The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site is not just about the impressive landscapes you see today, but also very much about its people. Thousands of Cornish men, women and children worked long hard hours to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. But although working in the mines was a tough existence, many found it preferable as it usually paid better than agricultural or fishing work at the time.
A miner’s life
Life for mine workers and their families was undoubtedly tough. Not only were they working for low wages and living off a poor diet, but the dust and fumes from difficult working conditions deep underground meant that miners were often considered old by their 40s. Mining was an unstable occupation subject to the unpredictability of the ore bodies being worked and the prices for metals on the world markets. If anything was guaranteed for a miner, it was an uncertainty about their future.
Their home life wasn’t any easier either. Miners had to learn to cope with poor health, whilst diseases such as cholera and typhoid stalked many of the new mining villages and towns with their lack of sanitation, uncertain water supplies and overcrowded homes.
Although the miners’ work was tough, the hours long and the rewards often little, the Cornish took an intense pride in their work and carried the technology and achievements of their industry throughout the world. Around 25% of the population worked in the mines, but it wasn’t just men who were employed in the industry.
Mining was frequently a family affair. In the early 1800s, women and children were working in the mines as well. Young women took work as bal maidens, dressing ore at surface. Using special hammers, they would carefully select and crush the ore to a manageable size before further processing.
Even though they took pains to protect the faces from the sun, wearing cardboard hoods to shade their complexions, contemporary writers noted their rough, chapped hands. Fancy gloves weren’t a luxury for these women, but a way of trying to stay young and attractive.
By eight or nine, a miners' son or daughter was old enough to make their contribution to the family's income.
Children were soon involved in the tough world of work too and in 1839, there were 7,000 children employed in Cornish mines.
By eight or nine, a miner’s son or daughter was old enough to make their contribution to their family's limited income. Until the age of 12, children worked mainly above ground doing menial jobs such as sweeping or, perhaps, tending the tin buddles or settling strips, but many complained about the effects of over-exertion in the 1842 Children’s Employment Commission report.
Eventually, changes in legislation regulated the use of child labour on mines, and increasing mechanisation gradually reduced and finally removed the need for this.
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If you want to delve even deeper into Cornish mining, you may wish to visit the 'Dig Further' page for details of archives, information sheets, a bibliography and more...