The rise and fall of Wheal Vor

Breage is the first major mining parish on our list. Although its glory days had passed, 60 per cent of the 54 children in the Victorian Lives database living in the parish in 1861 had been born into mining families. In the 1850s Wheal Vor was the major mine in the parish, employing over 1,000 workers, 700 men, 218 boys and 236 women and girls.

Wheal Vor had been restarted in the tin boom of 1810. However, losses mounted and its major shareholders, the Gundry brothers of Goldsithney, were declared bankrupt in 1819. Unluckily for them, the mine cut rich in 1823, enjoying 15 years of prosperity, with 16 steam engines at work at its peak in 1834. The 1840s proved more difficult, things not being helped by a prolonged Chancery case during which previous shareholders sought to get a share of the profits. This dragged on for over 20 years from the 1820s.

Engine houses at Wheal Vor 1890

In 1846 all workings under the adit level of the mine were stopped, although a new company was floated to great expectations in 1852. This staggered on for eight years but closed again in 1860, after making vast losses of £207,000, equal to £25 million nowadays. This was apparently a similar amount to the profits made during the good years from 1823 to the early 1840s.

Mining was no longer the obvious option at Breage. Nonetheless, 14 of the male survivors in our cohort in 1871 were still working in or on the mines. By 1881 however, this had dropped to six and in 1891 five, with three of those mining outside Cornwall.

How did the people of Breage cope with the decline of mining from the end of the 1860s? Some managed to continue working in mining, usually by re-locating. In Cornwall this usually involved a move to the central mining district of Camborne-Redruth, where mining remained the major employer into the 1880s.

One example was William Richards who was born in Wesley Street, Camborne, the son of a miner. Around 1854 the family moved to Breage, possibly attracted by the re-opening of Wheal Vor. By 1861 Wheal Vor had closed but the 11 year old William was working somewhere as a tin dresser, while his father and elder brother were underground miners.

Conditions both generally and for the family became more strained in the 1860s. William’s father Joseph had died in his late 40s and by 1871 his widow had moved to Illogan, with her daughter and three sons, including William who was by now an engine man at a tin mine. Soon thereafter William married Mary Lanyon and the pair moved to Dolcoath Road in Camborne. By 1881 William was being described as a factory engine driver, possibly at one of the local engineering factories or more likely a fuse works, as his daughter was recorded as a safety fuse hand in the 1891 census.

For others, the only way to continue mining was to leave. Edward Richards was already a tin dresser’s assistant in 1861 while living at Breage churchtown. Was this the same Edward Richards, born in Breage in 1850, who died in Tombstone, Arizona in 1886?

Can you help complete our records for Breage residents in 1861?

One thought on “The rise and fall of Wheal Vor

  1. I am loving these accounts! Every one is so different. And apart from the rich detail in this one, as ever I find it interesting to know what women as well as men were doing. I see from the pie chart that their representation in various occupations was pretty similar despite differences in the naming of the occupation (farm lab/farm servant; craftsmen/ dressmaker etc). Specifically on dressmaking, interesting to know how many women were occupied in this – 11% – not sure how many were successful but to me that speaks of high demand for clothing which in turn indicates a fair degree of wealth in the community.


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