Mine’s a mine: the pre-industrial mining industry of Cornwall and Devon

Whilst in modern times Devon and Cornwall may be known as popular tourist destinations, in the 14th and 15th centuries the counties were central hubs of the mining industry. In today’s blog Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, looks into the industrial roots of these localities and their impact on parliamentary representation...

If in the present day the south-west of England seems our best hope of getting away for a few days in the sun, in the later middle ages the region, far from being a holiday destination, was nothing less than one of the industrial heartlands of a kingdom otherwise essentially characterised by an agrarian economy. Metal ores were mined in the far west of Britain even in the Bronze age, and over the course of the centuries Britain became one of the principal suppliers of tin throughout the Graeco-Roman world. After the Norman Conquest tin mining on Dartmoor at least temporarily began to outstrip the production of the metal in Cornwall, but in parallel the westernmost county also continued to be a significant producer.

The production of, and trade in tin pervaded all levels of Cornish society. If few men who sat in the Commons physically worked in the mines, they could nevertheless reap the profits of the industry by collecting toll tin from the ‘stanners’ working on their land, as well as gaining additional profits by maintaining ‘blowing mills’, the furnaces used to refine the ore: in the 1440s William Trethewy (a former MP for Liskeard) could claim to derive annual revenues of as much as £20 from his corn and blowing mills.

A level removed from the working tin miners were the merchant tinners, men who traded in the refined metal and often amassed considerable wealth. These men were often leading members of the communities of the Cornish boroughs represented in the Commons, and as such were not infrequently returned to Parliament by their neighbours. Their intimate knowledge of the industry was valued by the Crown, which skimmed off a share of the profits both locally in the form of coinage duties (in the late 14th century worth some £2,500 p.a.), and in the sea ports by way of customs on tin taken overseas. It is not surprising that entire families came to prominence in both the tin trade and its regulating by the duchy of Cornwall and the Crown.

One such family were the Quints of Lostwithiel, who in the reign of Edward I had owned even the land on which the great hall of the earldom of Cornwall and the adjacent river quay were situated. Successive generations of the family had sat in Parliament, and Thomas Quint (MP for Lostwithiel in July 1338) leased from King Edward II the offices of weigher of tin and keeper of the tinner’s gaol, along with the ‘Blowinghous’ and ‘Weyhynghous’ in Lostwithiel, where tin brought for coinage was smelted and weighed. The volume of the family’s business at the end of the 14th century is exemplified by John Quint, one of Lostwithiel’s representatives in the Parliament of 1395, who on a single occasion in the autumn of 1385 presented as much as 3,000 lbs. of tin for coinage, but even he was eclipsed by his kinsman Roger Quint, five times mayor of the town between 1394 and 1420, who handled even greater quantities of the metal.

In the light of the profits to be made, it is not surprising that the tin industry engendered a backwash of illicit and even criminal behaviour. Landowners sought to extort additional profits from tinners working on their lands, and squabbled over rights to tin works and blowing mills, while tin merchants sought local monopolies over the trade in the metal, or sought to avoid the payment of customs on shipments of tin. At the other end of the chain were manufacturers of tin and pewter goods, who relied on a supply of raw metal from the south-west for their own businesses. Personal connections could be all important to maintain the supply, and it is thus small wonder that Cornishmen like John Megre who had cut their teeth in the tin trade in their native county, should have established themselves as pewterers in the busy London market.

Tunnel constructed through the hills above Bere Ferrers for Silver Mining, image via Exeter University ‘Medieval silver mining in at Bere Ferrers, Devon‘ project

Across the Tamar, silver was found and mined in the region around Bere Ferrers in Devon. Until the Black Death, operations here were directly managed by the Crown’s officers, but even in the 15th century the mines were sufficiently desirable to attract a succession of high-ranking lessees. These repeatedly came into conflict with the principal landowners in the locality, who also wished to claim a share of the available wealth. In the early 1430s Roger Champernowne (MP for Devon in 1433 and 1437) was forced to answer Henry VI’s eldest uncle, John, duke of Bedford (who controlled the royal silver mines by a Crown grant of 1427), for his abuse of the miners working there, and, following Bedford’s untimely death in 1435, he took his revenge on the now unprotected workers.

In the 1440s the profitable mines attracted the attention of Henry VI’s grasping minister, William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, but his fall once again left the door open for local interests, and Suffolk’s widow was reduced to litigation in seeking to recover metal and ore from Champernowne. The Crown now decided to work with, rather than against him, and charged Roger with the task of gathering in the metals and ore mined throughout the county. This decision provided only a short respite. In the summer of 1453 Henry VI lost his mental faculties, and – on being appointed Protector in the following spring – Richard, duke of York, lost little time in staking a claim to the south-western silver mining operations for his own part, bringing about fresh clashes with Champernowne.

Increasingly, however, the accessible silver deposits began to run out, and by the end of the 15th century silver mining in Devon had all but ceased until in the 19th century technological advances, particularly the advent of steam-powered pumps, allowed the exploration of deeper seams.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

John Hatcher, English Tin Production and Trade before 1550 (Oxford, 1973)

G. L. Lewis, The Stannaries: A Study of the Medieval Tin Miners of Cornwall and Devon (Cambridge, Mass., 1908)

Steve Rippon, Peter Claughton, and Christopher Smart, Mining in a Medieval Landscape: The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley (Exeter, 2009)  

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