General State of Industry - Tin-Mines

Of our other mineral resources at this date there is no doubt that the tin and copper mines were the most important and the most interesting.

The Stannaries of Cornwall and Devon are constitutionally and economically different from the rest of the country.1 When iron and steel were much less common than they are now, copper and tin articles were the obvious substitute, more so on the Continent than in England,2 but even here copper was the common material for kitchen utensils and bronze the usual form of decorative metal work. Moreover, the tin mines are the reputed cause of the first entrance of these islands into the pages of written history, when the Phoenicians sailed round Spain to the Casseritides in search of tin. During the Middle Ages the continent of Europe seems to have drawn most of its supplies of tin from this country. The demand was stimulated, first by the introduction of bells into churches3 in the sixth and seventh centuries, and secondly, by the use of bronze cannon, which began about the end of the fourteenth century.4

The Duchy of Cornwall reverted to the Crown, soon after it had been granted by William the Conqueror, and it was thereafter retained in royal hands. During the years from 1175 to the reign of John, the output of tin, like other valuable possessions at that time, was engrossed by the Jews; Edward 1 made a grant to the tinners of Cornwall and Devon, who began to meet to concert their interests every seventh or eighth year on Hingston Hill, near Callington.5

Five towns in Cornwall and three in Devonshire were chosen where the ore was collected, a portion from each mine was retained by the Crown as regale and stamped. These towns were called coinage towns, and apart from this the tinners were allowed a free hand in selling their tin.6

After the expulsion of the Jews the mines were neglected, for with their removal few people were left capable of working them. The industry gradually regained strength, for only a very small number of workers were necessary for a primitive mine, and their tools were few and inexpensive. Thus the earliest mines were carried on by a number of working partners, but hardly had these companies been formed when capitalism began to appear.7 It became possible for a man to retain his share of the work by providing a substitute or his share of the cost of the undertaking. This system, which was a great boon to women and children, was called the " cost system," and was probably fairly well developed at the end of the fourteenth century, since there are references to mining shares being held by people who were not working shareholders.8 In 1586 there were a variety of classes occupied in the mines; charcoal pedlars, who went from blowing-house to blowing-house with their packs, the blowers and the owners of the blowing-houses, who had become masters paying wages to workmen, the smiths, carpenters and others, who were employed about the mines, and finally the miners themselves.9 These last were developing into two types­one, that worked for a wage and was very poor, and the other, composed of companies of miners adventuring in partnership. The mining adventurers were also drawn from different classes, first, there were the working miners, and second, the capitalists from outside, who were co-opted to work a lode, because the " charge amounteth mostly very high for any one man's purse, except lined beyond ordinary."10

The larger works were controlled by a captain and gradually the capitalist element became predominant. The expense and the uncertainty of the industry tended to cause this state of affairs; and though in small works the working partners still continued, their activities were more and more confined to the stream works and " deep and chargeable mines are carried on by persons of fortune or great skill.11 Moreover, a complicated system of borrowing went on, which played into the hands of the tin merchants, who purchased the white or smelted tin after all the dues had been paid." These tin merchants were composed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of a small group of London haberdashers, who were able, by their pressure on the shareholders immediately beneath them, to control all the workers in the mines. This position is paralleled in the Newcastle coal-fields, where the " hostmen," composed of dealers holding a monopoly of the trade, controlled the colliery lessees, and so through them the miners.12

It was at the end of the sixteenth century that a period of extraordinary depression occurred for the Stannaries. The shallow diggings to the stanniferous gravel were being worked out and shaft mining into the bed rock at greater depths was being pursued.13 Even in the sixteenth century the depths at which they were working taxed to the uttermost the rude machines for drainage then in use, and in the reign of Charles 1 it is complained that the increased cost of drainage, added to the increased cost of materials, had brought about a period of great depression in the tin-mines14; and it was noted that both capital and labour were leaving mining for husbandry. The development of drainage in the tin-mines is important, as it is the immediate cause of the commercial success of the steam-engine which, in its turn, is the central fact of eighteenth century history.

In the earliest gravel or stream works the water was carried out in wooden bowls, or was carried off from the working in a " level " or trench leading from the work to the river. Later came the windlass turned by man-power, then small hand or force pumps, contemporary with which in the larger works was the adit. The adit was similar to the level only driven through the hill-side to meet the shaft at its foot. This last was expensive and temporary, because as soon as the shaft was driven deeper additional apparatus had to be used to raise the drainage to the level of the adit. Various mechanical pumping devices worked by man-power were also tried, but the severity of labour they entailed on the men working them15 made them unsatisfactory and costly. Water wheels were used in some mines, but as their power was limited a deep mine needed two or three wheels one above the other to clear it effectively. In place of these combinations of wheels, John Costar, in 171O, successfully used a single large water-wheel to drain some of the deeper mines. His invention, however, was quite overshadowed by that of the steamengine.16 It is important to notice that a change had come over the tin-mining industry. The first shallow diggings had been worked by ordinary workmen with little or no capital, but as the mines became deeper, and other richer lodes were reached, the character of mining altered.17 Larger capitals were required to sink the shafts, and keep them clear of water when the ore was reached. This meant the intervention of a new class of men outside the mining districts, or at any rate distinct from the ordinary miners, who were induced to venture their money in the mines. But at the end of the seventeenth century, owing to difficulties of drainage, one pit after another was being drowned out and the future of the industry seemed very precarious.

Many experiments had been made with steampower, from Hero, of Alexandria, who lived more than a century before Christ, down to the romantic figure of the Marquis of Worcester. The problem of draining the mines was eventually solved by the use of steam-power, and the introduction and gradual improvement of the steam-engine is intimately connected with the progress of mining. Dionysius Papin,18 who in 1687 was invited to fill the position of Professor of Mathematics in the University of Marburg, after many experiments with steam attempted to pump water by atmospheric pressure on a large scale. He was employed to erect machines on his principle to drain the mines of Auvergne and Westphalia, but the difficulty he experienced, in making and preserving a vacuum, rendered his enterprise abortive. His failure was probably due to the fact that, though a mathematician and physicist, he was not a mechanic.

The first working steam-engine was constructed in Devonshire by Thomas Savery. He was a clever engineer, and among other discoveries he made a paddle boat to move without wind. The fact that he lived in the midst of the Stannaries and that he knew the difficulty which the miners experienced in keeping the shafts clear of water, was probably the reason that led him to his next invention. He made a steam-engine in which the steam was alternately condensed in two vessels, causing a vacuum into which the water from the pit was actually sucked, thus avoiding any pumping apparatus. Savery avoids any exact account of the work of his engine19, but there is no doubt that several of his engines were erected in Cornwall about 1708-1714.20

The increase in the demand for coal had forced the Staffordshire coal mines to go deeper and deeper, and there, too, the drainage question had become of vital importance. Having come to an end of their resources in adits, rack and chain pumps, windlasses, etc., they were enthusiastic over Savery's invention. He was asked to erect an engine at the Broadwaters, near Wednesbury, but the strength of the water was too much for the engine with an ordinary boiler, and when the size of the boiler was increased, the steam pressure was too great for the weak material then in use and tore the engine to pieces.21

Savery probably erected his first engine at Hull Vor, near Helston, in Cornwall, and though it was an improvement on the methods of drainage then in use, it was dangerous and expensive. Later he erected engines in a coal mine in Staffordshire, and also at York Buildings, in London, to supply the west of London with water from the Thames; both of these were failures, and though various attempts were made to improve the engine, no advance was made till Newcomen and Calley took it in hand. Newcomen lived only fifteen miles from Savery and probably knew all about the experiments, and in 1705 he contrived a model which worked well. He had hit upon a combination of the ideas of Papin and Savery, and made the first steam-engine of the modern type.22 The engine was not rapidly adopted in Cornwall, for in 1742 only one steam-engine was in use in the whole county.23 However, in 1711, Newcomen and Caller offered to build an engine for the owners of a colliery at Griff, in Warwickshire, to drain their pits, which until then had been cleared by horse-power; but the colliery owners were not convinced of the practicability of the scheme until three years later. However, in 1712, Newcomen erected an engine to pump water from a mine at Wolverhampton, belonging to a Mr. Back. Most of this engine was built at Birmingham and taken to the mine, where it was erected. This worked badly at first, but by means of a leaking piston, it was discovered that the injection of cold water produced a more rapid vacuum and greatly improved the engine; while a lazy attendant discovered that the steam could be admitted, the cold water injected and the condensed water removed in turn by an arrangement of rods or strings, attached to the beam, and another step had been taken towards a self-acting machine.

Newcomen's next engines were erected in the north,24 at Newcastle, where some colliery owners feared that the mines would be endangered by the proximity of the engine fires.25 These engines were comparatively successful, and in 1720 he erected his first engine in Cornwall for Lemon, the manager of Wheal Fortune mine. Lemon was typical of many of the men then engaging in tin-mining. He rose from a mining boy to be manager of a tin smelting-house, and with the experience there gained he took charge of Wheat Fortune mine. With the help of Newcomen's engine he was successful, and having made a considerable sum he removed to Gwennap, whose mines he worked on a tremendous scale.

Newcomen's engines were quite successful, and enabled all the mines to go deeper than had been possible with earlier apparatus, but their great fault was their tremendous consumption of coal. Their use spread all over the country­Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Northumberland all erected them, while in the thirty-six years from 1742 onwards sixty were erected in Cornwall. Here was a difficulty: in the north the engines were employed in pumping water out of coal-mines, where their large consumption of coal was not a vital question, but in Cornwall, where all the coal had to be carried long distances, and where the price of coal was high, it became difficult for the mines to show a margin of profit even though the Government allowed them a drawback of 4s. a chaldron on the coal they consumed.

Improvements in the engine were constantly being made, but though it became much more efficient by the developments of such men as Payne, Brindley, and Smeaton, the general principles remained unaltered, until Watt invented the separate condensers.26

1 The Stannaries had a court of special jurisdiction which was founded on an ancient privilege granted to the workers in tin mines to sue and be sued (in all matters arising within the Stannaries except pleas of life, land, or member) in their own court before a judge called the vice-warden of the Stannaries. 50 Ed. 111, 16 Car., c 15.

2 " The consumption of copper upon the Continent is greater (taking it house for house) than in England, as most of their household utensils and vessels are of brass or copper. A Comn Brazier in Brussels pays £2,000 per year for sheet copper." Boulton to Watt, March 26, 1782, Tew MSS.

3 Hunt, R., British Mining, p. 45.

4 Ib.. p. 46.

5 Ib., p. 48

6 An indenture of Ed. III dated II July Anno 32 grants " unto John Ballanter and Walter Bolbolter all his mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper in the county of Devon for two years with libertie to dig and search . . . and all other persons are excluded from digging there." Sir John Pettus, Foedinae Regales.

7 Lewis, The Stannaries, pp. 176-7.

8 " ' Abraham the Tinner ' in 1357 is said to have owned two mine works and four stream works in which he employed 300 men, women, and children." Ib., P. 189.

9 Ib., P. 198.

10 Ib., P. 199. Carew, Survey of Cornwall. p. 10.

11 Pryce, Mineralogia Cornubiensis, p. 173-4.

12 Lewis, op. cit., pp. 215-6.

13 Victoria County History, Cornwall, p. 544. Memoir of the Geological Survey, Vol. 1, p. 511.

14 State Papers Domestic, Charles 1.

15 A 4-inch pump drawing 20 feet employed from 20 to 24 men, working five or six at a time in six-hour spells. Victoria County History, Cornwall, p. 544. Memoir of the Geological Survey, Vol. 1 p.511

16 Victoria County History, Cornwall, p. 549. Memoir of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, p. 517

17 Smiles, Boulton and Watt, pp. 47-8, but query grant of Ed. III, quoted supra.

18 Ib., p. 45. Papin described his engine for the Royal Society. Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1, p. 627.

19 Smiles, Boulton and Watt, p. 51. Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1, p. 630.

20 Victoria County History, Cornwall, p. 549.

21 Shaw, History of Staffordshire, Vol. 1, pp. 85, 119.

22 The steam was generated in a separate boiler, from which it was conveyed into a vertical cylinder underneath a closely fitting piston which moved upwards and downwards. The piston was fixed to a rod, which was attached by a chain to a lever vibrating upon an axis, at the other end of which was the pump, steam was let in under the piston, thus depressing the pump rod­the steam was condensed by surrounding the cylinder with cold water, a vacuum was produced and the pressure of the air forced the piston down, thus raising the pump rod.­ Smiles, Boulton and Watt, p. 57.

23 Victoria County History, Cornwall, p. 549.

24 Newcomen erected engines at:

1. WolverhamptonCoal mine.About 23 in. cylinder.
2. CoventryCoal mine.About 23 in. cylinder.
3. Newcastle-on-TyneCoal mine.About 23 in. cylinder.
4. Newcastle-on-TyneCoal mine.About 23 in. cylinder.
5. Leeds (Austhorpe),1714Coal mine.About 23 in. cylinder.
6. Wheal FortuneTin mine(Pumps in two lifts, 9 in. bore, and drew 27 yds. at 15 strokes a minute. About 47 in. cylinder.)

25 The Compleat Collier, or the Whole Art of Sinking, Getting, and Working Coat Mines as used in the Northern Parts, especially about Sunderland and Newcastle, by J. C., 1708: " There is one invention of drawing water by fire which we hear of and perhaps doth to purpose in many places and circumstances, but in these collieries here a way, I am affraid there are not many dare venture of it because nature doth generally afford us too much sulpherous matter to bring more fire within these our deep bowels of the earth." For a detailed account of the whereabouts of the various Newcomen engines erected before 1775, when Watt finally went into partnership with Boulton, see infra pp. 148-51.

26 It is important to remember that the names mentioned in the text are only the comparatively successful ones. Many people tried to invent steam-engines. Even in 1674-5 there were three patents, one by Thomas Togood. Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1673-5, pp. 185, 607,

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