Tin mining in Cornwall has a long history, beginning as long ago as 2000 BC. The county had plenty of mineral mines, far more than the rest of the UK, as a result of the geology of the area.
A lot of Cornwall is made up of a mass of granite. When it was molten, almost 400 million years ago, fissures allowed more molten rock to bubble up through the granite. As it cooled and formed into the land mass that was to become Cornwall, the new rocks were full of rich minerals such as tin, lead, copper, zinc, iron and silver.
Copper and tin were important because they were used to forge weapons. The famous Nebra sky disc, dating from 1600 BC, was also made from various minerals mined in Cornwall. The ornamental disc features the oldest such depiction of the cosmos ever discovered.
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In modern history, Cornwall became the UK centre of tin production. In 1337, Cornish tin production was 650 tons per year, rising to 800 tons by 1400. In contrast, Devon produced only one-quarter of that amount.
Tin mining became really big business in the 16th century. From the 1540s, production increased at a rapid rate. Open cast mining techniques were used for the tin boom, with German miners who were experienced in the technique being employed to train their English workmates.
A new method of blasting the very hard granite rock with gunpowder to loosen it was invented by Somerset man Thomas Epsley in 1689. This revolutionised the mining industry. One blast could move rock that would take the miners six days’ work with a pick to dislodge.
In the 18th century, there was a major boom in tin mining when shafts were dug to extract the ore. It reached its peak in the 19th century, with the areas around Gwennap, St Day and Porthtowan becoming some of the richest mining areas on earth.
The mining boom lasted from the 1840s until the 1870s. Mines employed around 600 steam engines to pump out the sea water, as some of them went down to great depths. In the mid-19th century, Looe was a major port and shipped out the tin and granite.
The local population doubled during this period. Kit Hill Country Park had several mines, including Kit Hill Summit, Kit Hill United, East Kit Hill, Hingston Down and South Kit Hill mines.
A miner’s life wasn’t easy, as many of the mines were small and vertical, with cramped, hot and hazardous working conditions. Some mine owners invested in cages to take the miners up and down, but those who didn’t provided basic ladders to access the mines – another tiring addition to the daily toil.
In some mines, arsenic was found and the poisonous dust made the work extremely hazardous. Although precautions were taken, the workers often didn’t live beyond middle-age.
In 1839, an estimated 7,000 children worked in the Cornish mines. Boys were sent underground to do an adult’s job as soon as they were physically big enough. Women and girls worked for the mines, although they weren’t sent underground. They were known as “Bal Maidens” and worked on the surface, sorting through the ore brought up from the mine and separating the different substances.
The staple diet of a miner was the traditional Cornish pasty. It was easy to carry, so the miners could take it underground, as there wasn’t enough time for them to come to the surface to eat lunch.
The pastry usually contained meat and potatoes. However, it could be savoury at one end and sweet at the other, so that it was a main course and dessert all rolled into one.
Its thick, folded pastry often kept it hot until lunchtime and because the miners couldn’t wash their hands before eating, the pasty often had a thicker fold of pastry that they could hold and then throw the dirty piece away. Considering there may be arsenic down the mines which got on their hands, this was a sensible idea.
Towards the end of the 19th century, foreign competition eroded the price of copper and tin, making the Cornish mining industry less profitable.
By the late 19th century, Cornish mining was in decline. Workers were laid off and many emigrated overseas, where the mining industry was in its infancy and their skills were in demand. Popular destinations for miners included Austalia, South Africa and North America. In 1875, more than 10,000 miners left Cornwall to find work elsewhere.
Gradually, the mines began to close and sadly, many had gone before the turn of the 20th century. Dolcoath Mine, nicknamed the “queen of Cornish mines”, was one of the deepest mines in the world at 3,500 feet. It closed in 1921 and despite a brief resurgence in the tin mining industry during the 20th century, it was short-lived.
The world tin market collapsed in 1986, spelling the end of Cornish tin mining. Most of the mines closed down, with the last working tin mine being South Crofty, near Camborne. It closed in March 1998 and efforts to reopen it in 2006, after the price of tin went up, failed.
The old tin mines are designated World Heritage Sites today. Cornwall County Council acquired Geevor mine in 1992 and it became a Heritage Museum. Today, it’s run by Pendeen Community Heritage. Both Morwellham Quay and Geevor Tin Mine have become recognised “anchor points” on the European Route of Industrial Heritage.
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