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Tin mining: a 4,000 year old industry

Crown copyright.NMRTin is a relatively precious metal. Traditionally it has been used in a number of alloys, including bronze and pewter, and it gives a corrosion-free surface to cheaply-produced iron or steel sheet. Cornwall and west Devon are unique in the British Isles in possessing tin in significant amounts, and other metals such as copper were also mined in the region.

Tin ore (or cassite) occurs in steeply dipping veins or lodes that cut through granite. In places it outcrops at the surface where it is eroded to create tin-bearing gravels in the rivers. Until about 250 years ago these river gravels may have been the main source of tin. The bleak landscapes of Dartmoor, for example, preserve evidence of tin-streaming works in the valley bottoms and the ruins of blowing houses where the tin was smelted.

Mining on a large scale only became possible with the invention of the steam engine, and engine houses have almost come to symbolise the industry. They held winding engines, to carry people and ore in and out of the mine shafts, and pumping engines, which pumped out groundwater to prevent the mines flooding. Today ruined engine houses often dominate the landscape, but invisible beneath the Cornish fields are unknown miles of tunnels. At South Crofty alone it is calculated that the underground passages total over 50 miles.

Once the ore has been extracted, it must be crushed to separate the ore from the surrounding rock. Ingots or high grade concentrate are then produced. Bulk transportation of the ore poses a further problem.

Tin mining was of huge social and economic importance to the south-west, and many communities were dependent upon it. However, the industry faltered in the later 20th century as a result of global economic conditions. Finally South Crofty, the last tin mine in Europe, closed on 6th March 1998, bringing Cornwall's 4,000 year involvement with tin to an end.

Story author: English Heritage

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