Kernewek Lowender – the World’s Largest Cornish Festival

Road sign nearing Moonta

In May 1973, the then South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan was up to his elbows in flour, attempting to make a Cornish Pasty. Kissing babies is one thing for a politician but baking?  Well he was putting himself fully in support of a new cultural Festival, the Kernewek Lowender, and rolling up his sleeves for the ‘celebrity’ pasty making contest.

Government support for the local proposal was inspired by a political climate of multi-culturalism and the need to arrest an exodus of young people from the district through an reinvigoration of cultural pride.   The district’s copper mines, once employing hundreds of Cornish and other immigrants, were the lifeblood of the region, but after they became ‘knacked bals’ (closed mines) by 1923, agriculture became the main industry.

Hughes Pump House at Moonta Mines

The original Cornish Festival committee selected the (then) May Adelaide Cup holiday ‘long’ weekend for the first festival in 1973. The name “Kernewek Lowender” was chosen by a key young local historian of Cornish descent, Ros Paterson – words that mean ‘Cornish’ and ‘happiness (or jollity/hilarity)’ in Celtic Cornish language’.

Although we now know that the word order was wrong – it can loosely be translated as ‘Cornish Festival’ and says a lot about the determination to link the Cornish past of Moonta to modern day Cornwall to produce a new understanding of Cornish identity in the diaspora (the Cornish and their descendants spread around the ‘Cornish’ world).

The South Australian Government’s Premier’s Department with the support of the Premier, provided a significant grant for those times of (AUD) $1,000 and although some in the broader local community were sceptical, plans went ahead.

The first festival exceeded all expectations. In 1973, 20,000 people visited the district, of these 11,000 attended the Fer Kernewek (Cornish Fair) at the Moonta Oval, 15,000 people passed through the Moonta Mines Museum and 8,000 Cornish pasties were consumed. Petrol service stations ran out of super grade petrol and the local bakery at Moonta had sweep the flour mill floor to get enough flour for the pasties at the Fer Kernewek!

Young Cornish-Australians at the Kernewek Lowender 2009

The festival provides links to interstate and international Cornish and other Celtic associations and has stimulated a rebirth of knowledge and appreciation of the unique Cornish culture in both it’s historic and current manifestations, as well of the transplanted version that grew up on the Copper Triangle, and now extends to local heritage, which was diluted by the cultural assimilation of compulsory state schooling in 1875 and the closing of the mines. A world heritage listing is being sought for the special Cornish related industrial landscape as part of Cornish industrial landscapes world-wide.

Other revived events such as Maypole performances, Furry Dancing, Cornish Wrasslin, may occur from Festival to Festival – plus bands and musicians, a heritage church service attracting nearly 2,000 people, the evocative ‘dressing of the graves’, arts shows and a play, and selection of a May Queen.

The festival is held over seven days or so with the highlight being ‘the big weekend’. that features large Fairs, the Village Green Fair and Fer Kernewek and a  somewhat more populist Cavalcade of Classic Cars. Cornish style food, such as a local attempt at Cornish Pasties and a local Swanky beer, is served during the Festival.

A gathering of the Cornish Bards in Australia usually attracts over 30 blue-robed Bards from across Australia and also internationally. These Bards are honoured for their services to Cornwall and / or proficiency in the Cornish language (a little like an Order of Australia). The presence in the early days of Grand or Deputy Grand Bards like Denis Trevanion, Cecil Beer, and Hugh Miners got it going and the support of Grand Bards since has been tremendous.

Cornish Bards gather at Kadina in 2007

The North Yorke Peninsular typically hosts more than 50,000 day or longer stay visitors during the festival. Traditionally the festival culminated in a 3-day long weekend with events in each town for one day of the long weekend. However when the Adelaide Cup Day public holiday was moved, difficulties were experienced in scheduling events with only two days for the three towns, and concerns were raised over whether Wallaroo received enough focus.

Despite financial difficulties, the renewal of committees, and continuing distractions from the central ethnic Cornish theme and a difficult balance with local commercial interests, the 19th Festival was again held successfully in May, 2009.

The continuance of this unique Cornish event – and for example the battle to retain its name rather that the generic handle of Copper Coast Festival, or even to get a proper Cornish Pasty made and sold  – will require vigilance as the cultural memory fades over the decades and the 10% of South Australians, and 3% of Australian who carry a solid Cornish family heritage continue to blend with the hundreds of ethnicities in multi-cultural Australia.

Much credit goes to the small bands of locals who do all the work, and to the 110 year old Cornish Association of South Australia. Support from Cornwall and the ‘Diaspora’ in reciprocation of support for Cornwall and the Cornish from Australia will be expected.

As for Premier Don Dunstan’s pasty; well history doesn’t record if he did a ‘proper job’…. or not!

A map of the area where the Kernewek Lowender festival is held in South Australia

After 38 years of celebrating Cornish heritage and the local identity the 20th Kernewek Lowender will be held between 9-15 May, 2011 on the Copper Coast, in Australia’s Little Cornwall of Moonta, and sister towns of Kadina and Wallaroo.

You’re all welcome!

For the latest details:

Web site: or Email

Ph: 08 8821 4500
Fax 08 8821 4633

Also for Moonta:


By Chris Dunkerley (a Cornish Bard and proud Cornish-Australian)