A history of cornwall online - through its objects


Pilgrimage and plant hunting

  • Cork Model

    Cork Model

    St Michael's Mount is a Cornish icon. It has been an abbey, a fortress and, for 350 years, the family home of the St Aubyns. Henry Lee was the butler on St Michael's Mount for 49 years and made this model in the 1930s. It is carved from champagne corks and took almost 3 years to complete.

    Visit St Michaels Mount

  • Foot Stool

    Foot Stool

    In the 19th century, it was not only miners who left Cornwall in search of a better life. John Varcoe, a Mevagissey builder, set up a successful building business in Kansas City, USA. John's mother embroidered this eagle and sent it to John who made it into a cover for a stool.

    Visit Mevagissey Museum

  • Tree Box

    Tree Box

    New and exotic varieties of trees and plants were being introduced into Cornwall in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This box was used in the 1900s by noted 'plant hunters' Ernest Henry Wilson and George Forrest whilst travelling the world collecting plants for J.C. Williams of Caerhays.

  • Sourvenir China

    Sourvenir China

    The Victorians and Edwardians enjoyed taking home souvenir china decorated with the name of their holiday location. By the late 19th century in Bude, as in other Cornish resorts, there was a thriving local industry selling these keepsakes. Many of these pieces were actually made in Germany.

    Visit Bude Castle Heritage Centre

  • Souvenir Beach Hut

    Souvenir Beach Hut

    Newquay Old Cornwall Society. When the mineral railway started running passenger services in 1876, Newquay became a popular holiday destination. By 1893 postcards of Newquay were showing bathing huts, like this souvenir china miniature.

  • Steam Locomotive

    Steam Locomotive

    The coming of the railway in the mid 19th century opened up Cornwall as a tourist destination. This Drummond T9 locomotive, built in 1899, worked the Atlantic Coast Express Service from Waterloo to Wadebridge and Padstow.

It takes a long time to get to Cornwall from most places in Britain, whether by road, rail or air.

Until the introduction of motorised transport most Cornish people walked the long distance to get from town to town, or from home to work. Many of the surviving waymarking crosses we see scattered across our landscape still mark the ancient routes that people used.

Pilgrimage was an important motive for starting a long journey. From the early Middle Ages St Michael's Mount, Cornwall’s most recognisable landmark, was a very significant pilgrimage site. Pilgrims from Britain and Ireland would have walked the 12.5 miles (19.5km) along St Michael’s Way, a route from Lelant near St Ives, to Marazion and the Mount. From here pilgrims could also make their way by sea to Mont Saint-Michel and other pilgrimage sites in Brittany and beyond.

Cornwall became a popular holiday destination from the mid-19th century directly as a result of the establishment of the Great Western Railway which cut journey times from London, the Midlands and northern England from days to hours.

Towns like Newquay quickly transformed from industrial harbour to seaside resort. The souvenir industry took off as tourists wished to take back a memento of their trips, and china objects such as plates, vases and jugs embellished with an attractive scene were popular items to take back home.

The Cornish also journeyed abroad but until recently the motive was not leisure but seeking new opportunities abroad. It is estimated that 250,000 people emigrated from 1860 to 1900, the best known of which were the mining Cousin Jacks and Jills. But others left too, and the USA in particular was a popular destination for those wanting to set up new businesses.

Cornwall’s many exotic gardens, with their signature rhododendrons and palm trees, are also the direct result of travelling Cornish men and women. Plant hunters came back with seeds and plants to cultivate sub-tropical varieties in our temperate climes, often at the request of a wealthy patron wishing to create a striking garden for their stately home.