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History of Wheal Coates

A view along the coast at Wheal Coates on a sunny day with the Towanroath engine house visible
The coast at Wheal Coates | © National Trust Images/Hilary Daniel

Wheal Coates tin mine opened in 1802 and worked until 1889. Today, the iconic image of the Towanroath Shaft engine house represents for many the dramatic beauty of the north Cornish coast. In reality, this industrial landscape holds a harsh and austere history. Discover the history of Wheal Coates, and find out what life was like for the people who worked in the mines which clung to the Cornish cliffs.

Life as a Cornish miner was tough

Working deep underground in cramped and stifling conditions meant that miners were worn out and out of work by the age of 40.

The air in the mine was thick with powder smoke, dust and fumes from rock blasting, and miners often coughed up black phlegm. Many suffered with bronchitis, silicosis, tuberculosis and rheumatism. Accidents caused by explosions, falling, rock falls, drowning and entanglement in machinery were a real danger and took many lives.

Woman were employed as Bal maidens, wielding hammers and crushing copper ore into smaller fragments.  By the early 19th century over 7,000 children were working in Cornish mines, initially above ground doing basic tasks, but when they were 12 they joined their fathers underground.

Ruins of an engine house at Wheal Coates featuring curved window holes built
Ruins of an engine house at Wheal Coates | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Tin mining on the Cornish coast

At its peak Cornish mining employed upwards of 30,000 people. In the mid 19th century the industry began to decline, and in 1875 over 10,000 miners left Cornwall to find work overseas. The skills and experience of Cornish mining spread across the world. They also took the pasty with them.

There are over 160 places, across six continents, where Cornish mine workers took their skills, technology and traditions; a truly global heritage. Cornwall and west Devon’s mining landscape, shaped during a period of intense industrial activity, is testimony to one of the greatest periods of economic, technological and social development Britain has ever known.

From 1700 to 1914, the metal mining industry played a vital role in transforming our way of life. It provided essential raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and pioneered technological developments that helped shape the society we live in today.

For example, Richard Trevithick’s advances in steam engine technology – originally motivated by the need to pump water out of mines – ultimately enabled the development of steam trains, changing the world forever through the mass movement of people and goods.

The shell of a former engine house at Wheal Coates, complete with chimney still intact

Discover more at Wheal Coates

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

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Spring view along the coastline at St Agnes Head, Cornwall.

St Agnes Head 

St Agnes Head is along the coast path from Wheal Coates, with the beacon towering behind.

St Agnes, Cornwall

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Two walkers on the South West coast path at Chapel Porth, Cornwall, above the sandy beach with low, white-topped waves breaking

Chapel Porth 

Down the coast path is the beach at Chapel Porth, with Wheal Charlotte ruins up the valley and Towan Cross further up.

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Surface building remains including engine houses and chimney stacks at Levant Mine and Beam Engine

Visiting the Tin Coast 

Further west are more mines and ruins to discover.