The Great Dolcoath - Albert Bluett, 1898



To the north-west of Carn Brea, and very near it, lies one of the most interesting areas in Cornwall. For a couple of miles or so the surface presents a strange appearance by the side of the small fields and cottages. In all directions there are heaps of stones and sand, ranges of irregular buildings, tall chimneys, and gigantic machinery belonging to the chief mines of the county, one of which, Dolcoath, is the richest and deepest tin-mine in the world.

If an article is to deal exhaustively with the history of Dolcoath it ought to commence with the times when 'the inhabitants of that extremity of Britain called Bolerion' sought in streams and amongst rocks for tin to cast into cubes for the foreigners that came to Iktis, because it was then, assuredly, that Dolcoath's history commenced. But as there is a distracting variety of theories about the doings of the 'hospitable and civilised' early inhabitants of Cornwall and the whereabouts of Iktis, I prefer to let each one believe what pleases his fancy and pass to years of which more is known.

Dr. William Borlase, writing in 1746, mentioned Dolcoath as a 'very considerable mine,' and Dr. William Price thirty-three years later stated she was nearly one hundred fathoms deep. Subsequent progress must have been comparatively rapid, for when Dolcoath was stopped in 1787—because the heavy outputs by the Anglesea mines had reduced the price of copper—she had reached a depth of 132 fathoms and yielded 1,250,000l. worth of copper.

In this year the copper standard was 67l.—lower than it had been for fourteen years—and in the succeeding twelve months sank to 57l. But a continuous rise set in after 1788, and by 1799 the standard was at the giddy height of 121l., far beyond what it had been for at least a quarter of a century. Stimulated by the prospect of big profits, a number of gentlemen restarted the mine, under the cost-book system, and worked her on a large scale. For labour alone in 1801 they paid 12,277l.; in the succeeding twelve months their produce of copper ore was sold for 21,149l.; and in 1803 there was a profit of 2,000l. But these figures look insignificant by the side of those of a few years later. The copper standard, which had been slowly improving, jumped from 136l. in 1804 to 169l. in 1805, and in the latter year Dolcoath made, on ore sold for 114,121l., a clear profit of 35,769l. It is sometimes stated that at mine meetings in the old days, when times were prosperous, the ruddy faces of adventurers beamed through the steam of many grogs from mid-day until far into the night, and, whether this was so or not, one feels sure that the Dolcoath meetings in 1805 were very interesting little gatherings. That those who attended took no heed of the morrow is proved by the division of the whole of the enormous profit except 6l., and I am tempted to suggest they stopped where they did because there were vast fields of fractions to be waded through before the 6l. could be distributed. Had the adventurers been possessed of that power of looking into the future which the Scotch call second-sight, they would have found the mine was never to have such days again while worked for copper. The standard diminished in the following year to 138l., and in 1807 to 120l., but even these prices permitted large profits, and Dolcoath was worked briskly year after year, over 1,600 men, women, and boys being employed.

Hitherto the profits had swelled and contracted with the price of copper, but now another and a very important thing had to be reckoned with. The vast lodes—the pride of the shareholders—became poorer, and by 1832 had so seriously decreased in value that people talked of an early abandonment of the mine. Every effort was made by the manager and the agents to discover further rich deposits of copper, but without success; and after years of anxiety it was, in 1836, agreed to let the water accumulate in the bottom of the mine, where the lodes were poor, and confine operations to ground above the 125 level.

In the year following that of enormous dividends, there had come to work at Dolcoath the twelve-year-old son of one of the agents, and after spending nine years on the mine he was made an underground agent. This studious young man, Captain Charles Thomas, had taken it into his head that if the copper deposits were followed down, rich tin ground would be met with; and, though men of science shook their heads and declared Dolcoath was practically a thing of the past, he persisted in the notion. When, in 1836, the adventurers resolved to abandon the bottom of the mine, he drew up a statement to show that the lower levels could be worked without loss, and armed with this and goaded on by a conviction that the future of Dolcoath and Camborne depended entirely on deeper mining, he went to the adventurers when they met to confirm their resolution and persuaded them not to allow the water to rise above the 155 level, thus saving thirty fathoms from inundation. But even then there had been surrendered, much to his disappointment, twenty-five fathoms of the most promising part of the mine. A profitless period followed, and throughout the district it was believed nothing could save the mine, as no valuable copper was being found in the upper levels and the shareholders had set their faces against deep mining.


Evidently, however, the advocate of deep mining was thought well of, for when the manager, William Petherick, died, in 1844, Thomas was appointed to the position; and it was soon made evident that the experiences of the past few years had strengthened, if it were possible, his belief in deep mining. But as on this matter the proprietors were obdurate, if not inexorable, the manager endeavoured to reach his goal by easy stages. It has long been the practice of some miners to enter into contracts with the managers to work pieces of ground for a share of the profits made on the ore they send up. Thinking this would prove an admirable way of getting the 145 level worked, Captain Charles Thomas asked a number of 'tributers' to take pitches there and, when they agreed to do so, the shareholders, who could not lose a penny by the arrangement, consented to his proposals. In a short time these men opened very productive ground, which served the double purpose of infusing hope into all associated with the mine, and attracting tributers to other levels the manager was most anxious to see worked. Taking advantage of this success, Captain Thomas induced the adventurers to spend money on improved appliances for dressing the tin, and to let him pump out the twenty-five fathoms of water that had been in the mine since 1836. But he failed to bring all the shareholders to his side, and some were so strongly opposed to any attempt to convert Dolcoath into a tin-mine that they sold their shares and ended their connection with the company immediately it was decided to pump the water out. This, however, did not cause the manager to relax his efforts in the least.

When all the levels were open to the miners again, the manager found that the great metallic veins—which in the upper levels yielded rich copper ore, and in lower ones a not very valuable mixture of copper and tin—gave more tin as they were explored in depth; but his opinion was that a large sum would have to be spent before the mine could be placed on a firm footing, and he therefore advised the shareholders to lay out several thousands of pounds in going deeper. Many were afraid to try the experiment, and in that respect were in striking contrast to the average Cornish mine adventurer of a later date, whose pluck never falters while he is able to pay the calls made upon him. The largest individual shareholder at that time was Lady Basset, who had thirty-two of the 186 shares, and she came to the help of her co-adventurers by guaranteeing the repayment of all capital expended out of the dues which would come to her as owner of the land. Thereupon 3,084l. was spent as advised by Captain Thomas, who in 1853 had the supreme satisfaction of seeing the first dividend paid on tin. Profits were regularly made after that, and for many years the adventurers duly received large dividends every quarter.


To show at a glance what 'the pioneer of deep mining' did for Dolcoath it need only be stated that the value of the mine, calculated on the market prices of shares, rose from 4,000l. in 1846 to 90,000l. in 1868, and that during intervening period 147,854l. was paid in dividends to the shareholders.

The news of what had been done in a Cornish mine spread throughout the mining world, and Captain Charles Thomas' advice was widely sought, with the result that he inspected nearly three hundred mines in Cornwall and Devon, besides others in "Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, and Prussia.

While Captain Charles Thomas was an underground agent his health began to fail, and though for a long time there were no symptoms of serious disease, he was, in 1867, obliged to give up his work at the mine, and in the succeeding year he died, respected by thousands of mining men and beloved by the Methodists of Camborne, with whom he had laboured practically all his life.

Within twelve months of the payment of the first dividend on tin Captain Charles Thomas brought his son, then fifteen, to learn mining at Dolcoath, and five or six years after he became an underground agent. In that capacity he was acting when his father retired, and the adventurers paid a compliment to his ability in making him manager. Captain Josiah Thomas proved himself a firm believer in deep mining by sinking shafts and driving levels with all possible speed, and he discovered tin ground the richness of which surprised men.

It seems that this revelation of immense wealth in a mine so recently regarded as exhausted caused adventurers throughout the county to feel what had yet been done in other mines was comparatively little, and that deeper down there lay limitless riches; for Dolcoath was again and again the burthen of their speeches, and they paid willingly, even gladly, to enable managers to carry out what a few years before would have been deemed the schemes of madmen.

Up to 1876 the miners' chief tools were a few bars of steel and a sledge-hammer, with which men worked for hours in making a single hole to receive the explosive. But in that year Captain Josiah Thomas introduced machines, driven by compressed air sent in pipes from the surface, for boring the rocks, and thus increased the output of the mine considerably. What this meant can be appreciated when it is remembered that two men with a boring machine make twenty holes while two men without a machine are making three. In another direction an advance was made at Dolcoath some years later. When the tin stuff is received from underground it is crushed into fine powder in order that the tin may be separated from the useless material with which it is associated in the lodes; and in 1892 Captain Josiah Thomas erected a set of Californian stamps which, it is claimed, crush at half the cost of the Cornish stamps in general use throughout the county. Numerous other improvements were made in the machinery and appliances by Captain Josiah Thomas, who, like his father, came to be regarded as the leader of Cornish mining. Besides directing the affairs of Dolcoath he preached from Methodist pulpits regularly, and filled prominent positions on the Mining Association and Institute of Cornwall and other bodies, whilst inspections of mines took him to various parts of the United Kingdom, the European Continent, and once to Dakota, in the United States.


Between the owner of the mine and those who had invested money to work her the relations were most amicable until about 1883, when a dispute arose to which, even at this distance of time, the older shareholders cannot refer without 'chewing the cud of bitter fancy.' To the advisers of the late Mr. G. L. Basset, the father of the present lord, it seemed that to open the mine 'in a miner-like manner' a new shaft would be necessary in the south part of the property, and the adventurers were informed that unless they agreed to make such a shaft 40,000l. would have to be paid to the lord when the new lease was taken up. The attitude of the owner of Tehidy was regarded with consternation, and the majority of those financially concerned did not hesitate to express their indignation frequently and forcibly. They admitted the dividends had been large—more than 30,000l. a year—but in the same breatlh emphasised the fact that Mr. Basset was taking 20,000l. a year in dues from mines and tin streams in the county, of which between 8,000l. and 9,000l. was paid by Dolcoath. As those working the mine were averse to spending scores of thousands of pounds to make a new shaft, and the lord showed no disposition to relent, the future of the concern was discussed with considerable uneasiness, and the price of shares rapidly fell 14l., representing 65,800l. on the total number held. At length the lord agreed to accept 25,000l., and that was paid with a long wail.


After this 'fine' had been met there was a resumption of dividends, which continued unbroken down to 1894, when thousands of tons of ground fell away with a mighty roar, and, breaking down the massive timber-work, buried the richest tin ground and eight miners. The disaster was the most terrible in the history of the mine, both from the number of lives lost and the difficulties it placed in the way of future profits. A popular description of the catastrophe was 'the bottom of Dolcoath has gone together.' and that best convevs an idea of the hopeless jumble of timber, rocks, and rubbish that faced those who went to ascertain whether any of the missing men had escaped instantaneous death. While the seriousness of the situation thus created was distressing the officials, another 'run' of ground choked one of the principal shafts, and as no tin stuff could be drawn through it, the output of the mine fell off greatly.

It was now seen by the manager that practically a new mine would have to be opened under these runs, and the shareholders decided, in May 1895, to convert the company into a limited liability one and raise capital sufficient to accomplish this and make a new shaft, away from the old levels, in the south part, so as to avoid the possibility of communication between the 'new mine' and the surface being cut off by runs in the old workings. When the change in the company was effected Captain Josiah Thomas was appointed managing director, and the management of the property was entrusted to his son, Captain Arthur Thomas, who for some years was manager of a mine in South Africa.


This is a convenient point at which to review the working of the mine in the twenty-six or twenty-seven years while Captain Josiah Thomas was manager. In his father's reign the dividends amounted to 147,854l., making a total paid in dividends since 1799 of 305,395l. But so astounding was the progress from 1867 to 1894 that profits amounting to 644,000l. were made, while the mine doubled in extent and importance.

As this article is to include an account of a personal exploration of part of Dolcoath, I will endeavour, for the sake of those unacquainted with Cornish mining, to outline a few salient features of the operations.

Tin lodes are mineralised substances that have been deposited in fissures in the crust of the earth, where they stand for miles in length and no one knows how deep. Speaking generally, in the two western counties they run from east to west, and whilst some 'underlie,' or lean towards, north, others favour the south. The face of the 'country' resting on the side of a lode is termed the 'hanging wall,' because when the lode has been removed it over-hangs; and the side of the country upon which the lode appears to be resting is known as the foot-wall.

The opening of a mine commences with the sinking of a shaft and the driving of tunnels, or 'levels' twelve to twenty fathoms below one another. Levels are at first made seven feet high and six feet wide, and into them tramways are put to facilitate the removal of the tin stuff to the shaft. By degrees the spaces are increased in height, while the width is regulated by the size of the lode. In Dolcoath they are often more than thirty feet across, and enormous quantities of timber have to be employed to prevent the ground running together. The chief supports are balks of American pitch pine, thirty to forty feet long and eighteen inches to two feet square, which stretch from the foot-wall to the hanging wall and are supported by smaller timbers where necessary, the whole making a framework technically called a 'stull.' When miners have to take away a section of ground between two levels they cut a narrow shaft, termed a 'winze,' through the lode from one to the other, and this is gradually widened along the length of the level. Such a place, where men work week after week and month after month hacking away the lode, is a 'stope,' and down its rugged length the tin stuff falls to shoots opening on to tram-roads.

Of the many legends connected with St. Piran, the miners' saint, there is one I always think of when I see the slow and costly process by which tin is separated from the useless materials surrounding it in the lodes. When St. Piran lived in the wind-swept district bearing his name he collected a number of uncommon stones from the beach and the hill-side, and one day when 'preparing a humble meal' there flowed from a large black stone forming part of the fireplace a stream of liquid which was found to be pure tin.

Miners know of no such simple means of preparing tin for the market. The tin ore found in Cornwall contains, on an average, only three per cent. of tin, and the other ninety-seven parts, being practically useless, have to be got rid of. When sent up by the miners the tin stuff is of various sizes, and a number of 'bal girls' look it over—rejecting what is not worth dealing with and breaking the large rocks to lessen the work of the stamps. Water runs over the tin stuff as it is being pounded to powder by the great stamp-heads, and gushes through a fine screen, or 'grate,' on the other side loaded with tin and waste. The surcharged water spreads itself over planes of wood, known as 'frames,' and, as the tin is specifically heavier than the waste, the grains of mineral lodge on these prepared surfaces while the waste flows away. But the tin is not yet ready for the market. The stuff caught has to be freed from deleterious substances by burning, and then there are further washings in tin-dressing sheds, where women are employed largely. From the mine the tin is sent as dark grains—'black tin'—to furnaces in different parts of West Cornwall, where, by smelting, blocks of pure tin are obtained.

Several times it had been suggested to me that I should go to the bottom of Dolcoath to see the rich ground spoken of at shareholders' meetings, and when I declared a readiness to do so, the manager, Captain Arthur Thomas, kindly offered to accompany me.

It was a novel experience to find myself in miners' flannels and fustians—with a 'bowler' of hard rough felt for head-gear and half a dozen candles suspended to a button of my jacket—kneading a lump of clay that was to be my candle-holder.

You can go down Dolcoath Mine by ladders fixed on one side of the shaft or, as we did, in a gig, which is an iron box thirteen feet long hanging in the shaft to a wire rope worked by a powerful engine. A shelf divides the gig into two equal compartments, and, with an adjustable iron bar across the open front of each, eight men usually ride in it.

The descent commenced slowly, but when we had got beyond the last glimmer of daylight the speed grew faster and faster until we must have travelled at the rate of two hundred fathoms a minute. Riding in the gig was not like sliding down a modern cliff railway. The angle of the shaft is not uniform, and consequently the gig bumped and jumped between the wooden guides and we lurched correspondingly, whilst the candle's light showed us the slimy, rugged nature of the shaft through which thousands upon thousands of tons of tin stuff had been drawn and hundreds of men had ridden to and from their work at all hours of the day and night.


Gradually the speed slackened, and presently we halted at a point where there opened away before us a long dark cavern whose roughly-hewn sides re-echoed the steady fall of sledge-hammers, the rattle of trams coming towards the shaft, and the voices of miners. We pulled a lever communicating with the men at surface, and down slid the gig with its half a dozen miners to deeper levels.

Measurements given in speeches at a meeting convey no adequate idea of the immensity and solemnity of those great spaces men have hewn out of the earth half a mile below surface. And the excellent photographs Mr. J. C. Burrow has produced, although imparting a knowledge more clear than words can, deprive the mine of some of its eerie grandeur. For light is essential to photography, and darkness is a part of mining.

Each with a candle, we trudged along—now passing through openings that stretched away into empty blackness, and now bending our backs to pass through tunnels leading to other and larger spaces.

Going along one level I discerned miners working far up the rocky surface of a large stope by the light of candles stuck to their hats or to projecting rocks, and then, further on, we came to another stope where, sixty feet or more down, I caught sight of a group of men in a circle of dim light, the sounds of whose voices were borne to us as hollow whispers between the regular beats of the hammers, and served to emphasise the distance between us. There was a constant traffic along the level dividing these tin-producing areas, and more than once we had to step aside while the trams, with candles stuck to their sides, came from out the gloom and disappeared in the darkness beyond.


Near the shafts the air is fresh, and pleasant to breathe; but when you get away from those main channels and reach the narrow tunnels being driven to open more ground, you find the atmosphere hot and oppressive, and I felt the perspiration trickle down my face even at the sight of the half-naked miners working there.

Close to one of the shafts we rested after visiting hot 'ends,' but presently loud reports boomed like thunder through the levels, the walls seemed to tremble, and the air pulsated about my face, whilst pieces of rock fell close by. So, thinking we were too near blasting operations, we adjusted our candles and resumed the journey.

I mentioned that ladders occupy a part of each shaft. They run almost perpendicularly to the bottom of the mine and are shut off at each level by a trap-door. Raising one of these iron doors my companion went down, asking me to follow. The sound of his footsteps soon died away in the distance, for the progress I made was not rapid. Left in that long narrow way I began to wonder how far I should fall supposing my wet hands failed to grasp firmly the bars shown by the light of the candle in my hat; and when the skip thundered through the shaft I had visions of myself falling and knocking the mine manager off his legs&mdsash;to fall, perhaps, a score of fathoms below.

But we reached the 412 without such a swift transition, and went to the place where, in 1894, the eight men were buried by thousands of tons of rock. The stull under which the men rushed for protection when they heard the terrific noise of ground falling was regarded as an excellent piece of workmanship, and it happened that Mr. Burrow photographed it not long before the disaster. But all the great balks were broken as matches in the hand of a strong man, and those who cut a passage through the mass were day after day and night after night alternately blasting rocks and sawing timber—fearing all the while that they might dislodge more ground, and thus place additional obstacles between them and where they could hear a voice at rare intervals. As I looked into the little cavity amongst rocks and timber from which the only man who escaped alive was taken, an involuntary shudder came over me at the thought of being doubled up in that hole, with darkness and death for companions, for a whole week. 'Where is he now ?' I asked, remembering how frail he was when brought to surface. 'Oh,' came the answer, 'he went to America some time after, and is now working in South Africa.'

Although we were half a mile below daylight there was yet the 455 level, where the miners were working in hot ends with boring machines, and sending to surface the richest stuff found in the mine. For under the 'run' there is being opened ground that promises to lead to the payment of further big dividends.

Whether the men who work there at a settled price per day find a potent spell in the rich ground, I know not; but tributers do, and I well remember an old tributer telling me, as I sat by his peat fire in a lonely Dartmoor cottage, that when he worked in a silver-lead mine near Tavistock, the bright ore and the prospect of a good pay-day were so fascinating that he could scarcely tear himself away from the mine to go home to sleep.

Half a score of miners working 'afternoon core' got out of the gig as we reached the shaft, and, with kegs of water for drinking slung across their shoulders, went along the level towards their work, singing blithely. In three minutes we were at the top of the shaft in the brilliant sunshine of a July day.

Do not imagine that only what is worth seeing at Dolcoath is underground. There are massive high-class pumping, winding, and air-compressing engines at surface, besides the tin-dressing machinery, in which changes are about to be made which will, it is contended, revolutionise the whole process and effect great saving in the cost of treating each ton of stuff. With the advent of mechanical stone-breaking and the new tin-dressing appliances, the number of girls who 'spall' the tin and work on the tin-dressing floors must be reduced greatly, and the mine will lose some of its features that are novel and attractive.


This wonderful mine is at present yielding tin ore at the rate of 75,000 tons a year, and, notwithstanding the introduction of labour-saving machinery, provides employment for 1,300 men, women, and boys, whose wages reach nearly 45,000l. a year. From 1799 to the end of 1897 there was taken from her mineral sold for 6,118,366l., of which 3,766,487l. was for tin, 2,328,435l. for copper, and the remainder for arsenic, silver, and cobalt. The proportion of silver was slight, but at one time the ore sent up contained an appreciable quantity of that metal, and out of part of it a centrepiece was made and presented to the lord of the mine.

In a roll-call of those who have worked at Dolcoath would be heard more than a few noteworthy names besides those I have referred to. A cursory glance shows me Richard Trevithick, sen., father of the famous engineer, was manager there in 1765, whilst some years later his illustrious son occupied the position of chief engineer. And then there was Rodolph Eric Raspe, a 'learned and scientific German,' who left his fatherland somewhat hurriedly after pawning valuables belonging to the nation, and was officially described as 'a man with red hair who usually appears in a scarlet dress embroidered with gold, but sometimes in black, blue, or grey clothes.' He came into Cornwall in or about 1781, and while employed as 'storemaster' at Dolcoath wrote and published his 'Travels of Baron Munchausen.'


Extracted from The Cornish Magazine, Vol. 1, 1898, pp168-181.