The history of Botallack

The abandoned beam engine houses of the Crowns section of Botallack Mine near St Just, Cornwall

The remains of the mine buildings at Botallack give a fascinating glimpse of Cornish mining over a century ago. During the nineteenth century there were over 100 engine houses in the St Just district, though mining has been documented in the area much further back than this.

Early mining records date from at least the 1500s. These mine workings are far simpler than later ones and are much closer to the surface because of the difficulties of drainage. Some archaeological evidence suggests that the area was mined in the mid-Roman period, around 200 AD, and there is even suggestion of Bronze Age workings.
The entire mine closed in 1895 due to rapidly falling copper and tin prices. Most other Cornish mines had already closed.

Mining under the sea

As at Levant and Geevor, Botallack is a submarine mine, with its workings reaching half a mile out under the seabed. Many of these workings would have been produced with hammers, chisels and gunpowder, long before compressed and mechanical air drills were invented. Botallack produced roughly 14,500 tonnes of tin, 20,000 tonnes of copper and 1,500 tonnes of refined arsenic. A staggering 1.5 million tonnes of waste would have been dumped into the sea and dyed it a distinctive red colour.
Possibly the most photographed point of the mine, the three crown rocks just offshore stand over lodes which stretch far out to sea. They were most likely first worked in the sixteenth century.
In the very early 1800s a pumping engine was set up at the base of the cliffs to pump out workings developing under the sea from the lower levels of the old Wheal Button ('wheal' is a Cornish term for 'mine' or 'work) to the north. It was successful and was replaced by the current lower engine house.

Royal visitors

In the 1860s, during a major reorganisation of the mine, a new diagonal shaft was excavated out under the sea to a depth of 500m. A new winding engine was installed, which is the higher of the two engine houses. The Prince and Princess of Wales descended this shaft in 1865 to inaugurate the new section of the mine. Botallack soon became a popular tourist destination for those wishing to follow in their footsteps. It became so popular that the mine started charging a guinea a head.

The sounds and smells of the mine

Although now a peaceful and tranquil place, over a century ago it would have been the complete opposite. The air would have been thick with the ceaseless noise of the stamps crushing tin ore; working chains and haulage ropes; carts and traction engines rattling down the unpaved tracks; beam engines; smiths working forges; the sawmill; deliveries of ore and coal; blasting; and plenty of talking. There would have been smoke from the beam engines and the arsenic calciner, and thousands of gallons of filthy water pumped around. When the mine was at its busiest, work would continue day and night.