Cornish Mines and Mining History in Cornwall

Mines in Cornwall, map St Just Area Caradon Mines Callington Mines Camborne Mines Carnon Valley Gwennap Mines Illogan Area North Coast Mines Redruth St Austell

You may wonder why Cornwall had the mineral mines that the rest of Britain missed out on. There is a simple geological explanation. During the late stages of the cooling of the mass of granite that makes up a lot of Cornwall, fissures opened up in the granite when it was still molten, and more hot molten rocks bubbled up through the granite from the earth's interior. These new rocks contained many minerals, and as they crystallized they formed mineral lodes - tin, copper, zinc, lead and iron with some silver. Because the ore bearing rocks formed in this way, rather than being sedimentary rocks like coal (hence coal is laid down in great flat plates), they have to be mined vertically rather than horizontally. Each fissure has to be mined straight down into the earth. Each fissure needed a separate mine. Therefore a great many vertical shafts were needed, rather than the one shaft that was used in coal mining.

Inevitably the mine shafts dropped below the level of the water table, and the water had to be pumped out if mining was to continue any deeper. Hence pumps and the houses for the engines that drove the pumps were a necessary part of mining. These engine houses were the sturdiest buildings in the mines, as they had both to house the machinery and support the massive beams that worked the pumps. It is not surprising that it is the engine houses that survive in Cornwall. In addition the closer to sea level the engine was sited, the less the height the water needed to be pumped to remove it from the mine. Therefore we find today some of these engine house perched on the sea cliffs.

Coal is not native to Cornwall, so it had to be imported, by ship, to keep the engines in steam. Getting coal to the engines was in itself a difficult and expensive operation. Water was sometimes used to power waterwheels, but suitable rivers were not plentiful either in Cornwall.

old shafts near sea

There were no other substantial buildings in a typical mine. Given that many of the mines were small and vertical, they did not invest in cages to haul the miners up and down, instead access to the mine was by ladder, a tiring part of the daily toil of the miners. And of course the Cornish Pasty was used originally by the miners as their food underground. It was easy to carry, and could have savory in one end and sweet in the other.

Mining existed here from the days of stone age man. Mining in Cornwall dates back to between 1000 and 2000 B.C. when Cornwall is thought to have been visited by metal traders from the eastern Mediterranean. They named Britain, the 'Cassiterides' - 'Tin Islands'. Cornwall and the far west of Devon provided the majority of the United Kingdom's tin, copper and arsenic. Originally the tin was found as alluvial deposits in the gravels of stream beds, but eventually underground working took place. Tin lodes outcropped on the cliffs and underground mines sprung up as early as the 16th century.

However it was in the 19th century that mining reached its zenith, before foreign competition depressed the price of copper and later tin, to a level that made Cornish ore unprofitable. At its height, the Cornish Tin Mining Industry had around 600 steam engines working to pump out the mines.  Adventurers put up the capital, and the mine would hopefully return them a profit. During the 20th century various ores became briefly profitable, and mines were reopened, but today none remain. The collapse of the world tin cartel in 1986 being the last nail in the coffin of tin mining.

The main mining areas in Cornwall are :-

Here are a few ideas for where you can see ruins and remains today. The main mining area was around Redruth and Camborne, though mines did sprout up in most locations. The Camborne School of Mines has a museum.

A whole network of tramways and railways was developed to carry ore to the coast and transport coal and supplies inland to the mines.

Some of the specialist firms like Holmans still live on. The two big manufacturers of Steam Engines were Harveys of Hayle and Copperhouse Foundry of Hayle.

Much machinery was required, steam engines to pump out water, and an adaption of them as Man Engines to transport miners up and down the shafts.

The rock removed from the ground had to be pulverised with Stamps, and dressed to get a rough separation of the ore from the rock. Other machinery was then needed to concentrate the ore and remove impurities like arsenic

The Great County Adit, some 38 miles of underground tunnels to drain a series of mines is a particularly remarkable engineering achievement.

Books on mining in Cornwall. This link will take you to some 50 odd books on mining in Cornwall that cover everything from general background to mining here, through to details of individual mines.


clay mines

St Austell Clay Mines

China clay is still produced in large quantities round St Austell. The main tonnage is exported from Fowey with smaller quantities from Par Harbour and until recently from Charlestown Harbour. To find out about china clay working, try Wheal Martyn China Clay Heritage Centre


Ex Pat Cornish Miners

And if you want to find out about where some of the miners went, there is a North Carolina Mining site that can tell you more


Slate Mining in Cornwall

The Delabole Slate works produces vast amounts of slate


The Mineral Tramways Project

There are still many traces left from the heyday of mining and the Mineral Tramways Project aims to provide a network of multi-use trails - such as the Great Flat Lode trail and the Coast to Coast trail - for recreation and education.


Cornwall Tourist Information Cornwall Calling front page


The hotel to stay at when visiting Cornwall is Corisande Manor Hotel, Cornwall find out more about it