Sept/Oct 2006

Economic Geology

Cornwall from the Industrial Revolution to the present (Part 13)

By R. J. Cathro

The ruins of the engine-house at the Crowns area of the Botallackmine, near St. Just, Lands End, Cornwall  | photo provided by

The chimney-stacks, naked against the sky, the ivy-covered engine-houses, the slag heaps … still gritty black … you become suddenly aware of these lonely emblems of a once-crowded past. The names of the mines have a homely ring - Wheal Rose … Wheal Harmony - somehow suggesting a vivid picture of the men who worked them, looking upon their mine as seamen do their ship, eternally “she” to be praised or cursed. The trackways to the mines are overgrown … but … these places have all the beauty and the sadness that Nature gives to ruins.

More spectacular than the small inland mines are ... those built above the sea, perched like the nests of eagles. Botallack … has an almost eerie grandeur, set on a peak of rock with the Atlantic foaming at its base. The … workings extended below the sea-bed … this rock was their only protection from sudden drowning, the hot air about them made breathing difficult, and equally hard was the steep ascent by ladders to the cliffs when their shift was done, climbing perhaps at night through the pitch-black darkness, and in winter a full gale blowing.”

(du Maurier, 1967)

Most of the history contained in this chapter has been derived from Barton (1966, 1968), Ewart (1998), Lewis (1924), and Todd (1967).
The Industrial Revolution was born in England in the 1670s, at a time when the Cornish mining industry was nearing the maximum depths that could be handled by a whim (a winding device consisting of a large drum, with its axle mounted vertically, that raised buckets containing rock or water by means of ropes pulled by horses walking around a circle). The revolution didn’t have much impact on the Cornish mines until the steam engine was introduced there about 50 years later. Invented in 1698 by Thomas Savery and improved in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen (both from Devonshire), it was based on the use of atmospheric pressure. Steam was pumped into a cylinder and then condensed with cold water to create a vacuum. This produced a force that was then transferred to a pump within a mine by means of a piston and a lever. The earliest engines were so inefficient that they were only used in coal mines, where fuel was cheap. James Watt patented a major improvement involving a separate condenser in 1769. The successful application of a steam engine to a locomotive by George Stephenson in 1814 led to the development of the railway system.
Further improvements made by engineers such as Richard Trevithick, Andrew Vivian, and Arthur Woolf included using high-pressure steam, mounting the piston vertically and using a rocker-beam to transfer the force to the pump-rod. Known as the Cornish beam engine, it bears a strong resemblance to the modern ‘pump jack’ or ‘nodding donkey’ installed at the top of oil wells. It was gradually scaled up and became the standard pumping system used in mines worldwide. A monster that was installed in the Comstock mine at Virginia City, Nevada, in 1879 was equipped with a flywheel 40 feet in diameter that weighed 110 tonnes and a wooden pump-rod, strapped together with iron plates, that was hung in a shaft 820 metres deep. It had a stroke of over 2.5 metres and operated at a rate of 10 strokes per minute (Smith, 1943).
Historically, Cornish mines had been financed by local shareholders (known as adventurers) and the miners had worked as family groups in a spirit of camaraderie. Most tinners were ‘tributers,’ a corps of elite, self-employed miners who paid management for their supplies and received a share of the yield from their production. Others worked for wages and were called ‘tut-workers’ or, in the case of women who broke rocks into half-inch pieces on surface, ‘bal-maidens.’ Over many generations, they had developed an independent, stoic, and tenacious love of mining. In the words of du Maurier (1967), “The adventurers, mine captains (superintendents), pursers (accountants), and local owners all sat together at the monthly or quarterly meetings, and these occasions were made into festivals. A new engine would be installed like the launching of a ship, with flags flying and bands playing, the engine christened with a bottle of port. Each individual mine became the centre of the community - men, women and children all taking part in the work.” There were deep-rooted feelings of respect between the miners and the land-owning families. John Wesley’s Methodist Church became dominant in Cornwall by 1743.
He preached the value of hard work and emphasized that life was brief and hard, and merely a preparation for the world to come.
Deepening and expanding the mines, improving roads, and constructing foundries and engineering works required much higher levels of investment than had been needed earlier. This led to gradual and devastating changes to the previous special status of Cornish miners, who saw their standard of living fall to that prevailing throughout the coal mines and ‘dark Satanic mills’ of England (from the poem Jerusalem by William Blake, 1804). With larger capital investments required, the ‘tribute’ method became much riskier and miners found it necessary to borrow money when prices fell. Bankers and middlemen now appeared, usually smelter owners or merchants. Because tin sales were only held every three months, the tinners could become seriously indebted to the bankers, who also acquired shares in the most promising mines. The rules for selling tin were so complicated that it was easy to take advantage of the less educated miners. Land owners also began to form mining companies and employ their own mining crew.
Miners soon found themselves working long hours for lower wages because the competition to be employed at all was so great. If times were bad, which was particularly the case during the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the plight of the tinners became desperate. Although their courage and endurance were as great as ever, many were close to starvation and disease took its toll. The average lifespan of an underground miner, if he survived the all-too-frequent accidents, was only 47 years. What was even worse, 64 per cent of boys and 46 per cent of girls died before the age of five. Children as young as eight or nine worked tenhour shifts in summer and nine hours in winter. The girls assisted the bal-maidens on surface whereas the boys apprenticed with their fathers underground.
Although mining enjoyed technical advances, working conditions became worse because of the greater  depths and the 80°F to 90°F temperatures. The only improvements were the safety lamp, invented by Sir Humphrey Davy of Penzance in 1815-1817; the safety fuse, introduced in 1830 by William Bickford, a leather merchant from Camborne; and nitroglycerine in 1860. The fuse and explosives were introduced slowly because of cost. Trams were gradually used underground in place of wheelbarrows and the man-engine was imported from Germany about 1840. All drilling was done by hand in smoky, dusty air with poor ventilation and only candles for light.
The lingering end for miners in their cottage homes, years after the onset of headaches and dizziness, chest pains, and asthmatic breathing, was so commonplace as to go unrecorded. As Barton (1966) put it, “Stripped of romance, it was a miserable, dangerous, and even squalid existence. Seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of mining historians, (the Cornish miner) is portrayed as a sturdy and independent cottager, sleek with feasting on pasties and seldom without a hymnbook. In reality … he was more frequently the rent-owning occupier of a damp cottage, gaunt on a diet of potatoes and pilchards, and addicted to the local beer-shop.”
The biggest change that came with deeper mining was that the tin ores gradually became copper-rich. As tin production began to decline, beginning about 1720, copper output started to increase rapidly. A recession developed in Cornish copper, from about 1770 until the 1790s, when metal from the new Parys Mountain mine at Anglesey, Wales, flooded the market. Afterward, copper became more important than tin and Cornwall became the largest supplier in the world. Unfortunately, the Cornish copper supremacy only lasted until 1865, when new mines in Chile and Michigan caused the price to fall sharply again. Annual Cornish copper production soon fell from 145,000 tonnes to less than 450 tonnes.
Copper and tin mining remained distinct industries rather than two sides of the same industry because of the stannery laws that applied only to tin. The treatment of the two metals was quite different, with tin smelted solely within the county by law. For economic reasons, copper was smelted at Swansea, which was close to the South Wales coalfield. Copper mines had several economic advantages over tin; they were more numerous, larger, wider (up to 4 metres), and more profitable during the years when Cornwall dominated the world market. Copper lodes also had better continuity and investors understood the mining, processing, and sale of the ore more easily. In their heyday, one big copper mine gave as much profit in a year as a comparable tin mine in ten. In spite of their much greater output, the copper mines didn’t require many more workers in 1854 than the tin mines. Although there were a few very rich exceptions, most tin mines never made a profit for their investors. However, most were quite profitable for the smelters, merchants, and ‘mineral lords’ (a few powerful men who ruled Cornish tin). William Pitt, who served as prime minister twice between 1774 and 1806, is reputed to have asked an eminent Cornishman why people invested in the tin mines if they were not profitable, and to have received this answer: “For the same reason, Sir, that so many adventure in your lottery.”
Tin mining went through repeated cycles of boom and bust due to metal price fluctuations that were mostly caused by international factors. In 1862, 50,000 men and women were employed in 340 tin and copper mines. The tin market shrank during the American Civil War (1861-1865) but the effects of the copper slump in 1866-1867 were luckily offset by the discovery of deeper tin deposits within granite below the copper workings.
The demise of the Cornish tin industry can be blamed on cheap alluvial production from southeast Asia. Tin had been produced in a small way from the Penang and Perak areas of the Straits Settlements (now Malaysia) since the 15th century or earlier. Fighting between Chinese secret societies that were striving to control the labour market began to disrupt production about 1860. After the dispute was settled, production from there started to rise and the world price of tin weakened. By the 1880s, the Dutch had discovered enormous alluvial reserves near the islands of Banca and Billiton in the neighbouring Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), which soon became the world price-setter. The Cornish mines faced intense economic pressure and began a 50-year decline, only being kept alive by the new deep ore.
As working and living conditions steadily deteriorated, Cornishmen began to capitalize on their reputation as industrious and skilled underground miners. While some left because of the lure of better money, a spirit of adventure, or tales of gold, most left out of desperation. The first emigrant may have been the man who acquired an iron mine in Pennsylvania in 1737. Emigration continued throughout the 19th century at a fairly steady rate, although periods of economic distress at home, caused by low metal prices or new opportunities abroad created, larger waves.
In the 1820s, Cornishminers were the first foreigners to arrive in the Wisconsin and Illinois lead districts, and some of those were subsequently among the first arrivals to the California gold fields in 1848. Copper discoveries in Australia in the 1830s and the potato blight in the 1840s were also motivating factors. Other Cornishmen played a prominent role in the copper mine at Bruce Mines, Ontario, which opened in 1846. The California and Australia gold rushes led to huge stampedes. During the three years from 1847 to 1849, there were 43 emigrant sailings from Cornish ports to Port Philip, Port Adelaide, or Quebec, plus others to Natal, Hobart, Miramichi, New York, and San Francisco. In one week alone in 1849, over 1,000 people sailed from Plymouth to Quebec.
The numerous discoveries of gold and silver camps in the southwestern United States in the 1850s and 1860s were a natural magnet for Cornish expertise. Barkerville, in the heart of British Columbia’s Cariboo gold rush, was named after a Cornish seaman who made a discovery in 1862. Another large exodus occurred after the slump in the copper price in 1867, which coincided with tin discoveries in Australia, and was soon followed by the major South African discoveries of diamonds in 1871 and gold in 1887, and a serious slump in the tin market in the 1890s. Perhaps the most dramatic statistic is that one-third of the mining population left Cornwall between 1871 and 1881.
During the 20th century, Cornish tin continued a long decline that was only interrupted by the two world wars. When the South Crofty mine closed in 1998, it brought over 3,000 years of tin mining to an end.
The study of the zoning between tin, copper, and other metals, which was one of the main contributions of Cornwall to economic geology, will be discussed in the next chapter.


BANCROFT, P. and WELLER, S., 1993. Cornwall’s famous mines. The Mineralogical Record, 24, p. 259-283.

BARTON, D.B., 1966. A History of Tin Mining and Smelting in Cornwall. D. Bradford Barton Ltd., Truro, 302 p.
BARTON, D.B., 1968. A History of Copper Mining in Cornwall and Devon. D. Bradford Barton Ltd., Truro, p. 1-90.
DU MAURIER, D., 1967. Vanishing Cornwall. Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, p. 103-108.
EMBREY, P.G. and SYMES, R.F., 1987. Minerals of Cornwall and Devon. British Museum of Natural History, London/Mineralogical Record Inc., Tucson.
EWART, S., 1998. Highly Respectable Families: The Cornish of Grass Valley, California, 1854-1954. Comstock Bonanza Press, Grass Valley, California, 177 p.
LEWIS, G.R., 1924. The Stannaries: A Study of the English Tin Miners. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 299 p.
SMITH, G.H., 1943. The History of the Comstock Lode, 1850-1920. University of Nevada Bulletin, Geology and Mining Series No. 37, Nevada State Bureau of Mines and the Mackay School of Mines, Reno, Nevada, p. 278-9.
TODD, A.C., 1967. The Cornish Miner in America. D. Bradford Barton Ltd., Truro, p. 13-29.
Post a comment


PDF Version