How Ross Poldark was a victim of Cornwall’s changing industrial landscape

Go West. BBC

In July 2016, the BBC announced the commissioning of a third season of costume drama Poldark, months before the second series was even due to be broadcast. This represents an impressive vote of confidence in the series, especially as season two will apparently not be repeating the famous “topless scything” scene which won the National Television Awards’ prize for TV Moment of the Year.

The real pivotal moment depicted by Poldark, however, is one of historical change in south-west England. In the mid-18th century, Cornwall and Devon were major commercial and industrial centres. Cornwall’s tin and copper mines were some of the largest and most sophisticated in Europe, while the profits from the Cornwall and Devonshire wool trade helped make Exeter one of the biggest and richest cities in England.

By the mid-19th century however, much had changed. The rise of the mechanised cloth industry in England’s North and Midlands sent the south-western wool trade into serious decline. And while Cornwall’s mining industry survived well into the 20th century, it experienced repeated crises from the 1770s onwards. This was primarily due to newly discovered tin and copper mines elsewhere in the world, leading to the large-scale emigration of Cornish miners to countries such as Mexico, Australia and Brazil.

The era depicted in Poldark shows the region on the very tipping-point of this transition. Ross Poldark’s struggles to keep his mine open and profitable are symptomatic of the economic difficulties experienced by the region as a whole during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As south-western towns lost their traditional role as centres of trade and industry, their focus shifted increasingly to tourism. This was especially true during the long years of the Napoleonic Wars which form the backdrop to the later Poldark novels. Cut off by war from their favoured resorts in France and Italy, a generation of English tourists began taking holidays in Devon and Cornwall instead.

By the late 18th century, writers in Devon were praising their native county for its natural beauty and its ancient history, rather than for the wealth and industry of which their parents and grandparents had been so proud. By the mid-19th century, the same was increasingly true of Cornwall.

This economic shift led, in turn, to the development of the Victorian mythology of the “romantic South-West”, still beloved of local tourist boards today.

This mythology is built upon a version of the region’s history which emphasises its remote and wild character, playing on associations with Merlin and King Arthur, druids and witches, smugglers and wreckers and pirates.

Like most costume dramas, Poldark’s primary concern is with the travails of cross-class romance. But it is also a narrative about de-industrialisation, and about the struggle of local businesses to remain competitive and economically viable within an increasingly globalised economy – a story which has some resonance in early 21st-century Britain.

The poverty of the Cornish miners with whom Ross Poldark identifies is not simply the result of gratuitous oppression. Instead they are the victims of a new economic order which has little interest in preserving local industry for its own sake.

Wild West

The show has certainly not been shy about making lavish use of the beauty of its Cornish setting, and has already triggered something of a tourism boom, with visitors flocking to the region to see for themselves the moors, cliffs, and beaches which Poldark employs to such dramatic visual effect.

Industry by the sea. Shutterstock

But it also depicts the historical struggles of the region’s inhabitants to preserve the South West as something more than just a pretty place for other people to visit on holiday. In this sense, it is rather symbolic that season one of Poldark ends with Ross being falsely accused of wrecking. The legend of the Cornish wreckers, which reached its definitive form in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, is founded on extremely slender historical evidence, but it persists because it fits in so neatly with the Victorian mythology of the South West in general, and Cornwall in particular: a mythology which viewed it as a lawless and desperate land, filled with crime and adventure, and remote from all true civilisation.

In Poldark, the looting of the wrecked vessel is motivated by hunger and poverty, which have in turn been caused by the economic depression besetting the region. But after spending the whole season struggling against Cornwall’s industrial decline, Ross finds himself in danger of being absorbed into a new kind of narrative about the South West – one which will have no place for men like him, except as picturesque savages.

Of course, in this respect, Poldark rather wants to both have its grain and (shirtlessly) reap it, too. Ross Poldark and Demelza appeal to their audience precisely because they embody the kind of romantic wildness which, since the Victorian era, has been the stock-in-trade of the south-western tourist industry.

They are passionate, free-spirited, and dismissive of class boundaries and social conventions: hardly the kind of people that the self-consciously respectable merchants and industrialists of the 18th-century South West would have wanted as their representatives or champions. But by setting its story of class antagonism against the backdrop of this crucial turning-point in the history of the South West, Poldark does serve as a reminder that the quietness of the region, which has proven so attractive to generations of tourists, is not the natural state of a land untouched by commerce or industry. It is the silence which follows their enforced departure.