Carnmenellis smallholdings, Wendron Mining District. © HES.


Wendron Mining District - smallholdings and small farms
[location map] [historic landscapes] [WHS GIS mapping]

The sparsely populated upland area of Carnmenellis (265m OD) contains the most extensive and best-preserved evidence for miners’ smallholdings in Cornwall. The relationship between mining and the development of these small farms which emerged in the late eighteenth century is clearer here than anywhere else in the Site. They occupy a significant proportion of the Area.

The acreage of former heathland, moorland and open downland enclosed in Cornwall during the 18th and 19th centuries is striking – research suggesting that just over 51,000 hectares (125,000 acres) was brought into productive use during this period. Whilst a proportion of this was made up of large, late 19th century enclosures and new farms, much of the marginal land in and surrounding the principal mining districts in mid-Cornwall was originally enclosed as smallholdings. These small plots of land, usually from 3-5 acres in extent, were leased to miners on which to build a cottage and lay out fields.

This system allowed miners to build cottages on marginal land relatively cheaply, using materials that were often free by customary right – moorstone (surface granite) and cob (an earth-based building material). The costs, £50-£80 during the mid nineteenth century, could be raised by most miners by pooling the monthly earnings of the whole family. Access to land helped to supplement family incomes and provide a buffer against the uncertainties of the mining economy.

The form of lease was normally the ‘three lives’ system – and ran for a period determined by the lifespan of three named persons, one of which was usually the lessee. The rent (known as ‘head rent’) – was fixed for the period of the three lives. As each of the named persons died, a fine or heriot was payable, and on the death of the last, the cottage and land had to be relinquished in good condition. In some cases, the rent could be renegotiated, but in others (as for instance around Chacewater) map evidence shows that landlords amalgamated smallholdings to let the improved land as larger farms.

This system of land tenure was only common in parts of rural south-west England and parts of Wales. It appears to be an 18th century phenomenon linked to the early stages in the growth of the industrial workforce, before the onset of urbanisation and the widespread development of settlements of terraced cottages. Even so, in 1840 just under a quarter of the 685 miners in three districts – St Just, St Blazey and Redruth, lived in self-built cottages on smallholdings and by 1889 holdings of less than 5 acres still amounted to 21.8% of land tenure in Redruth parish and 48.8% in St Agnes: much higher than the national average of 17.2%.

Nevertheless, restructuring of the mining industry and a growing emphasis on regulated working hours inevitably brought a decline in smallholdings, since men had less time available within which to work their plots – miners who tried to do so would generally be looked on unfavourably by employers. Nevertheless, an echo of an expectation of access to land can be seen in the long gardens provided for the terraced cottages within earlier 19th century settlements such as Lanner Moor, Carharrack or Creiswell Terrace at Botallack, where occupants could still grow potatoes and vegetables, keep fowls or a pig. In the newly-developing towns and villages, in contrast, cottages without gardens became the norm as society became increasingly urbanised.

Although well-preserved patchworks of small fields can still be seen to the south of St Agnes and to the south of Carn Marth near Lanner, the best surviving evidence for miners’ smallholdings can be found in the sparsely-populated granite uplands to the south of Camborne-Redruth. These were laid out in moorland during the expansion of mining in Camborne-Redruth to the north and Porkellis-Wendron to the south; their growth can also probably be traced to the development of granite quarrying between Mabe and Longdowns to the east.

The holdings on Carnmenellis itself are small – most no more than five acres in total extent and made up of ten or so half acre fields defined by walls built from the stone cleared during their creation. Fringing the hill, where soils were deeper and richer, plots were, by 1878, larger (averaging between one and two acres) and the holdings seem to have been between seven and nine acres in extent. In the surrounding landscape the 1880 Ordnance Survey 1:2500 map shows larger farms, though the grid-like arrangement and small size of their fields suggest that these were formed from a number of smaller landholdings.

Places to Visit

Poldark Mine - Poldark Mine hosts a variety of attractions from the mine itself to a museum, amusements and craft workshops.