We hear a lot these days in the UK about ‘world-beating’ this or that, usually based on precious little evidence. If we want to find historical examples of genuinely world-beating enterprise, then look no further than late eighteenth-century Cornwall. It’s sometimes easy to forget how far one small district in Cornwall dominated eighteenth-century copper mining.
In the mid-1700s the value of copper ore raised in Cornwall had surpassed that of tin and by the 1790s was bounding ahead. But unlike tin mining, which was scattered from St Just in the west to the fringes of Dartmoor in Devon, copper mining was heavily concentrated. John Rowe in his Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution tells us that ‘practically the entire copper mining region was within eight miles of the summit of Carn Brea’ and included just seven parishes.
It was even more concentrated than this at times. In the 1790s Cornwall produced three quarters of the copper mined in Britain. Over half of that was produced by the five most productive mines. Four of those – North Downs, Unity, Poldice and Consolidated – were located in an arc running north and east of Redruth. This was just under five kilometres or three miles in length from one end to the other.
William Beckford, visiting Consolidated Mine in March 1787, left a memorable description:
“At every step one stumbles upon ladders that lead into utter darkness, or funnels that exhale warm copperous vapours. All around these openings the ore is piled up in heaps ready for purchasers. I saw it drawn reeking out of the mine by the help of a machine called a whim put in motion by mules, which in their turn are stimulated by impish children hanging over the poor brutes and flogging them without respite. This dismal scene of whims, suffering mules and hillocks of cinders extends for miles. Huge iron engines creaking and groaning invented by Watt, and tall chimneys smoking and flaming, that seem to belong to old Nicholas’s abode, diversify the prospect. The miners who crawl out of the dark fissures are woeful figures in tattered garments with pickaxes on their shoulders.”