Most readers will have seen either the new series of Poldark, or remember the old series with Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza. The old mine buildings at Pendeen, all part of the Botallack Mine, or Crown Lands, lie at the very tip of the toe of Cornwall, and they have been photographed more than any other major landmark in the area (with the possible exception of the Land's End signpost).
The mine produced copper, tin and other minerals for several hundred years but closed down in the early 1800s when the seams or reefs of ore ran out.
My great-great-great-grandfather, one Stephen Harvey-James, then took the lease on the mine and, with the help of investors, brought it back into production, becoming the Purser of the Botallack in 1836 (i.e. the head of the mine) and holding the position until his death in 1870. The post was then taken on by his son, also Stephen, who saw the reefs finally run out and production halted five years later. The elder Stephen was Purser when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited the mine in 1865.
At its greatest the mine shafts ran to a depth of 250 fathoms, or 1500 feet, and up to a quarter of a mile out to sea. In the height of a storm, the miners in the shafts and adits closest to the seabed could hear the sound of boulders and stoned being rolled around and crashing against one another in the waves.
The miners used to descend on wooden ladders, wearing leather aprons and a leather or felt hat with a candle stuck to the brim. This was their sole source of light. Miners did sometimes get lost in the maze of tunnels. Deaths were frequent in all the Cornish mines. The concept of “health and safety” didn't exist in those times.
The miners would hack out the ore and it would be taken up to the surface in buckets or tubs, using blocks and tackles or pulleys in the earlier years. Steam power, when it arrived, allowed the mines to work deeper, as they could pump out the water that always leaked through the cracks in the rocks. When they developed winches they could pull larger buckets of ore out. The ore would be spread out on wooden tables near the head of the mine and broken up into small pieces by teams of women. After the rubbish had been removed the finished ore would be sent inland to the smelters.
Sporadic attempts have been made to restart production at the mine but, even with the massive rise in the price of copper and tin, so far it hasn't proved a practical proposition. R M Ballantyne, the late-Victorian author, wrote a book about the mines called “Deep Down”. It's free on Kindle and provides a very real picture of life in a mining community. Its also very readable.
Both the Stephen Harvey-James' mentioned here are buried in St. Just Church – the churchyard there is FULL of James' in particular. Later Harvey-James' tended to go into the Indian Civil service. My cousin, Justin is, I think, the last of the Harvey-James line.
John is a member of the New Writers Scheme and is some 75000 words into his first book, based on some family history. He Tweets and posts on FaceBook incessantly.
Thank you, John for a most interesting article.
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