You probably already know that Cornwall (and parts of west Devon) were once great mineral mining areas. Copper was first to be mined in the modern era, but tin was the mainstay of the mining industry for many years. Competition from abroad slowly eroded Cornwall’s position as a major producer of tin and caused a huge migration of Cornish miners all over the world. The landscape in my part of Cornwall is dotted with the ruined remains of the engine houses of tin mines. The steam engines were used to drive pumps which kept the mines from being waterlogged. Traditionally, the mines did not have cages which took the miners to and from their work. The poor miners were required to clamber up and down a system of ladders.
If I walk a couple of hundred yards up the hill behind my house, I can see Dingdong Mine on the skyline.
There are two Cornish words for mine. Wheal is used as part of the name of a mine, and means the whole conglomerate of workings. It is not used without a following name. Bal, on the other hand, is not used as part of the names of mines. To quote P.A.S Poole’s Place-names of West Penwith (2nd Ed. 1985, Penzance: Poole):
a miner would be described as working ‘at the BAL’ or at Wheal Grylls, but not ‘at the WHEAL’.
Many of the mines have evocative names:
- Geevor Mine – possibly from Cornish gavar meaning “goat”
- Great Wheal Fortune
- Wheal Jane – from Cornish yeyn meaning “cold”
- Wheal Owles – from Cornish als meaning “cliff