Gwennap Mining District

Gwennap, St Day and Chacewater
Name of Mine Principal Shafts Chief Produce Notable Minerals
Ale & Cakes   COPPER  
Boscawen   COPPER, TIN & ZINC  
Creegbrawse & Penkevil United   COPPER & TIN Pyrites
North Hallenbeagle & East Downs   COPPER & TIN  
New Clifford Engine shaft TIN & COPPER  
Pengenna Mine     Lead & Silver
Poldice Pitts & Bollar, Blamey's shafts TIN Galena, Pyrites & Wolfram
Ting Tang & Clifford Amalgamated Eldon's, Taylor's and Garland's shafts COPPER Pyrites & Malachite
Tresavean & Tretharrup Morcom's; Bell; Devonshire; North; Roger's; Highburrow; Mitchell's; Caddy's; William's; Teague's; Magor's & Harvey's Engine shaft TIN & COPPER Galena & Pyrites
Wheal Bush, Creegbrawse   COPPER & TIN Pyrites
East Wheal Damsel   COPPER Pyrites
Wheal Gorland   COPPER Opal
Wheal Jewell   COPPER Pyrites
Wheal Rose Adit shaft COPPER  
Wheal Unity Wood Magor, Trefusis shafts COPPER Pyrites

Gwennap-Chacewater Mining District

This extensive area is centred on the hugely important Consolidated, United and Poldice mines near St. Day. The Scorrier mines (including North Downs) and Wheal Busy form its northern and eastern boundary, whilst the district extends via the Carnon Valley and the mines which flank it to the port of Devoran on the Fal Estuary to the south-east. The district was also linked to the north coast at Portreath, from which much of its copper ores were shipped.

Historically, this was the richest mining district in Cornwall during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was referred to by contemporary writers as the ‘richest square mile to be found anywhere on the earth’. Here, more than anywhere else in Cornwall, the landscape clearly displays the effects of extensive copper mining.

Most of the mines of this district were relatively shallow, none being deeper than 400 metres below adit. They were, however, extraordinarily rich: for example Treskerby produced 32,000 tons of copper ore, North Treskerby (19,000 tons), Hallenbeagle (30,000 tons), Wheal Damsel (37,000 tons), Wheal Gorland (40,000 tons), Wheal Jewel (58,000 tons), Ting Tang (40,000 tons) were also important concerns, but the really massive producers were Poldice (108,000 tons), Great Wheal Busy (100,000 tons of copper ore and 27,000 tons of arsenic), the Consolidated Mines (442,000 tons) and the United Mines (over 350,000 tons).

Tin was of some importance within this district, despite its distance from the Carnmenellis granite. Alluvial material deposited by the Carnon River had been mined from its bed during prehistory, and continued to be worked throughout the 19th century, whilst Poldice had been an important tin mine from at least the early 16th century, in the late 17th century being referred to by Hals as ‘that unparalleled and inexhaustible tin work which for about forty years space hath employed from eight hundred to a thousand men and boys labouring for tin …’. But copper was to become king in Gwennap, and had been worked at Wheal Busy from at least 1718, one of earliest Cornish mines to acquire an atmospheric engine in 1727.

The champion mines of the district were, without a doubt, those immediately to the south of St. Day. Copper production here seems to have begun in about 1757 (at Wheal Virgin). By 1779, Wheal Virgin, West Wheal Virgin, Wheal Maid and Carharrack Mine were being worked by seven Newcomen engines and in the following year they were amalgamated into the Consolidated Mines. Outputs of ore from both these and the neighbouring United Mines were substantial, but both closed in 1805 during a low period for Cornish mines. The United Mines were restarted in 1811, the mine extending over a mile and a half of countryside, with the Consolidated Mines being reopened by John Taylor in 1819. From 1824, the two mines were worked as a single concern under his guidance, with Arthur Woolf as his chief engineer. By 1838, there were 21 steam engines on the mine, which employed 3,196 persons. From 1819-1840, nearly 300,000 tons of ore were raised and over 63 miles of development levels and shafts cut. Lemon’s statistics give some indication of the scale of mining here: in 1836, the Consolidated Mines used 11,817 tons coal, 113,916 lbs candles and 64,000 lbs gunpowder. Over a quarter of the population of Gwennap parish (8,539) worked in this one mine.

Huge fortunes were being made by shareholders, promoters and mineral lords like the Willams family of Scorrier or William Lemon, whose agent gained the nickname ‘guinea a minute’ Daniell.

So impressive was the industry of the district that in 1845, William Francis, Vicar of Gwennap, felt impelled to write a poem in seven cantos about the history and wonders of the parish. Written in the style of Virgil (though sadly Francis was no great shakes as a poet), his oeuvre provides much interesting description of the mines and their working and provides an insight into a period when mining was still viewed with unquestioning optimism.

John Taylor was refused the right to renew his sett agreement with the mineral lords and although the mine was reworked (as Clifford Amalgamated), employing over 2000 people, production was falling and outlay exceeding returns. The mine was abandoned in 1870, the machinery dismantled and many of the buildings demolished for their stone. Numerous other mines of the district had closed not long before.

Probably the most dramatic engineering achievement within the district, indeed in Cornwall as a whole during the period was the construction of what was to become the Great County Adit. Begun in 1748 by John Williams of Scorrier to drain Poldice, this extraordinary drainage system was gradually extended to the other mines of the district, by 1778 having been driven through Wheal Busy to North Downs and on into Wheal Peevor, another branch from Poldice had been cut by 1792 into Wheal Unity and Gorland, whilst Consolidated and United Mines also discharged their water into the system, which eventually reached the outskirts of Redruth and extended to a length of 40 miles. Although parts of the system no longer function, many of the mines of the district still discharge through the adit into the Carnon River.

The Gwennap mines were remote from both the north and south coasts, and as a result incurred high charges for the transport of timber, coal and ore. In response, John Williams of Scorrier constructed a horse-drawn plateway from his mines at Poldice through Scorrier to a newly-constructed harbour on the north coast at Portreath in 1819 – the first railway in Cornwall. The conditions of use of this tramway strongly favoured Williams’ interests and John Taylor responded in 1824 by building a railway from his mines near St. Day to a new harbour at Devoran on the Fal Estuary. This line – the Redruth and Chasewater Railway - was eventually extended to Wheal Buller and Redruth via Carharrack and Lanner, though was never completed to Chacewater. This railway and its extensive wharves at Devoran caried a diverse traffic and remained in use well into the 20th century; Williams’ Portreath Plateway, in contrast, did not long survive the closure of the principal Gwennap mines.

For such a rich mining district, it may at first seem odd that it contains no large settlements. Gwennap is little more than a churchtown; St. Day has medieval origins and Chacewater was established during the 18th century; none of which grew to any great size; Lanner, Carharrack and Devoran, based on rows (terraces) or artisans’ cottages are later creations, yet the parish of Gwennap had a population of over 8,500 in the early 1830s. Historical maps of the area provide the answer. A huge proportion of the current agricultural land in the parish is of recent creation and much of it is made of former miners’ smallholdings. The population, it seems, was dispersed across the parish during the earlier 19th century, and miners were also by and large small-scale farmers as well. The area still retains much of this character – isolated cottages with here and there a group of terraced cottages set in a landscape of small fields. The railway from Chacewater to Truro passes through a landscape where almost every hedge is planted with oaks of the same variety and age – a strong indication of the planned parcellation of open downland by a single landowner. At Poldice and the Consolidated Mines, in contrast, hectares of bare mine dumps are returning back to heathland.