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Stone sentinels

Words by Hannah Tapping

The relics of an industry that changed the shape of Cornwall’s landscape forever.

For many July 13th 2006 was probably a fairly unremarkable Thursday, but for Cornwall’s mining heritage, and those associated with it, this was a major moment in time. On this day, select mining landscapes across Cornwall and west Devon were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the largest industrial World Heritage Site in the UK, spanning over 20,000 hectares. To put this into context, and to illustrate the enormity of the occasion, Cornwall’s mining landscape now holds the same accolade as international sites such as Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

© National Trust Images/John Miller

In a county where our perception of its ‘modern industry’ is now centred much on the tourism and hospitality trade, it’s easy to forget that in 1870 Cornwall was the premier tin mining field in the world. The industrial revolution had a huge impact on Cornwall and it was, at this time, amongst the most industrialised parts of the UK, if not the world.

According to UNESCO: “Much of the landscape of Cornwall and West Devon was transformed in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of the rapid growth of pioneering copper and tin mining. Its deep underground mines, engine houses, foundries, new towns, smallholdings, ports and harbours, and their ancillary industries together reflect prolific innovation which, in the early 19th century, enabled the region to produce two-thirds of the world’s supply of copper. The substantial remains are a testimony to the contribution Cornwall and West Devon made to the Industrial Revolution in the rest of Britain and to the fundamental influence the area had on the mining world at large. Cornish technology embodied in engines, engine houses and mining equipment was exported around the world. Cornwall and West Devon were the heartland from which mining technology rapidly spread.”

© National Trust Images/John Miller

At one time Cornwall boasted 2,000 tin mines and was a world leader in tin production; by the early nineteenth century the county was the greatest producer of copper in the world. At its peak the copper mining employed up to 30% of Cornwall’s male workforce and its economic infrastructure was transformed by this industry.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century, copper prices fell as Cornwall’s reserves were exhausted while simultaneously huge deposits were found elsewhere in the world. This could have left Cornwall’s industry in a precarious position had it not been for the tin ore that had been found in some of the deeper Cornish mines. This was not without its hazards as the deep mining gave rise to its own set of problems. Sadly, history was to repeat itself, and as with the international copper deposits, cheaper sources of tin were found internationally and Cornwall’s mining industry could no longer sustain this foreign competition.

© National Trust Images/John Miller

Many mines closed in the 1890s and Cornish miners were left to seek their fortunes across the world. A staggering quarter of a million people left Cornwall between 1841 and 1901. Drawn by the discovery of gold, silver and copper across the globe, and the promise of higher wages and better conditions, it was no wonder that these men left the Duchy for pastures new, as their expertise was highly sought after.

A few mines were still operating until the 1920s, with some larger operations such as South Crofty and Geevor continuing for many years. Sadly, the last working tin-mines closed in the 1990s. Their legacy, the weathered structures that pepper the landscape today.

Geevor is one of the largest preserved mining sites in the country. Managed by a local community cooperative, which works together in partnership with the National Trust and its nearby hubs Levant Mine and Beam Engine, Botallack and Cape Cornwall – all part of Penwith’s Tin Coast – Geevor is the last surviving example of a complete 20th century Cornish tin mine. Time has stood still for the mine since 1990 and ‘The Dry’, the place where miners changed when they came up to the surface, remains almost exactly as it was the day the miners surfaced for the final time.

© National Trust Images/Paul Harris

Home to a hugely important and diverse collection of mining relics including rocks, minerals, photography and mining tools, even the Geevor buildings themselves are examples of large industrial mining equipment in their own right.

The National Trust manages various locations across the UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserving these iconic landmarks for generations to come. Levant Mine and Beam Engine has a very different feel to Geevor, in part due to its somewhat melancholy history. With mine workings extending over a mile under the sea bed, the stacks and engine houses stand almost precariously on the cliff edge, ghosts of an era that saw lucrative hauls of copper, tin and arsenic (a deadly bi-product of tin ore) brought to the surface. In its heyday, Levant employed a staggering 320 men, 44 women and 186 children.

The installation of the renowned Man Engine in 1857, carried men fathoms up and down the mine, streamlining production. Sadly, Levant went from triumph to tragedy after the Man Engine failed one fateful day in 1919 and 31 men were lost. This was the nail in Levant’s coffin and the mine ceased production in 1930. As part of the National Trust’s conservation works, the beam engine has been restored in recent years and today can be seen ‘steaming’ in its former glory.

© National Trust Images/John Millar

© National Trust Images/Aerial-Cam

The majestic forms of nearby Botallack’s Crown Engine Houses are instantly recognisable – their modern, meteoric rise to fame thanks to the Poldark television series. The buildings sit so close to the cliff edge that on stormy days the Atlantic breakers reach their footings. They sit over lodes that extend far out to sea and are thought to have been first worked as far back as the sixteenth century.

Stepping away from the Tin Coast, you’ll find evidence of Cornwall’s mining heritage at almost every turn. The last of Cornwall’s mines to close was South Crofty. Once the industrial heart of Camborne and Redruth and the employer of generations of Cornish men, it closed its gates on Friday 6th March, 1998. This marked the end of 4,000 years of mining in Cornwall and its headgear stands as tribute to the hundreds who lost their jobs. It’s thought that the cost to the local economy ran to several million, which had a huge impact on the local area.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Cornish Metals Inc. purchased South Crofty in 2016 and after a recent diamond drilling programme has reported encouraging results. Richard Williams, CEO, commented: “The Intermediate Lode structure was predicted by our geological team to be in this area but such a high-grade intersection so far beneath the old mine workings was not anticipated, it does reinforce the exploration potential at South Crofty and our ability to find economic structures within areas of the mine that have been previously overlooked.”

© National Trust Images/Paul Harris

And the story doesn’t end there. There is also further hope of regeneration just north of Redruth. A Cornish-based company has found “globally significant” grade lithium – a high-grade metal used for electric car batteries – in hot, salty springs, deep beneath the ground. In a recent statement, Cornish Lithium said: “Initial results indicate some of the world’s highest grades of lithium and best overall chemical qualities encountered in published records for geothermal waters anywhere in the world.” With funding in place to build a £4m pilot lithium extraction plant, Cornwall’s mine and mineral extraction future is looking up.


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