Saturday, February 25, 2012

The tin miners

Tin Miners in England. A 1939 painting by Harold Harvey (1874-1941). Image from Bonhams art auctions

There are very few paintings of miners at work. The dark and cramped world of mines was not accessible to painters and probably it wasn't even interesting for them. There are just a few exceptions; one is the painting above, made by Harold Harwey, a painter from Cornwall who was interested in the local life and the local characters.

The two miners in the painting have names: Sidney Angrove (left) and Nicholas Grenfell (right) (as reported by Bohhams). The painter shows the miners in a moment of relax; while one of the two smokes a pipe. There is no hint of the hard work in the tunnels, below, but the image is nevertheless permeated of a certain melancholy. It was a world that was already in decline when the painting was made, in 1939.

It is in Southern England that we can find the earliest mines in the world. 10,000 years ago there were already mines where ancient miners laboriously broke the fine limestone that we call chalk with deer antlers to seek for ochre and flint. Today, the ancient tunnels dug at that time still exist, we can still see the smoke left by the miners' oil lamps and find the tools left by them. In some tunnels, we can find human skeletons; perhaps miners surprised by a collapse or, maybe, sacrifices to the divinities of the depth.

Mining tin in Cornwall is somewhat more recent, but it still goes back to about 2000 BCE. It continued for millennia, throughout the 20th century. The last tin mine in Cornwall (also the last working tin mine in Europe), was closed in 1998. There is an old Cornish ballad, reported in wikipedia that goes "Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. / But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?"

Slowly, we are emptying the Earth of its mineral treasures. Then, what will we do?

h/t to my wife Grazia for the image of the tin miners


  1. Very true, Ugo.

    As a child growing up in England we used to get taken down Cornish tin mines for educational purposes. We also were taken to the town of Ironbridge - so called because of its, well, iron bridge - which was a remarkable early feat of the industrial revolution.

    How dull we all found it!

    Today, of course, I am fascinated.

    The Cornish needn't worry just yet, in any case. Even if the fish and tin run out, there's a growing torrent of tourists visiting this beautiful area as foreign holiday become increasingly unaffordable.

  2. Ugo,

    it is clear, we will go to mine *outside* the planet Earth, as any clever economist would suggest - the technology is, however, up to some other scientific branch...


  3. Sorry Ugo, your article is too pessimistic.

    There is a considerable investment being made in South Crofty to re-open it. The high prices for certain metals will mean that some of these mines become economic again and South Crofty may have recoverable copper, zinc and silver as well as tin. Investment is going to a South Devon mine for tungsten.

    Incidentally, Cornwall does not have limestone rock for flint. I think you are referring to Grime's Graves in Norfolk.

    In the bronze age, Cornwall produced copper as well as tin. A recent bronze age 'hoard' was found on St Michael's Mount, which is a probable location for a very early port and I guess there was a considerable trade across the ancient world.

    You have also failed to mention the china clay industry based around St Austell, which is expected to produce several decades worth of china clay.

    As for the future, there are already developments for marine energy technologies based around Hayle and Falmouth. Whilst I dont think wave energy is going to be a large contributor, it will be significant for Cornwall and has the potential for export. Afterall, the cornish miners emigrated to develop mines across the world when the slump in tin mining hit in the 1870s taking their knowledge with them.

    If you do come to Cornwall, perhaps you should go to see the Levant beam engine in operation. This is the last cornish beam engine that operates under steam as per its original design. I have yet to go myself (I live about half and hour away), but I'm informed that the sight, sound and smell of this is a unique experience!


  4. Mike, thanks for your comments. But I didn't say that the mines in Cornwall are in limestone - I said "Southern England"; which includes Norfolk, Suffolk and other places - it includes also Cornwall, I believe, but I didn't mean to say that there was limestone there. Perhaps I wasn't clear, so I rephrased the sentence in order to explain my point better.

    About your other points, yes, the price of tin is rising and that may make old mines profitable again. It is the same with oil and other resources. That, unfortunately, doesn't make the depletion problem disappear. We can keep extracting from dwindling resources as long as we can afford it; which is not forever. So, we are seeing a small renaissance in mining that will continue as long as the economy can hold together - again, that will not be forever.

    Finally, thanks for the other notes. I have never been to Cornwall, but I wouldn't mind to go there one of these days. I confess that I had never heard of the Levant beam engine before you mentioned it. But it surely something worth seeing.

    1. Regarding that "increasing prices" - that is not sustainable, in fact, it is a reflated bubble poised to collapse soon, by the end of 2012 at the latest, I would say... and central bank is able to stop it.

      And after the deflationary collapse of historic proportions (h/t Zero Hedge, highly recommended read), many (mining) projects will we just... you guessed it: unprofitable. It is baked in the cake, already.


    2. Sorry, there should be:

      "NO central bank is able to stop it"


  5. Ugo, yes that is clearer. It was your phrase the "same mines" in the earlier version of your post to cover the various mined products that was confusing.

    Agreed that any revival of mining in Cornwall is likely to be on a much smaller scale than in the past. However, as I mentioned there are growing developments in renewable energy. So, I do think there will be jobs in the future here. Also, the Transition Town movement is quite entrenched here in the south west and a strong identity with local food production.

    Early spring is the best time of year to visit Cornwall. The light is magical and that attracted the artists and painters.
    I haven't been to Italy but it is on my list!


  6. If anyone is interested in a lot of further reading about Cornwall's minerals potential, you can find technical documents at and follow the link for the Evidence base.

    There are also documents on energy and waste. The whole sub-site is part of a consultation on development over the next 20 years. So you see documents on all aspects of development, a huge amount of material.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)