The discovery of copper in the York Peninsula of South Australia in the 1840s attracted Cornish miners in their hun-dreds, and Burra-Burra, Wallaroo, and Moonta, east of Adelaide, became household names in Cornwall. Oswald Pryor, in his book Australia’s Little Cornwall tells us that many miners had arrived with the first settlers but, in the absence of mining, had diversified into quarrying and farming. With the discovery of vast copper deposits they returned to their true occupations, whilst others moved from less productive mining areas of the world to this new mining field.
Hundreds emigrated from Cornwall, and the whole area around Moonta, with its great mine engine-houses and miners’ cottages, where the Cornish way of life prevailed, became known as “Australia’s Little Cornwall”. Today the area still strongly upholds its Cornish tradition and the Moonta Festival has become an important date in the Australian calendar.
No doubt many miners were only too glad to leave Cornwall where employment was always dependent on the price of tin or copper, and the life span of a mine. There were too, frequent epidemics which swept through dwellings commonly resulting in the death of children and adults alike. Above all there was the constant threat of banishment to the workhouse. Many, on arriving in distant lands, clutching only a carpet-bag containing a few home-made shirts, were quickly disillusioned by the hard-ships with which they were confronted; hundreds of miles, by wagon or coach had to be travelled to remote mining camps set in hostile environments where many succumbed to fever and illness, and where the wages were no better than those in Cornwall. Away from the basic comforts, and love of wife and children, many yearned for home. We have few intimate accounts of how these miners felt in such circumstances. Some years ago this writer called on an elderly lady at Camborne who was born in Birmingham. She proved to be the daughter of a Cornishman, Hairy Perry, who was the youngest child of Richard Perry of Horsedowns, Gwinear, born in 1840-41.
The son of a miner, he left school at the age of twelve years to work with his father in one of the Camborne mines. In the lady’s bookshelf I noticed an old exercise book, and an on enquiring discovered that it was the journal of Richard covering his period of emigration from Cornwall to Australia from 1873 to 1876. I was able to borrow and to transcribe this very inti-mate document in which he not only recorded his voyage etc., but bared his soul in poetry, illustrating, as so many others were unable to do, his great sorrow on being separated from his wife and family.
Richard left his wife, Elizabeth, and his three children Bessie, John, and Harry, at their home at Horsedowns, Gwinear in September, 1873. His long journey commenced at Gwinear Road Station from whence he travelled to Plymouth and boarded the S.S. Northumberland, a vessel powered by both steam and sail – his destination, Melbourne, a distance of 12, 428 miles. The vessel sailed on September 24th, and throughout the voyage Richard kept a daily record of events. Unfortunately he did not describe the conditions aboard, but, between bouts of sea-sickness, recorded in single sentences the events of the day along with the miles travelled, the longitude and latitude:
Sept. 26. Still head wind – very sick. 27. In the Bay Biscay. 28. Service on the poop. A little better 30. Madeira island sighted 8’o’clock morning. Oct. 1. Canary island sighted 4’o’clock noon. 2. Mild – quite well. 4. We saw flying fish and porpoises. 5. A nice breeze but very hot. 10. We cross the line 6’o’clock morning. 11. A goose flew overboard. 18. Engine out of order. Sailing only. 20. We saw Albatross’s very large. 22. Dead horse thrown overboard. 24. A girl is born. Steaming and sailing. 27. Snow storm. Nov. 6. Rough wind, two sails blown off 7. Still very rough. Sickness all through. 17. Land sighted 9′ o’clock morning. Cape Otway 2’o’ clock. The Heads 7’o’clock evening. 18. Landed in Sandridge pear Half past nine morning.
Each evening there had been various activities to relieve the boredom of the long voyage “Music” “Service” “Band on deck” “Preaching” “Concert in the Saloon” “Jumping match” “Theatre”.
On landing at Melbourne he immediately booked passage for Adelaide on the S.S. Penola, a distance of 500 miles. He left Melbourne on 20th November and arrived at his destination on 23rd November. On the following day he travelled by train to Burra where the great Burra Burra Mine was situated, sur-rounded by its large Cornish settlement. It would appear to have been an unsuccessful attempt to obtain work, as within three days he returned to Adelaide.
From his handwriting, and the content of his journal, it is obvious that Richard was extremely intelligent, but like so many of his period he would have not been able to pursue an academic career because of his place in society. From the general religious theme of his poems it is also obvious that he was a very devout Christian – in all probability a Methodist local preacher.
He obviously thirsted for knowledge, and we find him dur-ing this brief rest at Adelaide not frequenting the saloons of the city but visiting the historical gardens with their exotic plants, and “I went to the trials at the Supreme Court”, where he must have been impressed by the oratory of the barristers.
On the 28th November he returned to Burra by train, recording his journey in a poem of which the first verse ran:
Rode fifty and two hundred miles
Rode by the coach up hills, and down.
Rode through the bush and over plain,
Before I reached the Blinman Town.
The journey, in a wild west type stagecoach, took two days and nights before he finally reached the, mainly Cornish, mining town of Blinman where “Wheal Blinman”, or the Blinman Mine, was to provide Richard with employment until February, 1876.
It is a pity that we have no account of his working life there, but he shows his artistic ability in drawings of the Cornish beam-engine house with its two large boilers, the winding-engine, whims, brick kiln, lime kiln, smelting works, dwellings, etc. – all arranged in the respective positions at the mine. He also wrote several poems illustrating his deep religious faith and his continued sorrow on being separated from his loved ones in Cornwall which the following extracts from longer poems well illustrate – first, his wife:
Dear Lizzy, I have missed you,
My lips can never tell.
For through all sorrow and all joy
We lov’d each other well…
… And thou hast been, Dear Lizzy,
Through all the scenes of life,
The pleasant sunshine and the shade,
A true and faithful wife.
He wrote a poem to each of his three children. To Johnny he wrote:
Just after I left home,
Overwhelm with pain and tears,
How often on the Ship did think
Now of my little dears.
No man can tell the thoughts,
Yet onward, I haste away.
Prisoned from my Dear loved ones
Each night, and so each day.
Of his faith in God:
Round me on every hand,
Are mountains, hills, and creeks.
Cut off from you, I’ll journey through
How then aught I to seek?
Ah! give me health and strength,
Riches are good in store,
Didst thou not die for such as I,
A caring for the poor?
On February 22nd, 1876, Richard left the Blinman Mine to return to Cornwall “by coach, hot and dusty, two horses knocked up, and much walking – had about three hours sleep that night in the coach”. At Port Adelaide he inspected the sailing vessel Lady Jocelyn on which he would later sail for home. Whilst awaiting his passage he visited the theatre and again visited the historical gardens – “A very pretty place”. He explored the city, and “attended evening service at a Baptist Chapel”. Two days were spent in North Adelaide where he visited two Cornish ladies “Miss. Berryman and Miss. Lee” and spent a quiet Sunday with “Mr. and Mrs. Trevaskis”. Another two days were passed “viewing the ships in Port Adelaide” before final-ly sailing for Cornwall on 10th March 1876, and arriving at Horsedowns, Gwinear “quite well” on 26th June, 1876 – a journey of fifteen weeks.
On his return Richard was again faced with unemployment, and as is the lot of the Cornish even today, he was forced to migrate, finding work supervising the pumps which kept the Severn Tunnel waterfree. He eventually settled with his family in the Midlands, from where his daughter, in her last years, returned to Cornwall bringing with her Richard’s journal. In this he had once written, perhaps thinking that it would be found among his effects in South Australia, should he die:
Richard is my name.
Perry comes by nature.
Blinman is my dwelling-place,
And God is my Creator.
When I am dead, and in my grave,
And all my bones gone rotten,
When this you see, remember me,
For I will be forgotten.
Little did he think then, that far from being forgotten, that one day his poems and journal would be published in his beloved Cornwall!