Metal and stone, culture and technology: how Cornwall's industrial past has shaped the modern landscape.

 


Age of Invention

 

Introduction

A view of the area around the Camborne and Redruth area in the Central Mining District around 1893. These are among some of the most productive mines in the world at that time. As far as the eye can see the land is given over to metal mining. Photo reproduced by kind permission, The Cornwall Centre Collection A view of the area around the Camborne and Redruth area in the Central Mining District around 1893. These are among some of the most productive mines in the world at that time. As far as the eye can see the land is given over to metal mining. Photo reproduced by kind permission, The Cornwall Centre Collection

 

The period from 1700 to the early part of the twentieth century was the hey-day of Cornish mining. Technical advances in steam pumping marked the Industrial Revolution in Cornish mining. This development in technology made deep mining possible by the end of the eighteenth century.

 

The steady growth in copper and tin production resulted from exploitation of deep ore deposits based on underground mining and the replacement of small scale tin-blowing by coal-fired (reverberatory) smelting. Copper mining grew from the early 1700s and between 1750 and 1850 it was the most important mineral in the region. The production of arsenic was pioneered in Cornwall during the later nineteenth century. For a time Cornwall was the largest producer of tin, copper and arsenic in the world.

 

The impact of the industry on the landscape was large-scale and the speed of its decline has left a well-preserved relict mining landscape. Its legacy includes thousands of mine shafts, numerous engine houses and the widespread remains of tin and arsenic processing.

 

Cligga Head mine, Perranzabuloe.  Cligga Head mine was worked into the twentieth century for tin and wolfram from which tungsten, used for artillery shells, was produced. There is very good survival of the mine buildings and processing floors at this cliff top location. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service. Cligga Head mine, Perranzabuloe. Cligga Head mine was worked into the twentieth century for tin and wolfram from which tungsten, used for artillery shells, was produced. There is very good survival of the mine buildings and processing floors at this cliff top location. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.

 

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Water Power

Water wheels were used extensively for a variety of functions in Cornish mines before the invention of steam-powered engines. The wheels shown here in Agricola’s engraving of 1556 are working in tandem to lift water from a lower level of the workings to the surface Water wheels were used extensively for a variety of functions in Cornish mines before the invention of steam-powered engines. The wheels shown here in Agricola’s engraving of 1556 are working in tandem to lift water from a lower level of the workings to the surface.

The earliest underground mining took the form of lode back workings; lines of shallow pits or shafts cut into the veins (lodes) of tin, and connected underground by tunnels and galleries. The problem of drainage limited the depth of this type of mining; each working had to be individually drained.

 

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tin deposits near the surface were becoming exhausted and the increasing demand for tin led to the development of deeper underground mining. This was made possible by the digging or ‘driving’ of adits into the workings. Adits are slightly sloping tunnels driven from low-lying ground, usually a valley bottom or the base of a cliff. These tunnels often provided drainage to a considerable depth; sea level adits at St Agnes, for instance, allowed 100 metres depth of tin lodes to be drained.

 

The first deep mines were organised around adits and shafts served by horse engines and waterwheels, and are known as ‘shaft and adit’ mines; a few survive at sites where more developed mining proved unprofitable.

 

Kenidjack valley near St Just in West Penwith contains a remarkable concentration of mining remains. The course of the Kenidjack stream has been repeatedly diverted and numerous leats skirt the hillsides to the south. The Kenidjack River once powered fifty waterwheels, including the ‘Great Wheel’ at Boswedden Mine – the second largest waterwheel in Britain. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Kenidjack valley near St Just. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.

Adits not only lowered the natural water table thereby enabling deeper mining but also created a new level to which water could be pumped up from below. The depth at which this could be done was limited by the power and design of pumps in use at the time. Until the middle of the eighteenth century pump engines were operated manually or were horse- or waterwheel-powered.

 

 It took more men to operate manual pumps than to carry out the actual mining; horse power was more efficient but waterwheels provided the most effectual and powerful engines. Waterwheels also provided power for winding machinery, stamping mills and other appliances. There were hundreds throughout Cornwall’s industrial landscape, fed by man-made channels known as leats. Leats, which took water off streams or from purpose-dug reservoirs, were sometimes many kilometres long.

 

Kenidjack valley near St Just in West Penwith contains a remarkable concentration of mining remains. The course of the Kenidjack stream has been repeatedly diverted and numerous leats skirt the hillsides to the south. The Kenidjack River once powered fifty waterwheels, including the ‘Great Wheel’ at Boswedden Mine – the second largest waterwheel in Britain.

 

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Steam Power

The period from 1700 to the early part of the twentieth century is the most significant era of Cornish mining. The introduction of gunpowder greatly facilitated underground rock-breaking and enabled adits to be driven far more quickly than before. But the most important innovation was the adoption of steam power.

 

Levant Mine, St Just. Levant was one of the most productive mines in Cornwall and remained in operation until the 1930s. The workings extend one and half kilometres from the shore at a depth of 600 metres beneath the seabed. Extensive remains of mine buildings and ore processing plants survive.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service. Levant Mine, St Just. Levant was one of the most productive mines in Cornwall and remained in operation until the 1930s. The workings extend one and half kilometres from the shore at a depth of 600 metres beneath the seabed. Extensive remains of mine buildings and ore processing plants survive. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.

 

Steam power transformed Cornish mining into an industry capable of reliable large-scale production. Cornwall developed from being an area with a growing mining industry into a region with one of the earliest fully industrialised economies in Britain. This development was set in motion by the invention in 1712 of the Newcomen Atmospheric Beam Engine. The increase in pumping power and improved drainage provided by this early coal-fired steam engine enabled mines to be sunk to twice the depth previously possible. However Newcomen engines worked extremely inefficiently and were expensive to install and to fuel.

 

A major breakthrough in engine design came in 1769 with the invention of the Boulton & Watt Separate Condenser Engine. These engines were far more powerful than the Newcomen engine, their fuel consumption was much lower and by 1800 mines were able to attain depths of around 300 metres below adit.

 

Wheal Coates, St Agnes. A complex of tin and copper mining and arsenic production remains, with extensive tin dressing floors. The engine houses in this photo served different functions; pumping, winding, and stamping. The remains of this famous tin and copper mine are owned by the National Trust which has consolidated all the buildings. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Wheal Coates, St Agnes. A complex of tin and copper mining and arsenic production remains, with extensive tin dressing floors. The engine houses in this photo served different functions; pumping, winding, and stamping. The remains of this famous tin and copper mine are owned by the National Trust which has consolidated all the buildings. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The era of the Boulton & Watt engines ended in 1800 with the invention by Richard Trevithick of the Cornish Beam Engine and boiler, the most efficient equipment of its kind anywhere in the world. Trevithick’s new engine used high pressure steam and was much more powerful and economic than Boulton & Watt’s. The Cornish engines were quickly adopted by the industry and by the 1870s mine depths of almost 600 metres below adit were being achieved.

 

These large steam engines needed purpose-made buildings to contain them and the basic design of the Cornish engine house was established by the early 1800s. Associated structures include boiler houses, chimney stacks, and ponds which stored water for the engine condensers and boilers. Nearly 3,000 engine houses were built in the county and those that survive have become a distinctive and evocative feature of the Cornish landscape.

 

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Deep Mining

Extensive mining remains at Greenburrow in West Penwith. The complex of features at Greenburrow mine illustrate the development from shallow extraction manifested by lode-back pits to deep mining with collared shafts and engine house. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Extensive mining remains at Greenburrow in West Penwith. The complex of features at Greenburrow mine illustrate the development from shallow extraction manifested by lode-back pits to deep mining with collared shafts and engine house. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Tin and copper mines were arranged around shafts. These served a variety of functions. Some provided access to the workface; some were simple draught openings cut upwards from underground levels to provide ventilation; some were for pumping water out of the mine; others were for winding ore, spoil and materials up from below.

 

Pumping and winding shafts normally had built collars and an adjacent engine house to provide power. Winding shafts had tall headgear carrying large wheels over which the winding ropes ran. Winding was powered by rotative engines – beam engines in which the motion of the beam was converted to rotary motion via a sweep rod, crank and flywheel.

 

Hedged shafts and the foundations of mine buildings at Wheal Busy, Chacewater. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Hedged shafts and the foundations of mine buildings at Wheal Busy, Chacewater.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The development of deep mining threw up practical problems for which solutions had to be found. The industry was constantly experimenting, innovating and evolving. More efficient ways were found to use gunpowder, in particular high explosives, in mines; their use was made far safer by the invention by William Bickford in 1830 of the safety fuse.

 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century compressed air rock drills were introduced and replaced the steam rock-boring engine invented by Richard Trevithick. There were numerous other improvements to the working infrastructure of the mines during this period, such as the adoption of wire rope for haulage.

 

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Processing the Ore

West Basset mine. The complex of buildings at the rear of this view includes the engine house which powered the New Stamps and, in front of it, dressing floors in which the remains of circular buddles are clearly visible. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service West Basset mine. The complex of buildings at the rear of this view includes the engine house which powered the New Stamps and, in front of it, dressing floors in which the remains of circular buddles are clearly visible.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Tin ore was crushed and concentrated at the mine site. From the early nineteenth century this became an increasingly mechanical process requiring large areas of land with a sloping gradient and a water supply. Ore dressing sites are typically arranged in a ‘stepped’ layout.

 

Women and boys broke up ore-bearing rocks using large hammers. The broken rock was taken downhill to sheds in which it was crushed to a fine sand by stamps. These were heavy beams with forged iron heads which were lifted and dropped onto the ore. Stamps were powered by rotative steam engines up to the end of the nineteenth century.

 

Water was added to the crushed rock as it was stamped to form a solution from which the tin quickly fell out. Agitating the solution facilitated this separation and from the middle of the nineteenth century this process was carried out using mechanical buddles. These were circular pits with rotating brushes. Material would normally be re-processed to maximise ore concentration. The concentrated ore was then roasted to burn off unwanted impurities such as arsenic and sulphur. Roasting was carried out in furnaces or ‘calciners’.

 

The extensive and well-preserved tin dressing floors at Levant Mine, St Just. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service The extensive and well-preserved tin dressing floors at Levant Mine, St Just. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Processing copper differed from tin as the ore is easily lost in water separation. Ore-rich rocks were broken by hand, although mechanised copper crushers (known as the ‘Cornish Roll’) were introduced at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The crushed ore was then ‘jigged’ – agitated in water - and lighter wastes were skimmed off.

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Smelting

Portreath Harbour. This mining port dates from 1760 and was used for the export of copper ore to the Swansea area. The port was linked to the inland mines by a tramway and, from 1838, by the Hayle railway. The famous Portreath Incline, forming part of this railway, can be seen towards the centre top of this photo. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Portreath Harbour. This mining port dates from 1760 and was used for the export of copper ore to the Swansea area. The port was linked to the inland mines by a tramway and, from 1838, by the Hayle railway. The famous Portreath Incline, forming part of this railway, can be seen towards the centre top of this photo. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Tin smelting was carried out in the county. At the beginning of the eighteenth century radical increases in the efficiency and output of the smelters were effected by the introduction of the reverberatory furnace. This was a type of kiln in which indirect contact between the heat source and the ore was achieved by means of a network of flues. The reverberatory furnace differed from the old blowing houses in which the ore was mixed with charcoal before firing. The new system reduced the ore by the application of heat alone, so avoiding contaminating the tin, and the heat was provided by coal instead of charcoal.

 

Tin smelters were at first concentrated close to the Stannary towns and navigable rivers and ports. Once rail transport had developed Penzance, Redruth and Hayle became an important centre for smelting.

 

The smelting of copper is technically complex and requires large amounts of coal to fuel the reduction process. Some smelting was carried out in Cornwall until 1829, after which it was more economical to ship the ore to the coal fields of South Wales. Swansea became the world centre for the trade in copper, and much of it was controlled by Cornish industrialists. The transport of millions of tons of copper ore required an extensive transport infrastructure. Tramways, railways, quays and industrial harbours were all built to provide the means of transporting ore to Wales and for bringing back Welsh coal to fire Cornwall’s steam engines.

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The Minerals

Cornish mining was based on three main minerals: copper, tin and arsenic.

 

Part of South Caradon mine, one of the largest Cornish copper producers. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Part of South Caradon mine, one of the largest Cornish copper producers. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The first significant copper mines in Cornwall were developed in the early 1700s. Major developments in steam pumping technology towards the end of the eighteenth century and improvements to the Cornish beam engine from the 1820s allowed deeper mining and increased output. By the early nineteenth century Cornwall was the pre-eminent copper producer in the world.

 

The exploitation of Welsh copper reserves at the end of the nineteenth century almost caused a collapse of the Cornish copper industry. The response – the development of efficient steam pumping engines – allowed Cornwall to become predominant again. By 1860 tin was replacing copper as the county’s most important mineral and the 1866 crash in the copper market spelt the end of the great days of Cornish copper mining. After this disaster Cornwall could not compete with the mines of Chile, Australia and North America.

 

The world market was dominated by Cornish tin until the 1870s. The ability to increase production when the market demanded was dependant on technology. The peak production period was the 1870s, after which large outputs from Australia and Malaya drove down tin prices.

 

Botallack arsenic works, showing the remains of early twentieth century arsenic production. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Botallack arsenic works, showing the remains of early twentieth century arsenic production.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The demand for arsenic arose in the nineteenth century for use in dyes in the cotton industry, in wallpaper manufacture, in the manufacture of sheep dip, and, from the 1870s, as an insecticide to control the Colorado beetle. Arsenic production was a by-product of tin and copper mining pioneered in Cornwall and during the late nineteenth century Cornwall was the world leader in arsenic production providing a quarter of the world’s supply.

 

Tin produced in Cornish mines frequently contained arsenic and sulphur. These elements were detrimental to smelted tin and therefore had to be removed by roasting; this was done in burning houses or calciners. The fumes released in the calciner entered a series of chambers on whose walls they condensed. The chambers were interconnected and the arsenic fumes were forced to follow a zigzag path through them. Once the arsenic had condensed as a crust on the chamber walls it was then removed by hand. These structures are known as labyrinths.

 

The international importance of the Cornish mining industry, in terms of both its historical and cultural significance, has recently been recognised by the designation of the mining landscape as a World Heritage Site.

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