12 Cornish Mining Facts

January 08th, 2024

Cornwall boasts a rich mining heritage, with many historic engine houses and crumbling mining structures still gracing the county’s impressive coastline. The now iconic landmarks hint at an industrious past when Cornish miners were celebrated as some of the best in the world.

With a history spanning from antiquity to the mining heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is so much to learn – about the landscape, natural resources and communities that made many of the mines’ success possible.

1. Cornish mining can be traced to the bronze age

The Cornish landscape has provided plentiful mining resources for several thousand years. During what we now call the bronze age, copper and tin were among the most extracted metals as they were key in the production of bronze.

Fast forward to Roman-occupied Britain, and Cornish tin was being traded across the world with an emerging network of international trade.

2. Advances in gunpowder were key

In the 17th century, advancements in the use of gunpowder to blast through rock meant Cornish miners could keep up with rising demands for copper. This new, effective method for deepening mines and breaking through granite was key in developing the burgeoning success of copper mining in the early 18th century.

A view of an old Cornish mines from the cliffs

3. South Crofty was the last tin mine in the UK to close

South Crofty is one of Cornwall’s most well-known mines, with the first documented production dating back to 1592. Since then, it has seen intermittent production until it closed in 1998 after several years of decreasing tin prices.

However, this closure wasn’t the end of the mine – after changing ownership several times, various projects have been planned for the site, and new mining rights have been obtained.

4. Cornish tin miners had specific rights

The Stannary Charter of 1201 gave tine miners the right to mine for tin on anyone’s land. This same charter (and subsequent amendments) meant tinners were only subject to certain laws and taxes. They could also only be arrested and judged by the so-called Lord Warden of the Stannaries.

Stannary Law continued to be used in some form into the late 19th century.

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5. Steam engines were introduced early

To get access to deeper reserves, better drainage systems were required. This led to the early introduction of steam engines in Cornish mines, which were used as early as the 1730s. The engine house is now an iconic symbol of Cornish mining and was a crucial part of keeping up with increased demand in the 18th century.

A ruin of a Cornish mine

6. There was an increase in arsenic mining in the 19th century

During the late 19th century, a few of Cornwall’s mines were producing more than half of the arsenic in the world.

Created as a by-product during the processing of copper and tin, the arsenic was used as an insecticide and an ingredient in paint. Due to the dangerous nature of arsenic, clay was used as a protective layer to cover the miners’ skin while at work.

Along with arsenic, copper and tin, some other metals were also historically mined, including silver and zinc.

7. Women were key players in the mining industry

While mining is often thought of as a male-dominated job, women and girls played their part in the mining process too. They may not have gone underground, but they were an essential part of the mining processes. Known as ‘Bal Maidens’, these women would help to separate the tin from any other mined substances.

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8. Dolcoath mine is the deepest in Cornwall

The largest and deepest mine in Cornwall, Dolcoath’s principal shaft reaches 3,300ft (1,000m) below the surface. Tragically, the mine is also known for a major accident in 1893, where seven men were killed in a collapse.

9. Many mines are known as ‘wheals’

You’ll often see the word ‘wheal’ prefixing the name of a Cornish mine. This term tends to mean a place of work/working (i.e. a mine). One of the most iconic is Wheal Coates – its remains sit magnificently on the cliff side along from St Agnes Head and Chapel Porth beach, allowing for some unbeatable views and photo opportunities.

The ruin of Wheal Coates mine engine house

10. Cornish mines have World Heritage status

In 2006, various mining sites across Cornwall became UNESCO World Heritage Sites, indicating their historical and cultural significance. This puts our beloved mines in good company, with other world-famous landmarks, such as Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China being awarded the same status.

The site consists of ten unique areas spanning from west Cornwall to west Devon.

11. Cornwall has turned its sights to lithium mining

While tin and copper may no longer be the focus, there are some new mining opportunities for Cornwall. The coming years will see an uptick in lithium mining, which is a key component in the production of electric cars and other batteries. Projects like this follow in the footsteps of a proud heritage, reviving the long-standing Cornish industry.

12. You can visit lots of Cornish mines

While Cornwall’s mining heyday might be over, there are still plenty of ways to experience and appreciate this integral part of the county’s history. With museums, attractions and tours of the mines themselves, you can get up close with the past.

One popular tourist spot is Poldark Mine, which is the only complete underground tin mine open for public visits. Due to its connection to the popular TV drama of the same name, visitors come from near and far to learn more about Cornish mining.

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Our luxury holiday park in Cornwall is ideally situated with easy access to many of the leading mining attractions and spectacular historical sites. So, if you want to explore Cornwall’s mining heritage for yourself, why not make The Valley your base?

We’re also a stone’s throw away from several stunning beaches and other top tourist spots, so you can make the most of your Cornish adventure.