Cornwall and her Industries

Cornwall and her Industries

Above the door of the old Tinner’s Arms in the little West Cornwall village of St Hilary formerly hung a wooden plaque which sported the verse…

‘Come all good Cornish boys, walk in, Here’s brandy, rum, and shrub, and gin, You can’t do less than drink success

To Copper, Fish and Tin’.

While the farmers, quarrymen and China clay workers may have been forgiven for taking an exception to their omission, this common toast aptly pinpointed the staple ingredients of the Cornish economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The evidence, indeed, remains all around us, and while the old pilchard ‘palaces’ may have been converted beyond recognition to other uses, the landscape of much of the county is still dotted with scores of lofty, tapering chimneys, many with their attached engine houses, all poignant reminders of Cornwall’s industrial past.

Tin is not by any means a common European mineral, and beyond tbe south west it is only found in Spain, Brittany and western Czecho­•slovakia The ore, known as casserite, is associated with the kind of granite extrusions which run from Dartmoor to the Scillies, but it can also be found in the form of alluvial deposits in streams, the result of the weathering of the tin veins during the Ice Age. It was these secondary deposits, sifted from the stream beds, which provided the basis for the earliest phases of exploitation and in previous chapters we have already seen evidence of prehistoric activity and of the flourishing trade with the Mediterranean world in late Roman times. As to the fortunes of tinning throughout the Romano-British and early medieval periods, the picture is far from clear although it would be wise to envisage a fairly low-key pursuit, carried out by occasional tinners for the small domestic market.

Map showing Industrial Cornwall
Industrial Cornwall

Authentic documentation dates from 1156 when the Crown was already levying an annual tax on production. In 1198 a royal warden was appointed and three years later King John granted a charter which exempted the tinners from customary villein obligations and confirmed their rights of ‘bounding’, by which anyone could search for tin any­where, so long as the landowner received a bounty, usually between one-tenth and one-fifteenth of the spoils. The centre of the industry by this time was also clearly shifting westwards – Cornwall had been overshadowed by west Devon in the early days -and by 1337 the annual output reached 700 tons. During the second half of the 14th century, however, production fell sharply as the Black Death took its human toll and disrupted economic life, and there was no substantial rise in the industry’s fortunes until the 1460s, by which time the nature of tin extraction was changing. Most alluvial deposits had become exhausted, and medieval tinners had been increasingly forced to dig into the hillsides in search of new lodes. Shaft mining had also begun, but on a modest scale as miners were handicapped by their inability to solve the formidable drainage problems. By the early 1600s, however, elementary water pumps had been devised, mainly of the ingenious ‘rag-and-chain’ type, and the true tin ‘mine’ had become a reality. Smelting techniques, meanwhile, had also advanced and the old method of smelting the ore in a fire fuelled by turves had been superseded by the practice of ‘blowing’, by which the tin was smelted in stone fur­naces and collected in moulds to form ingots of c. 200-300 lbs/90-136kg.

With the development of the industry came the creation of an elaborate legal and administrative framework which allowed the tinners to enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy. A succession of royal charters had bestowed important privileges, the right to hold their own courts, exemption from ordinary taxation, and even the authority to call their own ‘Tinners’ Parliament’. The county had also been divided into four stannary districts, and the Crown had designated certain stannary or coinage towns to which all tin had to be taken before it could be sold. Initially Lostwithiel, Liskeard, Truro, Helston and Bodmin acted as coinage centres, but the last named was abandoned as the industry moved westwards and in 1663 Penzance was added to the list in recognition of Penwith’s increasing importance. Twice, later four times, a year the tin ingots would be taken to these centres, weighed and then ‘coigned’, by which a corner would be removed and analysed for impurities. During the early 15th century Cornwall’s 3,000 tinners presented an average of 114 million lbs/5.171.040kg. for coinage each year which then sold at about £10-12 per 1,000 lbs/453.6kg. As the tax represented as much as 20 per cent of the total value, however, a substantial black-market trade had also grown up and large quantities were illicitly exported.

After a lengthy period of modest progress, the early 16th century saw the introduction of technical innovations which raised the curtain on a period of more substantial growth. Between 1460 and 1620, despite many sharp fluctuations, tin production doubled and, by the end of the 17th century, exports, at least the official ones, amounted to almost £100,000 a year. The Crown, particularly Elizabeth I, was keen to develop copper and lead resources, in Cumberland as well as Cornwall, and the Mines Royal Society had sponsored a number of exploratory ventures at Treworthy, Zennor and St Just. The ore was then shipped from St Ives to Neath in South Wales for smelting, but the enterprise was not a success and by the late 1580s the mines had ceased operation. Tin mining, though, was beginning to benefit from continental influences, particularly the expertise of German engineers whose experience of shaft mining and pumping technology was far superior to that of their rather conservative Cornish counterparts. The initiative to import foreign expertise came from a small band of entre­preneurial landowners such as Sir Francis Godolphin and William Carnsew, whose willingness to open new speculative ventures was to play an increasingly important role in the modernisation and expansion of the Cornish industry. While the financial risks were high for these ‘adventurers’, there was nevertheless the very real possibility that a lucky strike could transform the fortunes of modest landowning – families and secure their elevation to the senior ranks of the west-country gentry.

The increasing capitalisation of the mining industry in the 16th and 17th centuries also diversified its organisational structure. The small concern of a single miner, perhaps with a few hired labourers, working his own claim continued, but became progressively overshadowed by corporate concerns as operational costs became too high, as Carew put it, ‘for any one man’s purse’. Small partnerships, in which costs and profits were shared, were becoming more common, some adopting the cost-agreement system by which some partners did not actually work themselves but hired substitutes to perform their share of the labour. During the course of the 17th century both these models came to be dwarfed by the tribute system, by which a mine was leased from its owner, often backed by other shareholders, in return for a fixed share of the profits. Such concerns were in the charge of mine captains who administered the daily operations and were often held in high esteem by the landowners and labourers alike.

In 1700 copper production stood at c. 1500 tons, rising substantially once Newcomen’s Beam Engine was introduced into the county in the early 1740s, which enabled deeper lodes to be worked. By the end of the century further advances in the removal of water had been made by James Watt and Richard Trevithick, and their improved steam engines had become common throughout the principal mining regions of St Just, Hensbarrow, Redruth, Bodmin Moor and the Tamar valley. Between 1740 and 1775 the number of copper-producing units trebled . and by 1856, despite periodic slumps, copper production had soared to 209,000 tons, much of it despatched to South Wales from the little ports of Hayle, Portreath and Morweilbam. Tin, although popularly thought to have been the mainstay of Cornish mining, was running a poor second with an annual output of only 100,000 tons.

Mining, particularly in its later stages, was a hazardous occupation and the outside world was occasionally reminded of the fact, as in 1846 when 39 men perished at Wheal Rose when the mine flooded. One late 18th-century traveller, having satisfied his curiosity to be taken down to the main workings, wrote, ‘had I known what we should endure, I never should have attempted it’. He described the picture encountered at a depth of 500 feet, ‘where some poor creatures were busied in the process of their miserable employment, with hardly room to move their bodies, in sulpherous air, wet to the skin, and buried in the solid rock, these, our fellow mortals, live and work for their daily bread’. If condi­tions underground were atrocious, then wages were little comfort with few miners earning more than 13s. 0d. (65 p) a week, and many considerably less. For most, however, including the ‘bal maidens’ who worked at the surface, there was little alternative, and the harshness of the 1834 Poor Law Act, which abolished assistance to the able-bodied unless they entered the hated workhouses or ‘bastilles’ as they were commonly known, condemned thousands to a fate ‘in the bowels of the earth’.

The enhanced employment opportunities offered by the expansion of mining had, in the meantime, contributed to a population boom. Throughout the 18th century Cornwall’s population had risen steadily, from an estimated 106,000 in 1700 to 192,281, according to the. first official census of 1801. Within the following 60 years, however, the total almost doubled again to reach 362,343 in 1861. For many locali­ties this meant the rapid transformation of hamlets into towns within the lifetime of two generations; in 1801 the parish of St Cleer near Caradon had a population of 774, in 1831 the figure stood at 982, but then came the discovery of copper, and by 1861 the total had almost reached 4,000. By 1921, on the other hand, the county’s total had actu­ally fallen by some 42,000, or 12 per cent, when the population of England and Wales as a whole had risen by a further 88 per cent. In other words, an equivalent increase should have pushed the Cornish population to something in the region of 680,000. The explanation behind this later decline is not difficult to find, and we would only have to look among the surnames in the telephone directories of New South Wales, Wisconsin, Nevada, Michigan, the Transvaal as well as at host of British towns for the answer. People had become one of Cornwall’s leading exports.

Emigration from the county had begun on a small scale in the early 18th century and there are references to the Cornish language being heard in North America in the 1750s. The expertise of Cornish miners and mining engineers was being welcomed in Chile, Peru and Canada, while at Rio del Monto in Mexico the authorities still maintain their separate Cornish cemetery, where gravestones from the 1820s record the names of scores of Cornish silver adventurers, Pengellys, Hoskins, Scuses and Williams, victims of disease and the elusive search for a better life. The agricultural depression of the 1840s contributed to a gradual acceleration, and by the mid 1860s the steady trickle was developing into a flood. The price of copper and tin was falling drama­tically as foreign competitors, with their reduced labour costs, were forcing Cornwall from the world markets. Years of inadequate investment on the part of the mine owners now took its toll and the domestic industry was on the verge of a rapid demise. In 1866 alone, about twenty Cornish mines closed down and 5,000 miners emigrated. For those still working, wages had also fallen from about 16s. Od. (80 p) to 11 s.  Od. (55 p) a week, and many families were forced to fall back on the parish and the workhouse. The following year, 1867, was even worse and a further 11,000 miners lost their jobs, of whom some two-thirds chose to emigrate rather than face a bleak existence on the Poor Law. Others delayed the inevitable decision for another year or two in the hope that things might improve. The continued retraction of copper mining, however, with the number of mines falling from 174 in 1864 to 80 by 1870, plus a 50 per cent fall in the price of tin between 1872-8, meant that the decision was made for them. Between 1871-81 Corn­wall’s population fell by a further nine per cent, and the mining popula­tion by a staggering 24 per cent. Nearly 9,000 left the Penzance area alone during the course of the decade.

Naturally enough, these emigrants were mainly attracted to other mining areas where their skills could be put to good use, and such was the scale of the exodus that one traveller was soon able to make the well-known observation that ‘wherever a hole is sunk in the ground, you will be sure to find a Cornishman at the bottom of it’. The lead mines of Wisconsin, the copper mines of Montana, the coalfields of Pennsylvania, the gold and silver mines of Colorado and California were all powerful magnets, and by the First .World War about 100,000 Cornish folk had settled in the U.S.A. alone. There they were given the nickname of ‘Cousin Jacks’, a term which has become synonymous with ‘Cornishman’ ever since, and which is said to have originated when nearly every Cornish miner, when asked if he knew of a good worker to fill a particular job, would invariably answer that he would ‘send ‘ome fer cousin Jack’.

If the majority of Cornish emigrants settled in North America, there were many other countries with their holes in the ground which also attracted substantial numbers. In 1870 there were 85 Cornishmen at the Tocapilla mine in Brazil, and thousands more in Australia, including the fearless crew of the 36 ft/10.6m. lugger Mystery which had sailed all the way from Mount’s Bay in 1854, a journey which took 116 days. Nor should we forget those who settled in other parts of the United King­dom. Wales, geographically convenient and with rich mineral deposits, had been an early attraction, and Cornishmen could be found working in the Neath smelting industry as early as the 1580s. The development of the Anglesey copper mines at the beginning of the 19th century attracted a later wave of migrants, and some, like James Treweek of Gwennap, became well-known figures. Henry Dennis, who moved to Denbighshire c. 1850, was another who entered the ranks of Welsh society, building up an industrial empire which eventually had 10,000 employees. On the whole, however, it was not North Wales which attracted the greatest number of Cornish workers, but the developing industrial valleys of Glamorgan and west Monmouthshire. According to the 1851 census, there were already 756 Cornish people in Swansea alone, and the economic decline of the latter half of the century prompted many thousands to join them. The industrial towns of England also attracted their share, while hundreds of others moved up to the new ironfields of Cumberland. Work was also to be found in Scotland, and in a single year, 1866, some 1,500 Cornish miners left for the collieries of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.

The scale of this exodus had serious repercussions for the society left behind. Although many who, left would eventually send for their families to join them, the immediate consequence was a social structure deprived of much of its manhood, vitality and supportive capacity. Thousands of wives, children and old people, receiving only occasional remittances from abroad, were left to survive on handouts from the poor relief funds, and in 1867 there were no less than 1,413 claimants in the single mining parish of St Just, all forced to exist on 1s. i1d. (7p) a week. Cultural and sporting life also suffered accordingly, and it was becoming more common to find an exhibition of Cornish wrestling in’,the mining camps of Butte, Montana, than at home.

Tragic the story may be – and the romanticist might well consider the consequences for today if there had ‘been no syphoning-off and Cornwall’s population stood at about one million – the picture would have been much worse were it not for the late 19th-century growth of other employment opportunities. The expansion of drift fishing saved many potential ‘Cousin Jacks’ from joining their relatives overseas, while an increase in China clay working. also helped keep several thousand mid-Cornwall copper miners at home. China clay takes its name from the Chinese method of using kaolin, a derivative of granite, to manufacture porcelain. The Chinese had managed to guard the secrets of the production process until the early 18th ‘century, but their technology was leaked to the West and in 1746 kaolin was discovered in the St Austell area. During the early days of the industry, clay working was looked upon as inferior to mining proper and by 1810 there were only seven small workings in operation. The crisis in the copper mines, however, forced many to abandon their prejudices and by 1857 the St Austell clay works employed about 1,700 men with an annual output of 68,000 tons. By 1867 the workforce had increased to 4,000, production to 160,000 tons and an important diversification of the Cornish economy had been achieved.

Despite a history of fluctuating fortunes, Cornish agriculture, long the Cinderella of local industry, was also in a fairly healthy state, at least compared with the slump periods of the 1840s and early 1850s. In his Memoirs Jonathan Couch of Polperro blamed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 which opened the door to foreign corn entering the domestic market, complaining that landlords had been forced to reduce rents by an average of 25 per cent. Even then, he added, it was hard to find new tenants as many farmers were emigrating to America.The arrival of the mainline railway in 1859, however, proved a crucial lifeline for the agricultural as well as the fishing communities. Small branch lines had been built in the county since 1837 but with the com­pletion of Brunel’s bridge across the Tamar came new opportunities. Within three years over 2,000 tons of fish and early potatoes were despatched each year to the industrial towns hungry for fresh produce. The farmers were not slow, ever, to satisfy the growing Victorian demand for daffodils, violets and anemones, and by the end of the century over 500 tons of flowers left the county annually. Cornwall’s mild climate was admirably suited to the growing of early vegetables, and by 1890 over 3,000 tons of spring cabbage and broccoli were carried annually by train to Covent Garden and other centres.

If the rapid collapse of the copper industry had taken its toll on many parts of the county, particularly the central areas, the more protracted death of tin mining saved the souls of many communities in the western parishes. Although tin prices had fallen sharply and many tinners had also been forced to emigrate, thousands of other families were able to remain and eke out a living as the industry slowly approached its demise. The mines at Balleswidden and Ding Dong had closed in the 1870s, but Wheal Owles survived until 1893 and Botallack for another four years. A score of others, mainly in the St Ives, Pendeen, Wendron and Camborne areas, struggled into the 20th century before finally going under.