Cornwall’s History

Below is a time line showing a potted history of Cornwall’s major historic events from neolithic times to the present day which are all visually featured on the map.

1. Neolithic Period 4000 BC – 2000 BC
The name Cornwall comes from Cornovii, the Celtic name for hill dweller and we can tell that Cornwall was inhabited during this time from the Neolithic remans of walls and ramparts straddling the granite uplands such as Carn Brea and Helman Tor. There are also many stone complexes – megaliths, single standing stones or menhirs which were used for ceremony or as burial chambers. West Penwith is one of the best places to see such monuments and these stones provide evidence that religion and ritual had already become a part of everyday life.

2. 2000 – 600 BC Bronze Age
Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, both in rich supply in Cornwall, which attracted trade with foreign shores bringing in bronze tools and gold ornaments in return for these minerals. At this time minerals were extracted using tin streaming and open cast mining methods. Falmouth Maritime Museum began a six month project to create a Bronze Age boat which can now be seen at the Museum. Excavations of Bronze Age villages found on Bodmin Moor, West Penwith and Newquay show a well organised society practising farming, metal working and crafts.

3.Iron Age 600 BC – 43 AD
As society developed, so the Cornish began to acquire specific skill sets to become sailors, warriors, farmers and metal workers for example. Cornwall’s uplands show many signs of Iron Age settlements; of particular note are Chysauster and Carn Euny near Penzance.

4.56 AD – 700
Southern Britain was invaded by Rome in 55 AD and although it was initially thought that the Romans did not venture further west than Exeter , recent discoveries have found evidence of a Roman fort near St Austell and Calstock in the Tamar valley. Roman coins have been found near Hayle and a single coin found near Fowey from 146 BC, is evidence that Cornwall traded with Rome, probably in tin and copper, well before the Roman invasion. Roman withdrawal from Britain occurred around 410 AD. Cornwall was ruled by the Dumnonii tribe. Legends and myths accompany this period of Cornwall’s history including King Arthur and the legend of his defence of Britain against the Saxon invaders. For more than 800 years a magical tale has been told that Tintagel Castle was the birthplace of King Arthur. What we do know is that the castle was built in the 13th century as a stronghold for the Earls of Cornwall.
Saint Piran, an early 6th Century Cornish abbot, is said to have floated across from Ireland tied to a mill-stone! He became the patron saint of tin miners and of Cornwall – the black and white Cornish flag is that of Saint Piran.

5. 814 AD – 875AD
Britain at this time was still divided into kingdoms and King Egbert who reigned over the greater part was keen to unify England under his rule and so in 814 he attacked Cornwall but was unsuccessful in subjugating the Cornish. In 875 the last King of Cornwall; King Dungarth drowned in the sea. He is reputed to have said ‘ Sorrow comes from a world upturned’. King Donierts Stone at St Cleer holds an inscription that speaks of Cornwall’s last king.

6. 927 – 1000
King Athelstan was the first saxon king to claim control over the whole of England and angered by the Cornish resistance to his rule, ordered that any Cornish person living beyond Exeter should be evicted making it unlawful for any Cornish person to own land and worst still, even gave people the right to kill any Cornish man woman or child!
In 936 The River Tamar was fixed as the border between Cornwall and England – the east bank being Anglo Saxon England, the west bank Celtic Cornwall .

7. 1066 – 1280
Launceston Castle built just after the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and guarded the main route into Cornwall. It acted as an administrative centre for the Earls of Cornwall and is still standing today.
During this period towns and markets grew in size with Bodmin becoming the largest with a population of around 1000. The county was split into administrative areas known as hundreds – a saxon description for an area of land considered large enough to support 100 households – Kerrier and Penwith derive their names from this period. Launceston was once considered the Capital of Cornwall until 1280 when it was replaced by Lostwithiel.

8. 1315 – 1350
The Great Famine from 1315-17 was caused by crop failure due to unusually cold winters and wet and windy summers throughout Europe leading to dire circumstances for rich and poor alike. Even though the weather improved in 1317 it was not until 1325 that the supply of food fully recovered. Then disaster struck again for in 1349 the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague killed even more of the Cornish – it was estimated that Truro and Bodmin lost half of their populations, some 10,000 souls.

9. 1400s
The 1400’s saw a steep rise in the number of churches being built including over 100 holy wells believed to have divine healing powers, a fine example being Dupath Well near Liskeard. This period also saw an expansion of the tin industry – evidence of streaming and shallow tin mining can be seen in many areas. Tin was extracted using a peat or charcoal fuelled furnace with air blown into the furnace using water-wheel powered bellows leading to the term ‘blowing houses’. The 1400s saw a divide grow between the richer, more anglicised east and the poorer more lawless west . In 1497 Henry V11 raised taxation leading to an armed march of 15,000 Cornishmen to London. They were defeated and the leading protesters, Joseph An Goff and Thomas Flamank were caught and executed. The gruesome practice of execution was to hang, draw and quarter these poor souls and place their heads on spikes at London Bridge.

10. 1500’s
In Henry V111’s reign, fortifications, were built along the south coast to cope with invasions from Catholic France and Spain and even pirates! In 1549 new protestant services including the Common Prayer Book led to much religious unrest. Services changed from Latin to English, and the Cornish in particular, with their separate culture and language from that of old Saxon England found this unacceptable. In July 1549 an armed force of Cornish and Devon rebels decided fatefully to besiege loyalist Exeter but were crushed by a royalist army of 8,000 men.
In 1585 war was declared with Spain and important events include the successful battles between the English fleet led in part by Francis Drake from Plymouth against the Spanish Armada. The Spanish attacked Fowey and in 1595 Mousehole, yet despite this turbulence the economy of the county continued to develop with the growth of fishing ports such as St Ives and Mevagissey and the expansion of mining.

11. 1642- 1688
English Civil war 1642-1646
Cornwall supported King Charles 1 against the Parliamentarians who were seen as representing the ‘English’ and there were several battles in Cornwall most notably the Battle of Braddock Down (1643) and at Lostwithiel (1644). The Cornish won the reputation of the kings most loyal supporters not withstanding several thousand soldiers losing their lives in his service.
In 1688 Bishop Trelawny was imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to sign a paper to reintroduce Catholicism as the country’s official religion. Spared death, he was later acquitted. Cornwall’s unofficial national Anthem –‘ Trelawny’ recounts the telling moment of his life, ‘And shall Trelawny live, and shall Trelawny die, …

12. 1703 -1740
In 1703 a violent storm damaged houses, drove ships ashore and destroyed Eddystone Lighthouse. This lighthouse has undergone several reconstructions in its lifetime and continues to provide a warning to ships of the dangerous rocks below.
In 1715 work began on building Trewithen House near Probus, one of Cornwall’s many stately homes and on the 3rd May in the same year there was a total eclipse of the sun when the moon passed between Earth and the Sun, blocking all direct sunlight. This was known as Halley’s Eclipse after Edmund Halley who predicted the eclipse within 4 minutes accuracy.
In 1720 Thomas Pitt, the grandfather of the statesman William Pitt, otherwise known as Diamond Pitt bought Boconnoc near Lostwithiel and other manors in Cornwall with the proceeds of the sale of a 127 carat diamond. In 1734, Tehidy House, Illogan was built for the Basset family, whose fortune had been made from leases obtained for tin and copper mines located on their estates. When Lord Francis Basset died, he was so revered by his employees that they helped to pay for a huge memorial built at Carn Brea in his honour.

13. 1743-1755

John Wesley first preached in Cornwall in 1743, drawing large crowds. Initially he preached outdoors at places such as Gwennap Pit near Redruth and as Methodism became the dominant religion, Methodist churches were built all over the county.
In 1745 William Cookworthy discovered china clay near St Austell, marking the beginning of the clay industry in Cornwall.
The Cornish Stannary Parliament or Tinner’s’ parliament was set up in the 11th Century and had the legal right to veto government legislation, In 1752 this was suspended and never officially reinstated.
In 1755 Cornwall experienced a tsunami following the Lisbon earthquake with a sudden 3 metre rise in sea level causing much destruction and loss of life.

14. 1777 – 1789

Dolly Pentreath died in 1777 thought to be the last Cornish speaker. James Watt erected his first pumping engine at Great Wheal Busy copper mine near Chacewater in 1778. In 1779 John Harvey established a foundry and engineering works in Hayle and became famous for creating the Cornish Beam engine – used to pump water out of mines both in Cornwall and abroad.In 1789 The Bread riots took place in Truro and St Austell following a steep price rise in the cost of bread due to a poor harvest.

15. 1791 – 1838

This period saw huge changes – Cornwall, with its rich supply of tin, copper and clay was at the heart of advances in mining and engineering . Areas such as Redruth, Camborne and St Austell saw massive increases in population with the demand for labour both above and below the ground. However standards of living worsened with the shocking lack of safety in the mines.
Notable figures of this time include Richard Trevithick the famous Cornish engineer and inventor of the locomotive steam engine, Richard Lander the explorer who discovered the source of the River Niger and Sir Humphrey Davey of Penzance who invented the the miner’s safety Lamp.

16. 1840 – 1867

In 1848 the average age of death was just 28 years in West Cornwall due mainly to the appalling working conditions in the mines. In 1851 with the discovery of gold and minerals abroad, many miners left Cornwall at this time to seek their fortune overseas. Combined with poor harvests and food shortages during the 1840’s emigration led to a quarter of a million people leaving Cornwall. These emigrants were called Cousin Jacks. In 1842 The Treffry Viaduct was completed – a 100 feet high viaduct cum aquaduct serving the mineral tramway from the china clay area around Bugle to the port of Par. The viaduct is now the focus of preservation work for Cornwall Heritage Trust.
Cornwall began to see a turnaround in its economy and population with the creation of the Paddington to Penzance railway line completed in 1867 enabling both the quick transport of local perishables such as fish and flowers to London and attracting millions of the first tourists to Cornwall.

17. 1867 – 1914
1877 City status is granted to Truro
1889 Cornwall County Council was created
Bob Fitzsimmons formerly of Helston became a heavy-weight boxing champion in 1890
1891 A blizzard swept through Cornwall bringing snowdrifts up to 20 feet deep! The accompanying hurricane winds killed 200 people, 6,000 sheep with half a million trees blown down.
In 1902 Camborne and Redruth Tram railway opened, Cornwall’s only electric street tramway.
In 1904 the publication of Jenner’s ‘Handbook of the Cornish language’, prompted the revival of Cornish which continues to this day.
In 1913 strikes occurred within the clay industry with the miners demanding better working conditions and pay which led to violent clashes between the police and the workers and between strikers and those that continued to work. Strikers went from pit to pit saying ‘a man who goes back to work is a dirty scab. In 1914 159 china-clay works were in operation in Cornwall mainly in the St Austell area.

18. 1914 – 1938
As with the rest of the country, Cornwall was deeply affected by the First World War with the loss of many lives. Moved by the high number of casualties, Robert Binyon wrote the poem ‘For the Fallen’ sat on the cliffs overlooking Polzeath, often recited at Remembrance Sunday Services.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
A revival of interest in Cornish Studies began in the early 20th Century with the work of Henry Jenner and the building of links with the other five Celtic nations of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Brittany and Isle of Man. In 1920 the first First Old Cornwall Society was formed in St Ives and this was followed in 1928 by Gorseth Kernow (Cornish Gorsedd), a non-political Cornish organisation created to maintain the national Celtic spirit of Cornwall.
In 1921 Dolcoath mine, Cornwall’s deepest tin and copper mine closed due to continuing foreign competition.
In 1932 a wonderful amphitheatre on the cliffs beside Porthcurno was begun by Rowena Cade and her gardener which was to become the famous Minack Theatre.

19. 1939 – 45

WW2 saw many children evacuated to Cornwall from the large cities such as London where it was considered safer although hundreds of bombs did drop on Cornwall. Many Cornish men lost their lives serving in the war and there are war memorials scattered like poppies all over the county.
In 1944 a concrete apron was built over the beach at Trebah for the D Day embarkations of 7,500 US infantrymen boarding ten landing craft to take part in the assault on German occupied Omaha Beach, Normandy.
Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives in 1939 and produced many sculptures until her death in 1975

20. 1945 – 1960

Many artists were attracted to St Ives during this time including Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and examples of their works can be seen at the Tate Modern Gallery in St Ives. Cornwall continues to be a haven for artists.
In 1951 Mebyon Kernow (The Sons of Cornwall) was formed, canvassing for Cornwall to have greater control of its own destiny.
1958 saw serious flooding in Boscastle with one loss of life and one lady trapped in a telephone box who had to be rescued by fishermen!
The last Cornish beam engine to pump commercially was the Poldark Engine – used to pump water out of the china clay pits in mid Cornwall. It ceased working in 1959 and has since been restored and can be seen working at Poldark Mine.
Diesel power replaced steam power in the late 1950s for Cornwall’s train service.

21. 1960 – 1970

In the early 60’s Cornwall, and especially St Ives became a popular meeting place for beatniks – whose casual sense of dress, long hair and anti-establishment views caused an element of disquiet among some locals with certain shops and pubs banning beatniks. However the tide gradually turned and in 1967 the Beatles filmed part of their Magical Mystery Tour at the Headland Hotel in Newquay. On a more sombre note also in 1967, the oil tanker; Torrey Canyon, ran aground between Lands End and the Isles of Scilly creating the biggest oil spill ever at the time – 119,328 tonnes of crude oil seeped into the Atlantic and polluted Cornish beaches and spread across the channel to Brittany and Guernsey. Thousands of seabirds and sea life died as a result.

22. 1970 – present day

Funded entirely by donations, Cornwall Air Ambulance began its life in 1987 creating the first such emergency service in the UK at the time and now attending over 1,000 incidents a year and helping to reduce the time taken to get seriously ill patients the treatment they need.
1990 – 2000
The Tate Modern in St Ives, opened in 1993 overlooking Porthmeor beach. The dramatic architecture of the museum designed by Evans and Shalev sits rather oddly amongst St Ives’s terraced housing creating a bold artistic statement.
In 1996 Cassandra Latham, a St Buryan resident registered herself with the Inland Revenue as a village witch performing a variety of alternative therapies.
South Crofty Tin Mine, a tin mine in Pool that had seen production for over 400 years closed in 1998 although there have been plans to reopen the mine one more.
2000 – present day
It is no wonder that tourism has become the principal industry in Cornwall, first started with the coming of the railway in 1867 when people could travel directly from Paddington to Penzance. Cornwall’s scenic beauty, its culture and friendly hospitality have continued to attract people the world over to our shores.
In 2001 Eden Project opened – artificial biomes were created containing plants and trees from all over the world in a reclaimed china clay pit and has become a huge tourist attraction to Cornwall.
In 2001 the Cornish Studies Library opened at Alma Place Redruth creating a wonderful resource of of publications covering subjects from mining to modern art, poetry to pre history, family history to farming.
In 2002 the Cornish language was officially recognised by government
In 2003 the National Maritime Museum opened in Falmouth with a fascinating display of boats and interactive displays.
In 2010 the Wave hub was connected to the grid offshore from Hayle. This hub has been designed to support the large scale testing of technologies that generate electricity from the power of the waves.