Cornwall has a colourful history of smuggling, piracy and mining, and though much of the landscape has been left unspoilt, there are many remnants of its industrial past. This dramatic coastline was the inspiration for Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, set in 18th-century Cornwall and which have since been made into a BBC TV series.
The Tin Coast – part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage site – still retains glimpses of Cornwall’s tin and copper mining heritage. Running from St Just to Pendeen, along the west coast, Botallack is considered one of the best preserved examples of a Cornish tin mine.
Early records suggest there was tin mining in the area from at least the 1500s, but evidence of Cornish tin trading dates back thousands of years.
Archaeological evidence indicates that tin may have been mined here as long ago as the Roman era or even Bronze Age. By the 19th century, there were more than 2,000 tin mines in the county. Botallack, near St Just, is a former submarine mine, meaning its tunnels stretch out under the sea, in this case for around half a mile. Miners mostly relied on hammers, chisels and gunpowder to get the ore out of the ground. It’s believed that during the mine’s lifetime, 14,500 tonnes of tin and 20,000 tonnes of copper were produced at Botallack, as well as 1,500 tones of arsenic.
This poisonous element – a by-product of tin and copper mining – was used in paint until the end of the 19th century, and in weed killers until the 1940s. Mining was already a dangerous occupation, but this added hazard meant that miners had to ensure that any exposed skin was covered in clay, and that they covered their mouth and nose with rags.
Conditions in the mines were extreme – temperatures would soar quickly and ventilation was poor. The only light was from candles, which were often blown out by draughts. !e ladders used to descend down the shafts could also be precarious as one wrong step or broken rung could equal a devastating fall. !ose working above ground – often women – escaped the terrors below, but were still exposed to the harsh elements of the Atlantic coast.
The ruins at Botallack include the engine houses of the Crowns mine as well as the remnants of Wheal Owles mine, where tragedy struck in 1893. In January of that year, it was closed permanently after the shaft flooded, killing 19 men and a young boy.
The count house at Botallack was used as an office for the purser – the person in charge of accounts and financial matters – and managerial staff at the mine. It was also where the miners collected their wages. The house was grand in its design, compared to others in the area – this was intended to instil faith in the mine in the minds of the shareholders. The count house workshop now serves tea and cake for visitors to the Cornish coast, but it was once a stable for the mine horses and the carpenter’s workshop.
A pumping engine was built at the base of the cliffs in the early 1800s, but this was later replaced by the engine houses that can still be seen today. Known as the Crowns Pumping Engine Houses, they perch precariously on the cliffside. Their dramatic location makes them a popular photograph opportunity and has seen them become television stars.
In the current BBC series Poldark, the ruins around Botallack play a starring role as Wheal Leisure, the mine that Ross Poldark resurrects on his return to England. Botallack was also used during the filming of the original 1970s series. Botallack mine closed in 1895 due to a decrease in tin and copper prices. Many other mines across Cornwall had already closed by this time.
Did you know?
Visitors to Botallack increased after 1865, when the Prince and Princess of Wales – later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – paid a visit. So many people wanted to follow in their royal footsteps that the mine began charging a guinea per head for a tour.
3 more historical sites in Cornwall
For avid Poldark fans, the nearby Levant Mine is another series filming location – it was the Tressiders Rolling Mill.
Perched on the edge of the cliffs is an intriguing Bronze Age tomb where pottery and bones have been found.
St Michaels’ Mount
Across the water from Penzance lies the tidal island and castle of St Michael’s Mount – legendary home of the giant from the fairy-tale Jack the Giant Killer.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed