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From 1700 to the 1850s blowing houses were gradually superseded by reverberatory furnaces.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.

Trouble at mine

On New Year’s Day in 1872 the miners at Wheal Basset near Redruth decided to take a day’s holiday. The following day the mine captain – Abraham James – fined them 2/6 each, the equivalent of around 10% of their weekly wage. All hands at the mine then struck work in protest. The West Briton reported that ‘this has caused a great sensation in the district, and the feeling is that the men rather than pay the fine, will leave the mine.’

all quiet at Basset Mine now

In fact the miners returned to work on the 4th, ‘the committee having decided that the spall should not be enforced … It seems that for some years New Year’s Day has been considered a holiday in most mines, and if the men have worked on that day they have been paid extra.’

This was also a time of labour shortage and booming tin prices, one of the all too few periods after the mid-1860s when the balance of power leaned towards the working miner rather than the mine management and adventurers.