The thousands of holiday makers who stream down the A30 to their holiday destinations, can’t help but notice the scores of abandoned engine houses to left and right as they drive through the middle of the county. The emblematic legacy from the 17th to 20th centuries speak of enormous riches for a few wealthy landowners, fame for those creative innovators who made deep metal mining a possibility and dirty back-breaking labour and mortal danger for tens of thousands of Cornish men, women and children who walked from their cottages to extract and process millions of tons of tin and copper ore, arsenic, silver and lead and even uranium, both below and above ground.
Cornwall was the first county to be heavily industrialised. An area within a radius of ten miles from the market town of Redruth became the richest land on the planet and mine shafts extended from the cliffs on the North coast miles under the sea in places, following the seams of ore, created by the action of granite intruding into sedimentary rock giving rise to metamorphism and mineralisation.
Minerals had been processed in Cornwall from before the bronze age by surface mining and tin-streaming the alluvial deposits. Copper there was aplenty and the clever men who realised that adding 3 to 5% of tin to copper produced a beautiful alloy much harder than either tin or copper to make smelted bronze tools. From that time onwards into the Middle Ages and beyond, Cornish mining became lucrative and world famous and the mines became ever deeper.
Landowners such as the Godolphins and Williams’s made the sort of money that enabled them to build houses the like of which had never been seen in Cornwall, whilst adventurers from in or out of the county speculated on ever more shafts under the earth.
Just how many miles of shafts run underground in Cornwall is incalculable. Many shafts are linked to others and newer and older shafts and levels might well make it possible to walk considerable distances under ground, except of course, that they are all flooded. There are still mine-shafts penetrating over 2000ft below ground, although these are the exception. The enigmatic engine houses with their tall stacks, once housed the biggest steam engines in the world working 24 hours every day pumping untold millions of gallons of water out of the mines enabling men to work the seams of copper and tin. Before man-engines (cages) were widely introduced in the 1860s powered by steam or water, exhausted miners had to climb vertical ladders hundreds of feet from one level to another after their shifts before attaining “grass level” and walking home. There were so many accidents, even the mine owners worried about the “waste of manpower” as exhausted men fell to their deaths, leaving yet another family to starve.
One of the greatest achievements in the history of mining in Cornwall was the Great County Adit, the construction of which started in 1748 eventually drained over 100 mines to a depth of about 300ft into the Carnon River and hence into Restronguet Creek and into the Fal Estuary; an extraordinary feat of engineering, running 30 to 40 miles underground making the Lemon and Williams families extremely rich.
The pump at South Crofty, the last working mine, was switched off in 1998 and it remains to be seen if deep metal mining will ever return to Cornwall although plenty of ore must still exist.
Miners bid for the right to mine their seams at so many shillings in the pound in monthly auctions, a competition between teams of tributors who were often an extended family. The nature of these auctions and the subtleties is way beyond this short piece. Once the ore had come to the surface before mechanisation took over, processing was by women called Bal Maidens and children of both sexes. Boys and girls as young at seven worked in all weathers at many different tasks according to their age and fitness for a few pennies a week. Even when old enough, girls did not go underground. The bal maidens worked above ground processing the ore. Older girls of 16 plus used heavy sledge hammers to crush the ore into ever smaller lumps until it was powdery sludge. The ore was extracted by buddling using water. Women generally did not continue their work at the mine after marriage. What statistics there are show that, although the total number of Bal Maidens is unknown, the numbers over aged thirty declined as a percentage. Widows and spinsters however continued their work, the money they earned at the surface was a lot more than in service or other trades. A Bal Maiden was an occupation that offered a woman independence, a real alternative to marriage for a proto-feminist! For children however, work at the mine negated their chance of education. The Sunday school could not replace even a ragged school and illiteracy was rife and lasted into adulthood.
When competition from other countries, forced down the price of tin and copper, the Cornish industry went into recession. At first mines conglomerated to achieve economies of scale, but the writing was on the wall as more mines closed, mining families left Cornwall bound for other continents where mining was still evolving, giving rise to the saying that “at the bottom of every deep hole in the ground anywhere in the world, you will find Cousin Jack”. Innovative, Cornish made, mining equipment was shipped around the world to make new fortunes for new masters and the great wealth of the old Cornish landowners drained from the county and was invested in other industries in other areas, whilst only the shafts and ruined engine houses remain.
“Cornish Men are Fishermen – Cornish men are Miners too –
but when the tin and fish are gone – what are Cornish men to do?”