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Cornwall is a county of England, part of the United Kingdom, and has been considered, at least by the English, to be a part of England for many centuries. It is historically one of the six Celtic nations, and the people had their own language (Kernewek), a Brythonic Celtic language in the same group as Breton and Welsh. This was the language of most of the people until about 1600, but within the next 100 years, English became the main language of the people as the Cornish language died out. The language is still in limited use by some Cornish who are making an effort to keep the language alive, but it does not enjoy widespread use such as one sees with the Welsh language in Wales. The history, culture, and identity of the Cornish as a unique people do create a number of issues in Cornish research that are different from other counties in England.
Genealogical research principles are generally along the same lines as those in the rest of England, and the civil registration, which began in 1837, is part of the same system as is used throughout England. Records, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates are obtained the same way and from the same sources. Census enumerations are also part of the same system as is used in the other counties of England. Names of people and places are often unique to Cornwall, and may present a challenge in research. Many of them have their origins in the Cornish language and are not found elsewhere in the UK. Illiteracy was widespread for centuries and still quite common until the end of the 19th century. This has resulted in a lack of standardization of name spelling, and even the spelling of places until recently. One may find as many as a dozen different spellings for a surname, with many variations for the same individual during a lifetime. The Cornish names can also be a problem when searching records of Cornish people who have emigrated from Cornwall to England or other countries, as the enumerator has written what was heard and which may have been spoken in a Cornish dialect that is very much unlike that which is spoken elsewhere in England. The result is that the spelling for both names and places often bears little resemblance to the correct current Cornish spelling, and a search may be unsuccessful because of incorrect recording in the original record or inaccurate indexing in computerized databases or transcriptions.
Resources for genealogical research are among the best to be found in the United Kingdom. The GENUKI pages for Cornwall http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/Cornwall/ are unmatched by those of any other part of the United Kingdom, and they are essential to Cornish research. The pages for individual parishes are extensive and detailed with accurate information that is of great value. There is often more information provided on the listing of a single small parish in Cornwall than is found for an entire county elsewhere in the UK. The site is meticulously maintained and kept current. There is such extensive information provided, that it is beyond the scope of this posting to even begin to describe what is there.
The Cornwall Family History Society has a large and active worldwide membership of about 5,000. They have their own library and research facilities and publish a very useful journal four times per year, as well as sponsoring or maintaining a presence at relevant events. Research services are also offered. Some parish record transcriptions are available for purchase from the society in booklet, PDF file, or CD form. They have also recently produced a transcription summary of all records from the county prison (Bodmin Gaol) to the year 1900 available on a set of CD's. Information about their resources, services, and products is available at www.cornwallfhs.com. The website also has interesting and useful links to other sites.
The Cornwall Record Office is another essential resource, and can be visited in person (appointment is usually necessary) or copies of records can be ordered by mail. They maintain the records that one would expect to find there, and an online catalog can be found at http://crocat.cornwall.gov.uk/DServe/searchpage.htm. Some wills were kept at Exeter (Devon) and lost to bombing during the Second World War, but there are about 80,000 wills available for research at the CRO in Truro.
The Cornish Studies Library at the Cornwall Centre in Redruth http://www.cornwall.gov.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6773 is a vital repository of information with many collections, including microfilms of all the main Cornish newspapers up to the present day, many dating back to the mid 18th century. The Courtenay Library at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro http://www.royalcornwallmuseum.org.uk/ has printed books and periodicals covering the history of Cornwall from the prehistoric to the modern period. It also has important collections of archives of Cornish families and historic photographs. The websites give more detailed information about their collections.
Another invaluable resource is provided by the Cornwall Online Parish Clerks. This is a volunteer organization that has a free large database of baptisms (christenings), marriages, banns, and burials with excellent coverage of a number of parishes. There are also online clerks for nearly all of the more than 200 parishes, who on a free and voluntary basis will respond to questions, and many will do lookups in databases to which they have access. Some of them maintain their own website with extensive databases of these events that can be freely accessed. Some information from non-conformist records is also searchable on the OPC database. The database also has information which has been submitted from birth, marriage, and death certificates that individuals have obtained from the Government Record Office. The home page of the OPC site has more details about their services and is accessed at http://www.cornwall-opc.org/ The searchable database is comprised of transcriptions of the pertinent records and may be accessed directly at http://www.cornwall-opc-database.org/ where it is free to anyone. The database contains more than 2 million entries, and more are being added frequently.
There is an ongoing project with transcriptions from the historic newspaper “The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser” of the 19th century, which is still being printed today. Transcriptions include not only all BMDs published (including those of Cornish people in foreign climes), but also accidents, Coroner’s Inquiries, all trials of the Quarter Sessions and Assizes, and local news and advertisements. The free website has searchable archives of the papers that have been transcribed.
Many parish records have been extracted by the LDS Church and may be found in the IGI, with the transcription of excerpts of the information from those parish records also to be found in the Family Search Historical Records Collection. Indexed images are not yet available on Family Search. Many browsable images (unindexed, but with waypoints) are beginning to appear in the Family Search Historical Records Collection. The Hugh Wallis index of IGI batch numbers, which also gives the coverage in Cornwall by parish and years, is found at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~hughwallis/IGIBatchNumbers/CountyCornwall.htm
A map of Cornish parishes can be found online at http://www.cornwalleng.com/parishmap3.gif When parish records are not available or have been lost, that information may sometimes be found in the bishops transcripts. Despite the fact that the Church of England (Anglican) is the established church in Cornwall, a major part of the population turned to Methodism and other smaller groups (of which the Bible Christian Movement was the largest). By the mid 19th century there were more Methodists than Anglicans in Cornwall, which must be remembered by all researchers, as a search of only the Church of England parish records would miss information for more than half the population during the 19th century. Methodism was especially dominant in the mining districts of Western Cornwall. However, until at least 1837, nearly all marriages were in the Anglican Churches, even among the Methodists. One must also know that burial of many Methodists continued to take place in the Anglican Church cemeteries.
The original Methodist Registers can be seen at the Cornwall Record Office, and much has been filmed by the LDS Church and is in the Family History Library collection. The Family History Library also has filmed a large part of the parish records in Cornwall, as well as parish chest, probate, and other records. The online catalog on www.familysearch.org is easily searchable where one can see what is available in the Family History Library. The GENUKI pages on Cornwall and each individual parish also give a comprehensive listing of what records are available in the Family History Library as well as records from other sources.
In addition to the large databases which can be accessed on the usual commercial sites, such as Ancestry.com or FindMyPast.co.uk, there are excellent searchable databases available without cost. The most accurate census transcriptions (because they were done by Cornish people familiar with the names and places) are found at the Cornwall Online Census Project at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kayhin/ukocp.html. The UK Census Online (FreeCEN), while not uniquely Cornish, is also valuable and will often yield positive results when other sites providing the census fail to find the person sought, because the search function allows a phonetic search of surnames. This is found at http://www.freecen.org.uk/. The civil registration indexes are also available, as part of all those for England and Wales at http://www.freebmd.org.uk/. Not all entries after 1915 on most sites have been indexed for searchability, but the indexing and search capability for the BMD's from 1837-2005 has been completed on Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.co.uk.
There are transcriptions of important records available from commercial sources on CD, perhaps the most important early database being the 1641 Cornwall Protestation Returns, where every male above the age of 18 was required to take an oath to follow the "true Protestant religion." This is essentially the equivalent of a census of all adult males in Cornwall. Also available are other early sources, such as the military muster of 1569, the subsidies of 1524, 1543, and 1545, the hearth and poll taxes of 1660-1664. Transcriptions on CD of a number of parish records are available for purchase from commercial sites, and transcriptions of all known Methodist/Bible Christian records in Cornwall up to 1900 are also available from commercial sources.
A devastating collapse of the economy in Cornwall during the 19th century resulted in a massive exodus of much of the population (referred to as the Cornish Diaspora), and it was not until 1971 that the population of Cornwall returned to that (about 350,000) of the mid-19th century. It is estimated that there are approximately six million people worldwide with Cornish ancestry, and fewer than 10% now live in Cornwall. Inasmuch as the most important segment of the economy had been mining, those who are seeking to find families who left Cornwall are most likely to have success when searching in places where mining was important. In the USA, the Cornish are found in large numbers in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and California, but are everywhere throughout the country. In Canada, Ontario was the most common destination, and many went to South Africa, as well as mining districts in Latin America, such as the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. Massive emigration to Australia, especially South Australia, and New Zealand took place, and Moonta, South Australia is still known as "Little Cornwall." In many of the countries to which the Cornish people have emigrated, there are Cornish societies or organizations which may also be a source of help in genealogical research.
There are many additional resources available on the internet with information about the history of Cornwall and the Cornish people that can be very helpful in genealogical research. There are also "lists" or message boards devoted to the inquiries and sharing of information about Cornish family History.
- This page was last modified on 16 April 2012, at 17:53.
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