Cornwall, a county rich in history

Phoenicians and Romans

In ancient times, the trade in tin and copper in the Mediterranean was held firmly in the hands of the Phoenicians who anxiously concealed their sources of metal. Cornwall was one of the sources. They ruthlessly sank any ship behind the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) en route to Cornwall. Herodotus mentions “Cassiterides” in one of his writings, which means “Tin Island” with which he must have meant Cornwall. Now you also know where the professional name for tin – Cassiterite comes from.


The Romans had abundant tin deposits in what was then called Hispania (today’s Spain), and the mountainous Cornwall and Devon made no particular effort to control them, although these areas were so rich in non-ferrous metals. They probably didn’t want to go on a war adventure in the mountainous southwest, and they let Cornwall and Devon live their own lives, as they did Wales. Their southwestern forts were in present-day Ilchester and Dorchester (present-day Dorset County), quite far away from present-day Cornwall. In today’s terminology, they have chosen the “naval blockade” tactic. The Romans thus forced Cornwall to trade in these metals, which were especially advantageous for themselves.


Ventilation and water pumping

We can talk in general about the industrial “mining” of tin and copper in the true sense of the word not until the 16th century. Consumption of metal grew, especially for the manufacture of weapons. Shafts were drilled into deeper and deeper. The mining “technology” gradually improved and the tonnage of extracted raw materials was on grow from year to year. New shafts opened in the neighboring Devon, too.


Two major problems narrowed the then deep mining (work safety was not paid much attention to at that time). The first one was how to ensure adequate ventilation and fresh air underground and the second was how to handle groundwater.

When you look at any mining sites with the remains of buildings in Cornwall, they will be like two peas in a pod and will always be equipped with a tall chimney. At first glance, it might seem that it is the chimney of a furnace for smelting ore. But it is not. A tall chimney was built above each shaft outlet, under which a massive fire was made.


Groundwater pumping was initially done by wind power (you can see on the map that most of the shafts lined the Cornish coast), run by a water wheel, or by horsepower. The turning point was the deployment of the very first steam engine by James Watt, which was designed from the very beginning to pump groundwater. Steam engines also became rapidly used in other mining processes, such as ore crushing and transportation.


The speed of battleships

Copper mining in Cornwall also indirectly contributed to one of the British Kingdom’s greatest victories – the Battle of Trafalgar. Captain Nelson’s battleships were smaller, more agile, and faster than the combined fleets of Spain and France. Polished copper sheets, beaten on the hull of the submersible part of the ship, gave  Nelson’s ships speed. Not to mention the ships’ cannons cast from Cornish raw materials.


Mining resumption

The last tin mining shaft was closed due to low profit in 1998. Due to the ever-increasing price of non-ferrous metals, it was decided at the beginning of 2021 to resume tin mining in Cornwall. Modern geological studies have shown that there are still rich reserves of tin, copper and other metals below the surface.



Source: Lomy a těžba