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

 


Cornwall's Industrial Past

The past economy of Cornwall was based on a diverse range of industries, including metal mining, fishing, china clay production, wool cloth manufacture, quarrying and ship building.

 

Of these the extractive industries are by far the most visible in the landscape. The transformation of the countryside made by the granite and slate quarries, china clay works and, in particular, the tin and copper mining industries are a most striking aspect of Cornwall’s archaeological heritage.

 

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The Map of cornwall links to the follwing pages:
Early Mining
Deep Mining
China clay
Quarries

 

The remains of medieval tin streaming at West Moor, Altarnum. The use of water for washing tin-rich gravels has gouged a deep cutting in the moorland. Unwanted waste material has been piled up to form a characteristic pattern of banks within the cutting. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service The remains of medieval tin streaming at West Moor, Altarnum. The use of water for washing tin-rich gravels has gouged a deep cutting in the moorland. Unwanted waste material has been piled up to form a characteristic pattern of banks within the cutting. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Cornwall’s rich mineral resources have been exploited on a large scale since medieval times. Large reserves of tin coupled with local innovations in mining practice meant Cornwall dominated the world market until the 1870s. Likewise by the early nineteenth century Cornwall was the pre-eminent copper producer in the world. China clay has been quarried and refined in Cornwall for around 200 years and remains a major industry. Cornish granite was exported all over the world; some of London’s bridges are made from it, and Cornish slate has been quarried and exported from the medieval period.

 

The landscape of the medieval tin industry represents the most extensive remains of pre-1700 mining in Britain. During this period a substantial amount of tin produced in Cornwall came from tin streaming, a technique which involved washing away lighter sands and wastes from tin-rich gravels to leave the heavier tin ores which were then collected and smelted. Streaming was carried out on a massive scale and countless valleys were turned over for tin.

 

An aerial view of the landscape around Polberro, St Agnes showing the effect of intensive mining for shallow deposits of tin. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service An aerial view of the landscape around Polberro, St Agnes showing the effect of intensive mining for shallow deposits of tin.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

In some places streamworking was not feasible and the tin ore had to be dug from dry ground. One widespread feature of the early mining industry are lode-back workings. These are lines of shallow shafts strung out along lodes and interconnected by underground tunnels. Lode-back workings represent the beginning of the move underground which led to the more familiar deep tin and copper mines based on shafts and engine houses.

 

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 Great Flat Lode, Carn Brea.  The mineral veins, or ‘lodes’, in this area are among the richest in the county. The Great Flat Lode is so called because the lode runs at a very shallow angle, rather than near-vertical, below ground. Along its length is found the finest surviving group of engine houses on a single mineral seam anywhere in the world.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service. The Great Flat Lode, Carn Brea. The mineral veins, or ‘lodes’, in this area are among the richest in the county.  Along its length is found the finest surviving group of engine houses on a single mineral seam anywhere in the world. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.

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.

 

 

Well-preserved remains of early twentieth century china clay workings at Glynn Valley, Cardinham. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Well-preserved remains of early twentieth century china clay workings at Glynn Valley, Cardinham.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The production of china clay remains a major extractive industry in mid-Cornwall. In the early part of the nineteenth century, clay production was a localised small scale industry. Extracting the clay was very labour-intensive, output was restricted by the slow drying process, and there was no developed transport infrastructure in the St Austell area (the main centre of china clay production).

 

After 1820, during the copper mining boom around St Austell, new harbours were built, some connected by rail to the industrial hinterland, and the industry was transformed around 1850 with the adoption of pan kilns to dry the clay. By the turn of the twentieth century more than half a million tonnes of china clay were being produced annually in Cornwall.

 

Dean Quarry, St Keverne. A large quarry on the Lizard coast where greenstone is still quarried for use as roadstone. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Dean Quarry, St Keverne. A large quarry on the Lizard coast where greenstone is still quarried for use as roadstone.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

 Cornwall has a rich variety of high quality stone which has been widely exploited, both for local use and for export all over the world. The main rocks quarried are granite and slate, although others such as greenstone, elvan and serpentine and soapstone are also exploited. Local variations in geology are a principal contributory factor in the diversity of local architecture and the industry has left a legacy of abandoned pits and quarries all over the county.

 

The exploitation of Cornwall’s rich geological resources has led in no small part to the distinctive character of the county. In some places the excavation of hundreds of quarries, pits and mines has produced a surreal pock-marked landscape.

 

The industrial landscape of Hensbarrow Downs, St Austell in 1949. Towards the bottom of the photo are numerous tinners’ pits and lode-back workings resulting from early tin extraction. In the centre right is the sinuous line formed by the cutting of a tin streamworks. Below this and to the left of this are the ruins of china clay processing buildings. At the top of the photo, a china clay waste tip is beginning to encroach on the streamworks, and in the top left are contemporary china clay works. Photo RAF 543/2332/F21/0207 ©Crown copyright. MOD

 

 

 

The industrial landscape of Hensbarrow Downs, St Austell in 1949. Towards the bottom of the photo are numerous tinners’ pits and lode-back workings resulting from early tin extraction. In the centre right is the sinuous line formed by the cutting of a tin streamworks. Below this and to the left of this are the ruins of china clay processing buildings. At the top of the photo, a china clay waste tip is beginning to encroach on the streamworks, and in the top left are contemporary china clay works.  Photo RAF 543/2332/F21/0207 ©Crown copyright. MOD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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