Foundries and ancillary industries

Growth in Cornwall and West Devon mining created a demand for ancillary industries to supply both the mines and its workforce, and to process its output. Amongst these industries (many newly imported to Cornwall) were: foundries; copper, tin and silver-lead smelters; rope-walks; ochre-works; arsenic works; chemical works; charcoal manufactories; candle factories; crucible works; brickworks; clothing factories; scientific instrument manufactories; gunpowder mills and explosives factories.

Engineering and foundries

The Engineer makes Engines for Raising of Water by Fire, either for supplying Reservoirs or draining Mines. An engineer, who operated and maintained steam engines, had become a specialist on Cornish mines as early as 1740. Parts for steam engines were made in foundries and forges. Initially Cornwall did not possess any foundries capable of casting and boring cylinders. The Darby firm of Coalbrookdale in Shropshire (established 1709) was one of the principal founders of iron cylinders and, together with others in the Midlands, supplied almost all the early engines in Cornwall.

Point Smelting Works, Devoran (A6), 1857. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the mining industry used quay space alongside the nearest navigable water for transport facilities and as a location for ancillary industry. Watercolour by Susan Anna Cory Whitford (1822-1894).© Royal Cornwall Museum.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Cornwall began making her own engines. The expiry of the Watt Patent in 1800 heralded a period of experimentation in Cornwall by engineers such as Sims, Woolf, Trevithick and Hornblower. From about 1820 virtually all the local mines bought ‘Cornish’ and by 1840 Cornish engines and engineers were the most distinguished in the world. Globally, as new mineral discoveries were made, so mine engines were despatched to South America, Australia, Ireland and South Africa; in fact wherever deep mining was to be found.

Three of the largest foundries were Harvey’s Foundry (Hayle), Perran Foundry (Perran-ar-Worthal) and the Copperhouse Foundry (Hayle). Together they were responsible for the employment of upwards of 3,000 people during the nineteenth century:

Harvey’s Foundry, Hayle (1779-1903)

Harvey’s was indisputably the greatest of the Cornish foundries. It was established in 1779 by John Harvey and greatly expanded by his son Henry in collaboration with Arthur Woolf. It became the foremost engine foundry in the world, with an international market served through their own port at Foundry town, Hayle.

Perran Foundry, Perran-ar-Worthal (1791-1879)

Perran Foundry was the second largest iron foundry in Cornwall. It stood on a tidal inlet of the Fal estuary at Perran-ar-Worthal (near Falmouth) and was set up by seven members of the Fox family in 1791. A year later, the same partners leased Neath Abbey Ironworks in South Wales and acquired nearby collieries, iron mines and blast furnaces to produce their own pig-iron. They were formulating a production chain of considerable commercial scale; an aim shared by their friends and co-partners in many mines and other ventures, the Williams family of Scorrier.

Harvey’s Foundry Hayle, 1876, where a blacksmith’s workshop developed into the largest steam engine foundry in the world. Pictured in the ‘erecting shop’ this engine was supplied to the Kimberley Diamond Mines, South Africa. © Royal Cornwall Museum.

Copperhouse Foundry (1820-1869)

The Cornish Copper Company started a foundry in their former copper smelting complex when smelting ceased there in the 1820s. This traded as Sandys, Carne and Vivian and was one of the three great Cornish engine foundries.

Other foundries

Cornwall and West Devon foundries and engineering works also specialised in the manufacture and supply of a wide range of mining equipment. There were foundries in Tavistock, Charlestown, St Just, Tuckingmill, Redruth, St Blazey and other mining districts. Holmans of Camborne was established as a boiler works at Pool in 1801. It developed into the principal employer in the district (over 3,000 employees) and expansion had a significant impact upon the urban development of Camborne. Holmans became synonymous world-wide with excellence in rock-drills and compressors.

Perran Foundry, late nineteenth century woodcut. A settlementmgrew up around the great iron foundry and from here iron barges took heavy engine parts to their quay at Devoran for shipment. © Royal Cornwall Museum.

Rock drills

A high-pressure steam rock-boring engine, which also lifted and loaded the stone for transport, was designed by Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) and built by Henry Harvey at his foundry in Hayle. Mining rock drills however were not adopted in the region until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, well after Joseph Fowle of Boston, USA, invented them in 1851. Rock drills increased the rate of sinking shot holes dramatically. Their operation by compressed air also greatly improved ventilation and reduced working temperatures. But they did have a sinister downside.

Deadly sharp dust caused thousands of miners to die a painful death from silicosis; drills became known as ‘widow-makers’. Cornish manufacturers subsequently pioneered dust suppression by delivering a water spray to the drill bit. Whilst the decline in Cornish mining closed much of the home market, trade in the Camborne engineering heartland soared with the opening up of huge markets overseas. One of the major exporters was Holman Brothers which, with James McCulloch, developed The Cornish Rock Drill. It was in use in South Wheal Crofty, Dolcoath, Tincroft, East Pool, Kit Hill, and in Wales by 1882.

In the late 1880s rock drills were sent to Australia, New Zealand and Spain. In 1889 Holmans began trading with South Africa and interests were concentrated on the Rand Goldfields in what became their greatest market for over half a century. By 1896 there were more than 1,000 Cornish rock drills in use on the Rand gold mines. Their impact upon the development of these deep mines was crucial and by the turn of the century their number had doubled. Both Holmans and Climax had experimental drill test sites (near Camborne and Carn Marth Quarry respectively).