The glory days of tin mining may be about to return to Cornwall in an unexpected revival of the historic industry which provided the backdrop to the Poldark novels and BBC TV drama.
In towns such as Redruth and Camborne, locals still talk of their pride in the industry which is also celebrated through monuments such as the 90ft granite column Carn Brea, a tribute to a mining philanthropist.
The county’s tin mining industry disappeared in 1998 when Camborne’s South Crofty followed other mines in closing due to a collapse in the metal’s value.
Picturesque: The historic industry provided the backdrop to the Poldark novels and BBC drama
But now the bosses of an international mineral exploration firm, who include the son of a former South Crofty worker, are determined to put Cornwall back on the tin map by reopening the mine.
Strongbow Exploration plans to list on the London Stock Exchange by June this year and to get South Crofty back up and running by 2021.
It also has ambitions for the mine, which traces its history back more than 400 years, to compete with rivals in China and Indonesia.
‘Geologically, Cornwall has shown over the last couple of thousand years – dating back to the bronze age – that there is a high level of metal endowment here,’ said Strongbow chief executive Richard Williams, a professional geologist.
His ambition is for South Crofty to supply up to 1.5 per cent of the world’s tin – or around 4,500 out of 350,000 tons currently consumed each year.
At current prices, this would mean annual revenues of $90 million to $110 million (£63 million to £77 million).
The Cornish tin-mining industry is said to date back more than 2,500 years. It peaked between 1750 and 1850 – the period in which the TV drama Poldark is set – when it was a world leader.
Mining still flourished sufficiently to be a major provider of jobs until the late 20th Century. But a sharp drop in the price of tin –from $20,000 to $5,000 a ton – prompted by a fall in demand and the 1985 collapse of the International Tin Council, which protected prices, proved fatal for Cornwall’s mines. By 1991, South Crofty was the last one standing. It closed in March 1998 when its owners, who still employed 200 people, were unable to secure a rescue package from the Government.
Scenic: Aidan Turner as tin mine owner Ross Poldark in the BBC’s 18th Century drama
Just three years later, tin staged a recovery after a ban on lead being used in solders.
Now, the metal is used in most electrical items, including mobile telephones, and its price has recovered to above $20,000 a ton.
There have been several attempts to revive South Crofty in the past 20 years. But Strongbow is convinced, in part thanks to planning permissions and licences already secured, that it can succeed where others have failed.
Owen Mihalop, a mining engineer from Cornwall whose father was managing director of South Crofty in the 1980s, is Strongbow’s chief operating officer and is based at the site.
Mihalop, who trained at Camborne’s School of Mines, believes the company’s plans – which he hopes will create 300 jobs – can be a major boost for the local economy.
He said residents are overwhelmingly supportive, adding: ‘A lot of people looking in at Cornwall from other parts of the UK just see it as a tourist destination but people who live here don’t.
‘They want to see good quality, highly skilled, well paid jobs so that their children can stay here rather than having to go off around the world and to other parts of the UK to make a living.’
Ambition: Owen Mihalop plans to have South Crofty reopened by 2021
Mihalop added that mining is ‘not the dirty, sweaty business that it was years ago’ and is now a high-tech industry that can attract ambitious workers.
‘It’s about maintaining high-tech equipment more than using equipment,’ he said.
‘Previously, when South Crofty closed, that’s how things were done – handheld drills, very hot, hard work. It’s still going to be hard work down there, but we’re going to be using machines that make life a lot easier for them.’
Visitors to the area, therefore, are unlikely to encounter many tanned, topless hunks wielding pickaxes like fictional mine owner Ross Poldark in the TV drama. But that’s not to say the Poldark effect won’t be a boost for South Crofty.
Williams said: ‘I certainly think Poldark has generated a lot of interest, which has been very positive. It’s highlighted what we’re trying to do in Cornwall.
‘And I think it gives the general population a little bit of background to show that Cornwall does have a strong history of mining.’