Find Cornish mining ancestors

By Sarah Orme, 7 June 2017 - 1:21pm

As Poldark returns to our screens for a third series, Anthony Burton gives an insight into those ancestors who worked in Cornwall's copper and tin mining industries

Ross Poldark struggles to turn around the fortunes of his family's mine in the popular BBC series (Credit: Mammoth Screen/BBC)

Tin has been worked in Cornwall since prehistoric times – according to tradition the Phoenicians came to trade in the metal.

However, actual records only take us back to the beginning of the 13th century with the establishment of the Charter of the Stanneries, which laid out the laws for prospectors, which were basically very simple: anyone could lay claim to a patch of land by digging turf up around the boundaries. These were not strictly miners, in that the tin was obtained from pebbles washed out from deeper veins, and which were obtained by panning, separating the heavy ore from lighter stones. The county was a patchwork of such small claims, mostly of little value. 

Eventually it was recognised that to get at more valuable deposits, the veins would have to be followed down underground and the age of deep mining had begun.

The problem faced by all deep mines is water, which needs to be pumped out. This was at first done by hand, then by water-powered pumps, but by the end of the 17th century a limit had been reached, below which the pumps could not handle the job.

Something new was needed. The answer was provided by a Dartmouth man, Thomas Newcomen, who developed a form of steam engine, based on an overhead beam, pivoted at its centre, with pump rods attached to one end, descending down the shaft.

He now needed a force at the other end to lift them. This was achieved by condensing steam under a piston, connected to the opposite end of the beam. As the steam condensed it created a vacuum and air pressure then forced the piston down, lifting the rods at the opposite end of the beam.

Cornish tin miners take a break underground in 1933 (Credit: Daily Herald Archives/Getty Images)

The arrival of steam

Newcomen's invention was to dominate Cornish mining for more than 50 years, before James Watt introduced his true steam engine, where the piston was forced by steam power not atmospheric pressure.

The water problem had been solved, and the importance of the steam engines can be seen in the engine houses that are still such a feature of the Cornish landscape.

Thanks to the steam engine, pits were sunk ever deeper, creating a new problem for the miners: getting to and from the workings.

William Crago first went to work in a Cornish mine in the 19th century at the age of nine. He described what it was like as he and his father descended, taking their digging equipment with them: “We at last stepped into the footway. Father first and I following him, very carefully we descended the first 480 feet. It was almost like climbing down the side of a house and as we slowly went along, ever and anon came Father’s warning voice ‘Hold tight your hands my son’.”

The next section was sloping instead of vertical, which made it easier, but brought water dripping down his neck. Eventually they reached the bottom – 1,600 feet below the surface.

The way in which Cornish mining was organised was unique. The miners themselves were not paid actual wages, but instead gangs got together and bid for specific jobs for a certain period of time.

There were three types. Tutwork was paid by measure and included such tasks as sinking shafts, driving drainage adits and ‘stoaping’, opening up new sections. Tribute was paid to the miners who actually dug out the ore and was paid according to its value. The third category was dressing, breaking out the valuable ore from the rock, work carried out at the surface and usually by women, known as ‘bal maidens’.

In order to make a good living, the men had to work out for themselves questions such as: Would the ground be easy or difficult to break? Would what appeared to be a good vein of ore suddenly peter out? If their judgement was bad or simply unlucky, then they could end up working for almost nothing.

If things went well, they got the benefit – miners who found a good vein that simply got better the further they went along would work every hour they could manage to make the most of their good fortune.

Miners ride the man engine at 190 Cook and Hitchen, circa 1900 (Credit: Past Pix/Getty Images)

Notorious conditions

Work during the 18th and 19th centuries was unremittingly hard. Rock could be loosened by gunpowder, but first holes had to be drilled through the granite by hand.

Much of the work was done by hand using pick and hammer, and often in wretched conditions. Cornish mines were notoriously wet, so the men were constantly working in damp clothing.

Ventilation was often poor and in the deepest mines, temperatures could soar: in one mine at St Day a temperature of 125ºF (58ºC) was recorded.

Some improvements in working conditions were made. In 1841, the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society offered a prize for a machine that would effectively take men up and down the shaft.

The result was the man engine, in which a steam engine raised and lowered stout wooden timbers in exactly the same way as pump rods were raised and lowered. There were stagings in the shaft and platforms attached to the moving timber.

To go up the shaft, a man got on the staging, when the timber reached the bottom of the stroke and got off at the next staging up, and on to the surface.

It saved a huge amount of effort, but also caused one of Cornwall’s worst mining accidents. In 1919, the man engine at Levant Mine, St Just, broke sending the upper part crashing down the shaft. A total of 31 were killed and 11 seriously injured.

The other great labour-saving device was the pneumatic drill. By the middle of the 19th century, copper mining had become at least as important as tin mining and there were boom years in the 1850s and 1860s.

Then, disaster struck. Huge copper deposits were found by Lake Superior in America, the vast copper mines of Rio Tinto were opened up in Spain and the world price of copper slumped.

Cornwall was hit hard. The Gwennap district had once employed 10,000 men: by the 1870s there was not a single mine at work in the area. Worse was to follow: the price of tin also fell dramatically, from £100 a ton in 1890 to £64 in 1894.

The mining community had one thing its in favour: the skills and understanding of the men were famous throughout the mining world. The Cornish miners spread out around the globe and acquired a special name – they were the “Cousin Jacks”.

In the 1890s there was such a mass exodus that special trains were laid on to take them to Southampton. The story of one family was typical: of the nine sons, one died in New Zealand, one in America, the third in Australia and the fourth in South Africa.

The Cornish industry struggled on, but by the end of the 20th century, it was all over. The last mine, South Crofty, was closed in 1998. Another of the last working mines, Geevor, is now a museum to an industry that was once famous around the world.

Ruined tin mines at Botallack in Cornwall (Credit: Joe Daniel Price/Getty)

Useful sources

Cornwall Record Office 
Based in Old County Hall in Truro, the record office houses all the main archives for the county including records relating to the mining industry. You can find out more about its mining collection here

Cornwall Family History Society
The Cornwall FHS has a useful library at its headquarters in Truro including a large database created by Society indexing projects accessible to members only. Visit the website to see if your surname is covered.

Cornish Studies Library 
The Cornish Studies Library, housed in the Cornish Centre in Redruth, has extensive archives and books on the mining industry.

Royal Cornwall Museum 
Based in Truro, the museum has an extensive collection or artefacts and archives connected to Cornish mining. The website offers a gallery of 240 historic mining photographs and an online exhibition entitled ‘Mining Memories’. The museum is currently running an exhibition on Poldark's Cornwall.

Geevor Tin Mine  
One of the last working mines in Cornwall, Geevor Tin Mine is now a museum that gives an insight into the life of the miners, including the opportunity to go underground.

Cornish Mining World Heritage Site  
This useful website includes a map of historic mining sites and lots of background information as well as a page of handy links for anyone wanting to research further. 

This article is reprinted from Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine issue 95, January 2015


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