Cornish Immigrants

Cornish Immigrants

The Cornish Immigrants to South Africa has legacy that has numerous facets. It embraces a mining and commercial heritage, derived from such eminent early Cornishmen as Francis Oats, Samson Rickard Stuttaford and Charles Chudleigh; a spirit of concern for the under-privileged given by Bishop Colenso and Emily Hobhouse, and the international links provided by the English language which cement family and friendly associations in all English-speaking countries. The legacy is also to be found in the place names, streets and buildings of South Africa and in the speech of South Africans today. What they eat also has Cornish links, as have what they do, working, playing sport, relaxing or simply their mode of living. The weekend excursion, the picnics, the benefit associations and superstitions that still persist, for none of these existed before the mineral revolution and the influx of new blood into South Africa in the second half of the last century.

The great contribution was the strengthening of the English language, which it can be surmised were it not for this influx, would have largely disappeared into a much broadened Afrikaans for Dutch from which Afrikaans has principally grown, is the most akin language to English – and they both spring from the same branches of the Teutonic family of languages. But the Cornish introduced the unusual in speech. They contributed many of their colloquialisms and expressions that have become standard South African English, which in its own way, is as much a growing language as Afrikaans: a few that are still used – usually in modern idiom are:

  • she went up along the street (Going up Camborne Hill coming down …) – she walked up the street on the hill coming down
  • I took the grizzly up – I examined the large sieve (made of large crossed rails of heavy iron bars, used for sorting ore)
  • I felt grizzly all day – I felt depressed, I felt like weeping all day
  • What go out under the sea – the lodes go out under the sea
  • a cuppa tay – a cup of tea
  • there can’t be many of them here in this dozen, they’re too cheap – astonishment at the price for a dozen commodities
  • I skat thee down – skats, scats, I will knock you down, I will scatter you
  • I’m tipsy – I have had too much to drink
  • C‘mon Boy – a term of encouragement addressed to anyone no matter the age, and probably the origin for the use of Boy in the mines when speaking to someone. The Cornish addressed everybody as Boy; a term of affection for the more junior.
  • I’m clonkey – my throat is sore, and can’t swallow, I’ve been clonked
  • I be going up town – I’m going into the centre of the city/town
  • Fagotting – to cheat, to defraud, to pretend to be something you are not Tommy Knockers is here again – a rumbling in a mine, usually indicative of an impending collapse, a mine to be watched. Tommy Knockers is the proverbial Cornish mining gremlin
  • to fooch – a pretence at doing a job, playful contact, maybe the origin of footchy footchy (in South Africa today voetsie-voetsie)
  • knacked bals – disused mines; bals were knacked – mining activity ceased, useless to pursue further
  • as bowld as brass
  • as black as ink
  • getting married isn’t all beer and skittles

It was also said that when the Cornish swore, their swearing sounded like poetry.

In the field of international links, there is hardly a South African family descended from the influx at the time of the mineral revolution that does not have relations abroad – and with whom many still keep up the contact.

The second most important contribution to South Africa’s heritage is mining skill, a skill that has led this country to great heights of achievement. The traditional Cornish approach of imparting mining knowledge from father to son was slowly superceded by the more advanced mining schools that came into being, culminating in the world renowned Camborne School of Mines. There were many of this School’s students who went on to make their mark in South African mining history. Barney Barnato’s legacy to South Africa, the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company Limited was to employ many a mine manager from the School. William John Hosking Ivey, a surveyor with De Beers in Kimberley was another Cornishman who took his expertise to the Seychelles.

Mining skill was introduced from abroad, to develop an industry that has been the mainstay of the economy for well over 100 years and appears to be capable of being so for the next hundred.

Cornish engineers introduced the rock drill that was to revolutionise payability; they added water to it so as to reduce dust inhalation hazards (ignored by the miners themselves) and they introduced pneumatic tools.

But mining has to be taught and certainly today there is no room for traditional skills to be slowly handed down from father to son. Mining requires a deep understanding of not only the people involved, but the reason for doing it. Importation of skilled labour and educated mining men were the original answers, but as early as 1890 when the goldfields discoveries had been proved, reservations were held about the ability of the mines to continue attracting the required expertise from abroad.

A movement for the establishment of a local training school was born then, the initiators at the Cape assuming that it would be located in Cape Town and fall under the jurisdiction of the South African College. But it was pointed out, logically, that such a school should be where the mining was, either in Kimberley or Johannesburg. A compromise was reached and it was agreed that the theoretical part of the course could be taken at Cape Town and the practical and technical aspects at Kimberley. In 1896 the school opened in Kimberley. This was to grow from being housed in one small room in De Beers Road to new premises built in Hall Street in 1899 at a cost of £9 000. But it continued growing, modelled closely on the Redruth and Penzance Mining Schools, which were to be later amalgamated in 1909 into the now world-renowned Camborne School of Metalliferous Mining. After the Anglo-South African War the school moved to the principal area of mining activity, Johannesburg. In 1904, it re-opened in wood and iron buildings in Plein Street, as the Transvaal Technical Institute, changing its name firstly to Transvaal University College in 1906, and then in 1910 to the South African School of Mines and Technology. Finally it became, after much lobbying and controversy, the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922, born at the time of much strife amongst the miners themselves. Contact me to trace your Cornish Ancestor Immigrants to South Africa.