Cornwall’s tin mines can be traced back to around 2000 BC, although they didn’t become a major commercial industry until the 16th century. Peaking in the 1870s, tin mining enjoyed a boom period, but this declined quickly due to competition from overseas.
After the final Cornish mine closed in the 1990s, there has recently been a ray of hope for the 2,000-year-old industry. Britain’s last mine, in Pool, near Redruth, closed in 1998 but it might reopen, as major tech companies demand ethically-sourced metals.
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Cornish tin mining history
Much of Cornwall was formed from a mass of molten granite, almost 400 million years ago. A large amount of molten rock bubbled up nearer the earth’s surface. It eventually cooled to become the landmass that is the county of Cornwall.
The area’s geology left the rocks full of seams of minerals including tin, copper, lead, zinc, silver and iron. The concentration of mineral mines in Cornwall was far greater than in the rest of the UK. In ancient times, tin and copper were used to make primitive weapons.
Tin mining first became an industry in the 5th century AD. The exact date is unknown since history mixes with folklore. It was claimed that the patron saint of Cornwall and tin miners, St Pirin, discovered tin smelting at this time.
Soon afterwards, local men began digging for tin and smelting it to make money. They built up a trade, selling it to merchants from Europe. This was said to be the start of the thriving Cornish industry, which lasted for 1,500 years.
Hub of tin production
By the 14th century, tin mining had become Cornwall’s major industry and the county was the UK’s centre of production. Records from 1337 show 650 tons of tin per year were extracted. This had increased to 800 tons in 1400.
In the 16th century, tin mining was massive business. Production increased rapidly from the 1540s, when new open-cast mining techniques were introduced. German miners experienced in this technique were brought over to train the English workers.
The method of blasting hard granite rock with gunpowder was invented in 1689 by Somerset inventor Thomas Epsley. This changed the face of the mining industry, as one blast moved rock in one go – previously taking a group of miners armed with pick-axes six days to dislodge.
Life of a tin miner
The life of a tin miner was tough, particularly in the early years, when there was no health and safety legislation. Children as young as eight also worked in the mines, until a tragic accident in 1838 led to 26 children drowning in flood water at Huskar Colliery in Barnsley.
At the time, an estimated 7,000 children worked underground in the Cornish mines. Boys did a man’s job as soon as they were big enough physically. The Mines and Collieries Act was introduced in 1842 by Queen Victoria to reduce the risks of a disaster ever happening again.
Nothing could combat the discomfort and health hazards endured by the men, who laboured in small, vertical mines, where conditions were cramped and hot. While some mines had lifts, others had only a basic ladder to access the deep mine shafts, adding to the strenuous activities of each day. The miners often didn’t live into old age – particularly in mines were poisonous arsenic dust was found.
Women known as “Bal Maidens” toiled on the surface, separating the various substances in the ore that had been brought up. It was a hard life for everyone involved.
Why were Cornish pasties popular?
The famous Cornish pasty was the most popular meal for miners. Filled with meat and potatoes, it was a complete meal in a pastry case. As the miners couldn’t come out at lunchtime, due to the length of time it took to reach the surface, pasties were very handy.
When the family had enough money, there would be more meat than potatoes in the pastry case and vice versa. Sometimes, a Cornish pasty might be savoury at one end and sweet at the other, providing the main course and dessert in one sitting.
When the pastry was particularly thick and folded well, the pasty might stay hot till lunchtime, particularly if well-wrapped in cloth. It wasn’t possible for the miners to wash their hands before eating, so there was sometimes a thick fold of pastry in one spot that they could hold and throw away.
When was the biggest mining boom?
In the 19th century, there was a massive increase in tin mining, known as a boom time. The regions of St Day, Gwennap and Porthtowan became some of the biggest mining areas in the world at the beginning of the 1870s.
Mines were very deep, and some had to use steam engines to pump seawater out of the deepest shafts. Around 600 pumps were used around Cornwall, but it made the job even more hazardous. The tin was shipped abroad through the major port of Looe.
The population of Cornwall had doubled during the tin boom, as workers came from other areas to supply the demand for labour.
Why did the industry decline?
The tin mining industry began to decline towards the end of the 19th century, less than three decades after the massive boom of 1870-72. Foreign competition was cited as eroding the price of Cornish copper and tin.
Workers were laid off in their droves and many immigrated to places such as South Africa, Australia and North America, where their skills were still in demand. As early as 1875, the boom had started to subside and an estimated 10,000 miners left Cornwall to seek work elsewhere.
Sadly, many mines had closed before the turn of the 20th century. Closures continued after the Great War, with Dolcoath Mine (known as the “queen of Cornish mines”) closing in 1921. It was one of the world’s deepest mines, descending to a depth of 3,500 feet.
In 1986, the world tin market collapsed and even the stalwart Cornish mines that had battled on through tough times began closing down. The final working tin mine, South Crofty, between Redruth and Camborne, closed on 6th March 1998 – a plan to reopen it in 2006 failed.
Is there still a demand for tin?
The demand for tin has started to increase again in the new, high-tech world of the 21st century. As a key component of the technology world, it is used as solder on the circuit boards of consumer electronics. An additive in batteries, it is a component of electric vehicles, smartphones and the latest 5G technology.
In 2018, global tin use increased by more than 2.5% in 12 months. This growth is continuing, according to the International Tin Association, leading to a greater demand for a regular supply of clean tin.
In September 2019, Canadian firm Strongbow Exploration announced ambitious plans to reopen South Crofty mine in 2021. If the plan succeeds, it will become the only working tin mine in North America and Europe, excluding Russia.
The company needs to survey and drain miles of tunnels 300 metres underground before it can give the green light for the project. Then the recruitment process for hundreds of miners will take place. This could be a challenge, since Cornwall’s population has moved away from manual work and into the tourism and service industries today.
How do mines boost tourism?
Cornwall’s old tin mines have become an integral part of the tourism industry, with many of them having been made World Heritage Sites. Geevor mine was acquired by Cornwall County Council in 1992, to become a Heritage Museum. It is managed by Pendeen Community Heritage.
Morwellham Quay and Geevor Tin Mine feature on the European Route of Industrial Heritage. The Mineral Tramways Heritage Project provides a network of trails – including the Great Flat Lode trail and the Coast to Coast trail, which follow the routes once used to transport tin.
The hit TV drama, Poldark, starring Aidan Turner as the dashing 18th-century mine owner, Ross Poldark, has also attracted tourists to Cornwall. Some scenes were filmed on the coast between Botallack and Levan, with the real Levant Mine becoming Poldark’s Tressiders Rolling Mill.
Today, Levant Mine is owned by the National Trust as part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. The treasures include a restored 1840s steam-powered engine. The clifftop engine house at St Agnes Head was the filming location for part of Poldark’s estate, the Nampara Valley, in the TV series.
If you’re planning to explore Cornwall’s mining heritage sites, make sure you’re dressed for the weather in MA Grigg’s branded range of country clothing.