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History of Tin Mining

The history of Cornwall's tin mines

Tin mining in Cornwall began some 4,000 years ago in the early Bronze Age. It finally ended with the closure of the last mine at South Crofty in 1998, but there may be a further chapter to come as world metal prices continue to soar.

Tin was one of the first metals to be mined in Britain. The metal became valuable after ancient copper smelters discovered that by mixing in between 5 and 20 percent tin into the molten copper, they obtained a much harder alloy that could be used for weapons, armour, tools and jewellery. This was the beginning of the Bronze Age. The first tin mining seems to have taken place in modern day Turkey around 3500 BC but as demand for bronze soared in Sumer, Assyria, Persia and Greece, local supplies of tin ore (casserite) were soon exhausted and traders searched the known world for new supplies.

The Southwest was one of the few parts of England to escape the Ice Age; so alluvial tin ore was readily available in the gravels of streams and rivers. Mining moved increasingly deeper, first using shallow cuttings and later still underground tunnels.

World Tin Centre

So by 2000 BC there were thriving tin mines in Cornwall, with Phoenician ships taking the metal to the rich civilisations of the Mediterranean and Near Asia.

The Phoenician traders were careful to keep their sources of tin secret and collaborated with the powerful Veneti tribes of Brittany to control the Cornish trade. Pytheas of Massalia (modern Marseilles) reported a prosperous Cornish tin industry when he visited Britain about 325 BC and it’s proved that there was trade with the Aegean, with the discovery of Mycenaean bronze artefacts in Cornwall.

Roman historians talk about ‘Ictis’ a fabulously wealthy tin port, where solid blocks of the metal were brought on carts for loading into ships. At first it was thought this port might have been at St Michael’s Mount but later archaeology indicates it was more likely at modern Mount Batten in Plymouth Sound. It’s even suggested the Roman invasion of Britain was motivated by desire to get their hands on Cornish tin.

Rise and fall

Tin and copper mining continued profitably in Cornwall right the way through the Middle Ages and into modern times, shrugging off a brief Napoleonic era challenge from the Dutch East Indies. By mid-Victorian times, Cornwall still boasted the world’s leading tin extraction industry, employing more than 2,000 miners at scores of sites dotted around the peninsula. Unfortunately, the industry was headed for an abrupt fall. The discovery of tin in huge quantities in Australia brought world prices crashing down way below the costs of Cornish production,

New competition from the Far East and South America added to Cornwall’s woes and by 1882, the tin industry was a shadow of what it had been only a decade before, with almost a third of the mining population disappeared overseas to escape poverty.

Modern Times

South Crofty and some of the other big mines grouped together to survive. Renewed demand and the halt of foreign imports during the two World Wars provided a temporary respite, but this was only postponing the inevitable end.

It was becoming ever harder to find men prepared to work underground, wage costs were rising while great mountains of tin and copper had been found overseas. Cornish tin mining couldn’t survive in a globalised world and early in March 1998, the last pumps at South Croft were shut down and the mine left to flood.

But this wasn’t quite the end of the four thousand year story. At the very least, there’s every chance that Cornwall's atmospheric tin mining areas will become a World Heritage Site. Amazingly, actual mining may begin again, with South Crofty now operated by Western United Mines, who plan to restart production there by early 2015

 


Cornish Tin Mining
Camborne School of mines


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