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The ‘Married Widows’ of Cornwall – new data for Cornish family historians

Revealing the story of these intriguing women has only been possible thanks to the resources produced for family history research. The time has come for this social historian to return the favour by sharing my research data on the individual women themselves.

The scale of emigration from Cornwall in the 19th century has become more widely appreciated in recent years, not least because of the award of World Heritage Site status to its tin and copper mining areas. Less well known is that amongst the migrant miners were large numbers of married men whose wives remained in Cornwall while they worked abroad. A newspaper report of the time calls them ‘married widows’ – a hint that society didn’t quite know what to make of them. At the same time in other places in Europe, such as Portugal and Sicily, wives who had not travelled abroad with their husbands were known as ‘widows of the living’ or ‘white widows’ suggesting a similar ambivalent status.

Although much has been written about the people who emigrated from Cornwall, there is surprisingly little about those they ‘left behind’, who are now known to have been just as involved in the wider emigration project. That so many Cornish families have memories of ancestors having gone abroad without their wives shows that it was a far from uncommon, especially amongst the mining communities. Half-remembered stories have generated a local mythology that cast the wives as victims with no say in their fate. It is interesting that the only public representation of these women is the annual re-enactment by local school pupils of the supposedly ‘true story’ of a wife sold at auction to fund her husband’s emigration. There was nothing to tell us what it was actually like for the women involved. What difficulties did they face? How did they cope? Did they really all end up desperate, destitute and deserted?

A few years ago I set myself the challenge to explore their experiences and tell their stories. The problem was – how? These were people who, by definition, didn’t do something, and on top of that they were amongst one of the least visible groups in history – married women. Part of the answer lay in the documents that had first drawn my attention to the existence of these wives, references in the census returns to a husband being abroad or in a named country. Cornwall is fortunate (and I believe unique in the UK outside Scotland) in that all the 19th century census returns have been transcribed (by the Cornwall Online Census Project) and are available in a format suitable for transfer into a research database. This allowed me to bring all the census information (1851-1891) for the entire population of Cornwall into a single database, creating a powerful analytical tool for studying Cornish social history.

Using this I have been able to extract, not only all the references to husbands abroad in the Cornish censuses, but also, for example, even greater numbers of married women who were described as heads of household with no husband listed. In the course of identifying these wives and looking into what happened to many of them, I have collected details of many thousands of ‘married widows’ in Cornwall, and I plan to share as many of these as I can via this new Humble History website.

The first release is of all the wives in Cornwall whose census entries refer to their husband being abroad – just under 1400 women. The listings can be found, together with some important explanatory notes, by selecting Wives ‘Left behind’ under the Research menu. As time and resources allow I will add the details of many more wives ‘left behind’ in Cornwall, especially those in the parishes of Gwennap, Camborne, St Just and St Agnes, as well as information gathered from other sources such as poor law records and newspapers. I hope this will be useful to those researching Cornish migrant families.

I am currently working on a book to bring together my research so that the ‘married widows’ of Cornwall, the wives ‘left behind’, can take their rightful place in the story of Cornish emigration. However, I would like to acknowledge that this research would not have been possible without the resources produced for, and by, family historians. As well as producing the census transcriptions, family historians and international family history networks have proved invaluable in providing biographical information and locating unpublished material. This demonstrates the largely untapped potential for using mass genealogical data and networks for academic research into the less well-documented aspects of social history, a topic that I will explore more in future posts.

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