Cornwall managed to push other West Country holiday counties Devon and Dorset down the popularity list.
Toiling fewer than 40ft under the ocean floor, the men knew that one false pick stroke could be their last. With the roar of the sea in their ears, these brave miners were forced to tunnel closer and closer to the surface in their quest for tin. Stretching for more than a century, the dangerous work to extract metal from seams located under the Cornish coastline claimed many lives and was only ended by economic concerns.
Gateway to the mines below the sea: The Crown Mines in operation in the 1860s. From this site a shaft was dug reaching 240 fathoms or 480 yards below the sea and workers could hear the waves crash above their head as they toiled
Relic of the past: The Crown Mines in Botallack were built in 1815 and closed a century later in 1914. Pictured is the remains of an engine house today. Now, the seabed near Land's End in west Cornwall is to be dredged to capture tin washed out there by the prolific land-based mines which operated nearby. But beneath the ocean floor lies a vast labyrinth of tunnels extending more than a mile out to sea. The greatest concentration of tin and copper submarine mining in the world is located a few miles from Land’s End, notably the mines of Botallack, Levant and Geevor. These run from west to east, and from earliest to most recent. The largest of these was Levant which was in operation for almost a century during the 1800s, and then assimilated into Geevor which was one of the last mines in Cornwall to close down in 1990. Yet the history of coastal mining in Cornwall stretches across the millennia, beginning in the Bronze Age, approximately three and a half thousand years ago. One of the most important finds substantiating this claim is the discovery at the cliff top Kenidjack Castle, near Botallack, west Cornwall, where 30 pieces of copper and smelted tin, along with axes of high tin content were excavated around this now-dilapidated fortress.
The ‘Widow-Maker’ Drill: Deadly rock dust was created by such rock drills, powered by compressed air, before water jets were devised to absorb the lethal floating residue. Pictured right is a map of the submarine mines at Geevor, Levant and Botallack
More than 60 miles of intersecting tunnels lie beneath the Atlantic. In Levant, a blind miner often helped others navigate when their candles failed
Further evidence of this rich history is provided by the 4th Century BC Greek explorer Pytheas who visited the area of Land’s End, or ‘Belerian’, describing the courteous inhabitants’ production of tin and its subsequent haul to an island named ‘Ictis’, believed to be St. Michael’s Mount near Penzance, for international trade.
There is evidence of mining in Botallack from ancient times, but the first records show a date of 1721. The ‘sett’ (area) of Botallack includes one of the most picturesque and romantic mines in the area: the Crown Mines.
These engine houses are still perched perilously close to the sea upon an outcrop of rocks at the foot of the cliff.
More striking still is the fact that from this post extends a diagonal shaft reaching down over 240 fathoms or 480 yards below sea level and extending almost the same distance out beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Modern submarine mining: The sub-incline shaft allowing access to Levant from Geevor. It was completed by 1977 and officially opened by the Queen in 1980 who braved its descent
New mine: A diver plugging the breach at the ¿40 Backs¿ area in the 1960s where the sea had infiltrated into the submarine levels of Levant. This was an unprecedented and award-winning engineering feat
Levant Beam Engine: A steam engine built in 1840, its claim to fame being that it is the oldest Cornish mine engine which also has remained in situ, and is to this day operational
From the mid 19th century tourists would flock to these Crowns and some would even attempt a submarinal descent.
The most famous of these visitors being the Prince and Princess of Wales – or more appropriately the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall – in 1865, who were staying at St. Michael’s Mount.
As technology progressed with the Industrial Revolution, greater depths could be mined as water could be mechanically pumped out in larger quantities than buckets permitted.
Mechanised fans also allowed for ventilation which was always an issue for submarine mining because ventilation shafts could not emerge vertically into air as they could inland.
Levant, nicknamed ‘The Mine Under the Sea’, made effective use of this technology, becoming a leviathan in the mining industry. By 1820 it had submarine mines.
One of its engines is to this day still ‘in steam’ and it can be witnessed by visiting the mine, now a tourist attraction run by the National Trust.
However, despite this technological progress, conditions were still dangerous and toiling for the miners. Temperatures rose as miners descended with heat recorded at 30C at the deepest levels of 350 fathoms or 700 yards below sea level.
Another fear for submarine miners was of course the incursion of the sea itself. At Levant lies an infamous level or tunnel known as the ’40 Backs’, named so because it ran a mere 40 feet from the seabed.
In fact, the tunnel moved even closer to the seabed when miners followed a ‘lode’ or vein of ore, veering upwards. Some miners, known as tributers, would be paid according to the value of the ore they yielded – rather than ‘tut workers’ who were paid per fathom plunged – so their profit and danger ran parallel at this point.
Here they could hear the crashing of the waves and the thuds of boulders being thrown around by the power of the currents above. Eventually the danger outweighed the potential profits, and the place was abandoned.
In 1919, however, disaster did strike Levant. The so-called ‘man engine’ – essentially an ingenious vacillating rod-lift carrying miners into and out of the lower depths – when fully manned, became crippled and smashed down through its deep shaft, killing thirty-one men and injuring many more.
Rusting now: The Skip Shaft lift at Levant (left). Ponies were sent through this shaft, tail first with legs tied to their bodies due to the shaft’s narrow width. They would remain working under the mine for years. Pictured right, pPart of the derelict machinery before the headgear of Victory Shaft, Geevor
Into the abyss: The Skip Shaft at Levant reaching down almost half a mile at 290 fathoms. The tragedy was the death knell of Levant mining, and was a substantial factor in its eventual closure in 1930. More than two decades prior to this a mine known as North Levant had become independent and renamed itself to Geevor. It outlived its southerly parent becoming very prosperous aided by the enhanced technology that the 20th Century provided.
In the 1960s Geevor decided to extend its mining to submarine regions when it was realised that much more valuable tin and copper were waiting out there rather than inland.
Living history: Some of the tunnels are now accessible to the public at Geevor Tin Mine
Dripping: Submarine mining became possible with the advent of mechanised pumps draining the tunnels from the water constantly seeping through the earth
Geevor’s matrix of tunnels would intersect with those undersea tunnels of Levant but first a problem needed remedying: it was discovered that after Levant mine had closed, the sea had indeed infiltrated its submarine tunnelling. The leak was at the fragile 40 Backs area.
An unprecedented operation involving divers from Imperial College, London, and a 35-ton ex-Admiralty vessel, was set in motion to plug the breach. This was finally completed in 1969 with a total of 2,500 tons of cement being employed.
The submarine mines were dry and mining once again began.
Botallack Arsenic Labyrinth: As well as tin, copper and other metals, the mines also yielded arsenic. Any arsenic in the ore turned into a gas which then flowed into this labyrinth; there it cooled and solidified into arsenic crystals which could be recovered and sold
Exposed: A precarious cliff entrance to the submarine labyrinth, or ¿Lambreth¿ in the local dialect, that lies beyond the waves at Levant
Stunning: The picturesque Levant mine overlooking the Celtic Sea, part of the Atlantic. This area has recently been designated as a World Heritage Site along with the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, and the Acropolis in Athens
By 1977 Geevor had tunnelled a sub-incline shaft for good access to these depths, a shaft that was officially opened by The Queen in1980. Before this unveiling, Her Majesty, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Andrew, had ventured down the shaft themselves in a similar manner to their forebears.
Despite the wealth of copper, tin and other metals that lay there, Geevor had to close in 1990 due to the collapse of the global price of tin. However, Geevor now acts as a museum where visitors can not only access the industrial complex above ground but where they can also enter the shafts themselves.
The submarine mines, however, cannot be accessed because they are once more submerged, not with sea water but with land drainage: once the pumps had stopped, rain water gradually made its way down into those deep 60 miles of submarine tunnelling – dormant now but perhaps awaiting a new era of good tin pricing and technology capable of once again exploiting the treasures that lie hundreds of fathoms under the sea.
Furthest west? The scenic Cape Cornwall just to the west of Botallack, crowned by a mine chimney. Until two centuries ago this cape was considered to be the Land¿s End
Tourist spot: The Crown Mines at Botallack. Visitors have been flocking to this beauty spot for almost two centuries
Precarious path: The Botallack Crown Mines glistening over the Atlantic Ocean
Beacon: Pendeen Lighthouse would have been a familiar sight to miners at Levant and then Geevor from the beginning of the 20th Century
Britain's forgotten relics: Book reveals over 250 breathtaking hidden wonders from abandoned castles to crumbling follies that are right on our doorstep but often overlooked
- Author David Hamilton set out to reconnect the nation with the hidden wonders located within our own nation
- His book, Wild Ruins, explores 250 breathtaking locations, compiled over three years of travelling the UK
- Forgotten relics include the WW2 Maunsell Forts built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries