From merchanting to gardening: the Williams dynasty of Caerhays

The history of the Williams family of Caerhays in mid-Cornwall and Scorrier, Burncoose and Tregullow near Redruth is the story of Cornwall writ small. Emerging from obscurity in the later 1600s in the country between Redruth and Penryn, the family became Cornwall’s most successful mine managers and investors during the 1700s. It was John Williams (1685-1761) who settled at Burncoose, a few miles south of Redruth, around 1715. From that base ‘with untiring industry and judgment … he realised no inconsiderable fortune’, managing many of the booming copper mines of the Gwennap district and being the initiator of the ‘County Adit’, the great drainage system of the district, commenced in the 1740s.

John’s managerial talents were shared by his grandson, another John (1753-1841), who was known as ‘Old John’ to differentiate him from his eldest son, who was of course called John. Old John and his son expanded into banking. They were accepted, after some hesitation, into the circles of Cornwall’s traditional landed class who had founded Cornwall’s first banks in the late 1700s. ‘In the year 1778, with the view to being in the immediate vicinity of the several important mines he was then superintending, he enclosed and planted Scorrier, and erected the house in which he subsequently resided’. As many as a quarter of Cornwall’s copper mines, including the majority of its most productive ones, were managed at some point by one or other of the Williamses.

In 1822 the partnership of Williams, Foster and Company was set up as the family moved into copper smelting in south Wales. By this time their commercial interests stretched to London and Liverpool and overseas to Ireland. The move into smelting proved a lucrative one. Old John’s grandson was John Michael Williams (1813-80), who succeeded to the majority of the sprawling family enterprise in 1858 on the death of his father. John Michael was described towards the end of the 1800s as having been ‘probably the most wealthy man in Cornwall’.

The source of wealth: the central mining district looking east from Dolcoath at the end of the 1800s

In 1854 the Williamses had bought Caerhays ‘Castle’ near St Austell and made the transition away from the original source of their wealth. In the meantime, in the 1830s, Old John had already left Scorrier for an estate he owned at Calstock in east Cornwall. This followed his secret marriage, at the age of 79, to a young woman of 25, following the death of his wife of 56 years. The ensuing scandal and family squabble led to his hurried retirement. Caerhays had been redesigned in 1805-07 but the building work had dragged on for decades and eventually bankrupted the owners, the Trevanions. They sold out to Michael Williams. Old lineage had been ousted by new money, which soon displayed its power over the landscape by cutting down an inconvenient hill in order to provide an uninterrupted sea view from their new property.

It was John Charles Williams (1861-1939) in the next generation who made the final move from mining to gardening. He funded the cost of plant-hunting forays into central Asia and built up a huge collection of rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias. These now make Caerhays an unmissable tourist attraction in spring. From mining and entrepreneurship to garden tourism and holiday homes – Cornwall’s history in miniature.

The Dolcoath mine disaster of 1893

On September 20th 1893 a party of timbermen were working more than 900 yards (or 800 metres) below the surface in one of the deepest parts of Dolcoath Mine strengthening a stull at the 412 fathom level. A stull was a framework of large timbers set up above and/or across a stope, a worked -out area. This was done either to support the rock, in this case granite, or to hold waste rocks or ‘deads’. This particular stull was found in a massive stope, resulting in a cavity reported as being 35 to 40 yards by 10 yards and extending in height for up to 20 yards. Above this were tons of waste rock in the worked out tin lode, one of the richest in Cornwall.

The stull at the 412 level

The Barrier Miner, a newspaper at Broken Hill, New South Wales, carried the story.

About one o’ clock a mass of rock many tons in weight fell away at one of the deepest levels of the mine, known as the 412 New East, so that the men buried alive there are only just short of half a mile from the surface. It is stated that the piece of rock in question looked only suspiciously stable and that it was deemed it advisable to replace it. [In fact, what was being renewed or strengthened were the stull timbers as one was bent and concerns had been raised. New timbers, about 24 feet long and 18 inches square, were being added to the existing stull.] Steps were taken to secure this end … A pare of men, nine in number, went down to see to the matter, and while they were performing the duty allotted to them the ground gave way, the rock fell and they were buried, being shut off from  all communciation with their fellows, as it afterwards transpired, by many fathoms of debris. Their names are Thomas Pollard, Charles White, Richard James, J.H. Jennings, W.J. Osborne, Fred Harvey, J. Davies, J. Adams.

It took rescuers almost three weeks before they could retrieve the last of the bodies.

Poldark’s Cornwall

Work on an insider’s guide to Poldark’s Cornwall is proceeding apace. A month has passed and I now have first drafts of four chapters. These are The Mine, The Cottage, The Road and The Chapel. In the meantime – a taster from The Mine.

‘pick out the hard ore by the glimmering of a small candle’

Here’s Reuben Clemow, in the first book of the Poldark saga, waiting to go to work down a mine. He’s wearing an ‘old hard hat with its candle stuck to the front by clay’. Candles would be the sole source of illumination. He’s also carrying some tools, including what’s called a ‘heavy iron jumper’ in the book. This wasn’t a cardigan, but a rod, usually called a borer, used for drilling holes in the rock. But first Reuben had to descend to his place of work. This was done by climbing down ladders from one ‘level’ of the mine to the next. These ladders weren’t all vertical by any means, lying at various angles. Care had to be taken as the ladders could be worn and slippery and rungs broken or missing. Once at his workplace, Reuben and his partner would take turns holding and twisting the borer as the other wielded a hammer to beat the borer and drill it into the rock. When it was deep enough, gunpowder was packed into the hole, the powder tamped down and a fuse set and lit. The miners retired to a safe distance and waited for the resulting explosion to bring down some ore-bearing rock. Beating the borer and removing the ore and the waste rock were the two central tasks of the underground miner. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that. Expertise in knowing which way the lode of ore was trending and experience in setting the fuses in the days before the safety fuse had been invented (by a Cornishman) were all critical.

Surface work at Dolcoath mine in the 1820s

More to come next month.

The East Wheal Rose mine disaster

On this day in 1846 39 lives were lost in one of Cornwall’s worst mining disasters. This occurred at East Wheal Rose, a silver-lead mine near the village of Newlyn East. At the time it was one of Cornwall’s most productive mines, employing 1,266 men, women and children. The account in the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that between 1 and 2pm on Thursday, July 9th, ‘one of the most awful thunderstorms ever known’ had broken near the mine. ‘Dense, heavy, purple-black clouds … poured down floods of rain’. The surface of the mine was awash within minutes and the water rushed northwards, the land sloping that way. As it did so it broke into the shafts and ‘rushing down into the levels … loosened and broke the timbers beneath, the consequence of which was the falling in of some other parts of the mine northwards.’

The site of the disaster in 1879. By this time the mine had closed.

Those in the more productive southern part of the mine fortunately had time to escape. Samuel Bastian, who was working there, explained at an inquest that ‘at about 1 o’clock, the candles … were all blown out by a rush of wind, which alarmed the men … they proceeded to grass as fast as they could’. Once there they discovered the water rushing into the shafts to the north. At Michell’s engine shaft 18 men came up but then no more as the flood continued to cascade into the depths.

Another witness, Ralph Richards, stated that the men who had rushed out tried frantically to divert the water from the shafts by makeshift dams and other means, but they were unsuccessful. Around 200 men eventually escaped from the flood by climbing up the ladders or by clinging on to the chains of the whim (winding) engines that had been set to work. At the time Richards was giving his evidence 43 men were unaccounted for, but four came to surface early the following morning, the last at 7am.

One miner – Frederick Sanders – was killed at the neighbouring North Wheal Rose mine. It was stated at his inquest that, after their candles had been blown out by the rush of wind, ten miners had gathered at the engine shaft. However, ‘the water was pouring down the shaft’. ‘Deceased attempted to get up the engine shaft against the stream’. He tried to convince the others to go with him but they wisely refused. ‘He was never seen alive after that’. After ten minutes the whim engine was set to work and six of the group got to the surface by holding on to the chain, while three others managed to escape via another shaft.

The ages given in the papers of the men who were killed provide a picture of the structure of the underground labour force at this time. The median age was 23, the youngest 15 and the oldest 58.

For those interested in surnames, the names of those reported missing were Bailey, Bartle, Bennett, Bice, Bishop, Clift, Eastlake, Ellery, Hosking, Jeffery, Kevern, Lampshire, Lanyon, May, Merifield, Michell, Pearce, Pengelly, Phillips, Pollard, Rowe, Stevens, Tippet, Tonkin, Trebilcock, Waters, White, Wilkins, Williams.

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

Child labour in 1851

With schools currently closed, our children are at home learning online (or not). Back in 1851 however, many would have been working for wages. Not all would have been in full-time employment but almost half of boys aged 10 to 14 in the 1851 census in Cornwall were recorded with an occupation. For girls the proportion was a lot lower, at just over 16%.

How did this compare with other places? The child labour rate for boys in Cornwall was higher than in most other regions. Only the woollen industry of west Yorkshire and the hat- making and lace districts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire employed more boys. For girls Cornwall was less unusual. The industrial and textile regions of the English north and midlands and even Devon and Somerset saw higher rates of female child employment.

Boys (10-14) with occupation 1851
Girls (10-14) with occupation in 1851

Most of the extra child labour in Cornwall was accounted for by surface work at the mines. A flavour of this might be gleaned from interviews conducted by Charles Barham in 1841 for a commission on children’s employment in the mines. (The following is adapted from pages 109-11 of my From a Cornish Study.)

Samuel Tippet was ten years old and worked at the dressing floors of Trethellan Mine near Lanner. His work for the previous fortnight had been ‘washing up’, cleaning the stones in wooden troughs prior to their dressing.

‘He lives with his grandfather about a mile off. He pays his wages to his grandfather. Had seven shillings a month on his first ‘spurs’ and now gets ten. He sometimes feels tired when he leaves work; chiefly in the back and legs. He brings potato ‘hobban’ with him for dinner. For breakfast he gets milk and water and bread, barley and wheat mixed. For supper baked potatoes, with pork sometimes. Goes to bed at eight; likes to stay up longer.’

The working day for surface workers in 1841 was generally seven in the morning to five or five thirty, or daylight hours in winter. If ten and a half hours work with just half an hour for dinner (at some mines this was an hour and at one mine two hours) was not enough, the surface worker was sometimes faced with a considerable walk to work.

Martha Buckingham began work at Consolidated Mines, Gwennap in 1837 at the age of ten. She lived at Bissoe Bridge, about two miles and a steep hill away. In order to get to the mine by seven she had to rise at four. She left work at 5.30 (apart from sampling ore, when the days were extended from six in the morning to eight at night) and would presumably be home by seven. After supper she went to bed ‘as soon as she can’, around 9.30 or ten. Apart from Sundays therefore, Martha’s employment left little room for activities other than sleeping, walking to work and selling her labour, just two or three hours a day and none at all at sampling times.

An idiot’s guide to the life and death of Richard Trevithick

Books have been written about him, poems dedicated to him, statues erected in his honour, plaques affixed to significant buildings and locations in his life, university libraries named after him. He even has his own festival. It’s time this blog offered its own stripped-down guide to the life of Richard Trevithick as this month sees the anniversary of both his birth in 1771 in the heart of Cornwall’s central mining district and his death far away to the east in 1833.

A portrait of Trevithick painted in 1816

Known affectionately as ‘Cap’n Dick’ or ‘the Cornish giant’, Trevithick has always had a special fascination and place in Cornish memory. His reliance on practical experiment rather than theory, his physical strength, his prickly independence and his financial hopelessness somehow resonated with the Cornish psyche.

He was an inattentive schoolchild but taught himself engineering and mechanics to an advanced level for his times. By his twenties he was advising mine owners on their steam engines. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the founder of Harvey’s Foundry at Hayle, a connection from which he curiously gained little advantage. Meanwhile, his achievements can be summarised under three headings – the steam engine, steam locomotion and adventures in foreign parts.

Trevithick’s career with steam power began at a time when Cornish mines adventurers were looking to reduce their fuel costs and escape the payments they were making under Boulton and Watt’s steam engine patent. Various engineers came up with designs that improved on Watt’s engine, although they were hamstrung by legal actions until the patent ran out in 1800. However, it was Trevithick who was particularly associated with ‘high-pressure steam’. His engines eliminated the need for a separate condenser and allowed for a smaller cylinder. This generally reduced the weight and size of engines. Eventually, it led to the ‘Cornish engine’ of 1812. Thereafter, Cornish steam engines achieved levels of efficiency that were deemed impossible by the scientific theory of the time.

It was a logical step to take this more efficient, lighter engine and mount it on wheels. From 1801 to 1808 Trevithick came up with at least five versions of a steam locomotive. The first trial run at Camborne gave rise to the song ‘Going up Camborne hill’. Unfortunately, this vehicle met a sorry end on the road to Tehidy, where Sir Francis Basset was eagerly waiting to see it. After overturning, its attendants had retired to a convenient hostelry. Unwisely they left the fire burning. The boiler ran dry, overheated and everything flammable was consumed in flames.

Other attempts followed – in London, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, at Penydarren ironworks in south Wales and again in London. In the last three of these the engine ran on rails. The device worked although the rails still buckled under the weight.

Replica of the 1804 Penydarren locomotive

Trevithick spent many years adventuring and inventing in foreign parts. From 1808 to 1810 he was in London, involved in various schemes mainly connected to the river and the sea – a tunnel under the Thames, floating docks, a ship propelled by water jets, iron cargo containers, screw propellers and an early version of a turbine for example. None of these could be turned into lucrative money-spinners however and, after suffering from a bout of typhus and being declared bankrupt, he returned to Cornwall and to the steam engine.

In 1816 he left his seemingly incredibly patient wife and six children to sail to South America and Peru’s silver mines. As was his tendency he soon fell out with associates. Moreover, mining in South America was at this time severely disrupted by the wars of independence from Spanish rule. At one stage Trevithick served with the army of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. By 1822 he had left Peru and travelled through Central America to Costa Rica. On the journey he had almost been drowned and narrowly escaped being bitten by an alligator. This Central American venture also proved to be a disappointment and Trevithick found himself in 1827 penniless in Cartagena, Columbia. By an odd coincidence the railway engineer and inventor, and Trevithick’s rival, Robert Stephenson, was also in that port. Stephenson lent Trevithick £50 for his voyage home. Late that year Trevithick finally re-joined his family after an absence of 11 years.

Trevithick ended his days at a foundry in Dartford in Kent, experimenting with jet propulsion and designing stronger boilers. But in his later years he began to be plagued by breathing problems. In 1833 he contracted pneumonia and died at his lodgings. Outside Cornwall Trevithick’s achievements have tended to be overshadowed by the success of the Stephensons in developing the early railway. However, now we are nearing the end of the fossil fuel era, one of its early heroes is more widely receiving the proper respect he deserves.

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

Feasting and fasting: eating and drinking habits of miners in the 1860s

In 1862 Philip Vincent, a surgeon to several mines in the Camborne district, gave evidence to the Commission enquiring into the condition of mines. Here’s two of his answers …

Qu 10455: Who lives best; the miner or the agriculturist? – The miner is rather improvident about it; it is rather a feast and a fast with him, one day he will have his beefsteak or his good living, and the next day he will have his porridge, and then live upon broth, as they call it, for some days afterwards, and they only throw in a bone or perhaps a little bit of pork to make the porridge; but the agriculturist generally gets his regular allowance from the farmer, and so it is regulated much better than it is with the miner.

Qu 10459: Whenever he can enjoy it and has some, he will live well, even though at the expense of living badly for the rest of the week? – Yes, I have known many a miner who has gone and sat down and drank his gallon or two of beer in the evening, and then they will not touch it again for the next month perhaps. I have said to them over and over again, ‘If you will only just take your pint of beer a day for your dinner, and be content with that, instead of taking so much on your pay day, you will be a very much better man at the end of ten years than you will if you live as at present.’

The Cornish mining landscape at the end of the 1800s. View from Wheal Grenville east towards Carnkie

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.