Mining in Cornwall

Whilst the Cornish Nation and its language struggle to find a place on the map, the county has been acknowledged internationally for at least one of its exports. On the 13th July 2006, ‘Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape’ was awarded the same status as the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge, with recognition as a World Heritage site. The visitor to Cornwall often wonders what the derelict stone chimneys found all over the area represent. In fact they are the relics of steam houses used to pump water out of mine shafts.

Mining in Cornwall dates back to the Bronze Age (2000 – 1000 B.C.). Tin is a component of bronze and a trading link was established with people from the Mediterranean, who called Britain Cassiterides, the Tin Islands. Originally tin deposits were collected from the gravel of stream beds eventually leading, in the 16th century, to work underground.

Unlike coal, which forms underground in flat plates, Cornish minerals are found amongst slow cooling granite: this meant that a great many vertical shafts were needed. Vertical shafts fill with water and require pumping dry. Coal is not found naturally in Cornwall, nor are there many suitable streams, so the engines that were once housed in the now derelict chimneys were mainly powered, at considerable expense, by imported coal.

The copper mine at Dolcoath (Cornish for ‘old ground’) near Camborne, in the 19th century was allegedly the deepest shaft in the world at 3500ft (1067m). In 1836 when the copper was worked out, production turned to tin, arsenic, cobalt, bismuth and tungsten. Further north, in the Redruth area, notable minerals include amethyst, galena, lead and even silver and gold. The range of deposits found locally is well demonstrated by the mineralogical collection at The Royal Cornwall Museum, one of the finest collections in the world, due in part to Phillip Rashleigh (1729 – 1811), the famous Cornish mineral collector from Fowey.

Mining in Cornwall was brought to an end by foreign competition. In 1986, the international collapse of the tin trade closed all remaining mines. At its peak the Cornish mining landscape was home to 600 steam engines. Nowadays, anyone in Cornwall wishing to work in a mine could only hope to study at Camborne School of Mines, established in 1888 as the only hard rock specialist in the United Kingdom, based at University College Falmouth.

Cornish miners left a legacy that spread with them throughout the world as far as Australia and Mexico (where they took football as well as their skills). Will World Heritage Status protect Cornish mining’s most popular legacy? We doubt it. Unfortunately, the Cornish Pasty – perfect food for a miner as it was easy to carry and could be both sweet and savoury – is at this time unlikely to be cherished as part of the Mining landscape and can legally be found to contain carrots and minced meat when bought out of the county. The future with World Heritage funding is likely to hold an education centre and perhaps the resurrection of a working mine.

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