The Collapse of the Cornish Tin Mines
The mines of Cornwall, England operated for over 4000 years. Then, after these four millenia of continuous human endeavour, the entire industry became extinct in little more than a single generation. When the end came, it was unexpected, swift and brutal.
Tin, the predominant metal of a number mined in the area, was a key enabler of the Bronze Age — bronze is 12% tin — a period in history which was a precursor to modern, urban civilization. The development of tin mining also propelled ancient international trade from this region to at least as far as the Mediterranean and likely beyond. There is even evidence to suggest that the Roman conquest and occupation of Britain was at least partially about securing a reliable supply of tin.
The Cornish mining industry peaked in the latter half of the 19th century when there were over 2000 tin mines. But with modern times and the awakening of efficient, steam-powered global trade, modern industry became one largely influenced by commodity prices. When low cost competition from overseas developed in the 1870s—in Australia, modern day Malaysia and Bolivia—the industrial consumers of tin quickly realized the origin of the tin just didn’t matter that much. Given the lack of any other differentiator and an unsentimental view of the world, the market went where they could get their tin supply at the lowest possible price.
Increasingly, that wasn’t Cornwall.
Miners were forced to push themselves and their technology to the limit in order to fight what was fundamentally a losing battle to lower production costs. Mine shafts became longer, steeper and pushed into increasingly riskier areas out from the coast and under the sea bed. There were reports that miners came so close to puncturing through the ocean floor — with its instantly fatal consequences — that they could hear the waves crashing against the rocks above their heads. There was no holding back the tide, or for that matter, working under it.
For a time in the 20th century, there was a rollercoaster of commodity price spikes that likely gave the industry a reason to be unreasonably optimistically and, in turn, unreasonably pessimistic. Because these cycles ran over a number of years, it was likely difficult to see the bigger picture while living in that picture. That and after 4000 years of unparalleled, unmitigated success, what reasonable person in their right mind would have ever bet against tin? In reality, though, the industry was in unrelenting, unmerciful and certain decline. There were many who either didn’t realize it, or simply didn’t want to.
When the collapse finally came, it was so fast and so precipitous that the picturesque engine houses that dot the modern Cornish landscape were built and then rapidly abandoned. In some cases even before the engine was ever assembled inside of them. The last Cornish tin mine, South Crofty, was closed forever in 1998.
Since then, the occasional commodity price rally brings along with it the dewey-eyed hope that a new age of mining in Cornwall may have finally arrived. But as prices inevitably wane, so does the enthusiasm for the deep, dirty and dangerous business of mining metal in the southwest tip of England.
The consequences of the collapse were staggering and far-reaching. Nearly one third of Cornish miners fled to more favourable parts of the world where, despite countless other hardships, their skills were highly valued and they could continue to ply their trade. Cornwall’s loss was the world’s gain however, as much of the hard rock mining expertise in the world owes at least a partial debt to the ingeniuty of displaced and then transplanted Cornish miners.
It’s strange to think that around about 1850, near mining’s zenith, a hardworking Cornish family might have aspired to nothing more or less noble than to bring forth sons who would be strong and brave enough to work the mines like their father and grandfather. Or to have daughters that might marry those miners and bring forth even more miners. Employment, even if it was the difficult and potentially lethal business of working long hours underground, was relatively certain and guaranteed a reasonable level of prosperity. Besides, they had known little else for generations, so the looming catastrophe for them would have been truly hard to imagine. When it did come, for many there was no alternative but to pack up, leave and start again somewhere else. If they were lucky enough to be able to do even that.
Cornwall survived however, eventually transforming itself over the next century from beleagured industrial landscape into an idyllic tourist destination first for city dwellers from other parts of the country and eventually for tourists from abroad enabled by cheap, reliable transportation. My own introduction to Cornwall, in fact, came through the grainy, Kodachrome® slides from my parents honeymoon in 1953. By this time Cornwall’s industrial past was relegated to pictures of quaint, delapidated mine sites on tourist postcards. But eventually that same, even cheaper transportation enabled tourists to fly over and past Cornwall on their way to warmer and more exotic destinations, presumably creating an economic echo scarily reminiscent of the days when the mines were steadily closing.
Echoes from the Past Guiding Us in the Future
Those of us who work in, or with the natural resource industries would do well to think long and hard about the calamity of the Cornish tin mines as we chart our way forward in uncertain times:
First, it can be a huge mistake to confuse ‘always has been’ with ‘always will be.’ 4000 years is a long time making the odds of the industry going bust in a given lifetime pretty slim. That family from 1850 could hardly have been blamed for assuming that because mining was all that they had ever done, it was all that they would ever do. Looking at it from their perspective, however, how could you possibly come to any other conclusion?
A large scale trend is very difficult to spot from those inculcated in the industry which it impacts. You are just too darned busy making a living to spend time thinking about something that might happen someday, somewhere down the road. Even for an individual somehow blessed with perfect insight into the future, that person often does not have the resources — primarily the time — to allow them to prepare for some sort of alternative future.
Be wary of any product, industry or service where it’s primary differentiator is price. The initial success of Cornish tin mining, in a way, was based on manufacturing a value-added product — bronze — that utilized the underlying, undifferentiated commodity. Bronze not only had monetary value, it had direct utility. It made better tools. If it’s price alone on which you compete, sooner or later that simply becomes a race to the bottom and nobody likes where that eventually ends. Turns out that the most valuable export from Cornish mines may well have been Cornish miners and the expertise they brought with them.
Of those miners, perhaps the most successful ones to emerge from the Cornish mining collapse were those who either chose — or were forced — to adapt. If they collected up their belongings, gathered their family, scraped together the fare and moved somewhere else, they stood the greatest chance of making the best out of a very bad situation. They were keenly aware of their situation and acted. This was in a time when moving away often meant never seeing your extended family again. This was also an era where heading down to the community college to retrain simply wasn’t an option, either. Not without exception, of course, but those who understood and adapted to the situation often survived and in some cases even thrived. They endured incredible hardship to get to a better place and often only then mainly for the benefit of their children or perhaps even grandchildren.
Finally, and maybe the most important lesson of all, is that even under the most dire circumstances the world does not comes to an end. In the grand scheme of things, it actually recovers quite quickly. Those fortunate enough to be tourists on the magnificent Cornish coast of the present day will likely believe there are few places on earth more perfect and more beautiful. The green fields that fall away to the sea have all but overtaken the industrial footprint that stamped itself over the region for thousands of years.
With careful stewardship, that part of it really does last forever.
©2016 Terence C. Gannon