Transactions of the Geological Society, 1st series, vol. 2/On the Economy of the Mines of Cornwall and Devon

XIV. On the Economy of the Mines of Cornwall and Devon.

By John Taylor, Mem. Geol. Soc.

THE miners of many countries have engaged the care and attention of their governments, and have received support from national treasuries, or grants and immunities operating in favor of such undertakings. In some instances officers regularly educated to the profession of mining, are appointed and paid by the state for managing the executive departments. With such advantages it is probable that poorer mines may be worked, than in countries destitute of them, and where they must be undertaken entirely at private risk; yet it is found that the enterprize and ingenuity of individuals is equal to very considerable efforts, and that their calculations of real profit are often more unquestionable than in government undertakings.

If the spirit which is excited by the prospect of gain can be infused into a great portion of the persons employed on any object of this sort; and if the interest of the proprietors of mines can be made to go hand in hand with that of their workmen in their operations, a great degree of united effort may be reasonably expected to follow such a system, which being advantageous to all parties in proportion to their exertion, enlists at once their combined efforts into the service of the common good.

The mines of England have no assistance from the government, but must rely for their success upon their own resources, and the spirit and energy of their owners; and it is probably to this cause that we may attribute the activity and economy which, when their constitutions are duly examined, may be found to prevail in the principal mining districts.

The peculiar system invented and gradually improved to its present state in the mines of Cornwall, and more recently adopted in the undertakings of the same kind in the adjoining county, so completely answer the purpose of combining the interests of the working miner with those of his employer, that if benefit is to be expected from such a plan, it is worth describing, as a, detail which may furnish hints that may prove useful to all who are interested in the subject.

The economy of a mine may be considered under the following general heads:

1.—The nature of the agreements between the owner of the soil and the mine adventurers.

2.—The arrangements between the partners or adventurers themselves, and the system of controul and management appointed by them.

3.—The mode of employing and paying the miners and workmen, in use among the agents of the principal concerns.

4.—The purchase of materials for carrying on the undertaking.

5.—The sale of the ores from the mine adventurers to the smelting companies.

In reviewing the whole system, it may appear that there are parts subject to censure as well as others worthy of imitation; but the detail will not be the less useful on this account, and it is to be understood that different mines in the Stannaries vary from each other in these respects, and of course some may be said to be more perfect than others.

The result however of the whole has been the execution of works of extraordinary magnitude, with unparalleled dispatch; the pursuit of the difficult task of discovery with the greatest effect, and a vast increase in the produce of the metals, more particularly of copper, in the last fifty years.

The mines of Cornwall have furnished such supplies that the British manufacturers are no longer dependent on other countries for an article of raw material of the first importance to their trade, while in the space of less than a century, an increase, amounting to the annual value of near a million sterling, has made England one of the sources whence the world is now supplied with copper, instead of relying for this article upon the mines of Germany or Sweden.

1. The Nature of the Agreements between the Owner of the Soil and the Mine Adventurers.

The grant for working a mine is called a set, and is usually taken by one or more persons from the proprietor of the land in which a load maybe found, except in such cases of tin-mines as are anciently embounded according to the provisions of the stannary laws, whereby a right of working for this metal is obtained. No custom or ancient law however prevails as to copper or lead in the stannaries, and therefore all agreements for searching for, or working these metals, are made upon such terms as are decided on by the contracting parties. The owner of the land, in the technical language of the district, is called the lord, and the parties who engage to work the mine are called adventurers.

The lord grants a lease or set for 21 years, reserving a power to put an end to the term, if the mine should not be effectually worked; he likewise agrees for a certain proportion of the ores to be delivered to him on the mine in a merchantable state, or their value in money: he provides for a power of inspecting the works at all times, and binds the adventurers to maintain and leave at any determination of their grant all the shafts, adits, and levels, perfect, and in good condition, as to timber, where required.

The proportions of ore paid to the land-owner, called the lord's dues, vary considerably, according to the circumstances of different mines, and the nature of the prospects under which they may be undertaken. A deep old mine which has been abandoned, is undertaken with a chance of less profit and a certainty of greater risk, than a new and promising discovery. In the first case encouragement is often held out, by fixing very moderate dues, while in the other, so much is too frequently demanded and given, as to prevent that share of profit accruing to the adventurers which is due to the great risk constantly attendant on all mining pursuits.

In the deep expensive mines the lord's dues do not often exceed a fifteenth or eighteenth part of the whole produce of ore, and sometimes they do not amount to more than a twenty-fourth, or even a thirty-second proportion.

In the newer mines the dues are often as much as a tenth or twelfth part of the produce, and there are mines which pay an eighth; but this is the case only in such as were undertaken when the prices of metals were much higher than at present, and where an unusual produce has enabled the concerns to exist in spite of such a heavy deduction from their produce. The dues are delivered to the lord, or to his agent on the mine, free of all expense, or are commuted for a proportionate part of the money arising from the sale of the whole. Hence it will be seen that the land-owner risks nothing but a little injury to the surface of his fields, which will appear trifling when it is considered that if the mine is unsuccessful, the work is soon stopped; and that on the other hand many cases exist, where, by the sacrifice of an acre or two of land, an income of two or three thousand pounds has been obtained for several years.

The mode of levying the dues on the gross produce of a mine, tends to discourage enterprize, where considerable expense is incurred by the adventurers without an immediate return. It seems reasonable that the land-owners should contribute something in favor of that exertion which so often leads to their great advantage.

If an equitable mode of assessing the dues in some proportion to the net profit, could be devised, and was liberally and fairly acted upon, it would probably tend more than any thing else to the encouragement of mining.

As it now stands, the land-owner often derives a great revenue from a mine, which is swallowing up the money of the adventurers.

2. The Arrangements between the Partners or Adventurers themselves, and the System of Controul and Management appointed by them.

The parties who take the set, after reserving such shares in the adventure for themselves as they are disposed to carry on, generally allot the remainder to such of their friends as are inclined to join them. The whole concern is usually divided into 64 shares or doles, which division admits of its being held in various proportions, so that one person may have an eighth of the mine, another a sixteenth, and so on, until the whole is taken up.

The disbursements or costs are added up at the end of certain periods, seldom exceeding three months, but more generally at the end of every two months, at which times the adventurers meet and examine the accounts; each contributes his quota of money in time for the pay-day, which takes place regularly soon after.

When the mine becomes productive, the accounts are closed at the same periods, and the profit divided to the adventurers in the same manner. A balance to answer the advances made to the men, and other contingencies, is usually left in the hands of the purser or principal agent.

The general detail of management is often delegated to one person, who controls and superintends the whole affairs of the mine; most commonly this person is one of the parties concerned in the undertaking, and one who from having made the professions his regular pursuit, and having, as is often the case, the care of several mines, is well fitted for so important a task. Some mines have the conduct of their affairs more divided, by the financial part being entrusted to a purser, and the management of the works to the principal captain acting under the direction of the meetings of the adventurers.

The agents who attend regularly to the operations, and who govern the executive part, are called captains, and are practical miners, selected for their skill and character, and who frequently pass from situations of subordinate trust and importance to those of great responsibility. Their general character is well known to those who have had occasion to visit the mining districts now under consideration; and it would be unjust not to notice here, how much of the perfection of the system of management in the mines has been owing to the zeal and intelligence of this respectable class of men, and how much its useful application constantly depends on their knowledge and activity.

The captains take different departments of duty in such mines as are sufficiently extensive to require it. The principal or managing captain has the superintendence of the whole, and gives his attention to every thing that may demand it, either underground or on the surface.

Most of the other captains are employed in viewing and controlling the operations of the miners, and are called underground captains; they regularly visit different parts of the mine for this purpose, by night as well as by day, relieving each other in turn. They assist the managing captain in valuing the various prices of work to be offered to the men, and enforce the due performance of the contracts made with them. Their opinion is most important on all questions relating to the operations to be pursued, whether for discovery or for the best means of working what is already discovered; and they possess generally so much knowledge of practical mechanics applicable to mining, as to be able to direct in all common cases what is necessary to be done in the erection or repair of much of the machinery employed.

A grass captain or dresser is appointed, who has charge of the processes going on at the surface, and who regulates every thing relating to the preparation of the ores for sale.

The captains are assisted in other departments by an engineer who often superintends the engines of several mines, and by clerks to keep the accounts. They have likewise under them a pitman, who looks after the pumpwork in the shafts, and the underground machinery in general, a timberman or binder, who takes care that the ground is properly secured by supports of wood, and that the casings and ladders in the shafts are well put in, and kept in good repair.

The establishment of a mine likewise includes often a material man who looks to the receipt and due delivery of articles used in working the mine, and a principal carpenter and blacksmith, though the two latter are often employed by contract.

3. The Mode of employing and paying the Miners and Workmen in Use among the Agents of the principal Mines.

We now come to that part of the economy of the Cornish mines, which is most deserving of consideration from the effects it has produced, not only by procuring regularly a great deal of effective labour in proportion to the money paid for it, but also by turning that labour into such a direction as to make it the interest of the workmen to increase the discoveries of ore, and to work it and make it saleable in the most economical manner. Thus the owners of the mine have the advantage of all the intellect and skill that the men collectively possess, and have only to guard against the chances of fraud which such a system may be supposed to be subject to, but which are in fact under intelligent and faithful agents of too trifling a nature to be accounted of any importance.

The work of the mines, on the surface as well as underground, is universally performed by contract, and in this particular the practice of this district is probably similar to that of other mining establishments in different parts of the kingdom. Day work is in general disrepute in the stannaries, and is seldom resorted to, but where jobs are to be performed which either hardly admit of a previous estimate, or are too trifling to be worth contracting for; so that the charges under this head, among all the various operations of a large and well-managed mine, usually amount to but a very small proportion of the whole.

The plan of making the contracts with the miners, which it is believed is peculiar to Cornwall and Devon, and which holds a distinguished place in the economy of the mines, is that of periodically bringing all the work to a kind of public auction. Thus such a degree of competition among the workmen is constantly excited as to cause the price of labour always to bear on the whole, a fair proportion to the demand, combined with the considerations connected with the varying expenses of living. Thus superior skill and industry have their due advantage; and thus are the adventurers even guarded in some degree against want of skill in their captains, whose judgment is always corrected by the results of the setting. The only danger to be apprehended is from a combination of the men; but this is effectually prevented by the captains reserving the power of offering the bargain upon their own terms after the men have ceased to bid, if no one is found to go as low as they deem proper, or to withdraw the bargain altogether.

The act of contracting with the workmen is called a setting, and this in general takes place at the end of every two months, the auction is denominated a survey, and is held in the open air before the counting-house of the mine, which is generally provided with an elevated stage for the captains to stand on.

Three descriptions of contracts are put up at the surveys, according to the kind of labour to be performed, which is comprehended under the denominations of tutwork, tribute, and dressing.

Tutwork includes work done by measure, such as sinking shafts, driving levels, or stoaping ground; the first being paid for by the fathom in depth, the second by the fathom in length, and the third by the cubic or solid fathom.

Tribute is payment for raising or dressing ore by a certain part of its real value when merchantable, and it is this part of the system that is deserving of most attention, both on account of the excitement it produces to discover ore and to raise it cheaply, as already noticed, and on account of the perfect state to which the arrangements with the working miners under this head have been brought.

Dressing contracted for at the surveys is seldom for more than the waste or leavings of the tributors, the ores raised on tribute being made merchantable under the same contract; but as the men working on the terms usually made, cannot often afford to dress the coarser parts of what they raise, they reject it, and it is let to others who stamp and clean it, having a proportional price likewise in the way of tribute.

The tutwork is divided into lots, called bargains; each bargain requiring a certain set of men, and the gang so employed is always called a pair of men, let the number be what it may. Shafts have from 4 to 12 men, levels from 2 to 6 men in a pair: one usually agrees for the whole, and he is called the taker.

The tribute is set in pitches, each including at certain defined space of ground, limited very accurately, and each pitch employs from 2 to 6 men.

Dressing is set in bargains, and generally each to one man who employs the women and boys who assist him.

The day or two before the setting is occupied by the captains in measuring all the work done on tutwork in the shafts, levels, &c. and in carefully viewing the tribute pitches, so as to estimate nearly what each ought to set at. From these observations an accurate list and statement is made cut, which the managing captain refers to in conducting the setting.

About the middle of the day the men are summoned and assemble in considerable numbers, as not only those who worked in the mine the former two months, but all such as are in want of employ attend on these occasions, which indeed is the cause of the competition so often observed.

The business begins by reading over what is called a general article, or set of rules and conditions subject to which every contract is made, and which article prescribes fines for fraud or neglect in the performance of the work.

When this is read the managing captain generally begins with the tutwork, and puts up a shaft or level, declaring the number of men required; and sometimes limiting the extent of the bargain to a certain depth or length. The men who worked it last usually put it up, asking frequently double what they mean to take; this they do, not so much in the expectation that it will influence the agents, as with the view of deterring other men from opposing them. Offers are then made at lower prices, which go on until no one is inclined to bid less, when the captain throws up a small stone, and declares who is the last offerer. It seldom happens that the price bid is so low as the agents deem equivalent, therefore it is understood that the last man is only entitled to the option of closing the contract upon the terms to be named by the captain; these are therefore immediately proposed, and if refused, are tendered to the others in the order of their offers.

This plan reserves the power to the agents of withholding, in case of combination, while the men, though they may not in the first instance bid down to the price they mean to work for, seldom risk a refusal when the captain's offer is made, if they think it near the mark, least others should instantly accept it.

The tribute pitches are set in the same way, the place intended to be worked being described, with a stated number of men, and the offer being made at so much in the pound, that is, a certain sum out of every twenty shillings worth of ore raised and sold. The tribute may vary from threepence in the pound to fourteen or fifteen shillings.

The Tutwork men divide their pairs into lesser gangs, called corps or cores[1] each corps consisting of two or three men; they work alternately, relieving each other throughout the twenty-four hours. Thus a pair of six men will divide into three corps, each working eight hours a day.

An account is opened at the counting-house with the taker or principal man of the pair, wherein he is debited with the value of all tools delivered to him by the smith, and the expences of sharpening and repairing them during the taking, or term of the contract, also, with the candles, gunpowder, and other articles used by him and his partners, with the charges on hauling up the waste to the surface, and likewise with cash advanced, called subsist. After the taking is out, the account is credited with the amount arising from the measurement of the ground at the agreed price, and with the tools and other articles returned unemployed. The pay-day is generally about a fortnight after the taking ends, when the balances are paid.

Tribute pitches require much more calculation in estimating the price at which they can be worked, and a more complicated set of accounts during their progress.

The proportion of the value of the ore to be allowed the workmen, must depend on the amount they can procure in a given time and at a given expense. Therefore the size and productiveness of the lode, the hardness of the ground, the quality of the ore, and the cost of hauling to the surface, as well as dressing it for sale, and the market price of the metal, are important elements in the calculation.

To the habit of investigation induced by this plan of payment may probably be attributed a great deal of the intelligence observable among the Cornish tributers, and to the desire of making the most of their talents by looking after pitches, which though unproductive in present appearance, may improve in working, is owing a great proportion of the lesser discoveries constantly made, and which contribute in no small degree to the profit of the adventurers.

The tribute work of Cornwall may be thought to be similar to what is done in many other mines, as in Derbyshire, where the men raise the ore at what is called a cape, or at a certain sum for every ton of ore they may produce. But it will appear that though this approaches to the Cornish plan, yet that it falls very short of it.

The payment in Cornwall being in exact proportion to the selling value of the ores, which is there settled very accurately according to the metal contained in them, not only instigates the miner to discover and produce as much as he can, but leads him to consider every circumstance which may diminish the expence of returning it, or may enable him to produce the greatest quantity of each metal at the lowest charge of dressing as well as raising.

The tributor's account is charged with tools, materials, and money, in the same way as that of the tutwork men, and they are likewise debited with the wages of the persons employed to dress their ores. The credit side of their account is not closed until the ore is actually sold and weighed off to the smelting companies who may purchase from the mine, as the value of every tributor's parcel is compared with the aggregate assay and sale, before they are settled with, and the differences, if any, divided among the whole, by an increase or drawback on each.

In the copper mines, when a tributor's parcel of ore is ready, it is weighed off by one of the captains, and turned over to the general heap, or as it is called, the public parcel, at the same time samples are very accurately taken and sealed up. One of these samples is delivered to an assay master for the mine, another the miner takes to have it assayed if he chooses, and a third is reserved for re-trial in case of dispute. After the market-price of copper has been determined by the result of the sale which governs the settling, the price of each parcel is made up according to the assay, and from the amount of the whole the tribute is carried to the credit of the taker, and the balance settled at the following pay-day.

The rate of earnings in tribute is extremely uncertain, and the employment is consequently speculative in a great degree. If a set of men working on a poor part of the lode where they may have agreed for seven or eight shillings in the pound, discover a bunch of ore rich enough to set at two or three shillings, they earn money very rapidly, and instances have often occurred where a set of miners have divided more than one hundred pounds a man for two months work. On the other hand, when the lode fails, and becomes poor, being obliged to go on with the contract, the men may at the end have their account in debt, not having even enough to pay for the articles they consume.

The cases of extraordinary earnings probably benefit the owners of the mine much more than those in which the men are indifferently paid. They are not likely to happen often, and when they do, they are attendant on some discovery favourable in the first instance to the men, but eventually much more so to the owners. They produce great energy and activity not only in those who benefit from them, but animate all the others, who increase their exertion in hopes of some similar discovery; they encourage competition, and frequently bring neglected parts of the mine into effective and profitable working.

Dressing the ores by tribute tends to produce accurate calculation as to the amount of labour which can be afforded to all the different varieties, and it has become therefore the common practice to regulate these processes by a constant reference to the assay, which prevents a waste of metal on the one hand, or a useless expence on the other.

4. The purchase of the Materials employed for carrying on the undertaking.

This part of the economy of the mines of Cornwall has been censured, inasmuch as the concerns are often supplied by a part of the adventurers who are dealers in the articles required, and who therefore have a concurring interest in allowing exorbitant prices and an unlimited consumption.

Where the majority of the property of a mine is in the hands of those who look to their contracts for the supply of materials as a source of profit, no check can well be devised to guard the interest of the other adventurers, and it might become a question with any person about to engage in a mine under such circumstances. But where the mercantile part of the adventurers hold a smaller part of the property, contracts of this sort, and the appointment of agents being under the controul of the majority, they may easily take measures to secure the purchase of all articles at a fair price, without depriving their fellow adventurers of that preference which their interest in the mine fairly entitles them to.

5. The Sale of the Ores from the Mine Adventurers to the Smelting Companies.

Tin ores are smelted in Cornwall at smelting-houses belonging to different persons who are likewise generally adventurers in tin mines.

Copper ores are mostly smelted in South Wales, near Swansea, being carried there on account of the great quantity of coal required. There is however one copper smelting establishment on the northern coast of Cornwall.

The sale of tin ores is not very well conducted, as the miner is obliged to carry them to the smelting-house where they are assayed, and the parties make the best bargain they can.

The smelting copper ores is a much more difficult operation than that of tin, and requires a very expensive establishment and the investment of an immense capital.

There are about 15 copper companies, and they have all agents and assay officers in Cornwall; there is a weekly meeting at some place near the great mines, called a ticketing, where all the agents of the copper companies attend. At these ticketing the ores of different mines allotted in suitable parcels are offered for sale.

Due notice having been given of the ores intended to be sold on a particular day, an agent of the smelting companies attends at the mine some time before the day of sale to take samples of the different parcels. The ores are prepared for this purpose by being placed in regular heaps called doles, each lot of ore being equally and carefully divided into six doles. One of them is fixed on by the buyers' agent, which after being well turned over and accurately mixed, is rounded into a regular form, and then a trench is cut through the middle, from the sides of which the sampler scrapes uniformly a certain quantity. A portion of this is then taken, bruised and sifted, and from it a sufficient number of samples are packed up in bags, which are carefully sealed and sent to the assay masters of all the copper companies.

The buyers are thus furnished with the exact produce of fine copper in each parcel which will be submitted for sale at the ticketing and by calculating the market price of the metal and the smelting charges they govern their affairs.

The meeting is attended by the agents and adventurers of the mines as well as by the agents of the copper companies, and one of the former usually presides. The officers for each parcel of ore are made by the buyers' agents handing to the chairman a note or ticket containing a fixed price per ton, he opens and reads out the whole, when the highest offer is at once declared the purchaser.

The ores remain on the mine for a given time, when an agent of the copper company attends to weigh them, and they are afterwards conveyed to the coast for shipping to Wales.

Copper ores do not bear a price exactly proportioned to the quantity of metal they contain, some ores being more intractable in the fire than others or yielding copper of an inferior quality.

From repeated experiment the smelting companies know the effect that the mixture of particular ores has in the furnace upon each other, depending on the nature of the mineralizing substance or the kind of matrix which enters into the mass. On this account they regulate their offers by the quality of the stock they have on hand, or they manage so as to purchase ores from mines which may best suit to mix with others which they have previously bought. Thus it is well known that the produce of some mines does not bring the price that its proportion of metal would entitle it to, while that of others, more esteemed by the smelters, always bears a higher relative value.

It remains to say a few words on the subject of mines considered as property, particularly as shares in these undertakings are now frequently bought and sold at a distance from the districts in which they are situate, and as their value is not often appreciated according to correct data.

From what was said of the arrangements between the parties who undertake a mine by a joint adventure, it may be concluded that a share in a new concern costs no more to the original holders than the proportion of the expences actually incurred. As the mine proceeds, every adventurer may value his share according to his own opinion of the prospect of success, and therefore considerable diversity in this respect may arise. In some concerns the value of shares may rapidly improve by the discovery of ore or favourable symptoms, and be soon estimated at much more than the amount of cost paid; in others, the chance of success may be constantly lessening, and a reduction in the value of shares will be proportional.

The value of property even in mines that are established and productive, cannot be determined by any definite rule. They are liable to great and important changes, leading from great gains sometimes even to considerable loss, and on the other hand emerging from a state of nearly balanced cost and return to that of great and rapid profit.

The rate of gain for any given time forms no true criterion by which to judge of the value of mines, though it is the one by which most who purchase or sell without sufficient experience are usually guided. A concern still profitable to a considerable degree, may have all the symptoms of speedy decay, while on the other hand mines which are producing but little, or are even yet burdensome to their proprietors, may be those in which the greatest chance of ultimate success is probable.

Mining has often got into great disrepute as a mode of employing money, from a want of due consideration of all these circumstances in the persons who have engaged their property in this way; artful men may have aided the delusion in many instances, and in many others a pertinacious adherence to adventures of but little hope may have aggravated the disappointment.

On the whole probably mining does not yield any great profit to the adventurers, but there are numerous cases of extraordinary gain, and these are probably nearly balanced by more numerous concerns in which loss is incurred, the latter however, if taken individually, being generally much less in amount than the former.

From this it will follow that the chances of success are against any single mine at its first undertaking, and on the whole in favour of a greater number, when conducted with skill and honor.

  1. See Pryce.