The truth behind Poldark: Stories of The Great Copper Slump

Updated Monday 30th March 2015

If you're enjoying the BBC revival of Poldark, you might wonder how realistic the depciction of Cornish copper mining after the American War Of Independence is. A dip into newspapers from the time tells the grim tale...

Faced with challenges of cheaper product from overseas, Cornish miners grouped together to take control of their own destiny...

Mine buildings at Wheal Busy, Cornwall Creative commons image Icon Tony Atkin under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Old mine buildings at Wheal Busy, Cornwall We hear that at a general meeting of the Cornwall and Anglesey Copper Miners, held on the 22nd ult [of the last month] for correcting the impositions and abuses practised of late years in the Copper Trade of this country, the Cornish Miners, after the example of those of Anglesey, resolved to smelt all their own ores, and to bring the metal to market themselves, for which purpose a fund of half a million sterling is subscribed.

Other spirited and wholesome resolutions were at the same time adopted, to set the article at a fair and equal price throughout the kingdom, and establish in England the cheapest market in Europe for this valuable commodity.

We are also happy to hear that such are the improvements in every article of our Copper manufactures, especially in sheathing and fastenings for all sorts of ships, that Great Britain must for many years to come be the sole dispenser of those inestimable discoveries to all nations of the globe.

- Public Advertiser, August 1st, 1785

... but self-reliance and ingenuity wasn't enough to save the industry, and things would get worse…

At a Meeting of the Noblemen and Gentlemen belonging to, and interested in the County of Cornwall, held at the Thatched House Tavern the 17th of March 1788,

Resolved, that is appears to this meeting, that owing to the present low price of Copper, and the consequent distressed state of the Copper Trade, several mines have, and others are soon expected to, stop, and of course, many labouring Miners will be out of employ.

Resolved, therefore, that it is a subject deserving the most serious consideration, to concert some useful and industrious mode of employing those Miners who are, or may be, actually distressed and out of employ by the stopping of the mines as aforesaid.

Resolves, That a subscription be entered into for the above purpose, to be applied in such manner as shall be hereafter approved by the Subscribers.

Resolved, That, it be referred to the Gentlemen of the county in general, and particularly to the Committee at Truro, to convert some plan for cultivating and improving Waste Land, so as to give useful employment to the industrious miners who may be thrown out of employ.

And there was immediately subscribed by
Mount Edgcumbe £200
Francis Basset £200
William Molesworth £100
John Call £100
William Lemon £100
Phil Rashleigh £100
R Edgecombe £100

Subscriptions to be received at the Banking House of Sir Thomas Halifax and Co, Birchin Lane; Messrs. Pybus, Call and Co, Bond Street; Messrs Fosters, Lubbock and Co, Mansion House Street; and at the two banks at Truro.

- World, March 20th, 1788

Work schemes could only do so much as the market for Cornish copper was still suffering from foreign imports… and their customers wanted to push them down further...

It is not true, as was stated in the Morning Papers yesterday, that some of the Birmingham Button-makers waited on Mr Pitt [Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger] relative to a new Copper Coinage - their application was, but we say it stands on a bad foundation , to get foreign copper imported duty free.

The English Miners, alarmed at this attempt to encourage foreign mines, seriously oppose it, and undertake to prove , that their profits are far less than those of the Birmingham manufacturers, whose well-known ingenuity in debasing their metal, and thereby increasing their profits, we hear is soon to have an investigation, that will disclose certain circumstances which, to save their credit, ought to be concealed.

- Star, May 19th 1792

Cornwall Versus Birmingham: Lines

On hearing of the application of the Birmingham Button-makers to Mr Pitt to import foreign Copper, duty-free:

Ye makers of buttons, of buckles, and nails
Who debase the pure Copper of Cornwall and Wales
Keep this adage in view, or your credit will sink -
"Tis the more that you stir the worse you will stink"

- Star, May 22nd, 1792

What happened next?

The Great Copper Slump of the 1790s hit Cornwall particularly hard; besides the copper coming from overseas, a discovery at Parys Mountain in Anglsey destroyed demand for Cornish copper. The Welsh ore wasn't especially pure, but there was so much of it, and so easily accessible, Parys Mountain quickly came to dominate the entire global market for copper (at one point, even issuing its own currency.)

Cornwall's mines would recover in the early 19th century, but it would be one last push - by the end of the century the industry would be on its knees again. But if Cornish copper was no longer sought-after, the expertise of its miners was in demand, and between 1861 and 1901, a quarter of a million Cornish people left the UK to seek work elsewhere - the majority of them miners.

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