HARD ROCK

Botallack Mine, St Just

One thing has shaped the fortunes and landscape of Cornwall more than anything else and it’s something right beneath your feet.

Below the surface of county’s green fields, towns and rocky moorland are miles and miles of tunnels, crisscrossing each other and plunging thousands of feet in to the earth’s crust and even out to sea.

Why? It’s all about the search for prized metals that were to define the county’s history and play a huge part in the world’s fortunes.

 

 

As you travel around Cornwall you’ll see tall chimneys and crumbling towers like ancient castles silhouetted against a soft sunset or a raging sea. Today they are silent and calm but rewind a hundred years or so and the landscape you see to day was a very different scene indeed. It was fiery and tough with thousands of men, women and children toiling above and below ground extracting the stuff that made landowners rich and led a lot of workers to an early grave. Tin and copper.

 

The peninsular of Cornwall is a more or less a huge lump of granite, a perfect igneous rock in which valuable metals like copper, lead, zinc silver and tin are trapped. Around 4,000 years ago Cornwall’s early ancestors started to pan alluvial rich streams for metal bearing rocks; it’s almost certain trade with the ancient Phoenicians was brisk. Over the centuries, as the demand for tin grew, the prospectors were forced underground to tap into the metal rich sands that plunged down into the earth.

In the 18th and 19th centuries mining employed 30% of the Cornwall’s male population and by then copper had become king with the county as the biggest producer in the world. Grand houses were built, ports upgraded and railway lines laid, as Cornwall became a huge industrial centre. But for the ordinary workers, life was hard. Overcrowded houses, a poor diet and unhealthy working conditions made men old before their time.

By the end of the 19th century, the decline was quick. With new competition from abroad, tin prices plummeted and thousands of Cornish people emigrated to start a new life using their mining skills in Australia, Mexico and even India, (you can buy Cornish pasties in Sri Lanka even today) .One by one the hundreds of mine shafts in Cornwall closed.

In 1998 the very last mine at South Crofty near Camborne closed, writing what was to be the very last page in the ledger of an industrial heritage that stretched back over millennia.

Such is the importance of Cornwall’s mining legacy that in 2006 World Heritage Status was granted to many areas in the county preserving for future generations the story of Cornwall’s contribution to the development of world industry and commerce

 

THE REAL THING:

To really understand the life and times of Cornish miners then the Geevor Mine near St Just reveals the reality of it all and is made particularly evocative as everything is  preserved exactly the way it was on the last day of the mine operation in 1990.

Helmets and boots are still there in the changing rooms, witty messages are chalked up on walls and empty teacups and newspapers of the era are left around.

Walking around the mine and going underground to explore the tunnels you can sense the camaraderie and the hardship of spending eight hours underground drilling through solid rock. Today those same miners who once worked Geevor are on hand to talk about the days when they spent their working days nearly half a mile below ground. Stop for a few minutes for a chat to get a real insight into not only their own lives as miners, but also their fathers’ and grandfathers’ who toiled deep down in the hard rock of Cornwall.

Check out what to see at all of Cornwall’s museums at www.museumsincornwall.org.uk