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7 February 2011
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Tin miners It's hard to believe that Cornwall was once the 'Silicon Valley' of its age. Relive the story of tin mining's boom years, and experience the industry's painful demise with films from the South West Film and Television Archive.

They say that if you look down any hole in the ground around the world, you'll find a Cornishman digging for tin.

We transport you back in time to recapture a century of tin mining in Cornwall. Meet the Cornish miners who risked their lives toiling in the tin mines to hack out this vital metal from the rock face.

Experience the working lives of the miners, go down the mine shaft in the miners' cage and witness the treacherous conditions below ground.

Cradle of the Industrial Revolution

Nowhere in the world was tin mining so engrained into the local culture as Cornwall in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bal maidens
The early Cornish 'bal maidens' in the 1860s.

Tin mining has existed in Cornwall for 2,000 years, since the Bronze Age. But the last 100 years of the industry were to prove the most turbulent in its history with cycles of boom and bust.

A rarely-seen film from 1947 called Tin Decontrolled shows miners working by candelight at Luckett Tin Mine. These primitive working methods were to change little up to the 1970s.

South Crofty - A Tour of the Mine shows tin miners making the precarious descent 1,860 feet below ground and working half-naked in near-suffocating conditions.

Although predominantly a male industry, women workers were also employed in the tin mines. The Silent Valley shows remarkable footage of 'bal maidens' smashing up rocks above the mine under the supervision of 'bal cappens' in the 1930s.

Changing Fortunes

At the height of its prosperity the Cornish tin industry employed 40,000 miners in 2,000 mines.

Old tin mine
Cornwall produced £2,000 million of tin from its mines

Tin Mining Archive is a BBC film looking at the old Cornish tin mines that once produced half of the world's tin. Go below ground at Wheal Jane and watch the miners 'mucking out' hundreds of tons of loose rock to get at the tin ore.

Cornish Farmer Turns Tin Miner (1949) tells the story of Rex Tremlett who was trying to rework an old mine on his farm in a period of recovery just after the Second World War.

Tin Prospecting from the Dartington Archive shows how the tin industry experienced another boom in the 1960s when new prospectors sought their fortunes including one entrepreneur with 'a revealer' designed to locate tin reserves.

�5m Gamble(1967) shows miners working the lode and bringing tin up the surface in a period of relative prosperity.

Boom to Bust

Horizon: Mines, Minerals and Men(1974) looks at the changing fortunes of the industry and visits Geevor, once one of Cornwall's most productive mines.

Tin mine today
Today the old tin mines are tourist attractions

400 tonnes of ore could be produced by the best miners in a single shift at Geevor, but twelve years later the mine was to close.

Once Upon A Mine (1986) captures the ghostly, deserted Victory Shaft at Geevor just weeks after the miners were laid off.

Periods of boom and bust were common in the tin industry.
St Just
charts the rise and fall of a typical Cornish tin mining town and shows how the town was on the verge of becoming a 'ghost town'.

Tin Men

Miners needed great strength and courage to work in the unforgiving environment of a tin mine.

In The Mathematics of the Mole (1962) tin miners remember that it was so hot underground that they had to empty the sweat from their boots.

The film brilliantly illustrates the subterranean life of miners. It also shows how, despite the cramped and dangerous conditions, there was a close-knit "family atmosphere".

This camaraderie is also captured in The Dartington Archive which shows miners singing hymns and carols underground.

Mining Disasters

October 20, 1919 was one of Cornish tin mining's darkest days. Yesterday's Witness: The Levant Mine Disaster (1970) shows miners recalling one of the worst ever mining disasters.

Thirty one men died when the main engine rod at the mine collapsed.

One miner was trapped for 53 hours, only to die later on the surface. The last body was not recovered till five days after the accident.

Levant Mine Memories reveals that it was symptomatic of an industry on its knees. Years of under-investment had taken their toll on what was once "the champion of Cornish mines".

Danger - Men at Work

Working in a subterranean world, miners coped with dirt, extreme heat and humidity, and impenetrable darkness.

Working underground came with many hazards

Death and injury were a fact of life with rockfalls, explosions and falls being common. The Silent Valley shows how miners were prone to accidents, and reconstructs life below ground at a typical 1860s tin mine.

The Mathematics of the Mole (1962) shows miners using mechanical drills which threw up huge clouds of dust and caused damage to men's lungs.

Miners were prone to appalling diseases such as silicosis as a result of working in dusty, airless conditions.

The Tin Miner They Couldn't Kill (1972) is a BBC documentary about a retired miner called Leo Beskeen who reminisces about tin mining in the early years of the century.

He remembers how safety rules were sometimes relaxed to maximise production resulting in men taking risks.

It wasn't just the underground workers who faced hazards.
South Crofty shows remarkable footage of men loading arsenic onto wagons with nothing but handkerchieves and cloth covering their faces.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

After 3,000 years of Cornish mining, the writing was on the wall for the industry when tin prices crashed in 1985.

The BBC film Once Upon a Mine (1986) shows tin miners at Geevor marching to save their jobs and lobbying the government.

Miner underground
Since the early days tin miners worked long and hard hours

But their pleas fell on deaf ears, and Geevor was forced to close with the loss of 370 jobs. Join the shift on their last day at Geevor and go inside the mine's shower room to hear the men protesting about the closure.

The Last Mine (1998) shows life underground at South Crofty Mine which was to hold out for another decade. Watch the miners ascending for the last time following the announcement of the mine's closure in 1998.

This poignant archive illustrates the end of almost 2,000 unbroken years of tin mining in Cornwall.


After the mines closed and the jobs were lost, there was to be another victim - the environment.

Muddy Water (1992) shows how ten million gallons of polluted water spewed out of Nangiles Mine into surrounding rivers causing a major environmental disaster.

As the toxic tide of water flooded out of the old mine shafts, it was the final reminder that we were watching the last death throes of Cornish tin mining.

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