Deep as Dolcoath by Allen Buckley in 1996

For over two-hundred years Dolcoath Mine, in Camborne, has been a by-word to the Cornish. The expression: “Deep as Dolcoath” is not merely used to emphasise physical depth – as in a shaft or mine – but, is more usually employed to describe a “deep” person: one who is secretive, profound with “hidden depths”. Dolcoath has long meant something special to the Cornish. It is a great source of pride; for its depth, its size, its wealth its longevity and its unique contribution, through the exported skills of its miners, engineers and ore dressers, to international mining over two centuries.

During the 18th century, Dolcoath long held premier position as top copper producer, giving it pre-eminence at the copper ticketing meetings. By 1800 it was being visited by travellers, engineers, geologists and scientists from throughout Europe and America. In the first Guidebook to Cornwall, written in 1815 by Dr Paris, every visitor is encouraged to visit the mine: “it is impossible that the workings at DOLCOATH can be viewed without feelings of sur-prise and exultation.” By the 1850s Dolcoath began to grow into the largest tin mine in Cornwall, becoming the most celebrated and the most written about metal mine in the world.

The recent Rugby World Cup in South Africa reminds me that rugby union was first introduced there by Cornish miners and top South African clubs can still trace their founders to miners who had first toiled underground at Dolcoath. Three Dolcoath men played in the Crown Reef XV which won the Blane Cup in 1899, and five others were in the Randfontein United team, winners of the Dewer Cup and Shield in 1909. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and a dozen other countries saw their first rugby played by miners from Dolcoath and the other Cornish mines. 

The area which we know as Dolcoath is Entral. An ancient Tenement at the foot of Carn Entral, and the mine sited there is Bullen Garden, which became the principal part of Dolcoath Mine in the second half of the 18th century. The original Dolcoath workings lie to the west of Bullen Garden, close to the present Kerrier District Council offices. Entral has probably been worked for tin and other metals since at least the 16th century.

Dolcoath Mine Compressor House
built in 1883 to power the underground rock drills
Images courtesy of Simon Jones

Recent plans to drastically alter the landscape of Dolcoath should be viewed in the above context. To newcomers the area is often seen as merely derelict. To the Cornish inhabitants of Dolcoath Road and Avenue, together with those of Pengegon and Brea village, Dolcoath can mean something more. Until recently it was a rich source of pleasure due to its abundance of wildlife. My own earliest memories of Dolcoath are of walking from Pengegon across Dolcoath’s burrows to South Crofty at 6.00am to start day shift at Cooks shaft. Rabbits, foxes, the odd badger and a multitude of birds could be seen and heard in the gorse, hawthorn, blackthorn and general tangle of undergrowth. The numerous buildings and ruins were also a source of fascination.

Since Crofty removed thousands of tons of mine waste for re-processing, in the mid-1980s, much of the flora and fauna has gone. On the plus side, hitherto unknown building foundations were discovered, and Crofty co-operated leaving most of these undisturbed.

After the dreadful mistakes made at Roscroggan on the Red River, the District Council wisely decided to precede any firm plans to re-shape the old mine site with public consultation. This consisted of a questionnaire sent to the people of Dolcoath Road and Dolcoath Avenue. A slight problem with this “catchment” is that many folk from the western end of Dolcoath Road and Avenue never go anywhere near to the mine site – one lady told me she had no idea even where the mine was, because she had never ventured to that end of Dolcoath Road – and Brea people, who see far more of the site than any other group, were not asked for their opinions. A great many other local people who are familiar with Dolcoath and frequently pass through it were also not sent questionnaires. This consultation, whilst carried out with the best motives was far from adequate and probably failed in its purposes, unless its purpose was to dampen criticism.

This is Harriet’s Shaft taken in 1996 when she was still open.
Final depth 470 Fathoms
Images courtesy of Simon Jones

There is general unanimity among groups like Cornwall Archaeological Group , Red River Protection Group, Trevithick Society, Trevithick Trust, Regionally Important Geological Sites Group, Carn Brea Mining Society, etc, that Dolcoath site is far too important to be spoiled by the sort of surreyfication carried out at South Frances and at Newton Moor. Dolcoath presents a unique opportunity to do something worthwhile that the people of Camborne – not just the industrial archaeologists – can be proud of. To reduce it to a bland, grass-covered picnic area with park benches and plastic-tubed foreign trees, joined by gravel paths which meander through like the worst drawings from a tidy minded planner’s textbook, would be catastrophic.

The RIGS group, like others, would hope to see the great Dolcoath Main Lode outcrop workings exposed to view. This “coffin”, first worked over three-hundred years ago, was exposed during the recent shaft-capping exercise and then filled in again. It presents a wonderful chance for serious students, local people and school children to see what their Cornish forefathers did centuries ago. Dolcoath Main Lode was the widest, richest and most celebrated tin lode in the world. It produced tin to the value of many millions of pounds over a strike of nearly a mile. The many buildings and other structures in the central part of the site represent the mine’s heyday, and date mostly from the 19th century. Some foundations may be from 18th century buildings. The Dolcoath offices, until recently the engineering block of Cornwall Tech, are for sale. What an opportunity to acquire them as part of an overall scheme to preserve this ancient mine site in a truly meaningful way!

Whatever Kerrier District Council decides to do with Dolcoath Mine site, let us hope that it takes into account the unique status of this ancient mine. On Trevithick Day tens of thousands of people converge on Camborne in an expression of appreciation for one of Dolcoath’s sons, Richard Trevithick. For half a century before Trevithick’s birth Dolcoath was already famous. Many other great and famous men have been trained as miners or engineers at the mine. Arthur Woolf, William West, Joseph Vivian, Richard Trevithick Senior, Rudolph Eric Raspe (Baron Munchhausen) and scores of others have had a connection with the Queen of Cornish Mines. Let any future work on the surface of this site remind us that with many miles of tunnels and vast gunnises beneath it.  Let it not be into yet “corporation park”.