It wasn’t just the mineral lords who stood to make a fortune out of mining. There were other means for people who could spot an opportunity to make money. Those with the foresight or business acumen to seize it built fortunes which made them the new elite of their societies.
Cornwall was one of the world’s earliest industrial regions, with a complex and dispersed industrial society. It was unusual in that it never developed a dominant large town or city containing the political, economic and institutional elite, around which the county might have cohered. Instead, ownership and control was spread among the small towns throughout the Cornish countryside.
Most medieval European mining regions were closely controlled by the state. Cornish mining was different. It had developed under conditions which gave both miners and investors considerable freedom.
Captain Thomas of Dolcoath was known to be able to make or break a mine with his leadership.
Mining practice in Cornwall was based on Stannary law, which took into account customary mining traditions – including the adventurers’ right to ‘bound’ land (in other words, to stake a claim to a piece of land for mining purposes without regard for the constraints of normal landed property rights).
The Stannary Courts and Convocation existed in association with the Duchy of Cornwall (the Duchy tied Cornwall and parts of Devon into a close relationship with the Crown) to their mutual advantage.
Roles in the mining industry
Landowners and merchants diversified their portfolios across mining, banking, smelting and other associated enterprises. So capital was dispersed, with no direct social control. The owning class exercised their power through agents and stewards.
Copper was to Cornwall what cotton was to Lancashire.
- The mineral lord owned the mineral rights to the land (although they didn’t always own the land themselves). Mineral lords stood to make the most money from any mining venture
- Adventurers were investors in the mine. They could make or lose a fortune depending on how the mine performed
- The purser was the mine accountant, often one of the adventurers. The purser was responsible for presenting the accounts at the monthly meetings
- Mine agents, more usually known in Cornwall as captains, imposed workplace discipline and social leadership. This was often reinforced by their position as lay preachers in the Methodist chapels which dominated the Cornish religious landscape after the Revivals of 1799 and 1814. Some, like Captain Thomas of Dolcoath, could make or break a mine
The cost book system and count house dinners
The cost book system was how the accounts of a mine were kept. The mine’s investors would attend bi-monthly meetings, where the purser would present the accounts before the count house dinner took place. The investors would either share any profits, or meet the mine’s debts, or ‘calls’. If the mine was running at a loss, the investors’ names would be entered into cost books until they had paid their share of the debt. The dinners were also a chance for investors to socialise and discuss any issues regarding the mine.
By the early 1800s, Cornish mines were among the largest industrial enterprises in Europe.
Copper mining and industrial growth
Copper was to Cornwall what cotton was to Lancashire. Its production grew phenomenally during the 18th century, and by 1770 the value of the copper industry had outstripped all other national industrial sectors. Huge fortunes were made, so much so that in the early 18th century Cornwall probably had more newly rich than most other English counties.
Mining and banking
One of the key families in the tin smelting industry was the Bolitho family of Penzance. Money was often advanced to mines or miners by the ‘count house’ of a smelting company and later repaid in tin. Thomas and William Bolitho quickly recognised the opportunity to develop an even more profitable business – and set up the Mounts Bay Commercial Bank in 1807.