Picture Cornwall, and what do you see? If you’re one of the millions of visitors the Duchy welcomes every year, you probably imagine clotted cream teas and winsome fishing villages, lush river valleys leading to wide golden beaches. If you’re one of the many fans of Poldark – and sexy Aidan Turner, and beautiful Demelza, and the wicked Warleggans (who all return to our TV screens this September) you probably add romantic gallops on stormy clifftops, and bare-chested gentry scything sunlit wheat.
But let me stop you there. Because those idyllic coves and seaside farms, those glamorously windswept moors, have a much darker story to tell, a story pretty much unparalleled in its grandeur and, sometimes, its horror. It’s the brutal history of Cornish hard rock mining – the lightly sketched backdrop to the Poldark saga.
I am Cornish, and I grew up surrounded by the faded memories of Cornish industry: uncles who knew all about metallurgy, great aunts who could talk knowledgeably of “the deads” (the spoil from a Cornish mine). But it was only when I properly researched the subject for a novel, The Fire Child, published this summer, that I realized the epic, terrifying scale of Cornwall’s metal-mining past, and the way it poignantly intertwines with my immediate family.
For an industry which only closed in the 1970s – when the last Cornish mines yielded to competition from Malaysia, and Australia – the tale of Cornish mining goes back a long time: all the way to the Bronze Age. On the drizzly moors of West Penwith, between St Ives and Land’s End, it is thought men were streaming tin as early as 2000BC.
Twenty centuries later, the Romans came, and they came specifically for tin. St Michael’s Mount, that picturesque adornment to many a Penzance postcard, is probably the fabled “Isle of Ictis”, mentioned by classical writers as a centre of the metal trade.
Even Jesus gets a look in. During Roman times, so the venerable legend goes, Joseph of Arimathea, Christ’s uncle, brought the young Jesus to Cornwall; the beach where they supposedly landed is just across the bay from yachty St Mawes. Why did they come here? Because Joseph of Arimathea was a tin trader. This is the same legend, of Jesus in England, which later inspired Blake’s poem Jerusalem, and, in effect, all the Arthurian grail myths.
After the Romans, and Jesus, the tin trade continued through the Dark Ages, and into medieval times, often making the Dukes of Cornwall very rich indeed.
And this is where the story blackens. By the17th century Cornish mining was halfway industrialised: in 1630 a visitor to Cornwall talks of a “a little hamlet on the coaste of the Irishe Sea, much visited with tinners, where they lodge and feede, being near theyre mines.” If that same visitor had returned 150 years later, he’d have seen something much more imposing: Cornish mining at the beginning of its first, enormous copper boom.
We’ve now reached the Poldark era, a time of relative plenty – at least for some lucky mine owners, and some fortunate “tributers” (a specifically Cornish form of freelance miner, who took a share of the profits he hewed from the granite). These were the glory days, when messengers were despatched on horseback in the middle of the night – to stir a drowsy but delighted mine captain, and tell him of a lavish new lode. When this happened, when the mine was “cutting rich”, an ensign was hung from the top of the engine house, and the Cornish pubs – or “winks” – were full of miners, and their sweethearts, drinking gin-and-treacle, and hot rum punch.
These days of celebration were, of course, very much the exception. For most miners, most of the time, life was unimaginably hard. Rising at dawn, in a shivering moorland cottage, a typical Cornish miner would walk five miles across rough country, to reach his mine: Wheal Voe or Wheal Coates, Providence or Godolphin. He would then climb down a shaft, on a rope, like a monkey. If lucky, he descended a ladder. It is estimated the average Cornish miner of the time climbed 1200 feet of a morning: the maximum permitted in a Victorian workhouse in a day. And this is before the tinner began his proper toil.
Having reached the bottom of the shaft, he then had to crawl, virtually naked, on his knees, down an often broiling tunnel, until at last he reached the seams of copper glistening in the rockface. Now his shift could officially begin – in almost total darkness. The only light came from the feeble flicker of little candles, stuck onto the miner’s hard felt hats.
If his mine was one of the great undersea mines – like Botallack, or Levant – where the tunnels extend for a mile under the ocean, the miner, who might have been a boy aged eight, had to endure an extra dimension of oppression: the sound of the ocean riding and bucking above him. Even the most toughened miners were terrified by the booms of the great Atlantic storms, which rolled boulders overhead, and constantly threatened to break through the ceiling. Many were drowned.
It was, in all ways, the most punishing work. And to sustain them in this work, according to contemporary sources, the miners consumed this: for breakfast a cup of tea made from mugwort, probably taken with a hunk of barley bread. At midday they found an alcove in the tunnels and crouched over a “hoggan”: a baked pastry containing currants, figs, or pork – classic Cornish pasties came along later. When they got home, having climbed another 1200 feet, and walked another five miles across the moors, the average man had a supper of salt fish, potatoes, and some more mugwort tea.
Unsurprisingly, these tinners died young, commonly before 30. If they weren’t killed by the awful labour, or the lack of sun, they were slaughtered by accidents and disease. A traveller who visited Cornwall in the 1840s, when Cornwall was producing two thirds of the world’s copper, and making “£500 a fathom” for the gloating owners, describes the mining districts as being peopled by numberless men “with faces blackened and blinded in one or both eyes. Or else lacking two fingers of the right hand, from shooting the rocks with gunpowder”. When the same traveller went through mining villages, he encountered hundreds of cripples “being led about by boys, eking out a living by selling tea from house to house”.
Despite the squalor, and the horror, there was also an occasional glimpse of beauty. Sometimes this was spiritual. As copper surrendered to tin, and Methodism fought the gin, the men would sing hymns together as they climbed up and down the mines. The harmonious sound of this singing, as it came up the shafts, was said to be “out of this world”: a music so unearthly yet so very lovely that unbelievers were, reportedly, converted on the spot.
This splendour was also directly visual. In the 1890s a pioneering Victorian photographer, J C Burrows, went down four of Cornwall’s deepest mines and took a series of remarkable and haunting photos (the photographs on this page). One of the most arresting aspects of these unique images is that the same moment when Burrows’ magnesium flash went off, bathing the mineworks in a brief rhapsodic light, must have been the one and only moment when those miners would have truly seen where they worked: where they spent the bulk of their darkened lives.
Another beauty was visible at night, by those Satanic clifftop mines: Botallack, Geevor, Levant.
In the 19th century it is said boats would sail up the night-time coast, then abruptly drop anchor, to gaze in astonishment, at the unprecedented sight of these cliffside mines blazing away without cease, 24/7. For people unused to industry it must have been an unbelievable vision: the rising and falling beams of the fire whims, the red hot glare from boiler house doors, the crashing of the stamps and the rattle of the cages, and – most magnificent of all – the mighty fires of the smelting houses, lit by fountains of molten metal, springing up fifteen feet into the air, then splashing back into the basin, like majestic geysers of quicksilver. Amongst it all, you could just about make out pale and shadowy ghosts: the faces of the workers. Hundreds of men, women, boys – and little girls.
This is where my own family history intersects with Cornish mining history. When I was researching the book, I asked my family if they had personal memories of mining. My dad told me his father never forgot the sight of dying miners standing at open windows, in their cottages, desperately trying to suck in air, to clear their diseased lungs.
This was impressive enough, in a very dark way, but then my mum told me her mother was a “bal maiden”.
I already knew a bit about bal maidens. I knew that they were young girls, employed from the age of six, to break rocks with heavy hammers – while standing barefoot in the open air. I knew they endured lives as hard as any miner: that they were often rendered infertile by the arsenic and sulphur of their environment, I knew that the sound of the stamps was so loud some went deaf – so they developed their own sign language. I knew all this. But could bal maidens, essentially a kind of child slave labour, really be a thing of living memory, in the United Kingdom?
Research told me: Yes. It turned out my grandmother, Anne Jory, worked the clifftop mines of St Agnes at the beginning of the 20th century. If she hadn’t married, she might have carried on working as a maiden until her death. Because some of her exact contemporaries did precisely that. The last working bal maiden stopped her hammering at Geevor, in 1951, and the very last bal maiden to draw breath, was born in Camborne around the same time as my grandmother, and this woman died in Redruth in 1968, after my own birthday.
A sobering discovery. What I had thought was a cruel but distant history, a terrible narrative of early Victorian exploitation, actually overlapped with my own lifespan, and encompassed my mother’s mother.
This, then, is the other story of Cornwall, the grander and sadder story. And when you next take a holiday in the far southwest, it is worth, perhaps, a moment of your reflection. As you picnic by the sea at Mullion Cove or Perranporth, imagine the sight of the mines, all around you, on a stormy night in maybe 1851: when the anxious wives of the miners would gather on the cliffs, clutching candles stuck in treacle tins: so this pitiful little constellation of lights would guide the husbands safely up the perilous cliffs. And then homewards, through the rain, across the wildness of the moors.