornish in Western Australia’ was successfully examined in 2019.

In 2019 Wakefield Press in Adelaide published my One and All: Labor and The Radical Tradition in South Australia, which was commissioned by the Don Dunstan Foundation and funded by the Premier’s Department, State Government of South Australia. This book argued that the origins and characteristics of the Labor movement in South Australia, including the Labor Party, were significantly different to those in other parts of Australia, and that this distinctive history was in large part attributable to the Methodist-dominated trade unions that emerged in the state’s Cornish copper mining communities. A little known fact is that a Cornish miner, John Verran, born in Gwennap, headed the world’s first majority Labor government when he became Premier of South Australia in 1910!

My chapter on ‘The Cornish Diaspora’ in Donald MacRalid et al (eds.) British and Irish Diasporas:  Societies, Cultures and Ideologies (Manchester University Press, 2018) placed the diaspora in its comparative context (Donald and I also contributed a joint chapter on ‘The Welsh Diaspora’ to the collection).  Australia, Migration and Empire: Immigrants in a Globalised World (Philip Payton & Andrekos Varnava [eds.], Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), included chapters by Anthony Nugent on ‘The Cornish in Western Australia’ and myself on ‘Bal-maidens and Cousin Jenny: The Paradox of Women in Australia’s Historic mining Communities’. Eric Richards’ chapter ‘British Emigrants and the Making of the Anglosphere’ in the same collection emphasised the distinctive nature of Cornish emigration in the nineteenth century.

Most recently (2020), University of  Exeter Press has published a revised and updated edition of my The Cornish Overseas: A History of Cornwall’s ‘Great Emigration’, which has been able to take account of work completed over the last couple of decades, much of it within or associated with the Institute of Cornish Studies, as reflected in the new bibliography. Meanwhile, Wakefield Press is about (2020) to publish a new edition of my Pictorial History of Australia’s Cornwall. I have taken the opportunity to correct one or two small errors but on the whole I am surprised how well the text stands up after more than forty years, although I can’t help smiling at some of my naiveties.