Monday, March 19, 2012

Tin Mining in Cornwall

Do you remember the series Poldark?  About tin mining families, set during the late Georgian period.  Well it just so happens that the book I am working on now is set in Cornwall.  And while my family is aristocratic, they own a tin mine. Mining in Cornwall had its hey day during the Regency. Copper became the most sought after and most profitable metal.

So last summer when I had the chance to go to Cornwall, I found a way to get myself down a tin mine.  And guess what, it is call Poldark.  It wasn't originally called that. I think they thought it would make for a good tourist attraction.  The day we went it wasn't exactly teaming with people. Which was nice for us because that meant I could linger.

Here is our party, all ready to go down. Don't look too excited folks! I know it wasn't how you wanted to spend your vacation but....

While it was the middle of summer, it was quite a damp rainy day. But that wasn't why we were all done up in our rain coats. You will see why later.  Helmets were required. And I for one was glad of mine.  Hah, no pun intended.

Miners wore felt hats in those days, like these pictured here that were discarded and later found in the old workings.  The hats were dipped in pine resin to make them hard and stiff like a helmet. And because they were uncomfortable, miners would wear a cotton skull cap beneath them. This practice continued into the modern day with some miners wearing the skull caps beneath the kind of hard hard hats we wore.

There was no electricity in those days, as you know, so a miner would light a candle made of tallow, or animal fat, drip the wax (tallow) onto the front of his hardened hat and stick the base of the candle into the hot wax. And there you have it, your own personal hands free light on your head.They also used lumps of hard clay to hold their candles.

They would carry the candles in bunches, lik the ones you see pictured on the left, handing them around their necks.  My guess is that they didn't last all that long, so you'd need a few for your day's work.  They also attached them to ladders and the handles of their tools so they could light an area or the spot where they were working.


It was around this time that Davey was inventing the safety lamp, but one can imagine that those would be a luxury, and take a long time to to catch on. Indeed, one of the bunches of candles on display at the mine dated from the 1850's, so they continued to be used until around the time the mines became unprofitable.

Before we enter the mine itself, it behooves us to learn a bit about the ore and the history of this form of mining in Cornwall and its importance to the local people and mine owners.

Tin mining in Cornwall goes back to prehistoric times.  The first mining, as has been discovered with regard to many other forms of precious minerals, was not mining but simply a scooping up from the surface, or from streams when ore bearing rocks had been exposed by the natural erosion of the land.  The richest deposits of alluvial tin deposits were locted on Bodmin Moor, the moors around St Austell and Pokellis Moor near Wendron.

The earliest known artifacts from these surface workings date to 3,800 years ago.  Tin works were worked by family groups or groups of tiners who roamed anyone's land looking for their bounty and only had to pay the land owner a fifteenth of their profit, or the "Lord's Dish" from the ore they found.

Tin mining was so important that in King John's time they were given their own Stannery Parliament, which set rules for taxation and excepted tin miners from military service. In 1337 when Edward III created the Duchy of Cornwall, it was confirmed that the tin miners were exempt from all civil jurisdiction other than that of the Stannary Courts, except in cases affecting land, life or limb. A rebellion in Henry the eighths time put this at risk,k but a payment of one thousand pounds to aid the war against Scotland put things to right again.  This whole topic is extraordinarily interesting, but we have to move on to mining I'm afraid.  So next time, early tin mining and then on to our visit below ground.