At the extreme southwest point of England lies one of the UK’s greatest treasures. The ancient kingdom of Cornwall (Kernow) is a land of jagged coastlines, deep, mist-shrouded bogs, and empty, desolate moorlands. Now a tourist and second-home paradise, it was for a long time one of the least-developed, poorest regions in Europe. What little work there was to be had came from either fishing, subsistence-level agriculture… or working in the tin and copper mines.
Dotted across Cornwall and into Western Devon, these old, abandoned tin mines (and later copper workings) are the stuff of legend. At one point, enough tin was produced here to supply half the world. With interest in this once-vital industry booming again thanks to the BBC series Poldark, we thought now would be a good time to examine these haunting ruins of Cornwall’s industrial past.
You might recognise Botallack as Wheal Leisure, the mine in BBC series Poldark. In use since at least 1500, Botallack was once one of the greatest copper and tin mines in England. Vast tunnels stretched for up to half a mile under the Atlantic Ocean. Around 14,500 tons of tin and 20,000 tons of copper were produced here, along with a startling 1,500 tons of arsenic. In the 19th century, it even became a tourist site, with visitors charged a guinea to descend the shaft deep into the cold, dark earth.
Closed in 1895, Botallack mine is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of a series of designations stretching across Cornwall. It’s also hauntingly beautiful. The characteristic ruins include abandoned engine houses clinging to edge of the rocky Cornish coast. Botallack is a haunting reflection of another time in the county’s history, its old buildings making for the quintessential abandoned Cornish tin mine.
Levant Tin Mine
(Images: John Stratford)
Another Poldark location, the Levant tin mine is today one of the best-preserved of Cornwall’s abandoned mines. A century ago, though, it was a place more-associated with wasteful tragedy than history or tourism. In October 1919 a rod broke while a group of miners were riding the beam engine to the surface. The resulting crash killed 31 people and left scores horrendously injured.
With such a tragic backstory, you might expect Levant tin mine to today be a place of brooding melancholy. Far from it. Thanks to some superb preservation work by the National Trust, Levant in 2016 is a place to experience a living slice of Cornish history. The old beam engine has been restored, and now ferries passengers deep into the abandoned Cornish tin mine and back up to the surface for a price. While the horrors of 1919 are ever-present down here, the mine today has recaptured its 19th century, pre-crash glory. Visitors can also walk between here and Botallack via a clifftop path.
On a battered, overgrown expanse of land outside Redruth sits the forlorn remains of the old Poldice mine. A tin mine that switched to copper at the end of the 18th century, Poldice was once at the forefront of Cornish mining technology. Great Newcomen steam engines carried carts of copper and tin from the murky depths to the distant surface. A privately owned railway line gave the mining company access to the nearby harbour, and a 90-inch Woolf pumping engine made sure the mine was always drained, even in the wettest of winters.
Yet, despite its innovations, the good times at Poldice could not last. By 1869, the soon-to-be abandoned Cornish copper mine was selling on its equipment to other workings. By 1910, it was essentially derelict. Fast forward to 2016, and all that remains is a chimney and just so much rubble.
Wheal Coates Mine
On the north coast of Cornwall stands a small, neglected monument to man’s hubris. The broken down ruins of the old Wheal Coates mine, this collection of ruined buildings marks where generations of successive businessmen tried to dig beneath the roiling ocean and extract a rich seam of tin. Each time, flooding, collapses and bad luck put paid to their efforts.
Despite this, Wheal Coates operated sporadically between 1692 and 1914. At times, there was enough ore coming out the ground to employ up to 140 people. But such streaks never lasted. After being abandoned in the 18th century, the Cornish tin mine was reopened in 1815, before being abandoned again and left to flood just 40 years later. Another business tried for almost 20 years to make a go of it, starting in 1872, but this too was unsuccessful, as was a venture between 1911-1914. Despite the best efforts of many men, Wheal Coates mine was destined to hold onto its tin.
Grenville United Mine
(Image: Tony Atkin)
Not much remains today of the old Grenville United mine. On the outskirts of the village of Pool, two old brick engine houses crumble away to dust, their unused chimneys stretching longingly up into the leaden grey skies. Now entirely derelict, they nonetheless disguise something much more fascinating. Wander a few more kilometres out into the surrounding wilderness and you may just stumble across one of the best-preserved mines in the whole of Cornwall.
The old East Pool mine was worked until 1945, and is now a UNESCO-listed site. Currently home to two of the best-preserved working beam engines, it is a veritable mecca for fans of industrial design and engineering. While the Grenville United mine may have faded into oblivion, a quick tour around East Pool shows how it may once have looked, all those decades ago.
(Image: John Gibson)
Three miles south of St Austell, where inland Cornwall collides headlong with the broiling Atlantic Ocean, sits the half-forgotten remains of one of the most obscure abandoned tin mines in the county. Once part of Wheal Elizabeth, Ventonwyn mine worked right from the 1790s until the early 20th century. Despite this, it didn’t leave a great mark on the landscape. Go asking about Ventonwyn around St Austell, and be prepared to be met with a least a few blank stares.
All of which isn’t that surprising, as there is very little left of Ventonwyn these days. The broken ruins of an old engine house reach out of scraggly tufts of grass and gorse, topped with a precarious-looking old chimney. Of the shaft that once sank deep into the ground, almost nothing remains. Ventonwyn almost seems to have vanished without a trace, leaving only little clues that a tin mine once stood here.
Belowda Beacon Mine
(Image: David Kitching)
The bleak wilds of Bodmin Moor are one of the most strangely-romantic places in the whole of Cornwall. Great empty plains lead to jagged hills topped with ancient tors, all surrounded by a vast, desolate sky. Plonk the picturesque remains of an abandoned Cornish tin mine down here, and it would just about be perfect.
Luckily, such a mine exists. Belowda Beacon may be long gone as a functioning mine, but its south shaft engine house remains in remarkably good condition. A grey stone building topped with an old slate roof, it is today impressively whole, impressively crumbling, and impressively empty. Standing before it on a cool winter’s day, it’s all too-easy to get lost in a series of reveries about the past, and the bygone folk who toiled here.
Wheal Trewavas Tin Mine
When we hear the words ‘Cornish tin mines’, most of us have just one kind of place in mind. We imagine a great, crumbling old engine house, precariously clinging to a sheer, rain-lashed cliff edge above a dark and turbulent sea. Remarkably, as we’ve seen above, this idealised, fairy tale image actually exists. And here it is again: welcome to the remains of the Wheal Trewavas tin mine, perhaps the most-dramatic set of ruins in the whole of Cornwall.
Located to the east of Trewavas Head, outside Porthleven, the two surviving engine houses look like they may tumble into the ocean at any moment. Unusually, the now abandoned tin mine itself operated for only 12 years, between 1834 and 1846, although it did manage to employ 160 men at its height. However, the good times couldn’t last. Almost immediately, yields began to diminish, and the Cornish mine was abandoned as unprofitable.
South Polgooth Mine
(Image: John Gibson)
A small tin mine outside St Austell, South Polgooth was perhaps one of the most-typical mines in the whole of Cornwall. Although it rarely made much profit, and never succeeded in extracting much tin, it still managed to keep on ticking over for nearly 400 years, keeping a small number of mining families in permanent employment. While it lacked the great engineering advances or later grand ruins of other mines on our list, it was precisely the type of pit that the majority of Cornish miners worked in, sometimes for generations.
Today, not much remains to commemorate these endless, anonymous workers. As a small mine, South Polgooth did not leave much in the way of ruins. Just a crumbling, ivy-encrusted engine house stands today, marking the spot where so many lives were lived.
Nancegollan Mine (Polcrebo Downs)
(Image: Elizabeth Scott)
Neither productive nor long-lasting, Nancegollan mine on the far reaches of the Cornish peninsula was something of a catastrophic commercial failure. In operation only between 1853 and 1870, it is recorded as only being able to shift a mere six tons of black tin in that entire time, during an unusually productive first year. For those who had invested in building the engine rooms and pumping houses, this doubtless came as a body-blow. After so much time and money had been sunk into it, Nancegollan had returned… almost nothing.
Luckily for those of us living 146 years later in the present, Nancegollan is not without a legacy. A tall, narrow engine house still stands beside an old chimney, both attractively turning to dust as the decades roll by. Now something of a local landmark, Nancegollan may in death have achieved more-lasting local fame than it ever had in life.
If you enjoyed our coverage of abandoned Cornish tin mines, be sure to check out other derelict mines and collieries of the UK.