August 2006

Economic Geology

Cornwall revisited – the Middle Ages (Part 12)

By R. J. Cathro

“The Tamar River divides (Cornwall from England) in more than a physical or administrative sense. It divides this part of the Celtic lands that did not become Saxonized or Romanized, along with Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany, from the Roman, Saxon, and Norman lands to the east.  There is a cultural difference, an independence, a nationalism which expresses itself in many ways. Part of this difference lies in language, part in economy, part in strong tradition and ancient history, part in the proximity of the sea, and part in the character of the Cornish people themselves. … Because of its isolation from the remainder of Britain, Cornwall was always looked on as somewhere foreign - especially by their nearest neighbours in Devon!  It is with this background in mind that Cornish mining should be viewed.  … Reflecting the close association of the sea and metals with Cornwall, the traditional toast is Pysk, Kober ha Stean (Fish, Copper, and Tin)” (Colby and Colby, 1999).

The history of tin mining in Cornwall and Devonshire (referred to collectively as Cornwall) to the end of the Roman Empire about 450 AD was described in Part 5 of this series (see the August 2005 issue of the CIM Bulletin, p. 64–67). This chapter will be followed by the history from the Industrial Revolution to the present and a summary of the economic geology.

A considerable amount of space is allotted in this chapter to the special laws governing miners and the transfer of German expertise to Cornwall. Both were later taken by Cornish miners to North America, Australia, and elsewhere during their major emigration in the 19th century, and became a basic part of the international mining industry. The Cornish miners adapted the German expertise to local conditions, took advantage of new inventions such as the steam-driven pump to follow the ore to great depths in very wet conditions, and exported their skills to new mining camps around the world.

For the next few centuries after the departure of the Romans, a period known as the Dark Ages, the only evidence of tin mining in these counties is a few coins and other artifacts recovered from the placer gravel. Most of these were found in the vicinity of the Dartmoor pluton, which has been less disturbed by subsequent farming and mining activity, and to a lesser extent, the Bodmin (Fowleymore) pluton (Gerrard, 2000). It seems reasonable to assume that some placer cassiterite continued to be recovered during the Dark Ages to fill the small local needs after trade with the Mediterranean was curtailed.

The following history of Cornish tin mining in the Middle Ages is largely derived from Lewis (1924) and Rickard (1932). The economic inventory conducted after the Norman invasion in 1066 (the Domesday Book) doesn’t mention tin, either because there was a lull in production or Cornwall was Crown property. The next recorded production dates from 1155 in a document known as the Pipe Rolls (Hatcher, 1973). Prospecting consisted of conventional hand pitting and trenching to locate float trains of mineralization and trace them back to the bedrock source. The tools consisted of a pick-axe about 16 inches long, sharpened at one end and hammer-headed at the other, “to drive certain little iron Wedges, wherewith they cleave the Rockes,” and a broad shovel “into which the staffe is slopewise fastened” (Murray, 1923). Prospectors learned to pay particular attention to subsurface material at animal burrows and areas disturbed by farming. They were also able to recognize vegetation anomalies (stunted growth associated with mineralized areas) and that springs often issued from veins covered by overburden (Gerrard, 2000).

By the 13th century, placer mining had gradually shifted from Devonshire into Cornwall, a westward trend that continued for many centuries. English tin found its way to the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and also to Cologne, which was the centre of the German market in the 12th and 13th centuries before the mines in the CEMB attained prominence (Lewis, p. 58). Pewter (an alloy of tin and lead used for tableware) was becoming an important market at the time and Bruges, Belgium, became the principal tin trading centre in Europe by the 14th century.

The English Crown began to separate tin mining rights from land ownership between 1198 and 1201 as an incentive to increase tin production and taxes, and a separate law (the Stannary Law) with its own courts and tax collectors was established to govern the industry. These courts dealt with all offences and disputes pertaining to tin mining and had jurisdiction over miners, claim and smelter owners, shareholders, and metal dealers. Nine sub-divisions of the tin belt were established (called Stannaries), each administered from a Stannary town. A system of claim staking (called bounding) was developed. Initially, these could be placed anywhere, but rules were later established that protected the rights of landowners and provided for compensation. Tin miners were guaranteed the rights that they had traditionally held—exemption from normal military service and ordinary taxation, and the right to divert water in streams, cut wood for fuel, and prospect freely on unenclosed common land. Edward I strengthened the law in 1305 through two charters, one for Devonshire and another for Cornwall. Cornwall, with its strong Celtic heritage, was always treated differently from Anglo-Saxon Devonshire. The Stannary laws were perhaps responsible for saving the tin miners (called ‘tinners’) from the uncontrolled capitalism that prevailed in the collieries later.

Because tinners had the opportunity, unusual in England at the time, to escape from feudal bondage if they made a good discovery, they ranked somewhat above agricultural workers in the social hierarchy. The special privileges granted to Cornish miners have a strong resemblance to the status held by miners in the CEMB, who gained even greater advances in working conditions as well as recognition of the vital role they played in society.

Historically, mines had been worked by slaves and mining was generally regarded as the lowest form of slavery. In his Politica, Aristotle summarized the accepted attitude as follows: “the slave is a tool with life in it, and the tool is a lifeless slave.” When Athens was posing as a democracy, a third of its population consisted of slaves. Although mines had been royal or state property since before the time of the Greeks, German rulers began to see the need for change as early as the reign of King Frederick I Barbarossa (c. 1123–1190). The Bishop of Trent (Trient, now part of northern Italy) issued the earliest surviving record that granted special status to miners in 1185. Rulers gradually realized that slavery stifled initiative and that it was necessary to grant more responsibility and incentive to miners in order to make the difficult transition from surface to underground mining. One way in which they achieved this goal was by granting leases to skilled miners rather than using serfs to operate mines directly. These changes resulted in increased productivity and profits.

As the need for miners increased in Saxony, they became artisans, a privileged class of workmen who enjoyed unusual freedom and mobility and received special benefits such as the right to free wood and water. Bona fide miners also enjoyed free brewing, baking, and transportation of goods, and freedom from taxation and army service. In addition, special mining laws provided protection from burdensome regulations imposed by local magistrates. Miners in Saxony and Bohemia became the most respected in the world, by far, and were able to organize themselves into guilds, an early form of trade unions. The final stage of special recognition in the CEMB was the raising of important mining towns to the status of a Free City. Although the origin of the special mining laws in Cornwall and the CEMB, known as Regalian Rights, is uncertain, it may be derived from Roman laws introduced in Spain and Portugal to attract foreign miners (Rickard, 1932, p. 571–616).

Tin production continued to grow in Cornwall until the Black Death in 1348 and didn’t recover again until the end of the 14th century because of poor treatment of the miners by the king. Another depression set in during the second half of the 15th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603). This roughly coincided with the depletion of the shallow portions of the great Cornish placer tin reserves and flooding problems at depth. The conversion to underground mining was frustrated by the lack of those skills in Cornwall. Whereas the Cornish placer miners had only their hand tools and no underground mining tradition, the mining industry in the CEMB had already become capitalistic, well organized, and technologically innovative.

According to Rickard (1932, p. 535–539), German mining experts were brought to England by Edward II to work a mine at Dulverton in 1314, mines in Cumberland and Westmoreland in 1324, and a lead mine at Alston Moor in Yorkshire in 1359. Records show that Henry VI granted safe passage in 1452 to three skilled miners and 30 others from Bohemia and Hungary to work in his mines for four years. In 1479, Edward IV granted a ten-year concession to all the gold, silver, copper, and lead mines in Northumberland and Westmorland to William Goderswick and Doderick Vaverswick for a royalty of a fifteenth part. There are many other references to Dutch mineral men (meaning German miners). In 1538, Ulrich Frosse was placed in charge of a copper mine in Cornwall and a smelter at Neath, Wales. Elizabeth I sent for some German miners in 1561 and in 1564, she granted the mines of eight counties to Daniel Höchstetter, a name that still continued in Cardiganshire in 1932. In 1565, she granted a concession to Christopher Schutz (or Scutz) from Annaberg, who was reportedly “of great cunning, knowledge, and experience, as well as in the finding of Calamin Stone (an ore of zinc) … in the right and proper use … for the composition of the mix’d metal commonly called latten (brass)” (Rickard, 1932, p. 538). He became a warden in the Cornish Stannaries.

The Schutz concession was converted by Royal charter into a joint-stock company headed by William Humphrey named the Society of the Mineral and Battery Works, while Höchstetter’s became the Mines Royal Company. They monopolized all English mining other than tin and were granted extraordinary powers to sink shafts and build houses anywhere except in gardens. The two companies were combined into the Society of the Mines Royal in 1668 (Lewis, p. 42–43). It is not surprising that many German mining terms, such as stamp, stope, shaft, stull, sump, and quartz, became part of the English language via Cornwall (Rickard, 1920).

Richard Carew (1555-1620) wrote an interesting account of Cornish mining in 1600, which was not published until 1723 (Murray, 1923). He was a deputy to the Lieutenant General of Cornwall, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was also Lord Warden of the Stannaries. Carew reported that shafts up to about 80 m deep had been dug with primitive tools where water was not a problem and that some drainage adits had been driven.


COLBY, J. and Colby, S., 1999. Preface, Cornwall;

GERRARD, S., 2000. The Early British Tin Industry. Tempus Publishing Ltd., D. Bradford Burton Ltd., Truro, p. 1–30.

HATCHER, J., 1973. English Tin Production and Trade Before 1550. Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 8–26.

LEWIS, G.R., 1924. The Stannaries: A Study of the English Tin Miner. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 299 p.

MURRAY, J.C., 1923. Tin mining in Cornwall in the year sixteen hundred. Engineering and Mining Journal-Press, 115, 17, p. 754–756.

RICKARD, T.A., 1920. Some Cornish Mining Terms. Mining and Scientific Press, September 25, p. 459–460.

RICKARD, T.A., 1932. Man and Metals: A History of Mining in Relation to the Development of Civilization (two volumes). Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill), New York, 1068 p.

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