Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape
Location: Devon, United Kingdom, Europe
Theme: Regions & Landscapes
The 18th and 19th century mines of Cornwall and west Devon, England, were once the world’s largest source of tin and copper.
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Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape
Archaeological evidence suggests that the mineral resources of Cornwall and West Devon have been exploited for over 3,500 years. Until 1700, tin was the most important ore, its extractive production only being exceeded in Europe by Erzgebirge in the early 15th century. The Romans extracted the ore from tin streams to supply countries across northern Europe and extraction continued in early and later medieval times. In 1201 the importance of the tin industry was recognised by the establishment of a special legal framework that gave privileges to the tinners. It was administered through eight ‘Stannary' areas and persisted until 1838.
By the early 16th century, many tin streams were becoming exhausted and miners turned to the exploitation of outcrops. At first the shallow ore was mined in an open cast process. Once this was exhausted, progressively deeper shafts needed to be sunk. These had to be drained of water, usually by water-powered pumps.
In the 1580s German miners began mining copper ore. The first mines were unsuccessful and it was not until the early 1700s that a successful mine was established at Chacewater. Around the same time, gunpowder was introduced into mines and this greatly increased the speed at which mines could be established and the depth to which channels could be sunk. The development of steam engines allowed water to be pumped from these deep mines.
It was Thomas Newcomen from Devon who developed the ‘atmospheric' engine. The fist to be installed in a metal mine was at Great Wheal Vor between 1710 and 1714.
This heralded the beginning of industrialisation of the mining process. The early engines were however expensive and inefficient to run and their number increased only slowly until the more efficient Boulton and Watt engines were brought to the region in 1778. By 1790, 45 engines were working, laying the foundations for the expansion of the industry. The technology was in place to exploit the plentiful deep seams of copper and tin ore.
The last great technological leap was the invention of the high-pressure steam engine by Richard Trevithick of Camborne, which was more powerful and efficient. His first machine was constructed in 1800. The early three decades of the 19th century saw much experimentation with engine design, promoting competition amongst engineers and mine owners. And Cornish foundries were developed to meet the growing demand for the engines.
The construction of a transport infrastructure and the development of subsidiary industries accelerated the pace of change; by the 1850s Cornish mines dominated the world's copper markets.
Of course the extraction of copper and tin as a profitable business was only possible because of the high demand for these minerals, tin for plating and cans and copper for the brass products needed for ships and engines.
The landscape was transformed by the mines, engine houses and spoil heaps, by new towns and mining settlements constructed to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of miners, and by ports, harbours, railways and canals. Wealth generated was used to create copious public buildings and fine houses and landscape gardens for the mine owners.
At the same time, the technology that allowed the development of the mines was exported around the world to countries which had appropriate mining deposits. As a result, there are important examples of the diagnostic beam-engine houses surviving from 19th century Spain, Mexico, South Africa and Australia.
The copper crash of 1866 caused by increasing competition from Chile, Lake Superior and South Australia, precipitated the rapid closure of many copper mines, leaving only the tin mines active. They survived for a few more years until competition form Australia and Malaya led to an unsustainable drop in price. Miners started to emigrate taking their knowledge and technology with them to develop ‘Cornish' mines around the world. By the end of the 19th century, it was mainly arsenic workings that remained, exploiting the arsenical pyrites formerly discarded as waste.
A few mines survived, the last, South Crofty, closing in 1998.