Mineral products and their transport implications

Tin ore was crushed at the mine to a fine mass and the waste separated out to produce sacks of concentrate (around 60% tin metal). These were taken to local tin smelters. Copper ore was sorted and broken by hand into small lumps and taken in bulk (6-12% copper metal) mostly to ports to be shipped to South Wales for smelting. Arsenic ore was refined (either to the oxide or a pure form) at the larger mines or special refineries, and packed in casks.

By far the greatest volume of carriage from the mines was therefore due to the transportation of copper ore to the nearest port for shipment to South Wales. The beginnings of the nineteenth century marked a great era of expansion and growth in Cornish copper mining but progress was being impeded by the inadequacies of a slow, congested and sometimes even seasonal transport infrastructure. Mines in the region were concentrated in a spatial and structural relationship with the outcrops of granite and their metamorphic aureoles. However, the geographical distribution of output shifted temporally as new lodes (and even districts) were discovered and old ones exhausted.

Mining hinterlands required a substantial transport network that formed a reliable, economic and high capacity link from mine to port. The transport sector that served the mining industry required some of the largest investments in the region and promoters were nearly always those mineral lords and mine owners and/or bankers who were already engaged in mining. The development of an effective industrial transport network had a considerable impact upon the landscape, involving as it did the construction of extensive railway trackbeds, bridges, tunnels and aqueducts, as well as harbours and their associated infrastructure.

Supplies (coal and timber)

Devon and Cornwall had no suitable coal of its own, the inferior coals found in north and south Devon being mainly used domestically and for lime-burning. All the region’s needs were brought from the coalfields of the Bristol area and subsequently from South Wales; an unlimited supply made accessible by sea and navigable river systems. Timber was required in immense quantities for pump rods and underground props. Pine was found to be suitable, brought from Scandinavia and Canada, again by sea.

Close-set heavy timbering in the 412 fathom level of Dolcoath Mine. J. C. Burrow, 1893. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the massive timbers collapsed due to a heavy rock fall. Seven miners were killed. © Royal Cornwall Museum.

Mineral ports and harbours

Cornwall has an extensive coastline and a long maritime tradition but until the late-eighteenth century it had few large specialised ports. The mining trade was handled by newly-developed specialist industrial harbours throughout the region. Pre-eminent amongst these were: Hayle, Copperhouse, Portreath and Devoran.

These jointly handled almost all the requirements and output of the mines and industries of west Cornwall. Smaller harbours were also built at St. Agnes, Par and Charlestown. Harbours and quays at Newquay, St Michael’s Mount, Porthleven, Looe, Calstock, Morwellham and New Quay were enlarged to cope with several phases of the expansion of mineral output.

Mule trains

Until the nineteenth century horse and cart transport was rarely used for the carriage of ore and coal as the track ways and roads of the mining districts were totally unsuitable for wheeled transport of any kind, particularly in wet winter months. Pack-horses and most commonly mules were universally adopted and became a highly visible feature of the landscape. Stables were purpose-built for large numbers of the animals; in 1800 Matthew Boulton estimated that there were 1,500 mules engaged in the copper ore–coal trade with West Cornwall mines. To this may be added a similar number of horses and mules that worked on the mines themselves and in ancillary industries.

Mule train carrying copper ore, Dolcoath Mine, Camborne. A ‘pare’ of mules consisted of anything between 20 and 60 beasts. © The Cornwall Centre.
A mule carried a load of around 150kg in leather or sail-cloth sacks slung across a wooden saddle. (They could however haul up to seven times as much if the load was in a wagon riding on iron rails). Mule packing frequently involved journeys of 30km a day or more with the laden mules working from daybreak to midnight in summer. In winter however, tracks often became impassable due to heavy rain and mud, adding to the logistical bottleneck of transporting coal to and copper ore from, the mines. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803- 1815) the steep rise in the price of fodder side-lined the mules and caused the emergence of tramways and railways; some of the first railways in the world.

Mineral tramways and railways

Cast iron rails were first adopted in Coalbrookdale (Shropshire) in 1767 and short industrial tramways were soon in use at mines and quarries across the country. Far heavier loads could now be moved, by the same power, than on the finest road surface. During the 1820s, many of the more important mines in the region adopted horse-drawn tramways to link production shafts and dressing floors. Traction continued to be provided by horse and mule power until steam locomotives were introduced.

The early Cornish tramroads and railways were built to link copper mines with mineral ports. Up until the early nineteenth century practically the entire copper mining region was within a 13km radius of Carn Brea Hill.

Portreath Plateway (1809) (Camborne and Redruth Mining District)

Portreath Plateway, the first of the mineral lines, was started in 1809 to link the copper mines of North Downs and the Gwennap district with the harbour of Portreath on the north coast. It was leased from the Bassets of Tehidy and promoted by the Williams family and their friends the Foxes of Falmouth. Gwennap parish alone produced one third of the total output of Cornish copper and mines such as Poldice benefited greatly from the new plateway. Poldice was both the richest mine in Gwennap and the last to close down (in 1873). It had gradually switched from tin to prolific copper production during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Redruth and Chasewater Railway (1824) (Gwennap Mining District)

John Taylor (1779-1863), industrial rival to the Lemons, the Williams and the Foxes, built the Redruth and Chasewater Railway in 1824 to link the principal mines which he leased in Gwennap - including Consolidated - to his new port at Devoran. This was built on one of the estuaries above Falmouth Harbour on the south coast.

Hayle Railway (1834) (Port of Hayle)

The Hayle Railway linked the Redruth-Camborne district to the port of Hayle from 1834 to 1839. The Portreath Branch was constructed in 1837. This was intended to capture the trade of the rich mines in the district north of Carn Brea.

Luxulyan Valley

In 1829 Joseph Thomas Austen (later changing his name to Treffry) opened a canal from Par to the foot of Penpillick Hill, later to be extended to Ponts Mill. This connected with a railway to Lanescot Mine and via an inclined plane to the rapidly expanding Fowey Consols. Ten years later work began on another incline (to be worked by water wheel) through Carmears woods to terminate near the viaduct/aqueduct which spanned the Luxulyan Valley. After leaving the viaduct the line terminated at Molinnis near Bugle. In 1844 Treffry turned his attention to the north coast and constructed a railway from Newquay harbour to St Dennis with a branch to East Wheal Rose. The line was completed in 1849 and was the beginning of what was to become the Cornwall Minerals Railway.

Liskeard and Caradon Railway (1844 - 1915) (Caradon Mining District)

This railway was started in 1844 and linked the Liskeard & Looe Union Canal at Moorswater to South Caradon Mine. In 1846 the line was extended to Minions and Cheesewring Quarry via a long incline at Gonamena. Further extensions took place over the years including the incorporation of the Kilmar Railway and a route around Caradon Hill, taking in more productive mines such as East Caradon and Marke Valley Mine, and avoiding the Gonamena incline. By the late 1850s the canal was proving to be inadequate due to the increasing traffic and so the canal company constructed a railway, mostly built on the bed of the canal. This gave the railway a direct route to the port of Looe.

The East Cornwall Mineral Railway (Tamar Valley Mining District)

The first turf of the Tamar, Kit Hill and Callington Railway was cut in 1863, and the line was completed as the East Cornwall Minerals Railway in 1872. The line connected the mines in the Kit Hill-Gunnislake area with the port of Calstock. The railway above Calstock (worked by two steam locomotives) was connected to the Calstock quays and the River Tamar by a rope-worked single track incline with a passing loop at its mid-way point. The line was taken over in 1901 by the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway. The Calstock viaduct was built in 1907 and subsequently the Calstock incline was abandoned and a fifteen ton wagon lift was constructed against one of the viaduct piers. This was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1934.

Other railways constructed in Cornwall and West Devon to link developing industrial areas to the coast were: the Pentewan Railway (1829) connecting St Austell to Pentewan; the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway (1834); the Newquay to St. Dennis line (1849) with its branch to the Newlyn East lead mines; the Fowey Consols to Par line (1851) replacing the Par canal; and the line linking Devon Great Consols to Morwelham (1857).

The Pentewan Railway was built in 1829 by Sir Christopher Hawkins primarily for china clay traffic, although there was however a siding near London Apprentice that served Polgooth Mine. It was not until 1874 that a locomotive replaced horses. The silting of the harbour at Pentewan combined with the reluctance of the clay companies to transport their clay by horse and cart to the terminus at St Austell brought about the closure of the line in 1918.

With the completion of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge (1859) across the River Tamar, Cornwall had, for the first time, a main line connection to the rest of Britain. Some sections of mineral railways were converted to passenger use, but many remained predominantly or wholly industrial carriers for the remainder of their working lives.


Canals were generally not a practical option for moving minerals and supplies, particularly in the western part of the nominated Site. For one thing, the mines were in relatively easy reach of navigable water; for another, many mines were on or close to the granite uplands. There were some notable exceptions. At Carclaze Mine, a tin open-work near St Austell, a subterranean canal was in operation from around 1720-31. This ran beneath the length of the pit and was connected to it by a 40m deep shaft down which ore was lowered into the barges. These were made of oak, 2 x 1.5 x 0.3m deep, with flat bottoms and were simply floated out to the stamps and dressing floors nearly 1km away.

The Tavistock Canal (built 1803-17) was 7.2km and was constructed by Taylor to link the copper mines that he managed in the Tavistock area with the River Tamar, the principal transport highway to the sea at Plymouth. A 2.4km tunnel carried it beneath the high ground of Morwell Down and an inclined plane connected the Morwellham canal basin with the quays below.

The Liskeard & Looe Union Canal (opened in 1827) connected Moorswater with Looe. The canal owed its success to the discovery of copper ore at South Caradon Mine in 1836 and to the considerable traffic of the Caradon mines and granite quarries thereafter. From 1844 the Liskeard & Caradon Railway linked South Caradon with the inland canal terminus at Moorswater.

By the late 1850s the canal was proving to be inadequate due to the high level of mineral output from the Caradon mining district and so, in 1860, the canal company extended the railway down to Looe. This initially relieved congestion on the canal and then swiftly replaced it.

The Par Canal (opened in 1829) was constructed by Treffry from Par to the foot of Penpillick Hill and later extended to Ponts Mill. This connected with a railway to Lanescot Mine and via an inclined plane to Fowey Consols, a large and very rich mine owned by Treffry.