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24 September 2014

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Nation On Film - Drill and Blast
South Crofty
Bal Maidens at South Crofty

BBC Two's Nation On Film series looks at Cornwall's mining heritage on Tuesday 7th October at 7.30pm.

Here is a taster for the programme.


Polgooth - an old mining village near St Austell

Nation On Film
Find out more about the BBC Two series with plenty of pictures and stories.

At the start of the 19th Cornwall was the silicon valley of its day, its technological know-how led the world.

And all because of tin. They had been mining tin in Cornwall since before Christ - the Romans came here for the tin they needed for their bronze weapons and jewellery.

Mining in Cornwall
Lighting a cigarette during a well deserved break!

But the heyday for Cornish copper - and tin - was in the early years of the nineteenth century. 40,000 men were employed in 300 separate mines to go ever deeper underground in search of these vital commodities. But during the course of the century, easier to mine deposits, often on or near the surface, were discovered in the New World and in the 1870s the Cornish industry spiralled into a decline from which it never really recovered.

Miners went overseas to work for the foreign competition, ironically hastening the decline back home. Tin mining was a hazardous business and most communities were touched by tragedy, like the St Just Mining District in 1919, when 33 miners lost their lives at the Great Levant Mine, when the man-engine bringing 100 men to the surface collapsed.

Long tiring working shifts
Drilling at South Crofty Mine

Miners phthisis, or silicosis, was a bigger killer. Miners suffered from this awful disease because they ingested granite dust when drilling dry underground. Gradually water was introduced into the drilling process to dampen the dust but many miners still preferred to drill dry because it was faster and earnt them more money.

As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, there was another danger - arsenic - often found underground alongside tin and copper. One Cornish mine supplied half the world’s arsenic in the late 19th Century, a welcome source of income with tin and copper in decline. But at what price?Safety procedures were rudimentary at best.

There was something of a revival in the fortunes of Cornish mining after the second world war, thanks first to the demand for tin from the wartime armaments industry and then the new demand for tin from the space race, the computer industry and the post-war consumer society.

You either loved mining - or you hated it.

Mike Miucci
"1955, I start in Geevor. I was terrified"
Mike Miucci remembers his early mining days

"1955, I start in Geevor. I was terrified. God I was scared stiff, shaking with the fright I was, you know. I was terrified of the mine, I was terrified of the cage go up and down and my ears, I can’t hear anything. I was terrified because it was so strange. Italy was small village but it was so strange. People talk, you no understand what they said and it was so strange because I missed my girlfriend in Italy which I was in love and then you come a young man in here and go work in the mine, everything complete terrifying," remembers Mike Miucci who mined in Cornwall.

Tin ore being drawn by horse and cart

Unsurprisingly, as easier jobs became available, the mines found it difficult to recruit men. During the war Bevin Boys were drafted in, after the war Italians and Poles were recruited. But ultimately deep Cornish mines couldn’t compete with the foreign competition and 1985 saw a dramatic drop in the price of tin on the international market.

The few Cornish mines left open closed one by one in the years thereafter. South Crofty, the last tin mine in Europe, closed in 1998. On that day, they say, a part of Cornwall’s soul died...

Enjoy Nation On Film - Drill and Blast on Tuesday 7th October BBC TWO at 7.30pm

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