Industry in Cornwall

A brief history from the industrial Revolution to the present day.

The industrial revolution had a huge impact on Cornwall and the county at this time was amongst the most industrialized part of the UK, if not the world.

Copper Mining

When people think about mining in Cornwall they normally think of tin, but when mining was at its peak here it was copper that was being mined. In the eighteenth century copper mining was of much greater importance than tin; by the early nineteenth century Cornwall was the greatest producer of copper in the world. By 1740 deep mining of copper was underway, made possible by the invention of increasingly sophisticated pumping equipment to remove some of the water from underground. The effect of copper mining on Cornwall was huge. Demand for the metal was high, prices were good and copper reserves were large. There was little competition from elsewhere in the country. At its peak the copper mining industry employed up to 30% of Cornwall’s male workforce and came to involve not just the mining and refining of ore, but also smelting.

Cornwall’s economic infrastructure was transformed by this industry. Large quantities of ore were moved, mining areas having their entire appearance transformed by the sinking of shafts, the construction of engine houses and the disposal of millions of tons of waste material in surface pits. Ports like Hayle and Portreath were developed and roads, tramways, then railways and even short lengths of canal were built to help move the coal (for the steam engines) to the mines and take away the copper ore for processing.

With the discovery of huge deposits elsewhere in the world in the mid nineteenth century, the price of copper fell. By this time the best Cornish deposits had been exhausted and mining in Cornwall was in a perilous state. However, tin ore (cassiterite) had been found in some of the deeper Cornish mines. To access the tin lodes, miners had to go to deeper levels, which they did successfully in many mining areas. Tin now fuelled a second mining boom.

Tin Mining

The tin industry could not fully replace the importance of copper mining. It was on a smaller scale and required a smaller workforce. The need for deeper mines led to even more problems with drainage and higher fuel and transport costs, but, as long as the world market price of tin remained high, Cornish tin-mining was still viable.

Increasingly steam power was used for a variety of jobs at tin mines. Originally, huge steam
engines were built to keep the levels dry enough for mining to take place. Smaller engines were installed to wind miners, equipment and ore up and down the shafts to and from the working levels. On the surface, huge and very noisy steam-powered “stamps” were built to crush the tin ore rocks into a powder from which the tin concentrate could be extracted, through a water-separation process largely operated by women (“bal maidens” – “bal” is a Cornish word for mine).

However, as with copper, cheaper deposits of tin were found overseas, especially in South America and south-east Asia, and by the end of the nineteenth century tin mining had severely declined. Many mines closed in the 1890s, giving rise to the “Cornish diaspora”, as miners left Cornwall to seek their fortunes in other mining areas across the world. This mass emigration shaped modern Cornwall. Although it was not a new thing (American colonies and Caribbean plantations already contained many Cornish people) the numbers involved in the late C19th were unprecedented. In each decade from 1861 to 1901, about a fifth of the Cornish male population migrated abroad – three times the average for England and Wales. In total a quarter of a million people left Cornwall between 1841 and 1901. Miners made up most of the numbers, but the emigrants also included farmers, merchants and tradesmen.

Cornish miners quickly grasped the opportunities promised by the discovery of gold, silver and copper across the globe. Emigrating offered the chance of better pay and conditions, and the opportunity to rise in society. The Cornish expertise in hard rock mining was highly valued and agents were employed by mining companies to recruit from the Cornish mines.

In addition, Cornish engineering companies had been exporting machinery since the early-19th Century. Richard Trevithick, for example, took his high-pressure steam engines to the silver mines of Peru in 1816. Such technology needed skilled men to install and work the machinery. Often men would make the foreign trip on their own, sometimes working for short periods of time abroad before returning home to their families. Some left families behind, sending back money to support them. Others brought families out once they were settled, and many others married into the local communities.

A Cornish miner who made these journeys became known in Cornwall as a “Cousin Jack”. Some say this was because they were always asking for a job for their “cousin Jack” back at home, whilst others think it was because the miners used to address each other by the greeting “cousin”, and Jack (short for John) was the most popular Christian name in Cornwall at that time.

The mines that did remain open relied more and more on by-products such as arsenic (sold as an insecticide, especially to North America where it was used against the cotton boll-weevil).
A few mines struggled on until the 1920s, some larger operations such as South Crofty and Geevor for many years. The last working tin-mines closed in the 1990s.

Cornish Engineering

Cornwall has a very wet climate, and miners were hampered by water, the deeper they went. These drainage problems and the prospect of huge profits for people who could solve them led to the development of large and very powerful steam engines. Cornish beam engines, initially developed by Thomas Newcomen in the late C18th and developed by James Watt and Richard Trevithick, were built locally in such places as Hayle (Harveys Foundry), the Perran Foundry, Perran-ar-worthal and Camborne (Holmans). This industry grew rapidly, producing engines and mining equipment for export. As a result, Cornish mining technology could be found all over the world.

Richard Trevithick went on to develop high pressure steam engines which, mounted on wheels, became the world’s first locomotives. Trevithick was instrumental in developing viable road motor vehicles and certainly the world’s first steam railway locomotive, which ran successfully at the Penydarren Iron Works in South Wales in 1804.


Parts of Cornwall in the C18th and C19th, especially the mining areas, have been likened to “the Wild West”. Whether it was a desire to “civilise” wild Cornwall or simply part of a broader evangelical awakening, Charles and John Wesley’s arrival in Cornwall in 1743 certainly changed the religious and physical landscape of the county. There are over 600 Methodist chapels in Cornwall, many of which were built in the late C18th and often later rebuilt.
Wesley’s message was readily accepted by Cornish communities. By 1750, for example, 30 of the mining communities in the west had Methodist societies. By 1798 Redruth and St Austell contained over 5 per cent of the whole country’s Methodists.

By the mid-nineteenth century the Vicar of Crowan (Troon, near Camborne) accepted that the Church of England had “lost the people”, “The religion”, he said, “of the mass is become Wesleyan Methodism”. Methodism was originally intended to change the Church of England from the inside but, because this change did not happen, eventually Methodism became a church in its own right. There were splits within Methodism itself, leading to a number of different Methodist movements, including Wesleyans, Bible Christians and Primitive Methodists.

Methodism came to dominate Cornish religious life for a number of reasons:

• the Anglican Church found it hard to control large parishes in which isolated rural industrial settlements, often associated with mining, developed a sense of independence and freedom
• problems caused by the sharing of vicars by more than one parish and by some parishes having absentee vicars
• Methodist meetings in barns and cottages made Methodism more accessible to close-knit communities
• huge crowds attended open air meetings in places such as Gwennap Pit where Wesley preached to huge congregations
• charismatic lay preachers like Billy Bray preached in the dialect they spoke and gave people a sense of belonging
• the message of Methodism was simple, bringing comfort, hope and security to people facing daily dangers and anxieties in an increasingly dangerous and fast-moving world
• From the 1780s to the 1830s women actively helped the spread of the Methodist message through cottage meetings.
• Often mine-captains (owners and managers of tin and copper mines) were also Methodist preachers. They preached about the need for respectability, self-improvement and sobriety. This helped to give Methodism greater relevance to working class communities across the county.

Methodism went overseas with the emigrating Cornish: South Australia, Canada, Australia and the American Mid West had flourishing Cornish communities and Methodism was part of this strong cultural identity.

China Clay

Kaolin or china clay is a soft, white clay first used by the Chinese, who in the 7th and 8th centuries AD developed techniques for using it to make porcelain. Europeans began importing Chinese porcelain in the 14th century, but it was not until the early 18th century that they were able to reproduce its hardness, whiteness, and translucency for themselves.

This led to a Europe-wide search for deposits of the material, which is formed by the decomposition of aluminium silicates, found in the large creamy feldspar crystals in Cornish granite. A few small deposits were found in parts of Europe and in America in the eighteenth century. In 1746 a Quaker apothecary/potter, William Cookworthy, first discovered fine quality kaolin deposits at Tregonning Hill, not far from Porthleven.

Not long after this huge deposits were found near St Austell. These china clay deposits are the largest in the world. 120 million tons of china clay have been extracted, but reserves in the ground will last at least another hundred years. By 1768 Cookworthy had patented a way to use the clay and founded the Plymouth Porcelain Factory. He was able to start to meet demand for white porcelain, which was much more fashionable and expensive than the coarse stoneware made in Britain up to this time. Other potteries started to use china clay from Cornwall, and by the early nineteenth century the kaolin industry was big business. Kaolin was transported from Cornwall to Stoke-on-Trent, the centre of Britain’s ceramics industry. Many of the pottery factories owned rights to mine the material themselves. Other uses for china clay were discovered, including as a whitener for paper.

Early in the twentieth century there were around seventy producers of china clay in Cornwall. Competition was cut-throat, wages were often low and working conditions generally poor. By 1910 production was nearly one million tons a year, with the paper using more than ceramics. With a virtual worldwide monopoly, Cornwall was exporting 75% of its output to North America and Europe.

The three largest producers (West of England China Clay Co., Martyn Brothers and North Cornwall China Clays) amalgamated in 1919, forming English China Clays Limited. With over half of the industry’s capacity, “ECC” became the leading clay producing company.
English China Clays was acquired by Imetal of France for £756m in 1999 and the company operates today under the name Imerys. Eighty percent of the china clay produced today is used in paper, twelve percent by the ceramics industry and the rest in products such as paint, toothpaste, rubber, plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, cork and agricultural products.


Cornwall’s complex geology means that there is a huge variety of high quality stone in the county, much of which has been quarried at one time or another for a variety of purposes, both in and out of the county. The three main types of quarrying in Cornwall are for;

• building stone (used in hedges and walls),
• aggregate (crushed for road building and in concrete), and
• dimension stone (shaped and dressed stone used for civil fine masonry work).

The main rocks quarried across Cornwall are granite, slate, greenstone, elvan, serpentine and soapstone. Like tin and copper mining, quarrying once employed thousands of people and encouraged the building of tramways, railways, quays and harbours. In some places, such as Delabole, Mabe and St Breward, whole communities exist just because of quarrying.


Slate quarrying has happened in the north coast area around Tintagel and Trebarwith for at least 600 years. The slate was used for splitting into roofing slates, for paving slabs and as a building material. Some of the slate quarries are actually on the cliffs, quarrymen working in extreme conditions, hauling the stone up the cliff face on cables wound using horse whims – capstans powered by horses walking around a circular platform. The stone was “worked” (shaped) on cliff-top “dressing floors” and waste simply dropped into the sea.

In the same area are more conventional slate quarries, the most famous being Delabole, one of the oldest and deepest quarries in Europe, 150 metres deep. Slate from here was transported around the country and into Europe, sent by ship from nearby ports like Port Gaverne, Tintagel and later Padstow. By the end of the C19th it even had its own railway line.


Cornwall has a long-established and very important granite industry. Stone has been exported for building projects all round the world, from the Embankment in London to docks in Gibraltar and Singapore. All of the granite areas of Cornwall contain quarries, from Lamorna and Castle an Dinas in West Penwith, through the Carnmenellis area, with quarrying centred on Mabe; to Bodmin Moor, where the Cheesewring Quarry is an excellent example; and up to Kit Hill, which on its own encompasses the whole history of granite quarrying in the county.

Because, until fairly recently, access to ports in Cornwall was poor, early quarrying was for local use. For centuries there was no need to quarry the granite at all, as moorstones, the loose boulders you find scattered around the tors on moorland, were simply collected and used for building walls, hedges and buildings. In places like Minions Moor it is common to find stone-splitting pits and stones still bearing the “wedge and groove” marks from the time they were split by hand, using a system of “tares and feathers”. In some areas whole tors were completely removed by quarrying; in some areas of Bodmin Moor you can still find piles of dressed granite, intended for building projects but never used.
Before about 1800 stone-splitting by hand involved making a row of chiselled grooves along the line that of the split. Into these would be placed iron wedges, hit with sledgehammers until the rock split.

After this time splitting was done more accurately using “plug-and-feathers” (or “tare and feathers”). Into each hand drilled hole were placed two hardened iron “feathers” and between them was put a tapered iron plug which was hammered in, until the rock split along the line of the holes.

High quality, shaped granite of the sort exported from Cornwall for prestigious building projects came and still comes from “dimension quarries” which produced accurately measured “dimension stones”. These quarries are steep-sided and deep, exploiting high-quality granite that is under the ground surface and therefore not weathered by wind and rain. . The stone shaping or dressing was usually done at the quarry and, because of the emphasis on quality, large quantities of stone were rejected and dumped nearby, having been wheeled along tramways to be tipped onto ‘finger dumps’ of waste rock.


Loose stone and rab (small granite rocks found in Cornwall just below the topsoil) has been quarried for centuries for making tracks and roads. Small pits can still be found along the sides of old roads in the county from which stone to repair the roads was taken.

Much larger scale quarrying for roadstone and “aggregate” began in the twentieth century. Crushed and graded stones are used for road making, railway ballast and as aggregates in concrete. A wide range of stones is used for this purpose, including greenstone, granite, gabbro and serpentine, the rock being crushed on site and everything taken away and used.


Fishing in Cornwall as an industry probably dates back to the middle ages. Certainly by Tudor times it was nationally important. By 1582 nearly two thousand mariners are recorded working in Cornwall and in 1602 Richard Carew described the fisheries of Cornwall and Devon as much more important than those of eastern England.
The two methods used at the time were seining and drift netting. Seine fishing uses a large net that hangs in the water by attaching weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top. They look like a fence and are used to encircle a shoal of fish, with the boat circling the catch.

A hand-held seine net. Drift netting involved hanging a net attached to your boat in the water, catching fish as they become entangled in the net.

Cornwall made its fishing reputation through pilchard fishing. Between 1747 and 1756 30,000 hogsheads a year of pilchards were exported from the four main Cornish ports of Falmouth, Fowey, Penzance and St Ives, estimated at 900 million fish. Most of the pilchard catch was exported to Italy. By 1847 40,883 hogsheads or 122 million fish were exported from Cornwall; the largest number ever taken in one seine net was 5,600 hogsheads at St Ives in 1868.

Before the mid 18th century the fishing season ran from July to November or December. During the 19th century it usually ran from August to October.
The fishermen at sea were helped by “huers”, lookouts on the cliff tops, who helped to locate shoals of fish. The huer would shout the Cornish ‘Hevva!, Hevva!’ (‘Here they are!), to lead the boats to the location of the pilchard shoals. Huer’s huts are to be found near some Cornish fishing ports.

Pilchards were drawn to the Cornish coast to feed in late summer. Once ashore, the fish were salted and pressed, the oil being collected as a by-product and used for heating and lighting. Pilchards were exported to many parts of Europe but, mainly because of over-fishing, the shoals of fish diminished in the 20th century and pilchard fishing all-but died out in Cornwall in the 1960s. The most important Cornish fishing ports include
St Ives, Padstow, Falmouth and Newlyn. Other smaller ports and harbours that developed mainly because of fishing include Flushing, Port Isaac, Cadgwith, Mevagissey, Looe and Polperro. Fishing continues to be a significant industry in Cornwall, despite problems caused by diminishing fish stocks and the forced management of resources.

In addition to industrial scale fishing in ports like Newlyn, many people in Cornwall still make a living from the sea, through shell-fishing (for example in the Helford estuary) and through sustainable hand-lining for premium quality fish. Improved road and rail links to Cornwall led to the establishment of other industries in Cornwall in the late C20th, as traditional primary industries declined.

Cornwall’s traditional over-dependence on tin mining and fishing are indicated in the words of the song “Cornish Lads” by Roger Bryant

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?

Today the bulk of Cornwall’s population, if not involved in fishing or farming, relies largely on work in the secondary sector, especially tourism and public services.



History of Cornwall



Neolithic Cornwall

Neolithic Cornwall

The upland areas of Cornwall were the parts first open to settlement as the vegetation required little in the way of clearance: they were perhaps first occupied in Neolithic times.

Hurler Stone Circles

Cornwall in the Bronze Age

Bronze Age cultures began to appear in Cornwall around 2200 BC with new ideas spreading from the Continent to the existing population, but the changes were gradual not sudden and stone tools continued to be used...

Cornwall in the Iron Age

Cornwall in the Iron Age

New, stronger iron ploughs and axes meant that farming improved. Cornwall contains many archaeological remains from this time: small villages with field systems around them, hillforts and cliff castles that...

Roman Cornwall

Roman sites and finds in Cornwall are few and far-between. In Cornwall, the first impact of the Roman domination of north-west Europe must have been felt around 56BC...



Cornwall 410 - 1066

Cornwall 410 - 1066

After the Roman withdrawal from Great Britain, Saxons and other peoples were able to conquer and settle most of the east of the island. But Cornwall remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic elites...

Mediaeval Cornwall 1066-1485

Mediaeval Cornwall


With the arrival of the Normans to the British mainland in 1066, the River Tamar became the agreed border. There was also a general acceptance that Cornwall had a separate identity to the rest of England...


Sancreed Beacon

Early Modern Cornwall 1485

During this period English rulers sought to establish firmer control over the furthermost parts of Britain - Scotland and Ireland especially but this trend also affected Cornwall. Here the loyalty of many gentry, particularly in East Cornwall...

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

The Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century were a result of political, constitutional, religious and social changes and disagreements, which culminated in a struggle for control of the country between King and Parliament...


treffry viaduct

Industry in Cornwall

The industrial revolution had a huge impact on Cornwall and the county at this time was amongst the most industrialized part of the UK, if not the world...

History of Transport

History of Transport

The development of Cornwall’s roads was hugely affected by the county’s unique topography and landscape. Cornwall’s rivers run north-south, so all traffic along the peninsular...