When exactly mankind first discovered the art of smelting metal is a mystery. But what we do know is that tin has always played a major part of the history of Cornwall and its people. Up until recent years it was a vital part of our economy and our culture. And perhaps one day it will be again.
My pride in all things Cornish was well and truly pricked by the wonderful Man Engine which journeyed across Cornwall in 2016 promoting our mining heritage.
The 33ft tall mechanical giant miner certainly drew unexpectedly large the crowds wherever it went. But for me it was its creator Will Coleman’s passionate commentary on mining that filled me with enormous pride and just a little sadness.
He reminded us who were once were.
The Man Engine in Truro
Four Thousand Years of History
Tin veins are not at all common. There were very few sources in the ancient world and very few today. Mining in Asia began around 3000 years ago but the archaeological clues in Cornwall date the first tinners here at around 1000 years before that. Four thousand years of history!
Many of the earliest signs of the industry come from prehistoric finds in old tin-working sites discovered during later mining activity. Finds from the early Bronze Age are very rare but have been unearthed at 4 sites in Cornwall. At St. Erth, Caerloggas Down near St. Austell, Levalsa Moer near Pentewan and the Carnon Valley near Truro.
Part of Carnon valley
The early methods for extracting tin were very basic and known as ‘streaming’. In certain river valleys the tin was so abundant that the mineral could quite literally be picked up out of the river bed. The sand, earth and general debris were gathered and ‘washed’ so that the heavier tin deposits were left behind.
William Jory Henwood
One man took a very particular interest in the tin ground of the Carnon valley, near Truro. His name was William Jory Henwood (Jan 1805- Aug 1875). He was a member of the Royal Society and had written unprecedented papers on rocks and minerals, travelling the world for his work.
Henwood wrote numerous articles for the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and it is one of these papers published in 1873 which particularly interests me.
It is snappily titled ‘Observations on the Detrital Tin-Ore of Cornwall’. In it he describes a very unusual discovery made on 29th March 1823 by workers in part of the Carnon Valley Stream works.
An Ancient Discovery
“About half way from Tarnon-dean [Tarrandean] to the Arsenic manufactory” the workers “were removing a quantity of mud” and ” at sixteen or eighteen feet below the surface. Some 2 or 3 tons of large, rough angular masses of quartz were found resting on a bed of silt, shells and vegetable matter. Immediately beneath the stones, at some 22 feet below high water an entire human skeleton was discovered.” Henwood goes on to describe the scene in great detail and the original article includes sketches of the position of the find.
Henwood’s drawing of the Carnon Valley skeleton
Some of the more interesting points include that the body was enclosed within a frame of roughly hewn pieces of timber, possibly oak. That it faced north, the knees were drawn up and the right arm was above the head. The remains were lying on the surface of the tin ground. No hair, cloth or any other objects were found apart from the skull, teeth and antlers of a red deer stag nearby. An examination determined that it was the prehistoric remains of a man roughly 5’5″ tall. He had good teeth and was no more than middle aged when he died.
Henwood adds that the remains created deep public interest and so the discovery was left on view for some time. The skeleton was then given to the Royal Institution of Cornwall (now Truro Museum) who have since apparently ‘misplaced’ it.
How this man died and how he came to be buried isn’t clear. It is worth noting that the hills around the Carnon valley are dotted with numerous ancient barrows. Many now sadly disappearing into housing estates or being ploughed up by farming. And the whole area is considered to be a prehistoric cemetery site. Was it the tin that brought them there?
Gold and tin from this same valley was also used in the amazing Nebra Sky Disc, found in Germany.
The skeleton (now lost) is also not the only evidence of this valley’s ancient past, on display in Truro Museum is a beautiful tinner’s pick.
It was dug up in 1790 but dates from around 2000BC. The tool is made from a deer antler and is one of two that were found. (That same 18th century dig also unearthed a skeleton but I am unable to find any details about it.)
Other finds included oak shovels, one of which is also on display, a tin bowl and a Bronze Age flat-axe 15.5cm in length. Also interestingly Murray writes in his ‘Handbook for Devon and Cornwall, 1859’ that fossilized ‘trunks of trees’ were discovered at the same site.
The Carnon valley river flows into Devoran creek, near Perranarworthal and from there out towards the Fal and the open sea.
The observations of William Pryce demonstrate the extent of the mining industry in just this one small area of Cornwall around 1708.
He writes that:
“the low lands and sands under Perran Arworthall [sic], which are covered almost every tide with the sea, have, on its going off, employed hundreds of poor men, women and children washing the tin ore out of them, as they are incapable of earning their bread by any other means”.
Rich with Tin
Although mining for tin has now ended it is worth remembering that work still continued in the valley up until the 1980s and with good reason.
Henwood says that “the tin ground was nowhere else so rich as at the confluence of the Carnon valley with the vales which extend through Perran Wharf and from Taran-dean [sic] through Perranwell”.
He paints us a vivid picture with this description from 1855:
“The tin was found in boulders or rounded lumps, varying from the size of a man’s fist to a grain of sand, the smallest generally the richest. But I have seen lumps as large as a man’s fist nearly pure black tin”
Just this glancing look at our mining heritage reveals such a rich past that it becomes easier to understand why some many in Cornwall greeted the Man Engine with such joy and enthusiasm.
Despite the fact that hardly anyone in Cornwall still works in the industry as a people we have an infinitely long and strong connection with the ground beneath our feet. Our home was once the centre of the tin mining industry right from its birth in the Bronze age through to its unhappy end not so long ago.
The remains of this long association dot our countryside and it seems it is still very much part of our national Cornish identity.