West Wheal Seton: a working mine of the 1870s

West Wheal Seton mine in 1877

West Wheal Seton was one of a number of mines around Camborne that were struggling to survive the mining depression of the 1870s. One after another, neighbouring mines were falling victim to low metal prices and their engines ceasing to pump. As a result, West Wheal Seton had almost closed in 1875, as it battled to keep its workings from flooding. However, it survived and the four-monthly account of December 1875 to March 1876 showed a recovering position. Sales of copper ore (from which metal the mine had made considerable profits in the 1840s and 50s), brought in £6,811 while tin ore sales amounted to £1,778. Meanwhile the outgoings included labour costs of £5,065, lord’s dues to Gustavus Basset of £487 and £2,571 in merchants’ bills.

Here are the details of those bills which provide a picture of a mine’s outlay at this time.

Williams, Portreath and Co.                                     £755      (coal)

William H.Rule, Camborne                                      £516     (coal, powder, grease, oil, tallow)

Camborne Trading Co.                                              £412     (coal, tallow, wood)

Williams, Perran Co.                                                 £134     (wood)

C.R.Gatley                                                                     £109     (candles)

J.C.Lanyon & Sons                                                      £107     (iron and steel)

Cornwall Candle Co.                                                    £90      (candles)

Harveys of Hayle                                                         £63      (pitwork, stamps, coal)

Cornwall Blasting Co.                                                  £50      (gunpowder)

John Mayne, Pool                                                         £28      (leather and tallow)

The mine relied on local capital even at this relatively late date. Of the 600 shares, 41% were held by individuals and companies in the Camborne-Redruth district and another 23% by investors in the rest of Cornwall. Just over a third of the shares – 36% – were held by non-Cornish based shareholders.

The largest shareholder was William Rule of Camborne, owning almost 20% of the shares in West Wheal Seton. As long as he could profit from his sales of merchandise to the mine he would presumably resist the mine’s closure. West Wheal Seton staggered on for another 15 years as a losing venture before the inevitable closure came in 1891 when its shareholders finally panicked and deserted the sinking ship.

The same area today

Of blowing houses and tin smelters

If you wander through the highways and byways of Cornwall you may well come across the name Blowing House. Where does this come from? In former times ‘houses’ were built to smelt tin, transforming tin ore, or ‘black tin’, containing other chemical elements such as oxygen or sulphur, into purer ‘white tin’. Stannary law stated that all Cornish tin had to be smelted in Cornwall. The result was a rash of small blowing houses. In these, a charge of black tin and charcoal was kept to a temperature sufficiently hot by bellows, operated by a water-wheel.

A reverberatory furnace

From 1700 to the 1850s blowing houses were gradually superseded by reverberatory furnaces. These used coal rather than charcoal but, more importantly, kept the heat source separate from the tin ore, resulting in less loss and contamination of the smelted tin. The first reverberatory furnace in Cornwall was established at Newham, just outside Truro. Tin smelting houses needed to be close to a coinage town (before 1838 when coinage was abolished), near to estuaries or the coast for the import of coal and bricks, and near a source of water-power to run the stamps used to break up slag for re-smelting.

Because of the need for large amounts of coal – at least a ton was required to reduce a ton of black tin – tin smelting was dominated by those with capital – merchants and landowners who could afford the cost of importing fuel. Sometimes they also advanced money to the mines, on the security of the tin ore that would result, thus becoming bankers. The clearest example was the Bolitho family of the Penzance district. Their control of Chyandour smelting house from the 1760s eventually led to the foundation of the Mount’s Bay Commercial Bank in 1807 which ultimately became part of Barclays.

Workers in tin smelting houses were less fortunate. The average wage of the 15 men employed at Chyandour in 1883 was 19 shillings a week, around the same or maybe slightly higher than the average Cornish labourer’s weekly earnings of the time.

Seleggan works in operation

With the extension of the railway after the 1830s, a location near the ports became less critical. Seleggan tin smelting works at Carnkie near Redruth began to smelt tin in 1887 and became the largest such works in Cornwall. By 1923 it was the only Cornish tin smelter left operating. In the late 1920s it was employing around 200 people in a continuous three shift system. The works closed in 1931 in the midst of the economic depression.

The area of the works in 1907

Geevor tin mine: its rise and fall

It’s almost thirty years since the pumps were turned off at Geevor at Pendeen and the mine was allowed to flood. Now the site of the one of the best museums and heritage centres in Cornwall, Geevor Tin Mines Limited came into being in 1911.

The area had been mined for centuries prior to this. North Levant Mine worked the area from 1851 and that had brought together older and smaller ventures such as Wheal Mexico and Wheal Stennack. However, production of tin before 1911 was relatively small, peaking at 199 tons in 1876 and dwarfed by neighbouring Levant to the south.

Production next peaked in 1918 at 439 tons of black tin and grew further during the 1920s to 811 tons in 1929. This was despite Geevor, like other Cornish mines, closing temporarily in the slump years of 1921 and 1930, when it remained shut for a year until late 1931.

Yet production resumed and by the late 1930s exceeded 900 tons. The mine remained in operation after the Second World War, despite a labour shortage that led to the migration of Italian and Polish miners to Cornwall. After the 1960s the mine extended its operations to include Levant, Pendeen Consols and Boscaswell Downs Mines, eventually including more than three square miles of underground workings.

Geevor viewed from the west

Interestingly, employment actually peaked at the mine in 1943, when there were 436 workers. Productivity at Geevor barely grew from 1914 to 1943, although it was around 50% higher than in the 1880s. By 1980, in contrast, each of the 376 employees at the mine was producing around two and a half to three times more tin than in the inter-war period.

Production hit 1,110 tons in 1973. A fall back in the later 1970s was followed by a final surge to peak at 1,344 tons in 1981. Four years later however, in 1985, the International Tin Council, a cartel of producers that combined to maintain tin prices, collapsed and the price of tin plummeted.

It had become unprofitable to extract tin from deep mines like Geevor. Struggling on for a few years, Geevor failed to receive government support and in 1988 closed, although pumping continued for another three years. Its closure was soon followed by Wheal Jane and Mount Wellington, leaving only South Crofty to fight the inevitable until it too succumbed in 1998.

Goldsworthy Gurney, the inventor of limelight

With the recent success of the Cornish film Bait, it’s an appropriate time to remember an unwarrantably obscure Cornishman. Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney was born on February 14th, 1793 at Padstow and died at Bude as Sir Goldsworthy Gurney on February 28th, 1875. Gurney’s connection with the dramatic arts is via his improvement of stage lighting.

Gurney was one of that glittering band of Cornish scientists and inventors that included Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick. At first training as a doctor and taking over a medical practice at Wadebridge at the age of 20, Gurney uprooted himself and left for London in 1820. There, he became a lecturer in chemistry and a prolific inventor, including things such as high-pressure steam jets and early telegraphy.

Bude Castle

In 1825 he had copied Trevithick and built a steam carriage. This was more successful than Trevithick’s earlier effort, proving itself between Gloucester and Cheltenham. Unfortunately for Gurney, it came to nothing in the face of opposition from horse-drawn transport interests and prohibitive tolls on steam road vehicles. From the early 1830s Gurney divided his time between London and Cornwall, settling at the small maritime and resort town of Bude. There he built Bude Castle near the beach, close to the canal that had been cut in 1823 to take sand and lime to inland farmers.

It was in the 1820s that Gurney improved on the oil lamps and candles previously used to light theatres. He directed an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime, producing a brilliant light. These lights were called ‘limes’, hence ‘limelight’. This was followed up by ‘Bude light’, introducing oxygen to an oil-lamp flame to give a more intense light, which was then ingeniously transmitted around his house by a number of mirrors.

Gurney used a similar technique when re-designing the lighting, heating and ventilation system of the Houses of Parliament, where the members were complaining of the smoke emitted by the candles that lit the place and the fetid stench that permeated the chamber. The latter was caused by a lack of ventilation and the close proximity to the Thames, rancid with sewage. Gurney installed a new furnace and a system that circulated the air more efficiently, adding his lighting to illuminate the darker corners of the place.

He was knighted for this in 1863 but soon afterwards suffered a stroke. He survived for a number of years however, and was buried at the peaceful church of Launcells, home of his first wife and close to the upper reaches of the Tamar.

Who were the richest families of late Victorian Cornwall?

In 1885 a letter appeared in the West Briton listing what were claimed to be the 27 richest men in Cornwall with their reputed incomes. Here’s the richest nine. (For a rough modern equivalent of the income multiply the figures by 120).

NameHouseAnnual income
Thomas Charles Agar-RobartesLanhydrock£75,000
John Charles WilliamsCaerhayes£60,000
Evelyn BoscawenTregothnan£50,000
Duke of Cornwall£40,000
Gustavus BassetTehidy£32,000
William Henry EdgcumbeMount Edgcumbe£30,000
Thomas Simon BolithoTrengwainton£30,000
Edward BolithoTrewidden£30,000
Sir John St AubynSt Michael’s Mount£25,000

Interesting to note that three of these families could trace their position back to the medieval period, three had become wealthy in the 1500s and 1600s and the other three were products of Cornwall’s industrial period.

One wing of Lanhydrock House was destroyed by a fire in 1881. Rebuilding was completed in 1885.

The letter appeared at a time when criticism of the landed class was growing. The correspondent, writing under the pseudonym ‘A Cornishman’, asked if it was not ‘a fact that some [on his list] are almost totally unknown in the county – unknown even by sight – absentees in fact, drawing large incomes .. but giving scarcely anything in return?’ He continued: ‘do we see them , as was the custom formerly, taking an active part in the management of our Quarter Sessions our infirmaries, our hospitals, our savings banks, and other benevolent institutions? Alas! I fear the answer must be in the negative.’

Agricultural depression in Cornwall

In the 1870s, farmers across Britain began to suffer from falling grain prices as imports started to flood in from the prairies of North America. As farmers struggled, demands for rent reductions mounted.

Cornwall was actually one of the places where rents declined far less than average. This can be explained by the extra competition for land from returning migrants and by the fact that Cornish farmers could switch more easily from arable to pastoral farming. For beef and dairy farmers lower process of grain (for fodder) was good news rather than bad. Nonetheless, some farmers were still in difficulty, as the following letter from Silvanus Jenkin, the Lanhydrock estate land agent, to Lord Robartes in December 1884 suggests.

I mentioned to you some time since that Mr Lean who occupies [Tregoid Farm at St Kew] had asked for a reduction of his rent and it was arranged that Mr Bate of Cardinham should go there and value. This he has done and practically values it in £100 a year. His present rent is £115. The courts begin tomorrow and I should be glad of your decision before the St Kew court which will be next week. Mr Lean also asked for an allowance for sheep which he lost in 1879 and for a horse that fell into a quarry. He is pretty much in arrears with his rent and I would suggest that you should give him £25 towards his losses and as it is a corn farm, I think it will be necessary to reduce the rent to £100 a year as recommended by Mr Bate. There is a very general feeling amongst the farmers that some general reduction of rent will have to be made but as far as I can judge in this county the necessity for it will not arise except as to corn farms at present

Tregoid

The Levant mine disaster

A hundred years ago today the man engine collapsed at Levant mine, Pendeen, near St Just. This was the second worse mine disaster in Cornwall’s history. Thirty-one miners lost their lives and many others were badly injured. The man engine was a device that conveyed miners to and from the surface, allowing them to avoid the former, laborious climb up the ladders at the end of their core (shift). It was invented in 1841 by Michael Loam of Liskeard, although his design owed much to similar contraptions at work in Germany. The first man engine was installed at Tresavean Mine, Lanner and it was then adopted in several of the larger and deeper Cornish mines.

A report in The Times on the disaster explained how the man engine operated.

Section of the man engine at Dolcaoth

‘It consists of a ponderous wooden beam [in fact several sections of beam bolted together] which extends from the top to the bottom of the shaft, which is 600 yards deep. At intervals of 12 feet are steps on the beam, each of which affords foothold for one person, while on the side of the shaft are stationary platforms at intervals of 12 feet. At every stroke of the engine the beam is raised and lowered, and the men step on and off the platforms and are carried up or down by the movement of the beam. It is a rather slow process, but has been carried on for years without serious accident’

That was not the case on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20th however. The Times went on to describe what happened.

‘From 100 to 150 men were on it when the change of shift was taking place. When the connecting rod broke the engine was at the top of its stroke, and the gigantic beam with its load fell 12 feet. Many of the platforms on the side of the shaft were smashed, and the men on them were knocked off and crushed. Some were unhurt and managed to reach the surface. Rescue parties brought out others, but a number of miners at different levels could not be reached …’

The engine rod had only dropped 12 feet but in doing so had taken away much of the timber work on which men were standing. The local paper, the Cornishman, carried an eyewitness account from a young miner, Robert Penaluna, who was riding on the engine at the time of the collapse …

‘When the engine broke it was a tremendous crash for in dropping she knocked away timber and everything else in her path. The engine rod on which we were travelling shook violently. The smash gave a terrible shock to us all … the screams of some of the men were awful, as they gripped the rod like grim death … I wouldn’t go through an experience like that again for the world.’