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Newsletter 114, Autumn 2016  © Hampshire Mills Group

Cornwall Study Trip - Part 1

 Sheila Viner

Photos by Keith Andrews, Eleanor Yates, and the author



Thursday 19 May saw an early morning start from Hampshire for 11 HMG members as we set off for our four day Cornwall Study Trip;  Mick Edgeworth was to have been ’twelfth man’ but, having sustained a back injury, had to opt out.  Several of us were picked up from Eleanor Yates’s and Ruth Andrews’s houses in Winchester where we were generously allowed to leave our cars.  Andy Fish once again was our driver and he took us on an enjoyable route which followed the coast road through Dorset, joining the A30 through Devon. 

We arrived at our first mill of the trip, in the Tamar Valley on the National Trust estate of Cotehele, just over the Devon border in Cornwall.  A pleasant, leg stretching walk from the car park through woodland alongside the stream to the sturdy, stone built Cotehele Mill gave us an energising bit of exercise.  


Inside we chatted with both John (in charge of the weighing and bagging process) and Sally Newton who became the miller in 2011;  she had learned her flour milling craft skills from Geoff Wallis at Houghton Mill in Cambridgeshire. The previous miller, Peter Langsford, was the last in his family who had worked the mill for nearly a century, retiring in the mid-1960s.  In 2001 The National Trust restored this mill to full working order producing flour again. 




We, having learned about Cotehele Mill’s history, went and had a good look at the cast iron waterwheel fed from a high, long, wooden launder; its 56 buckets each hold 9 gallons of water and, when milling on their regular 2 days a week, normally rotates at four revs per minute;  at that speed it can produce a maximum of 8.7hp/6.5kw as part of the estate’s hydroelectric scheme.  Originally the wheel powered 2 sets of stones but only one set is used now. 


An amble further up the path led to the turbine hut where there was a good, informative display and sight of the plant, powered independently of the mill from the Morden Stream, typically producing 3.7kw at 230 volts with a modest amount contributed to the National Grid.  On the path to the mill we had passed through a cluster of stone buildings which are now housing craftsmen producing pottery and chairs formed from Cornish timber.  It is also possible to holiday there in self-contained mill cottages.





Hidden in a deep valley just a few miles away at Veryan, our next mill was built in the 16th century of stone replacing earlier wood constructions.  We found a warm welcome of home-baked scones, clotted cream, and pots of tea were waiting for us.

Although no longer working, the little Melinsey Mill still has all its grain milling equipment and a 16ft iron waterwheel, cast in a Truro foundry in 1882;  artefacts from other local trades such as sawyer and blacksmith were stored and on show, whilst a willow man and other willowcraft creatures, made by the owner, awaited the more adventurous among us along a winding path beside the small river.



Our visit here was a delightful interlude in an enchanting place and we reluctantly left, but, we were wearying and so sped on to our accommodation for the next 3 nights at the Travelodge just outside Bodmin.  Once installed, we only had a matter of yards to trek for our evening meal as a licensed restaurant had been built right next door.  

The Blue Hills Tin Streams was our first destination of day two and our introduction into Cornwall’s mining industry and what a superb visit this was – excellent displays, detailed demonstrations and explanations covering every aspect of winning pure tin.  Mark Wills learned the art of tin stream mining from his father as the Wills family were tinners for generations and owned this site.  Originally the tin streamers worked the alluvial sands and gravel on the beaches and valley floor, becoming miners later, tunnelling into the hillsides and sinking shafts deep below.  The Blue Hills Sett became, in 1810, a co-operative of the many smaller mines giving employment to 100 men and their families until it closed in 1897.





We watched how the tin was ‘teased’ out of crushed raw ore with Mark’s deft movements panning on a Cornish shovel.  We then went outside to see the water-powered stamps crushing the blocks of ore.  The alternated, calibrated movements of rise and fall of the stamps were mesmerising.

Next we heard about the sorting of ores, then washing and jigging – where the shovel is now replaced by a sloping, grooved flat bed with water played onto it and a mechanism to jiggle the assorted ores into various collecting tanks.  Women played an important part in this industry carrying out many of the sorting and washing tasks by hand;  they were called bal maidens.  Another craft Mark Wills has developed is in making fine, pure tin jewellery which can be purchased in their shop.  I bought a peace dove pendant to wear as a tribute to the families who had endured such tough working lives.

Andy Fish’s superb driving skills, already demonstrated on the increasingly narrow, and tortuously steep winding lanes to and from the Blue Hills Tin Streams, steered our valiant minibus to a superb lunch of a freshly baked, traditional Cornish pasty at Philps family bakery in Hayle (see front cover).

Thus fortified we headed for the ‘mine under the sea’ which is in the St Just Mining District, now forming part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining World Heritage Site.  One of the most ancient hard rock tin and copper mining areas in Cornwall it is now owned by the National Trust.  The Levant Mine and Beam Engine originally opened as a copper and tin mine but, tin proved the more abundant of the two elements.  Surprisingly arsenic was a lucrative but deadly by-product of tin ore that was used all over the world as an insecticide.  

Levant Mine first appeared on a map in 1748 but the Levant Mining Company was not formed until 1820;  the next 110 years saw a number of highs and lows in their fortunes.  Tragedy had struck the mine in 1919 when 31 miners plunged to their deaths as a connecting rod on the man engine (which was to have taken them down to the working levels) broke.


The Levant whim engine is the only one of its kind still working in situ:  it is a beam engine, double acting 24inch cylinder with a 4ft stroke, built by Harveys of Hayle in 1840 and rebuilt by Hocking & Loam in 1862 with a new cylinder and valve-gear after an accident which caused the flywheel to be thrown through the roof!  This engine worked continuously for 90 years at its task of raising ore and only stopped when Levant was abandoned in 1930. Levant Mine had subsea levels reaching out to distances of up to 2 miles. 

Whilst men endured highly dangerous and uncomfortable work practices their womenfolk endured backbreaking and arduous tasks in completing the production of pure copper and tin.  During the 19th century women broke clods of ore, sorted and dressed it during a long working day of 7am to 5pm regardless of age, ranging from 9 to 90.  The majority of work was done in the open air and the bal maidens were expected to work in almost all weathers, only stopping if the water for dressing the ore had frozen or had failed due to drought.

The coastline and geography combined with the abandoned workings evoke feelings of raw beauty, plus sadness and awe at the tenacity and endurance of the Cornish in those times.


Lamorna was our last destination of the day and we arrived to see the little Kemyel Mill tucked against a steep hillside amidst a profusion of tall, lush garden plants and wild vegetation in an area once famed for its colony of artists.  The mill we viewed was originally one of two and this was the upper mill.  It is owned by a lady whose family worked it for 500 years and she still lives in the Mill House although we were a little disappointed to find the mill locked and not opened to view as we had expected, but we made do with peering in its window and wandering down to the turbine housed in the Lower Mill and powered by the tail water from the Grade 2 listed flour mill above.  



Tony Yoward was grateful for the millstone left as a seat beside the Upper Mill where he had a good view of the overshot waterwheel, the shrouds of which were cast by Isaac Willie of Helston in 1907.  The wheel’s wooden buckets had long since disintegrated.

Historic England’s list entry tells us that this particular building was probably erected in the 18th century and comprises “Granite moorstone rubble walls with some dressed moorstone.  Grouted scantle slate roof at rear, replaced with corrugated asbestos at the front.  Wheel has cast-iron hub and segments, oak spokes.  The machinery has been taken out.”   West Country mill historian, Martin Bodman, states that Upper Mill has also been known as Bossava Mill.

This visit to the beautiful and restful valley in Lamorna gave a calming end to a day crammed with new experiences and learning.  This article concludes the first of two – the second one, spilling the beans on where we went next, will appear in the Winter Newsletter.

A record of the mines and other industries is excellently presented in Industrial Archaeology of Cornwall by A C Todd and Peter Laws, published by David & Charles in 1972.  It carries a dedication to Rex Wailes for inspiring so many in the field of industrial archaeology.



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