Cornwall is a rugged and captivating county in southwest England. Known for its stunning coastline and picturesque landscapes, the scenic beauty hides a remarkable history that spans thousands of years. From the Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution, Cornwall’s mineral wealth has shaped its communities, influenced global trade, and left an indelible mark on its people.
Cornwall might be best known for its historic tin mining, but copper saw the real boom here. As Poldark fans can attest, the mining industry played a pivotal role in Cornwall’s history. By the 19th century, Cornwall was the biggest producer of copper in the world, producing two-thirds of the market. During this century, the region produced almost two million tonnes of tin. Read on to discover the history of mining in Cornwall. Explore its beginnings and triumphs to the tragedies and the enduring legacy that continues today.
Mining in Cornwall can be traced back to around 2100 BC. This was during the Bronze Age in England when the demand for copper and tin emerged. These metals were essential for producing bronze. This revolutionary material transformed ancient societies. Tin was one of the rarest metals used in antiquity, yet Cornwall offered a good source. By the Roman Conquest in 43 AD, Cornish tin was already traded internationally. The Roman Empire strengthened this growing trade network.
Early mining methods included streaming, which involved extracting metals from materials deposited in riverbeds. This method of using stream tin continued into at least the 15th century.
The demand for tin increased in the late 1600s. Advances were made in gunpowder and water power in mining shortly after. In 1689, Thomas Epsley introduced a new method to blast through granite rock using gunpowder. This allowed deeper mines to meet resource demands; copper is found deeper than tin. These advances helped copper mining take off in Cornwall in the first half of the 1700s.
Between the turn of the 18th century and the early 20th, metal mining in Cornwall underwent a transformative period that reshaped the way of life in the region. Mining in Cornwall also fuelled the booming Industrial Revolution. As demand grew, technology advanced to keep up. By the 1750s, steam power led to the introduction of Cornwall’s iconic engine houses. At the industry’s height, more than 200 engine houses operated across the area now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Established in 2006, the site spans 20,000 hectares.
While tin and copper mining dominated Cornwall’s mining industry, another vital mineral emerged in the 1700s – china clay. The discovery of vast deposits of kaolin, used in the production of fine porcelain, led to the industry’s growth in the early 1800s. English China Clays Limited, founded in 1919 and now known as Imerys, remains a significant player in the global industry.
Slate mining, practised in Cornwall for over 600 years, also contributed to the county’s mineral wealth. Additionally, Cornwall and Devon became prominent producers of arsenic. Half of the global supply came from these regions in the late 19th century.
Cornwall’s mineral deposits are the result of the region’s geology. A granite mass formed the land we know as Cornwall millions of years ago. Cracks in this hard rock allowed molten rock to surge through, resulting in the tin, copper and minerals mined throughout history.
The mining industry faced many challenges over the centuries. Cornwall dominated the global market at the turn of the 19th century and peaked in the 1850s. Mining in Cornwall benefitted from rich mineral deposits and a lack of these resources elsewhere in the world. However, copper and tin were discovered elsewhere in the 19th century, and the market flooded in the mid-1800s. The market crashed in 1866, and copper mining vanished from Cornwall by the end of the century.
Tin mining limped on long after others had failed, but it wasn’t far behind, with significant global crashes in the 1890s, 1920s, 1950s and 1980s. Especially after the Second World War, fluctuations in tin prices and production created a volatile market. South Crofty, the last tin mine in the UK, finally closed its doors in 1998.
“Cold tin emits a creaking noise referred to in Cornwall as “the cry of tin”.”
Tin in Antiquity, R.D. Penhallurick
As mining activities declined, Cornwall experienced an exodus of skilled miners. The collapse of the industry and widespread mine closures in the late 1800s led to the migration of Cornish miners to various parts of the world. Known as “Cousin Jack,” these miners were among the best hard rock miners in the world. They brought their expertise and knowledge to North America, Australasia, and South America.
Cornish mining history is not without its share of tragedies. The East Wheal Rose Mine disaster of 1846, where flooding claimed the lives of 39 men and boys, remains etched in memory. Similarly, in 1919, the Levant Mine’s man engine malfunction resulted in the tragic deaths of 31 miners.
Mining was an incredibly challenging and perilous occupation, often involving entire families. With a high mortality rate, life expectancies averaged between 30 and 40 years.
“Hard rocks breed hard men
Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living”
The Wheal of Hope, James Crowden
While the mining industry’s heyday has passed, a glimmer of hope remains. Companies such as Cornish Lithium and Cornish Metals seek to revive mining in the area. Driven by the global demand for battery minerals in the transition away from fossil fuels, lithium may be the future of mining in Cornwall.
The legacy of mining remains alive in Cornwall. Sites like the Geevor Tin Mine, the largest preserved mining site in Britain, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, tell these stories. The Camborne School of Mines, founded in Falmouth in 1888, continues as part of the University of Exeter.
The mining history in Cornwall is a testament to its people’s perseverance, ingenuity, and resilience. While the mines may have closed, the spirit of mining lives on. Efforts to revive the industry carry the torch into the future. The remarkable story of mining in Cornwall continues to captivate and inspire future generations.