The History Of Mining In Cornwall

Wheelpit Luxulyran ValleyOver it’s 4,000 year history, mining in Cornwall has been a story of ingenuity, invention, problem solving and technological innovation. 

  • Mining in Cornwall has taken place for at least 4,000 years with archeological evidence showing mining activity taking place since the early Bronze Age, approximately 2150 BC1. Although no evidence exists it is widely believed that mining would have taken place much earlier, perhaps in the Stone Age.
  • From early Bronze Age to Medieval period, mining would have been by streaming alluvial deposits (soil, gravel and sediments) around streams and rivers and then using cleaning and smelting operations to extract the Tin from the ore.
  • In Medieval period, 13-16th centuries, mining work moved from stream and alluvial working to shallow underground mining2 and adit and Shaft mining is thought to have started. Exactly when this took place is unknown but it is recognised that adit and shaft mining was being carried out in Germany, at the Rathstiefster tunnel3, in the 12th Century  and it’s very likely the same techniques were used in Cornwall.
  • Surface level equipment was already sophisticated before the 16th Century, with horses and waterwheels providing power for hoisting gear, pumps and stamping machines4 in use alongside sawmills and forges.
  • Agricola’s engraving of 1556 showing mining carts.

    Agricola’s engraving of 1556 showing mining carts.

    The 16th and 17th Centuries saw considerable advancement in all aspects of mine operation, from discovery and extraction to dressing and processing the ore. Innovations and advancements in waterwheels, pumps, drainage and explosives all pushed mining to new heights of productivity and allow miners to dig deeper than ever before.  

“Throughout its long period of successful operation… Cornish Mining…  been marked by tremendous achievement, outstanding courage, ingenious innovation and dogged perseverance” JA Buckley

  • Innovation accelerated in the 18th and 19th Centuries and the Industrial Revolution with Newcomen, Boulton, Watt and Trevithick steam engines revolutionising mine pumping in particular5. Engine size, measured in diameter of cylinder size, ranged from small engines of 10 inches up to huge machines of 90 inches. These giants of the steam age enable mines shafts  to reach previously unimaginable depths – to 2050ft down from the surface in case of Fowey Consoles. Notable Cornish inventions included the inclined plain canal (John Edyvean, 1773),  the Cornish Beam or High Pressure engine (Richard Trevithick, 1800)6, the compound steam engine (Arthur Wolf, 1804) which improved the efficiency of Cornish Beam Engines7, Safety Fuse (William Bickford in 1831)8 which vastly improved the safety of mining working.
  • At the height of mining boom, almost 350 mines with 600 steam engines were in operation across the county. The mines on which my model railway is based – Par Consols and Fowey Consoles – had 15 and six steam engines respectively with the mines around Fowey also operating 17 waterwheel engines and 3 hydraulic pressure pumping engines.
  • Mining in Cornwall reached its zenith in the 19th Century, the peak years being the 1860s when 40,000 workers were employed and output reached 10,000 tons of Tin per annum. It is estimated that the County was responsible for around half of U.K  non-ferrous ores and associated mineral production during this period. 9

“‘wherever there’s a hole in the ground, you’ll find a Cornishman”

  • From the middle to the end of the 19th Century, competition from other countries (New South Wales, Malaya, Bolivia, Chile and America)  increasingly drove the price of first Copper and then Tin down making it  increasingly uneconomic to mine in Cornwall. Mines started closing and large numbers of Cornish miners left to seek their fortunes in other mining areas across the world with an estimated quarter of a million people, mostly miners, leaving Cornwall between 1841 and 190110
  • In the 20th Century the overall decline continued apart from boom periods during the World Wars.11
    The last operational mine in Cornwall, South Crofty closed in 1988. With the huge rise in the cost of Tin there has recently been interest in restarting mining in Cornwall but this is yet to begin12.

1, Natural Environment Research Council
2, Historic Cornwall,
3, UNESCO World Heritage Site,
4, Water and Wind Power, Martin Watts.
6, Cornish Mining World Heritage
7, Amazing & Extraordinary Facts Steam Age by Julian Holland (book)
8, BBC A History of the World
9, University of Exeter
10, Cornwall Heritage Trust11, BBC, Nation on Film:
12, BBC News

Engraving, by Georg Agricola, De Re Metallica, via Wikimedia Commons
Wheel pit, permission to reproduce kindly granted by Friends of Luxulyan Valley.

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