365-352 Tin Mine House, Near Scorrier, Cornwall, UK
Mining in Cornwall has a long history and began in the early Bronze Age approximately 2,150 BC. It ended with the South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall closing in 1998. Tin and later also copper were the most productive of the metals extracted. Some tin mining continued long after mining of other metals had become unprofitable.
Tin is one of the earliest metals to have been exploited in Britain. Chalcolithic metal workers discovered that by putting a small amount of tin (5 - 20%) in molten copper an alloy called bronze was produced that was easier to work and harder than copper. The oldest production of tin-bronze is in Turkey about 3500 BC but exploitation of the tin resources in Britain is believed to have started before 2000 BC, with a thriving tin trade developing with the civilisations of the Mediterranean. The strategic importance of tin in forging bronze weapons brought the southwest of Britain into the Mediterranean economy at an early date. Later tin was also used in the production of pewter.
Cornwall was traditionally thought to have been visited by metal traders from the eastern Mediterranean. However, it is likely that the tin trade with the Mediterranean was controlled by the Veneti. Britain was one of the places proposed for the Cassiterides, that is Tin Islands.
As South-West Britain was one of the few parts of England to escape glaciation, tin ore was readily available on the surface. Originally it is likely that alluvial deposits in the gravels of streams were exploited but later underground working took place. Shallow cuttings were then used to extract ore.
Diodorus Siculus around 1 BC had this to say about ancient tin mining in Britain. "They that inhabit the British promontory of Balerion by reason of their converse with strangers are more civilised and courteous to strangers than the rest are. These are the people that prepare the tin, which with a great deal of care and labour, they dig out of the ground, and that being done the metal is mixed with some veins of earth out of which they melt the metal and refine it. Then they cast it into regular blocks and carry it to a certain island near at hand called Ictis for at low tide, all being dry between there and the island, tin in large quantities is brought over in carts."
By the 19th century, the areas of Cornwall around Gwennap and St Day and on the coast around Porthtowan were among the richest mining areas in the world and at its height the Cornish tin mining industry had around 600 steam engines working to pump out the mines (many mines stretched out under the sea and some went down to great depths). Adventurers put up the capital, and the mines would hopefully return them a profit.
During the 20th century various ores became briefly profitable, and mines were reopened, but today none remain. Dolcoath mine, (Cornish for Old Ground), the 'Queen of Cornish Mines' was, at a depth of 3500 feet (1067 m), for many years the deepest mine in the world, not to mention one of the oldest before its closure in 1921. Indeed, the last working tin mine in Europe, South Crofty, was to be found near Camborne until its closure in March 1998. An attempt was made to reopen it but the mine was then abandoned. There have been local media reports in September 2006 that South Crofty is being considered for re-opening as the price of tin has soared however the site is now part of a Compulsory Purchase Order (October 2006). On the wall outside the gate is some graffiti dating from 1999:
"Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. / But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?"
Many old mine buildings with a chimney for the steam engine exhaust dot the Cornish landscape today. This one has been sensitively restored and put to residential use.
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