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24 September 2014
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Cornish tin miner Journey deep underground and back in time to discover why the tradition of hard rock mining is so firmly etched in Cornish history.

From prehistoric times Cornwall's rich supply of tin and copper attracted many prospectors and workers to the region.

Early man would barter pottery, salt, and cloth in return for tin and lead from Cornwall. This signified the beginning of a long and turbulent history of tin mining in the South West.

Humble beginnings

Early tin miner
Early tin miner with tallow candles around his neck

From the early settlers who arrived in Cornwall from Europe around 2300 BC, to the later half of the 17th Century, Cornish mining was largely limited to surface mining.

Developments towards the end of the 17th Century saw the introduction of gunpowder in the process of mining.

Controlled explosions helped in breaking up the rock and further increased mining prosperity.

But shallow mining was to soon be replaced by deep rock mining underground.

Rich Pickings

But it wasn't until the 18th Century and the invention of machine driven pumps, that Cornish tin mining became a capitalist concern.

Mine shafts inevitably dropped below water level, so prior to this date, shallow mining was the only way to extract the tin and copper from the ground.

The machine driven pump was powered by steam engine and was capable of lifting several gallons of water per minute from great depths.

In 1710, the first steam driven water pump was installed in Cornwall, allowing deep mining to take place for the first time.

These pumps were so successful that the output of tin and copper rose prodigiously and Cornwall became the home of deep mining.

On the up

Miners underground
Conditions below ground were often dangerous

The introduction of the steam driven pump was a turning point for Cornish mining.

By 1801 there were 75 mines employing around 16,000 people in Cornwall.

In 1819 the two major mining groups Great Consolidated and United were created.

John Taylor, one of Cornwall's greatest mining engineers, managed both groups which together produced thousands of tons ore.

The mined ore was sent down the Redruth and Chasewater railway for shipping around the world at Devoran and Restronguent Creek.

From boom to bust

Cornish tin mining reached its zenith in the 19th Century.

Tin miner underground
A bleak future for tin

By 1862 Consols and United had merged to form Clifford Amalgamated mines and there were around 346 mines in Cornwall, with a working population of 50,000.

Despite the collapse of the copper mining industry in 1866, the tin industry was still riding high producing 10,000 tonnes of tin a year - about half the world's production.

But such success was short lived.

During the 20th century tin mining was characterised by cycles of boom and bust.

There is a saying, what goes up, must come down, and in a few short years Cornish tin mining - like its mines - was about to learn just how far down it could go.


1700BC-1400BC - Earliest Cornish tin mines

1919 - Levant Mine Disaster

1985 - Tin prices plummet on the Tin Exchange

1986 - Closure of Geevor Mine in Cornwall

1998 - South Crofty is the last Cornish tin mine to close

see also

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