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England’s Cornwall and Its Former Tin-Mining Industry (6:52)

Cornwall, England

Scenic Cornwall is fueled by tourism today, though for thousands of years it was a major tin producer (tin + copper = Bronze Age). We sample miners’ food (Cornish pasties) and visit an underground tin mine to learn how ore was extracted — even underwater.

Complete Video Script

Along with its ethnic cousins — Brittany, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland — Cornwall was part of a “Celtic crescent” that nearly circles England. The Cornish people spoke their own language, which thrived for centuries. Fishing and mining were long the dominant industries, but today, tourism drives the economy.

Cornwall, with a half-million residents, is a county of England (unlike the more autonomous Wales and Scotland). But many native-born locals consider themselves Cornish first, British second.

The area is packed with ancient sites, historic monuments, and peaceful farm hamlets. The Gulf Stream brings warm, subtropical weather to Cornwall — making it perfect for gardens, walking, and basking on the beach.

From the start, Cornwall’s economy was based on tin. As far back as the ancient times, Greek and Roman traders traveled all the way to Cornwall for tin. You see, an important step in the evolution of civilization was the ability to mix tin and copper to make bronze. And when people entered the Bronze Age, they could make better tools and stronger weapons.

Tin mining was the dominant Cornwall industry well into modern times. This evocative coast is dotted with 19th-century Industrial Age ruins. These desolate engine houses once pumped water out of the shafts so they could mine a half-mile down, and then, under the seabed, far out to sea. The ground here is honeycombed with mine tunnels. In its heyday, there were hundreds of tin mines in Cornwall.

The industry peaked about 200 years ago with the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the demand for tin was huge, and mines like these were booming, making Cornwall one of England’s wealthiest counties.

Ruins look almost ancient, but it’s easy to forget that less than 100 years ago, thousands of workers spent most of their waking hours in these crumbling buildings supporting their families. But Cornwall’s glory days of tin passed. The iconic smokestacks today are the dramatic remnants of Cornwall’s now-dead tin-mining industry, which just couldn’t compete with cheap tin from abroad.

Along with these old buildings another reminder of the mining heritage is the tin workers’ simple lunch: the Cornish pasty.

Rick: So this would be the classic miner’s lunch, you could say.
Tim: Yeah, the Cornish pasty. So you’d hold it on the crimped edge around here, like this, and the idea was that if you did have arsenic on your hands, then you would leave it on the crust.
Rick: It’s ’cause there was no way to wash your hands you’re mining.
Tim: Exactly.
Rick: It’s just, you come out the mine, and you’re going to eat, and you’re hungry?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely.
Rick: So this is a “pasty”? How do you pronounce it?
Tim: Pasty, yeah.
Rick: Not “paste-y.”
Tim: No, “pasty”; yeah, right. Yeah, so eat away!
Rick: Mmm! Generally, what do you put inside of a pasty?
Tim: You’ve got steak, onion, potato, and turnip — or “swede,” as we call it.
Rick: So any bakery around here would serve these? It’d be a great take out meal for a traveler.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely; there’re thousands of these made every day.
Rick: Gosh, the original takeout food in Cornwall. I mean, 200 years ago for the miners and today? For us travelers.

The last tin mine to close is now open to visitors — dedicated to telling the miners’ story.

The Geevor Mine closed in 1990. It represents the last hurrah not only of Cornish tin mining, but, in a sense, of Britain's Industrial Age. Exploring it, you’ll gain an appreciation for the simple yet noble life of miners.

Though closed for decades, it feels as though the miners could show up at any time to clock in. The blasting schedule was a reminder that punctuality in the mines was a matter of life and death. The miners’ lockers were left just the way they were on the day the mine closed — with the miners believing that, somehow, they’d be back. Photos humanize the plight of individuals who lost their livelihoods. They remind us that when economics change and an industry dies, it devastates families and entire communities.

In a huge structure nicknamed “The Mill,” the stone was crushed to extract the tin.

The miners brought in tons and tons of raw ore, which was put into big drums like this, which would then tumble, and with the help of metal balls like this, it would break the ore into smaller and smaller pebbles. The noise must have been deafening in here.

You’ll see how a vast room full of “shaking tables” — like giant machines panning for gold — separated the tin from the waste. Tin and other heavy metals are the dark material at the back, while the lighter waste slowly shakes forward. With 90 tables shaking, each day hundreds of tons of rock gradually gave up a few tons of coveted tin.

For the finale of your visit you slip on a coat, don a hardhat, and head both underground and back in time…deep into one of the original 18th-century mines. The shafts — narrow and low — give you a sense of the difficult life of miners and their perilous working conditions. Former mine employees serve as guides and are happy to tell the story.

Miner: Here we are; we’re in a section of the tunnels that’s 250 years old, approximately. This mine itself didn’t work under the ocean but a lot of mines in this district — the St. Just mining district — went under the ocean for sometimes a distance of a mile and half.

Tin mining is hard-rock mining, where you look for a lode, and then follow veins of tin through the surrounding rock.

Miner: And once they establish where the tin is, they then work upwards through the earth and downwards through the earth, extracting that vein from the rock.
Rick: Even under the sea if necessary.
Miner: Even under the sea, yeah.
Rick: So if they took a hundred tons of rock out of the mine, how much tin would they hope to find?
Miner: Just one ton.
Rick: Just one ton — that’s hard work.
Miner: It is. Extremely hard work.

Cornish mining had a diaspora in the 1800s, with large numbers of skilled miners emigrating.

Miner: The Cornish miner has moved all over the world. From Canada and North America, Mexico, down into South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, even Cuba. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the planet now that are directly related to those Cornish miners who took their skills with them. And in fact there was a definition, and it still holds true today, really — largely — that “a mine is a hole in the ground with a Cornishman at the bottom.”

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