Standing with his arms flung wide, as if about to launch himself from his plinth, the statue of the miner looks down the steep hill of Redruth’s main street. In one hand he clasps a pole pick and in his other hand, palm turned skyward, he grasps a shiny ingot of tin. But there is no work for this bronze man, his purposeful stance is inane, by the time he was placed here in 2008 he merely represented all that the town had lost.
He became a memorial to a grand and vanished past that perhaps few of the shoppers passing beneath him wished to be reminded of.
Mining was the source of this area of Cornwall’s wealth but also it’s undoing. After the industry collapsed this region became one of the poorest areas in the whole of Europe. For more than 400 years mining was in the very souls of many of the people living here but today that seems very distant from the sad realities of vacant buildings, high unemployment and poverty. The only industry thriving in Camborne and Redruth is in the charity and pawn shops.
When South Crofty tin mine closed in 1998 it was the final blow in a long and painful decline for the mining of metals in Europe. There had been some futile, desperate attempts to save it, one campaign asked every man, woman and child in Cornwall to donate £1 of their own money to help the mine stay open. After all the mine’s closure wasn’t due to lack of tin – there is still an estimated 44,000 tons waiting in the damp, dark rocks a mile beneath the traffic. But nothing could be done, the piece of tin was too low and the costs too high. In the end 200 men had to walk away and imagine the maze of tunnels they had left behind slowly filling with water.
Emerging from beneath the ground on that final day miner Tim Pellow said “We are just glad it is over one way or another. It was like a mortuary down there”.
Nearly 20 years later looking down from the lofty granite outcrop of Carn Brea the dark needles of numerous mine stacks still punctuate the view. These red brick-built columns are as much a part of this region’s landscape as the soaring Atlantic cliffs, ancient church towers or bramble-covered hedgerows. This area of Pool, Camborne and Redruth was at one time known as the richest square mile in the world. The scramble for rare reserves brought the Cornish enormous wealth and saw them and their culture spread across the globe.
Cornwall has always maintained a strong connection to its mining heritage and to a certain extent a mining network still remains mostly obviously in the form of Camborne School of Mines. The college is one of the few places in the country where industry professionals are trained.
Over the summer a 10m tall mechanical puppet of a miner known as the Man-Engine was made to celebrate Cornwall’s mining past and attracted enormous crowds as it toured the county. However when the latest in a long line of investors began promising a miraculous revival of South Crofty many locals it seems were less optimistic.
There is very little heart left in a community which has become so used to disappointment.
Holman Brothers Ltd, a factory producing mining equipment, was founded in Camborne in 1801. This company’s products were sold worldwide and in its heyday it employing between three and four thousand men. At the end of the working day the mass exodus of employees was more like to a scene from the industrial north of England than a quiet Cornish town. The business continued to expand through the 19th and 20th centuries. Then in 1968 the company merged with Broomwade to form CompAir Holman. At first the business seemed secure but then sadly and to the community’s surprise all connection with Camborne ceased in 2003 when the company announced that it was to close its factories there. It was a painful blow to an already beleaguered region and another blow to the countries mining connections.
South Crofty mine’s dark metal headgear can be seen for miles around, a relic and a cruel reminder, outlined against the sky like a giant insect on stick legs. At various intervals in the intervening years its wheels have turned again as, to great excitement and fanfare, a brave new company has tried optimistically to bring her back to life. Each attempt has ended in quiet failure and hope has turned to sour regret.
The new owners of the site, Strongbow Exploration Inc, who acquired the mine this spring are as confident as their name implies and say that they will be opening South Crofty for business in as little as two years. This is no philanthropic enterprise though, the price of tin is reaching for an all-time high.
|Uses for Tin
Tin is mainly used for solder and tin plate, but tin and tin compounds have very wide range of applications in plastics, ceramic and coating agents, specialised glass, fire retardants, cement and electronics. The primary metal in cans is actually sheet steel coated with a thin layer of tin and it is also widely used in bakeware.
The world’s largest exporter of tin, Indonesia, has recently been affected by new trading laws and more stringent environmental regulations. This, along with the flooding and subsequent closure of its smelting operation on Bangka Island, has led to a 69% year on year drop of the country’s exports of the metal. In addition China the world’s largest producer of tin has, according to Reuters, also increased its import demand for the metal. The increase of 75% in 2016 comes as they too face environmental inspections and their open-cast mining operations slow. All this has led to the price of tin rising to over $20,000 per ton in August 2016, compared to a low of $5000 in 2005.
But there is also another element, as yet unmentioned in Strongbow’s press releases, to consider – Indium. This precious rare material which is used in the production of touch screens was reportedly found at South Crofty in 2011. Kevin Williams, the mine’s director at the time, called it “a very significant discovery” and it was estimated that there could be as much a £200million worth of the mineral as yet untapped.
Richard Williams, the Chief Executive Officer and President of Strongbow Exploration Inc. since 2015, said of the company’s new enterprise, “We believe that South Crofty represents one of the best tin opportunities currently available globally”. Strongbow it seems is definitely looking to expand its portfolio also buying up tin properties in Alaska last year.
As for the locals after so many previous disappointments they are less inclined to hope this time. Josh Johnson, 25, used to play around the disused mine as a child doesn’t think that its revival will create any jobs for local people. “I think that the skills are now non-existent, you can no longer just go to work in a mine . . . it’s a job that requires a higher education. I think that it could simply create more intolerance of the people who move to Cornwall for the work.”
Richard Williams from Strongbow recently said that he was hopeful the scheme would provide new jobs and give boost to the local economy.
“If we get this into production I am sure it will bring other investors into the region.” But of course it is the “if” that many find so concerning.
Roger from Goldsithney said wryly “I’d guess that after all the false starts by now Camborne people might say they’ll believe it when it happens! Personally I am sceptical . . . “Mining in two years” has been an all too frequent unfulfilled prophecy at Crofty.”
Further down Redruth’s high street from the bronze miner there is another sculpture. This time it is an incongruous pack of hounds made from moulds of miner’s boots. This cluster of sculptures, which cost an “unjustifiable” £30,000, serves as another symbol of what mining here has become.
Some however feel it is time for some positive thinking, “It will be great for Cornwall to have an industry that’s not tourism. Real jobs for people in the area” commented David Cornish, 34 from Truro. “If it did reopen eventually [local people] might find renewed aspirations” added Rob Sticker, 42 from Helston.
But until something changes or Strongbow realizes its objectives it seems mining will remain just the subject a glossy TV drama series and inspiration for some “grotesque” and over-priced statues of dogs. Will it ever again provide this region with the industry and pride it once enjoyed? Or has mining really been lost to the Cornish forever?
“Cornish lads are fishermen & Cornish lads are miners too.
But when the fish & tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?”
Graffiti on wall outside South Crofty Mine c1998