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I is for Industry and Inventions

Updated: Jul 3, 2020


Cornwall is world famous for it's mining heritage and in recent years some of it's most stunning mining scenery has been on show on a Sunday night on Poldark.

In the 18th and 19th C, Cornwall was one of the richest mining economies in the world, but the history of mining in the South West dates back as far as prehistoric times when Cornish tin was essential for the production of bronze and pewter. Until the 1700s, tin was the most important metal in the world and the SW had Britain's only reserves. As well as tin, copper and arsenic were also commonly mined. Early mining involved stream panning or surface mining but the development of steam powered engines allowed for deeper and even submarine mines with the the construction of the iconic engine houses for housing the beam engines. Remains of engine houses and mining buildings can be seen dotted all over Cornwall and West Devon, with some of the most dramatic being those on the far South West Coast.

In 2006, 10 areas across Devon and Cornwall were designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Find out more about the different things you can see and do on the Cornish Mining WHS website.

Cornwall's other major mining industry was for China Clay (Kaolin), and this dominated the area around St Austell for over 200 years. The China Clay deposits in Cornwall are the largest in the world and were in great demand in the making of ceramics and later as a whitening agent in the paper industry. Now although the reserves are still extensive, China Clay production has moved abroad to countries such as Brazil. The remnants of this industry have led to the area being known as The Cornish Alps with peaks of waste materials and disused pits now filled with beautiful luminous green water. One of Cornwall's most famous attractions - The Eden Project sits in the bottom of former clay pits. Not far from the Eden Project you can discover more at Wheal Martyn or explore the landscape by foot or bike on The Clay Trails.

In the midst of this mining boom, you saw the flourishing of Cornish inventors. The most famous of which is Richard Trevithick - his advances in steam locomotion allowed George Stephenson to develop "The Rocket". Starting as a mine engineer, he developed the first high pressure steam boilers to improve those currently used in the mines and his first steam road locomotive "The Puffing Devil" ran in 1801. Further steam prototypes didn't live up to expectation and after a lack of financial backing, he returned to the mines of Cornwall where he developed The Cornish Engine which was used throughout the mines across Cornwall. A replica of The Puffing Devil is exhibited on Trevithick Day which is help in Camborne every Spring.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney is perhaps a name you won't recognise unless you have visited Bude before - but you may be familiar with his more famous inventions. A acquaintaince of Trevithick's, Gurney also dabbled with steam carriages with varying success. His first major invention was "limelight" in the 1820's - most commonly used as lighting in theatres and music halls. He made further improvements to this system which became known as "Bude light" - and Bude light not only lit his house (The Castle at Bude) but The House of Commons, Pall Mall and Trafalgar Square. He also designed the ventilation system for the Houses of Parliament. Another successful invention was The Gurney Stove - the precursor to the modern radiator. A number of these stoves are still in use across the country in Catherdrals and one is on display at Bude Castle. The sculpture in front of the castle green is known as The Bude Light.

The free museum at Bude has lots more information both about Gurney and all the local history.

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