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The history of Botallack

The abandoned mine engine house of West Wheal Owles, with the Crowns engine houses in the background, at Botallack on Tin Coast, Cornwall
Abandoned mine engine house of West Wheal Owles on the Tin Coast | © National Trust Images / Paul Barker

The Tin Coast is steeped in history and the remains of the mine buildings at Botallack give a fascinating glimpse into Cornish mining over a century ago. Its workings reach out half a mile under the seabed and it is here, in this dramatic industrial landscape, that Cornish miners changed the world.

Mining at Botallack

The remains of the mine buildings at Botallack give a fascinating glimpse of Cornish mining over a century ago. During the 19th 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. Those mine workings were far simpler than later ones and 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 may even be some evidence suggesting Bronze Age workings.

The entire of Botallack mine closed in 1895 due to rapidly falling copper and tin prices. Most other Cornish mines had already closed at this time.

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.

View of the Botallack mines with the sea behind in spring, Cornwall
The Botallack mines in spring | © National Trust Images / Faye Rason

Possibly the most photographed point of the mine, the three crown rocks just offshore, stand over lodes (veins of metal ore) which stretch far out to sea. They were most likely first worked in the 16th 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 re-organisation of the mine, a new diagonal shaft was excavated out under the sea to a depth of 500m. A new winding engine was installed, in the higher of the two engine houses.

The Prince and Princess of Wales (future King Edward VII) 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.

A noisy business

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 (used to remove the arsenic from the ore), and thousands of gallons of filthy water pumped around. When the mine was at its busiest, work would continue day and night.

A view of the Count House at Botallack, through a window, Cornwall
The Count House at Botallack | © National Trust Images / John Miller

The count house

Most 19th-century mines had account houses, or 'count houses' to provide office space for the purser and his managerial staff. They were generally grander than other local buildings. As the public face of mining, they had to look refined, as well as solid and prosperous, in order to reassure investors and the world at large.

A count house was principally the office from which the mine was run on a day-to-day basis; here the miners were paid and the rights to work or 'pitches' within the mine were auctioned on 'setting days'.

Wined and dined

They were also the scene of renowned dinners provided for the adventurers (shareholders) on days where accounts were to be read and approved. Notoriously lavish and wild affairs in the early days, these dinners had become pale shadows of their former selves by the late 19th century, tempered by the cold winds of economy which were by then blowing through the mining industry.

The count house at Botallack was built in around 1861 when the main produce of the mine was shifting from copper to tin, a more profitable product. The pond still found to the front of the house provided a supply of water for the dressing floors downhill, though nowadays it's half the size of the original.

The final years

Mining stopped at Botallack in 1895 at which point the count house was taken over by the Penzance School of Mines as a school of mine surveying. At the start of the First World War the building became a private house, hosting a folk club, disco and restaurant until it came into National Trust ownership in 1995.

A view down to the Botallack mines on the rocky coastline in springtime, Cornwall

Discover more at Botallack

Find out how to get to Botallack, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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A view down to the Botallack mines on the rocky coastline in springtime, Cornwall

Explore Botallack 

Explore the wild Tin Coast, part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site and see the iconic engine houses clinging to the cliff face.

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