Ralph family, Cornish immigrants to New Zealand

“Our mother’s family, by the name of Ralph, came out from Cornwall in the year 1874, having spent two years in Australia (where they had joined grandfather Ralph who had gone there with his brother Stephen, a builder). They arrived in Masterton as a family of seven, being Eliza, Helen, James, Mary, Lydia, Stephen and William. All had been members of a Methodist choir in a village in Breage. They were all lovely singers of different parts. Whenever they met they would recall incidents of those previous days and often strike up a chorus.”

These were memories of my great-aunt Amy Rogers (nee Jones) who lived until she was 99, dying in 1988. The family she is talking about was her mother’s by the surname of Ralph. There were actually eight siblings but one had died young. DSC05875

This photo shows the seven siblings with insets of pencil drawings of their parents, James and Eliza. As the women appear to be in black I think this may have been taken shortly after their mother died in 1900. My great-grandmother, Mary, is on the left. (These pencil drawings are in the Wairarapa Archive collection; refs: 97-28/11 and 97-28/20)

According to a history of Cornish emigration, Cornwall had developed an ‘emigration culture’ from at least 1815. Cornwall was a mining area and an ‘internationalised mining economy’ and its attendant global labour market had already emerged by the 1840s.[1] The big outflow of emigrants in the 1870s followed the Cornish copper market collapse in 1866 and subsequent tin market collapse; but there was already an emigration culture and Cornish communities overseas by then.

My Ralph family fits this pattern to some extent. James Ralph (who was one of my great-great-grandfathers) was born in 1826 in Marazion and at age eight [c.1834] went to Cambourne to work with Nettle Bros chair making business. It is unknown how long he remained there, but according to the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1897) “his next experience was as a sawyer with a younger brother for about ten years”. [2] This might have taken him from the late-1830s through most of the 1840s – at the 1851 census he was described as a sawyer, aged 24 and living with his parents, Stephen, 65 (a sawyer) and Ann, 68, and brothers Henry, aged 32 and Stephen aged 23. He married Eliza Burge on 20 March 1852 in the Church of England Parish Church of Breage. Eliza’s family were engaged in tin mining and she was a tin dresser.

James and Eliza’s eight children were born from 1853 to 1870, approximately one every two years. It is difficult to see when he could have fitted in the next working experience listed in the Cyclopedia unless it was before he married, or possibly in the gap between the last two children’s births (born Oct 1866 and June 1870). This work experience was “in the Nicaragua goldmines in Central America [where] he worked for three-and-a-half years under an engagement to a London company. Returning to England, he left in 1870 with his brother Stephen for Victoria, where he was employed at quartzmining for a number of years. After six months at railway construction in Tasmania, he returned to Victoria, coming to New Zealand in 1878.” [3]

This suggests he had been in Australia for seven or eight years, not the two that Amy Rogers recalled. However, his family remained in Cornwall for some time, before joining James in Australia. It seems they also came to New Zealand at different times; James coming first probably to get work and establish himself. James died on 9 October 1897 at Masterton, aged 72, and Eliza in September 1900.[4]

Cornish emigrants had come to Wellington with the first New Zealand Company ships in 1840 – the wealthy Francis Molesworth and a party of fellow Cornish settled in the Hutt (he established a farm, the others settled in what was called “Cornish row”). However, Francis was seriously injured in a bush-felling accident and went back to England where he died in 1846. The town of New Plymouth in Taranaki was also initially a Cornish-backed settlement.

In reading a memoir [5] by New Zealand historian W H (Bill) Oliver, born 1925, I noted that his father was born in Cornwall and emigrated to New Zealand when he was about 20 (in 1910); he says: “wherever the Cornish went they took their distinctive identity with them…but my father, quite deliberately I suspect, was untouched by this sentimentality. He had we might say, reconstructed himself as a new man in a free country” (p. 7). Nevertheless he still told stories about Cornwall and Bill Oliver later met some Cornish relatives.

A search on Papers Past for “Cornish Society” suggests the first such society formed in New Zealand was in Wellington in 1901 in response to the upcoming visit by the Duke of Cornwall.[6] The Wellington committee, led by Edward Tregear and John Luke, encouraged other areas to form such societies. This would have been too late for James and Eliza Ralph who were both dead by then. In any case, James was a carpenter in Masterton – it seems more likely that a group of Cornish miners, for example, would have maintained a sense of Cornish identity than a carpenter in a small town; such as the miners brought out to make the Lyttelton tunnel.[7]

I have no idea if my Ralph family maintained a sense of Cornishness (they certainly remained committed members of the Methodist Church) – but, if they did, it died out long before any was translated to me. I did visit Breage on a visit to Cornwall many years ago, but my Cornish ancestry is too far removed and I have no links with the area. James and Eliza’s daughter Mary, born in Breage on 21 September 1859, married Edward Jones in 1882 in Masterton and died there on 15 September 1920. These two were my great-grandparents. The surname Ralph was the middle name of my grandfather (Norman Ralph Jones) and one of my brothers also has it as a middle name. That may be the only Cornish link we still have! Ed Jones & family  Ed Jones & family 2 These two photos show Edward and Mary Jones and their children – the first was taken about 1891/2 – after Henry was born in August 1890 but before Evelyn was born in November 1895. The second photo shows them in 1926, after Mary had died in 1920, but before Edward died in 1935. My grandfather Norman Jones is sitting on the right and my great-aunt Amy (Rogers) is on the far right.

The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand has this to say about the Cornish contribution to New Zealand: “The Cornish, with their Celtic origins, were one of the few groups of English migrants to make a distinctive contribution to New Zealand. Cornish farmers (often miners as well) brought skills in the reclamation of waste land, farm management, and the use and adaptation of farm machinery. Cornish dairymaids contributed experience in an industry of major importance to the colony. With the Cornish came traditional foods (such as fruit cake and pasties), sports and pastimes (notably wrestling), a deep interest in the temperance movement, and the independence and individualism associated with Wesleyan Methodism.”[8]

And, this: From copper to gold On the Tuapeka goldfields today can be found ‘Cornishman’s dam’, named after one of the many Cornish gold miners. Faced with the collapse of the Cornish copper-mining industry, some of them had come originally to the South Australian copper mines, while others had been assisted to Canterbury to dig the Lyttelton–Christchurch train tunnel.[9]


[1] Philip Payton, The Cornish overseas: the epic story of the ‘Great Migration’, Cornwall editions, 2005

[2] ‘James Ralph’, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District] The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1897, Wellington, p. 966: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz//tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc01Cycl-t1-body-d4-d83-d16.html#n992

[3] ‘James Ralph’, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District]

[4] Obituaries: Wairarapa Daily Times, 9 October 1897, p. 3; 27 September 1900, p. 2

[5] W H Oliver, Looking for the Phoenix: a memoir, Bridget Williams Books, 2002

[6] Evening Post, 23 March 1901, p. 5

[7] Oliver, p. 7

[8] The Cornish contribution in Terry Hearn, ‘English – The flow from England’s south’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/english/page-4

[9] Jock Phillips, ‘History of immigration – Miners’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 21-Aug-13 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/history-of-immigration/page-7


5 thoughts on “Ralph family, Cornish immigrants to New Zealand

  1. Interesting idea of an ’emigration culture’ … James Ralph’s wife Eliza Burge was a tin dresser … what is a tin dresser?


    • Dressing the ore is an early stage in its processing: “in which as much gangue as possible is removed and the ore is prepared for smelting, refining”; and “gangue” (pronounced “gang”) is the “commercially worthless material that surrounds, or is closely mixed with, a wanted mineral in an ore deposit”. The work was typically done by women and girls and “It was hard, physical work and a dirty job which took knowledge and considerable concentration.” (I had to look all this up – quotes from various websites!)


  2. Thanks from me too, Vivienne.

    I have connections to both Stephen and Eliza Ralph (married name Williams). Stephen married my g-g aunt Nellyn in 1893 and Eliza’s second marriage was to my great-great grandfather (Nellyn’s father) in 1903.

    I’ve seen elsewhere that Eliza is the woman on the left in the 1900 group photo. From your knowledge, is it definite that Mary is the woman on the left?


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