Gwennap: from riches to ruins

Mary Ann Kneebone was the daughter of John Kneebone, a mine engineman in 1861, and his wife Mary. They lived in the small hamlet of Trevarth in Gwennap, at that time one of Cornwall’s most populous parishes, home to over 10,500 people.

Ten years earlier, John had been tin mining in Crowan a few miles to the west, but had moved to Gwennap in the mid-1850s. There, he would have been employed at one of the copper mines that had catapulted Gwennap from rural obscurity to industrial leading edge during the eighteenth century. Consolidated Mines, United Mines, Poldice and Wheal Jewell in the parish were among Cornwall’s greatest copper producers at the end of the 1700s. In the 1850s United Mines was still one of Cornwall’s most productive mines. For a brief period Gwennap had become known as the richest square mile of ground in the world, although the vast majority of the teeming mining population of the villages of St Day, Carharrack and Lanner saw little of this wealth.

Mary Ann married Joseph Uren, a 23 year old miner, in 1868 at the young age of 18. In the meantime, a major depression had cast a looming shadow over Gwennap’s copper mines. But Joseph was fortunate, finding work in a local mine seeking tin. The pair lived in a cottage on the slopes of Carn Marth in 1871 with their daughter Mary, known as Minnie.

Scarred landscape left by mining

It isn’t clear where they were in the 1881 census but by that time tin mining had also suffered a huge crash in the mid-1870s. The population of Gwennap was on the slide, falling relentlessly from its peak of almost 11,000 in the late 1830s/early 1840s to 5,662 in 1901. By the later date the parish had become a living museum. Its silent mines, shattered landscape and wrecked and roofless engine houses stood as bleak testimony to its glory days and its fall from grace.

Mary and Joseph must have weathered the storm as a son was born to them at Pennance on the side of Carn Marth in 1886. But by 1888 they’d had enough and departed for the States as a family group. In 1889 Mary married her second husband, James Holland at Iron Mountain, Michigan. Had Joseph died on route or soon after arriving? Or had he died before Mary left with the children and was not party of the family group? The latter seems unlikely but the sources are not transparent.

Carn Marth viewed from the west around 1910