An Industrial history of Cornwall

Extensive information on Cornwall's rich industrial history from fishing to mining to tourism

Being the far-flung western corner of the British Isles, Cornwall's isolation from the rest of the country has long been a mixed blessing and its industrial heritage is no exception. No history of mass manufacture here, and only since the arrival of the Internet and distance working have some of the country's intellectual stock brought their work down in earnest. Cornwall's industry has always stemmed from its natural environment, be that the wealth of the land, either in terms of crops or mineral lodes, or the sea. As such it has inevitably always been vulnerable to the peaks and troughs that such industries experience. Even today, as tourism firmly takes the helm of Cornish income, it is the coastline and the mild climate which draw the people and, therefore, the money.

With a warmer climate than much of the British Isles, agriculture has always enjoyed an important role in Cornwall. However, in terms of industry, other sectors have historically had more impact. The Cornish have mined and traded tin since before the arrival of the Angles and Saxons, though until the last few hundred years this was largely small-scale surface extraction, and it goes without saying that fishing has always existed.



Around 1700, mining's contribution to the Cornish economy was equalled by trade in salted pilchards. 'Hevva Hevva' was the cry alerting local fishermen to these gigantic shoals and 'huers' would direct the boats to the fish from their cliff-top location. Caught using the seine method, involving many boats holding a large net and creating a circle which was then closed to capture the fish, pilchards brought wealth to many a Cornish seaside village, and were largely sold abroad to countries such as Italy and Spain. Such exports were celebrated in the Cornish ditty:

Here's to the health of the Pope
And may he repent
And lengthen six months
The term of his Lent
It's always declared
Betwixt the two poles
There's nothing like pilchards
For saving of souls

However, Cornwall's industrial heyday started with the dawn of the age of steam; the massive engines first developed by Boulton & Watt allowing underground shafts to be dug deeper and kept dry. Such innovation brought not only prosperity to the established population, but also newcomers keen to take advantage of the new employment possibility. Money was certainly made, however little trickled down to the frontline workers while the pockets of the mine owners were being richly lined. Many families found themselves seeking extra income elsewhere and, throughout the 18th century and beyond, smuggling, along with its favoured accomplice wrecking, was rife in this part of the world.


Given the amount of seafaring traffic around this narrow strip of land, wrecking would have been an obvious temptation. Involving lighting lamps to send false signals to vessels, and thus causing them to steer mistakenly into the treacherous rocky coast, wrecking reputedly sent many a ship and crew to Davy Jones' locker whereupon local gangs would waste no time in helping themselves to whatever goods were on board.

Lamorna Wink
Lamorna Wink

Smuggling per se affected the whole of the British Isles, but Cornwall's location, isolation and geography of hidden coves made it a real hotbed of activity. Tunnels were dug from the coast to inns and hostelries, many given the local moniker of 'The Wink' owing to the signal given to indicate the availability of smuggled goods. A famous pub with such a name still trades in Lamorna in West Cornwall. The Treasury, much aggrieved by this aggressively successful contraband trade, set up the National Coast Guard specifically to combat it but was ultimately obliged to lower import tax in the 1800s to have any effect whatsoever.

Despite keeping many a wolf from the door, such activities also contributed to a general level of lawlessness and brutality amongst the impoverished Cornish, and it was in such an atmosphere that in 1743 John Wesley first came to know the area which still strongly associates itself with him. His brand of puritan Methodism appealed to the ever-growing ranks of the working classes but rocked the boat of the wealthy. His preaching banned from established churches, Wesley took to spreading the word to outdoors congregations, most famously at Gwennap Pit. Wesleyan chapels mushroomed in the county and his movement is credited with restoring a level of law and order to the workers in a booming mining industry.

Mining and innovation

Both copper and tin were mined in this era, though the former dominated until the mid 19th century, and indeed Cornwall was one of the richest mining areas at that time. Gwennap, near Redruth, was famously titled 'the richest square mile on earth' and Dolcoath mine in Camborne produced over £1m worth of copper and then of tin.

New technology continued to benefit Cornish miners, especially after Watt's patents ended in 1800 and the path was opened to other keen engineers. Most notable was Camborne's Richard Trevithick, whose steam-propelled vehicle predated Stevenson's Rocket by a good few decades, and who went on to create the beam engine now so strongly associated with the county. A fully functioning example can still be seen at Levant mine, near St Just. However, Cornish innovation cannot be discussed without mentioning some of the other greats, including Sir Humphry Davy of Penzance, who invented the miner's safety lamp in 1808, and William Murdoch, who in the late 18th century was the first to experiment with gas for domestic lighting purposes in his Redruth home.

Trevithick Statue - Camborne
Trevithick Statue

Various successful foundries were established, Harvey's of Hayle being a good example (no surprise, then, that the two parts of the town are still known as Foundry and Copperhouse). However, in terms of smelting, it was mostly tin that was processed in Cornwall, as the copper ore was largely transported to Wales. Ships would leave Cornish ports laden with ore and return bearing Welsh coal to fire the furnaces.

As steam engines and mining developed, industrial railway networks were laid across the county connecting the mineral industry to the sea for export and Joseph Treffry's exploits in mid-Cornwall are a case in point. This wealthy mine owner built the docks at Par in (*) and then a series of train and tram lines through the Luxulyan Valley and across Mid-Cornwall to Newquay, his most notable achievement being a viaduct / aqueduct straddling the Par River.

The early decades of the 19th century can certainly be seen as the zenith of Cornish mining, with the majority of the world's copper being sourced in this small area at the time, occasioning the building of many rows of cottages across the county to house the expanding population. Within forty years the number of active mines rose from 75 to 200 and the population all but doubled. However, as the population swelled, so the standard of living fell only worsened by the shocking lack of safety in the mines. Average life expectancy had plummeted by the 1850s, with up to a fifth of miners in some areas dying as a result of their work.

China clay

China Clay Mountains nr St Austell
China Clay Mountains

Throughout this peak mining period in Cornish history, another substance was being successfully quarried. China clay was discovered in the mid 1700s. The great scars of this industry that still mark the St Austell area are widely reputed to be one of the few man-made structures visible from space and give this section of mid-Cornwall, peppered with conical spoil heaps and gouged quarries (one of which now houses the Eden Project) its nickname the 'Clay Country'. Used principally in the production of porcelain and paper, and unlike copper and tin, the industry is still strong in Cornwall to this day.

Demise of mining

Discoveries of vast mineral deposits in the New World in the mid 19th century caused the Cornish bubble to burst and for first time in a long while, but by no means the last, many Cornish people packed up and left the area in search of work. Thousands headed overseas, their mining expertise much valued in the new exploitations in Australia, South Africa, North America and even Peru. Even today it is said that you will find a Cornishman down any mine in the world. Several smaller booms were experienced over the following century, but the mining industry never fully recuperated and became wholly unprofitable in the face of foreign competition in the late 20th century, collapsing completely in the 1980s.


Newlyn Fishing Boats
Newlyn Fishing Boats

Mining aside, one cannot expose Cornish industry without expanding more on its connection to the sea. Falmouth's deep natural harbour has brought much trade in terms of shipbuilding and maintenance, and nowadays houses a whole army of yachts and pleasure craft. The Packet ships, carrying England's mail to its colonies and beyond, also worked out of Falmouth. Other towns are similarly renowned for shipbuilding on a lesser scale, though inevitably it is fishing which has been a more general mainstay of Cornish life.

From time immemorial people have fished here, the activity passing from individual outings, through the mass communal capturing of pilchards, to the sophisticated industry that it is today. European fishing quotas, stock issues and international competition have caused a continued decline in Cornish fishing, affecting towns like Newlyn enormously through reduced landing quotas, increased red tape and the ultimately depressing consequence: boat decommissioning and breaking. However, Cornish fish is still highly favoured, often championed by the likes of celebrity chef Rick Stein, and continues to be exported to France and Spain.

The railway

Penzance Station circa 1915
Penzance Station

Since its creation and development in the 1800s, the railway has been an essential piece of the jigsaw of all the Cornish industries. What had previously been two full days' travelling by road between Penzance and London was reduced to 12 hours in the 1860s, and to six with the arrival of the 20th century. This meant that fresh fish could be in the capital's markets on the day of catch, as could other local produce. Early new potatoes and cut flowers, especially daffodils, were, and still are, favoured exports. But not all railway loads were heading out of the county, and the railways brought the first of millions of tourists to the area.


Newquay was one of the first towns to develop for the visitor trade, and it still attracts the hordes. In fact, despite some lulls when cheap flights abroad have led holidaymakers to take their trade elsewhere, Cornwall's tourist industry has continued to develop. The Duchy is now host to around five million visitors a year to its coastal towns and villages, beaches, art galleries and, of course, the Eden Project. Nonetheless, the trade it brings is largely squashed into the short summer months, creating little full time work or job security for the thousands who depend on the industry.