A history of cornwall online - through its objects
Some say the history of tin mining is the history of Cornwall.
Copper ores from Cornish mines were smelted to produce metals. This process created a waste product called scoria. Until it closed in 1820, scoria from the Copperhouse Foundry at Hayle was shaped into blocks and used to construct many buildings in the town.
Mine Engine Boiler
Pumping water out of Cornish copper mines became a great challenge in the 18th and 19th centuries as mines went deeper. Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick developed a far more efficient steam engine than earlier designs. This early Trevithick boiler is from a mine engine of the 1820s.
This necklace was made from Cornish gold found in tin stream works near Ladock Church in 1802. It was presented to wealthy landowner Sir Christopher Hawkins of Trewithen. Small quantities of gold have been found in other parts of Cornwall.
Ingot of Tin
This ingot is evidence of Cornwall's early tin trade. Cornwall traded tin and copper throughout the Roman Empire and imported luxury goods such as wine. Recovered by a local diver from the seabed off Looe Island, this tin ingot is thought to be about 2,000 years old.
Miner's Hat and Balmaiden's Clogs
Cornish copper mining was at its peak in the early 19th century. For protection, miners wore these hardened felt hats, or 'tulls'. Women and girls, called balmaidens, worked on the surface of Cornish mines and required heavy-duty footwear.
Stamps were large noisy machines used to crush ore from Cornish mines. Californian stamps, developed during the gold rush in America in the 1840s, were an improvement on early Cornish stamps. They were introduced into Cornwall by the end of the 19th century.
By 1874 emigrating miners had established thriving Cornish communities in Mexico, mining for silver and gold. These miners introduced football to Mexico and this medal is from the first international football game in 1902. It was won by J.M. Rule, a miner from Camborne.
Viva Geevor T shirt
In 1985 the world price of tin collapsed and Geevor Tin Mine - one of the last remaining tin mines - launched a 'Viva Geevor' campaign to help save the mine. In 1986 the miners and their supporters marched to Downing Street, but the government did not help and the mine closed in 1990.
This engine was built around 1840 by Harvey's of Hayle and installed in an engine house at Levant Mine to haul the ore out of Skip Shaft. This is the oldest Cornish mine engine in existence and still operates! It can regularly be seen steaming.
When Cornish miners emigrated to work in newly-discovered mining areas around the world, they took with them elements of their Cornish culture. This pasty-shaped money box is from Mineral Point in Wisconsin, USA - a popular destination for Cornish miners in the 1840s.
Stoping drills were used in extracting ore-bearing rock from mines all over Cornwall. Made in Camborne by the Cornish engineering firm Holman's, this 'silver stoper' was used at Geevor in the 1970s and 80s. It was lighter than others and had an extendable leg for extra height.
The Duchy’s diverse geology has meant it was one of the very few places in the western hemisphere in which cassiterite or tin ore can be found. The white metal has been mined, smelted and traded here for centuries and very rare tin ingots more than 2000 years old survive to tell the tale.
The veins sandwiched between massive granite rocks were not the only source of tin. Rivers were panned or streamed for alluvial tin and amongst these glittering particles gold was sometimes found in enough quantity to create stunning jewellery for wealthy patrons.
But it was copper, and not tin, that generated most wealth from Cornish mining. Copper ore was shipped in barques to South Wales for smelting because of the region’s plentiful supply of coal. The ships returned with steam coal to drive the pumping and winding engines of the Cornish mines. Evidence of the brief experiment in smelting at Hayle in the late 18th century can be seen in the scoria blocks—waste from the smelting process—used as building materials.
The greatest innovation in steam engine technology was Richard Trevithick’s high-pressure steam boiler which greatly increased the efficiency of the giant beam engines and used much less coal. Another development which increased the speed of extracting ore was the rock or stoping drill which was considerably improved by Camborne engineering firm Holman Brothers in the late 19th century.
Men and women worked at the mines. The miner's hat protected men underground while the bal maiden’s clogs protected her feet on the surface. Women were employed on the mine surface to undertake the skilful ore processing stage to separate out the metal-bearing rock.
From the mid-19th century Cornish miners emigrated to the New World to work at more profitable mines, and took their culture with them, from pasties to football. They also brought back new mining technology, such as Californian tin stamps which were more efficient at crushing ore than the old Cornish stamps.
Cornwall remained a tin producer throughout the 20th century but profits were low. Following the expiry of the International Tin Agreement in 1985 the price of tin crashed. Campaigns to keep mines open were ultimately unsuccessful and the last commercial producer at South Crofty in Pool closed in 1998.