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The Tin Men: Miners of Cornwall


Cornwall is a long, hilly peninsula at the western foot of England where people have dug the ground for thousands of years. If there ever was one, the Cornish folk are a people of the Earth. First of all they are Celts, but they also have a long and illustrious history of mining.

The ancients knew about the mines of Cornwall for copper but even more so for their tin, easily smelted from cassiterite (tin oxide). This mineral is very heavy and fairly hard, so it forms placers in the streambeds where it erodes from Cornish granites. Cassiterite is easily smelted in a hot fire to yield high-purity tin.

So what? Tin is not a familiar metal today, except among technologists. What made tin a strategic metal in ancient times is that just a little bit mixed in molten copper produces a hard, tough alloy—bronze. Used in weapons, in farm tools, in armor and hinges and smithwork, bronze gave its owners a competitive edge. Bronze made such a difference to civilization that it lifted us out of the Stone Age into the Bronze Age.

Ancient Cornwall's Earth Traditions

The peoples of Cornwall, whether they were the aboriginal Britons who built the likes of Stonehenge or the Celtic tribes who displaced them before Roman times, paid a great deal of attention to the land around them. And as in most of Europe, extremely old Earth-related traditions lingered in Cornwall from Stone Age times.

There were the standing stones called dolmens, for instance. Perhaps these monuments were inspired by the erratic boulders that Ice Age glaciers dropped behind them, perched on hilltops and other unlikely places. But the early Europeans did nature one better by quarrying and moving very large stones into precise arrangements, for purposes we cannot be sure of today. In Cornwall in more recent Celtic times, these stone monuments were seen as centers of mystical earth energy that regulated the health of the land. Seasonal rituals centered around them, marking significant dates in the yearly cycle and centering the community in ceremony.

The Christian church could not erase these pagan rites until the stones themselves were scattered and churches raised in their place. But many are still left, and much has not been forgotten. A retired Cornish miner named Ed Prynn has created an intriguing "stone henge" on his land near St. Merryn, breathing fresh life into the old local stone traditions.

Other traditions had to do with springs and wells. Not least because clean water is essential to health, water sources were cared for with reverence. And when Christian practices came to Cornwall, the church priests associated many ancient wells with saints and holy men to displace the previous set of sacred personages.

Beliefs of the Ancient Miners

Cornwall has produced tin for thousands of years, first from the stream deposits, then from the ore in the hills. The Roman empire, and later the English and Normans, occupied the region and worked the mines with imported miners or local men. Among the foreign workers were Saxons from central Europe, bringing with them their expertise and their supernatural beliefs.

Underground miners work in danger and darkness, where the air is foul and the footing is slippery, in search of scattered pockets of rich ore. In conditions like these that put so much outside human control, the mind naturally seeks help from signs and visions, even hallucinations. That's a fair explanation for the widespread belief in the little men who live in mines. The Cornish miners, already used to the little folk called fairies or piskies, readily adopted the Saxon traditions and named the imps of the mines "knockers." These confusing, sometimes malevolent creatures have a very long history in European folklore.

Innovation in Mining Culture

In medieval Britain, the tin industry kept Cornwall relatively independent, with its own "stannary law" allowing some self-government. And tin has always been valuable, so the mines endured, going ever deeper over the centuries. Mining engineering always pushed the edge in Cornwall—for instance, the first Newcomen steam engines were adopted there to pump groundwater from the mines. Early experiments in finance and capitalism took place there. So did cooperative institutions, to care for the widowed and disabled that early capitalism left behind.

The 19th-century author W.H.G. Kingston wrote about the Cornish, "Although the wages of the miners are much inferior to those of the pitmen in the northern coalfields, yet they have advantages over their brethren, being exempted from many of the evils to which the northern miners are subjected. They have no fear of the fatal firedamp [methane gas] or sudden explosions.

"Intellectually they are also superior, as they are mostly engaged in work requiring the exercise of mind. Their wages arise from contract, and depend greatly upon their skill and energy. They mostly have gardens, which they cultivate, and when near the coast they engage in the fisheries, thus increasing their incomes and varying their mode of life."

A Worldwide Influence

As the British empire spread across the world, the sturdy Cornish miners brought with it their skills and traditions. The 19th century, a time of gold rushes, brought Cornish miners to America, Australia, South Africa, Jamaica, and Canada where many of them have remained.

My own state of California owes much of its progressive and liberal tradition to them. Bill Penrose, a man of Cornish ancestry who was born and raised in the Mother Lode country, says it better and with more authority than I can:

"The Cornish Emigrants and their descendants were and still are the bone, muscle and brains behind the development of the Mother Lode; nearly every productive hard rock mine in the length and breadth of the Sierra Lode had for its Mine Captain a Cornishman. Every Civic and private Lady's organization in the encompassed area was and is due to the leadership and spirit of 'getting things done' by ladies of Cornish bloodlines. The very heart of the history and tourist interests in the Mother Lode centers, one way or another, on Cornish backgrounds and heritage.

"We would do well to remember (or learn) that there was no welfare, unemployment insurance, social security or widow's fund for those fine ladies left destitute to raise their children alone when the dreaded silicosis (black lung disease) ravaged and ended the lives of their husbands and sole source of support. The churches, Methodist in particular, did what they could and the mining families helped out however they could but they all knew better than to seek help from the mighty English mining conglomerates; it was useless to do so. When a man was worn out, weak of silicosis or injured he was cast aside like a worn-out tool.

"I fully understand that many, if not all, ethnic groups added, and continue to add, their heritage to the Mother Lode country. However, it is doubtful indeed if any come close to the sacrifices and progress brought about by the 'Cousin Jacks' and 'Cousin Jennys.'"

Truly the Cornish are the salt of the earth.

PS: Cornwall's last working tin mine shut down only a few years ago. Since then, the region's deep mining heritage has become a destination for visitors. In person or on the Web, you can witness a working water-mill mine or "stream works." And you can learn about the coastal mines around St. Just which extended offshore, the pounding of ocean waves audible above the miners' heads.

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