The major determining influence on the occupation of the inhabitants comes from the geography and geology of Cornwall. It is a long and narrow peninsula, which even at its center is no more than 20 miles (30km) from the coast. With a land area of only 1376 square miles, the coastline is 258 miles, so the proximity to the sea has historically meant that large parts of the economy and occupations are connected to the sea. Every coastal village had a fishing fleet, and until recent decades the fish were not only harvested for the local populace, but also exported to other parts of England and beyond.
The magnificent natural harbor at Falmouth made it an important port for trade and shipping, as well as some passenger traffic. There has also been a navy presence there with all the associated occupations. Although Plymouth/Devenport is in Devon, it is directly across the Tamar River from Cornwall, and the naval base and large seaport there have always drawn many of the Cornish of that area to employment.
Many of the people who were not themselves mariners or fishermen, were employed in related occupations, such as boatbuilding, dockworkers, sailmakers, fishmongers, shipping clerks, lighthouse keepers, and other such jobs. In recent years, the fishing industry has not prospered, and the occupations associated with the sea are more likely to be connected to tourism and recreation.
An occupation that stands out in the lore of Cornwall is piracy, although only a small part of the population was involved in this. The reality is far different from the popular perception that one would get from moving pictures. The major part of the practice of "piracy" was actually smuggling, where goods would be brought ashore and then transported inland to avoid import taxes. This was especially attractive in the case of high-duty luxury items such as perfumes, rum, and other goods with higher profits that may not be available locally. The long stretches of rugged coastline, devoid of population but rich with isolated and hidden coves contributed to the success of the smuggling trade which peaked around the decades close to 1800. The proximity to France across the English Channel was important, and many goods were brought up past the French coast from Spain.
The other occupation that is also often included under the appellation of "piracy" was wrecking. The same spectacular coastline with the granite outcroppings and sheer cliffs that now attract the tourists could be a dangerous and deadly place at night or during a storm as can be attested by the loss of thousands of vessels ranging from small boats to the supertanker "Torrey Canyon." When ships foundered and washed up along the coast, the wreckers were often there long before the agents of the shipping or insurance company arrived, the latter only to find that much of what was of value had already disappeared, carried off by the local wreckers. Although most of this was opportunistic, there were professional wreckers who were not above placing their own lights on the cliffs near a harbor in such a manner as to lure an unsuspecting ship onto the shoals. The popular notion of pirates seizing a ship at sea was a rare practice in Cornwall.
The most important occupations, both with respect to the number of people involved, as well as the economic impact to Cornwall were related to mining. The entire land area is mostly granite, which is laced with what has been rich layers and seams of copper and tin. It is recorded that dating from the pre-Christian era, people came from as far away as the Mediterranean lands to obtain tin, and for centuries Cornwall was the source of a substantial part of the known world's tin.
For many centuries the mining was mostly surface mining, particularly digging into the banks of the rivers and streams. From this comes the occupation "tin streamer," and was often practiced part-time by farmers and others to try to get a bit of cash. The invention of the steam engine and the Cornish pump in the 18th century made it possible to develop techniques of deep mining, where copper, tin, and other metals could be mined from depths approaching 2000 feet. Mines were often drilled along the coast with lateral arms tunneling out underneath the ocean.
By the early 19th century the landscape was covered with the stone engine houses where the engines running the pumps and other mining equipment were housed. Mining at that time was by far the most important part of the Cornish economy and the source of many jobs. The pay was good and the conditions were deadly. The average life expectancy for a below-ground miner was short, and an official report of conditions in the St Cleer mining district noted that the average age at death for a miner was 23 years. "Miner's lung" came from breathing the dust, and killed many men at a young age. The men operating the drills were paid very well, but were, with few exceptions, dead within 4 years. Children as young as 8 years were often employed in the mines. The young boys (mine-boys) often worked 12 hour shifts going up and down the ladders of several hundred feet to bring water, tools, powder, and other things to the miners who labored down below. A number of them, exhausted from the long days of work fell to their death from the ladders. The girls (bal-maidens) were also employed, usually as surface workers, called tin or copper dressers, with hammers breaking up the largers chunks of ore-laden material that was brought to the surface as part of the processing of the ore before it went to the stamps. In the mining districts, there were large numbers of children of both genders employed in mining occupations.
There were many occupations related to mining, such as the production of the pumps, tools, and transport of the extracted ore. The Cornish pumps were exported to other places, and were largely responsible for the demise of the water mills that drained the polders in The Netherlands. Dozens of windmills could be (and were) replaced by one Cornish pump. The mining of copper and tin elsewhere, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, could be done more inexpensively, and led to the collapse of the mining industry in Cornwall in the latter part of the 19th century. This triggered the Cornish Diaspora, where a major part of the population left Cornwall for employment anywhere mines were operating throughout the world.
The one major source of of mining occupations through the 20th century and to the present time is the extraction of china clay in the areas near St Austell. This is sent upcountry and also exported to other countries for the production of fine china. There is also at least one slate quarry still operating at Delabole.
Of course, the usual occupations found everywhere, such as farming, teachers, shop keepers, carters, civil servants, clergy, construction, masonry, innkeepers, grocers, dressmakers, butchers, and the idle rich are to found in Cornwall. Away from the coast, the illiterate who were not engaged in other occupations were usually agricultural laborers, eking out a marginal living. The last named will often be identified on a census record as "Ag lab." In the agricultural areas, boys (and sometimes girls) were frequently found living away from home as farm servants, often as young as age 10. The girls are also often found elsewhere as "domestic servants" where they earned their keep with another family.
No detailed explanation is made here concerning the occupations that are generally common to all areas, but emphasis is placed on those of greatest import in Cornwall.