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Newsletter 115, Winter 2016  © Hampshire Mills Group

Cornwall Study Trip - Part 2

 Sheila M Viner

Photos by Andy Fish and the author


The third day of our trip started with a visit to the King Edward Mine Museum. 


In 2006 the UNESCO World Heritage Site Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape was created, containing old mining areas and their communities.  The damp and misty morning imbued the abandoned mine-littered countryside with an ethereal, romantic atmosphere.

The original Camborne School of Mines was in the centre of Camborne, but moved in 1897 to the abandoned eastern part of the South Condurrow Mine a mile or so away.  It was renamed King Edward in 1901 and all of the buildings from that period have survived to this day.  In fact King Edward Mine, now more than 100 years old, is the oldest complete mine site in Cornwall.

Museum Director Alan Renton explained how the King Edward Mine had now become a museum as the actual School of Mines moved to the new university campus at Tremough, just outside Penrhyn, in 2005.  Alan explained how this mine had played such an important role in educating miners, giving them hands-on experience.  We had seen some of the machinery at Blue Hills Tin Streaming Mine which had been our first mining visit:  stamps, vanners, dipper wheels, buddles.  These, we learned, were superseded by hydro-sizers, pumps and central electric controls.  Advice from a former tin dresser, Willie Uren, helped the museum staff know about the tin mining processes.

Today Camborne School of Mines is considered as one of the best known mining colleges in the world and students come from all parts of the globe.  In 2012 the 34th International Mining Games was held at King Edward Mine;  teams were from Australia, Germany, Netherlands, USA, and UK.

Alan gave a good overview of the mine and school and our guided walk around the machinery married with the well-presented exhibits.  One of the volunteers we chatted to was John Beale, who had spent some of his youth in the 1940s as a Bevin Boy.  



The Big Dipper, an enormous 15ft iron wheel was silent and still.  Trembling flat tables bearing streams of water jiggled the ore into assorted ducts and on a “buddle” or round table, a circulating heather brush swept the ore down grooved channels (pictured left).

Progressing from the mine to the mill, which is where the tin ore was processed more recently, we saw a great deal of rare equipment which would have been in daily use in the early 1900s.  They are thought to be amongst the last examples of their kind anywhere in the world.



The museum exhibits and displays covered every item of mining life from the style of clothes, helmets with candleholders, carbide lamps, hard fibre helmets, electric lamps, to hard plastic helmets.  Other photographs showed us a mine manager, William Thomas and his daughters, Christiana and Olive, who worked at King Edward Mine.  We read of the dangerous working conditions and learned of a dreadful disaster in 1906, when at the Marriott Shaft, a roof collapsed at 200 fathoms plunging a cage carrying the mine manager and 2 surveyors to their deaths. 

Reluctantly we left our absorbing time at King Edward Mine to speed coastward for the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, and lunch.  The sun shone on us at “The Nerve Centre of the Empire” as the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum has been called, because submarine cables from here connected this hub to the rest of the world.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern was employed for this pioneering work as a transatlantic cable laying ship because its size made it the first choice to lay the original cables that linked the administrative and military outposts of the British Empire.  By the time the system was completed, Britain's government had a method of effective communication with its civil servants and military commanders throughout the world.  

Many problems were experienced with the first cables as the too small diameter created too great a resistance to the voltage used making the signal too weak to be reliable.  Attempts to increase the voltage resulted in insulation breakdown and subsequent failure of the telegraph link.  These days, heavily armoured cables across the shoreline ensure against damage and a lighter construction technique is used at depth on the ocean floor.  Cables are now usually fibre optic and therefore much lighter in construction.  

At the outbreak of World War 2 existing surface installations were thought to be far too vulnerable to attack and so in 1941 miners were employed to cut tunnels into the solid granite of the valley's hillside to house the telegraphy equipment.  Certainly an unforgettable experience for several HMG members was a tour which Andy Fish describes:



“Alison, Ros, Peter, and Andy ventured up 'The Escape Stairs', all 120 steps up a steep tunnel cut through the bedrock. Headroom is slightly restricted in places and it is necessary to wear a hard hat;  it was still quite a painful experience when you banged into the low roof though!  The stairs were built at the same time as the tunnels that contain the heart of the relay station and were to allow safe evacuation in the event of an attack.  They now form a part of the visitor experience, leading to a viewing platform overlooking the whole site area and out to sea.”

There are many telegraph related displayshoused in the tunnels within the museum which was actually started by former employees of Cable & Wireless from the company's Holborn headquarters in London.  The building remained a training college for the communications industry until 1993.

One hundred years after it first began its operations, the Porthcurno Telegraph facility closed in 1970.


Our last visit of the day was to another part of the part of the UNESCO-listed mining area, Botallack, in the parish of St Just.  Romantic, picturesque views are all around;  derelict stone buildings that once housed the busy mining enterprises stand forlorn with engine houses perched on the craggy cliffs. 

The earliest known records for mining activity in this part of the St Just region date back to the 1500s although it is said that some archaeological evidence points to mining here during the Roman era and even earlier, the Bronze Age.  

During its recorded lifetime this submarine mine with tunnels extending far out under the sea produced around 14,500 tonnes of tin, 20,000 tons of copper, and 1500 tons of arsenic.  It is estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of waste would have been dug up along with the minerals.


Botallack calciner and arsenic works


The renowned Crowns engine houses (pictured left) which cling to the steep cliffs along with the more inland counting house and arsenic works are all in the care of the National Trust.

An enjoyable afternoon’s ramble along the South West Coast Path to the Levant Mine (visited the previous day) can be had following the ‘High Bal Walk’ footpath guide.

In 1865 the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Botallack and descended a new diagonal shaft and

in so doing created a small boom in tourism that caused the mine operators to charge visitors one guinea per person.  30 years later the mine closed as a result of falling tin and copper prices but in the 1970s the area found fame again when it was used for filming the first Poldark series:  Manor Farm, Botallack, was used as Nampara in both that and the BBC’s new version of Poldark.


We had had another action packed day of assorted visits, giving rise to much discussion over the evening meal.

On the last day of the study trip, we visited Wheal Martyn, Cornwall’s China Clay Museum.  China Clay is an important Cornish industry which is still going strong.


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