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Mining in Cornwall












The story of the rise and decline of the mining industry in Cornwall.


You may wonder why Cornwall had the mineral mines that the rest of Britain missed out on. There is a simple geological explanation. During the late stages of the cooling of the mass of granite that makes up a lot of Cornwall, fissures opened up in the granite when it was still molten, and more hot molten rocks bubbled up through the granite from the earth's interior. These new rocks contained many minerals, and as they crystallized they formed mineral lodes - tin, copper, zinc, lead and iron with some silver. Because the ore bearing rocks formed in this way, rather than being sedimentary rocks like coal (hence coal is laid down in great flat plates), they have to be mined vertically rather than horizontally. Each fissure has to be mined straight down into the earth. Each fissure needed a separate mine. Therefore a great many vertical shafts were needed, rather than the one shaft that was used in coal mining.

Inevitably the mine shafts dropped below the level of the water table, and the water had to be pumped out if mining was to continue any deeper. Hence pumps and the houses for the engines that drove the pumps were a necessary part of mining. These engine houses were the sturdiest buildings in the mines, as they had both to house the machinery and support the massive beams that worked the pumps. It is not surprising that it is the engine houses that survive in Cornwall. In addition the closer to sea level the engine was sited, the less the height the water needed to be pumped to remove it from the mine. Therefore we find today some of these engine house perched on the sea cliffs.

Coal is not native to Cornwall, so it had to be imported, by ship, to keep the engines in steam. Getting coal to the engines was in itself a difficult and expensive operation. Water was sometimes used to power waterwheels, but suitable rivers were not plentiful either in Cornwall.

There were no other substantial buildings in a typical mine. Given that many of the mines were small and vertical, they did not invest in cages to haul the miners up and down, instead access to the mine was by ladder, a tiring part of the daily toil of the miners. And of course the Cornish Pasty was used originally by the miners as their food underground. It was easy to carry, and could have savoury in one end and sweet in the other.

Mining existed here from the days of stone age man, but it was in the 19th century that mining reached its zenith, before foreign competition depressed the price of copper and later tin, to a level that made Cornish ore unprofitable. At its height, the Cornish Tin Mining Industry had around 600 steam engines working to pump out the mines.  During the 20th century various ores became briefly profitable, and mines were reopened, but today none remain. The collapse of the world tin cartel in 1986 being the last nail in the coffin of tin mining.

Here are a few ideas for where you can see ruins and remains today. The main mining area was around Redruth and Camborne, though mines did sprout up in most locations - Newquay had its share of mines too.

St Austell Clay Mines

China clay is still produced in large quantities round St Austell and shipped out from ports on Falmouth Harbour. To find out about china clay working click here.

Around St Agnes

Wheal Coates - just north of the pretty cove of Chapel Porth, the engine house for this mine is half way down a cliff, and is so spectacular that it is invariably used in most photographs of Cornish mines. This mine produced mainly tin, and is 200 feet above the sea. Started in 1872, when the Towanroath engine houses for winding and the stamps were built. The mine was only worked until 1889 when it closed, and attempt to re-open was made in 1911, but it was finally closed in 1914.

Wheal Charlotte - A mile south of Towanroath, the North Towan/Wheal Charlotte complex was built around 1830 to mine copper ore

Blue Hills - near Trevaunance, the remains include an engine house and a waterwheel. Given the scarcity and expense of coal, water was used for the pump wherever possible.

Tywarnhayle - dramatic steep valley from Scorrier to the sea at Porthtowan, a cluster of mines, engine houses and stacks.

Heritage Centre at Geevor - where visitors can see the whole process of tin extracting and also do an underground tour. Pendeen Community Heritage, a local charity, took over management of the site in October 2001.

Pentireglaze mines, Cornwall - On the east side of the Camel estuary, 3 and a half miles north east of Padstow. There were mines producing lead here for around 400 years, with the production finally stopping in 1857.

South Crofty and other mines north of Cambourne - South Crofty - the last working mine in Cornwall when it closed in 1998, attempts to re-open the mine appear doomed to failure. East Pool Whim -  The massive beam engine was the last of its type to be built at the Holman Bros Cambourne foundry in 1887. The main shaft, Mitchell's Shaft was destroyed by an underground rock movement in 1921 and the mine closed the next year. The National Trust acquired the site in 1967 and has restored the beam engine to working order.

East Pool Mine - just over the road from East Pool Whim. The great engine was built by Harvey's of Hayle in 1892 for the Carn Brea Mine, and worked until the mine failed in 1913. It was then moved to East Pool and installed in a new engine house (probably the lst ever to be built in Cornwall) in 1924, and it worked away pumping out water till 1955. It could lift 84.7 gallons of water with each stroke, and at 5 strokes a minute, it meant that 27,000 gallons of water were drawn out of the mine every hour.

Rinsey mine, Cornwall - There are three engine houses on the coast of Mount's Bay, between Porthleven and Praa Sands. Wheal Prosper - above Rinsey Cove was built in 1860, though the mine was worked earlier in the century, producing an average of 860 tons per year from 1832 to 1849. It finally ceased production in 1865.


Wheal Trewavas - 2 engine houses for the under sea copper mine.


Mines around St Just

Cape Cornwall and St Just area - The National Trust now owns some 78 acres around Cape Cornwall, one of only two Capes in the island of Great Britain. At the height of mining there were 4 main mines in the area.


Wheal Castle



Cape Cornwall - the ornamental brick stack remains. The old count house and boiler house have been converted into domestic residences.


St Just Amalgamated.


Botallack - one of the most famous of the mines on the coast. Its two engine houses stand spectacularly on the edge of the cliffs.

Also a number of smaller mines like


Little Bounder



Wheal Call

Wheal Cunning - started working in 1872, 3 pumping, 2 stamping and 2 winding engines plus a 62 foot diameter water wheel

Yankee Boy

Geevor & Levant - One of the last of the tin mines to close, in 1986. The Levant engines have been restored to steam working, and you can see them with steam up, in working order (obviously they only operate on steam on a certain number of days each year). Although the area had been mined for tin and copper for around 2000 years, the volume production started in 1820 and lasted till around 1930. The workings extended a mile out under the sea. The engine that survives at Levant, and is operated today, was designed in 1840 by Francis Mitchel and built by Harvey's Foundry in Hayle. It wound ore up from Skip Shaft at a speed of 400 feet per minute. Moves were made in 1935 to preserve the machinery, and eventually by teaming up with the National Trust, it building and machinery were saved, opening to the public in 1992.

Carn Galver Mine - Gurnard's Head copper mine was operating in the 1830's using a 20 inch wide water wheel.

Porthmeor Valley - contains many mining remains, including water wheel pits and circular ore washing sites.

Carn Galver - near the hamlet of Rosemergy, was part of Morvah and Zennor United. It was a very wet mine, and the pump drew water from 780 feet down, with a second engine used to raise and crush the ore. It stopped working in 1878.

The History of South Caradon Mine

South Caradon was an extremely successful copper mine which had a huge influence on the South East Cornwall area. It started production  in 1838 at the start of the Victorian era and raised its last ore toward the end of the Queen's reign in 1890. The company forms an excellent example of  Victorian Cornish copper mine.

A major factor in South Caradon's history was its location in the Easterly part of Cornwall. The large granite mass of Caradon Hill overlooks an area many miles from the rich mineral deposits of West Cornwall. A separation that may have influenced the late development of copper mining in the district. This late start placed the mine to in a position of having large copper reserves available when mines in the West started to fail.

This had the social impact of causing a migration of miners across  Cornwall into the Caradon region. When South Caradon finally closed it left miners with no prospects of work anywhere else in the county. Many went to England to find work in factories of coal mines, but large numbers emigrated to work metal mines all around the world. 

Many speculators believed that little copper lay East of Truro and it was left to practical miners to disprove this theory. The Clymo brothers and Thomas Kittow worked on a previous abandoned trail adit and hit struck copper. Even after the discovery of the lodes ,the money markets of London refused to risk money on the mine. The miners therefore funded the mines development themselves, and became extremely wealthy in the process. Once Copper mining had become established however  speculators jumped on the bandwagon forming a multitude of mines with the word "Caradon" in their title hoping to attract unwary investors. Most of these ventures proved unsuccessful and helped cause Cornish mining's poor reputation for investment. 

Being left in the hands of skilled miners gave South Caradon mine several advantages financially other those owned by "up country" investors. For most of its life the mine operated under the Cost book system as regulated by Cornish Stannary law. This system was extremely simple and success often depended achieving the balance of investing in new exploration with the profitable extraction of ore. The practical skills of the Clymo brothers allowed them to get the most out this large mine for many years without resorting to forming a public company. 

A downside of the late timing of the venture was that it was hit by the fall in the price of copper. It was the price of copper that closed the mine not the lack of available ore. For example in 1864 the mine made over 57000 from the sale of about 5700 tonnes of ore. But,  1880 over 6800 was being sold to give only 30,000. This halving of ore price was to cause cost to outstrip revenue and lead to the mines closure with workable reserves still available underground.

Caradon Hill on the edge of Bodmin Moor forms part of a chain of granite uplands in the South West, including Kit Hill and Dartmoor. Caradon Hill was important in prehistoric times and has nineteen Bronze Age burial mounds or Barrows on its summit and slopes.

Kit Hill is due east of Caradon and has the chimney of Kit Hill Great Consols Mine on its summit.

Liskeard and Caradon railway was extended around Caradon Hill in 1877 to serve the tin and copper mines around Minions. It linked the area to the port of Looe from where the ore was shipped out and supplies shipped in.

Wheal Jenkin, a former tin mine, was one of many mines around Caradon Hill that operated in the nineteenth century. The tin ore was hauled to the surface at Bellingham's shaft and crushed at the Stamps engine house.





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