Dear friends and readers,
My Poldark class finally met on Monday and we had a good session. Spurred by this I thought I’d put onto my 18th blog a recommendation for books on mining and smuggling (they are linked) in Cornwall, especially 16th through 19th century.
In his Story of Mining in Cornwall, Allen Buckley tells the story of southwestern Cornwall as a center of industrial capitalism as it was practiced for real between the earliest times (pre-historical records) to now, where from the 16th to later 19th century Cornwall was a central driving place for the industry of mining and how it exported its products and know-how around the world. We see evidence for the the trades routes from Cornwall down to Marseilles and out from the Mediterranean really go back a few thousand years. In classical times evidence of archeaology shows that most mining was kept to the surface.
Smuggling began as soon as the powerful began their attempt to tax — documents from the early medieval period.
The easier tin had been used up by the beginning of the 18th century century and people sought to find other minerals to make money by. Only when picking and washing it off the ground did people begin to dig down and build these tunnels and invent unwatering machines, and the whole man-based technology – wood mostly – emerge. There were different kinds of jobs, from what was done in the surface, to tributers – these were people given a space if they were individual enterpreneurs and what they could make depended on how much tin, copper they could pick off. An interesting aspect of mining was that the individual worker was a sort of small enterpreneur. He was called a tributer. A man who showed himself able to find and with a pic pull out ores was paid individually. A cost book was kept. In the 19th century attempts were made to turn these people into salaried workers, but in Cornwall the ancient families held on to their land to some extent and so monopolies were not so extensive. Also the way of working, a single man hard at it many many hours would work more if he saw himself in control. No one tried slaves (who you would have had to whip and beat and the work was dangerous). Time and again owners tried to bypass this system and treat the workers ruthlessly, but a complicated set of realities – including the need for skilled people stopped that.
Companies and wealthy groups outside Cornwall ran a monopoly to keep the price of the ores down — they would buy the ore at low prices, smelt it, and then send it abroad. In the novels, Ross seeks to break the monopolies created by local thug-families, families with ruthless aggressive successful types at their heads and the English — who treated the Cornish as if this was a colony (not part of them). He seeks to find copper, mine, smelt it as the Carnemore Copper Company; there was a Cornwall Copper that did the same and also was beaten down by bankers calling loans in, the greater pockets of the non-Cornish — who though did not lose out altogether. Some of these rich outsiders who mined elsewhere (Yorkshire) are well-known by name: “Child, “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,” in Reconsidering the Bluestockings Edited by Nicole Pohl and Betty A. Schellenberg (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 2003), 153-73. The idea of local combines meant that people within Cornwall would get to decide which mines were to be closed (if they were not profitable enough against the overhead) and which kept open. Mining in Cornwall was finally beat out by lodes and availability of ores in several colonies in South American, South Africa and other places. Cornwall turned to China clay and slate quarrying. In a way Cornwall extracted all it had from itself that was easy and then hard to get out, and then it sent its people to teach and work for others.
You can learn a lot from reading this book — about banking, real practices, ores, Cornwall too. About working places, why and how they rebel, riot, make combinations, how they are thwarted again and again and then exploited. A pro-slavery tract published around 1790 was dedicated to the “Starving Tin Miners of Cornwall.” The writer goes on to lambast abolitionists for ignoring inequities at home (i.e., the situation of the miners) in order to chase “foreign” issues. Mining undermined (pun there) people’s health badly; characters grow weak, sicken and die; they drown. They work hard long hours, and their lungs go. Some turn to agriculture or become servants but there is less money there. There was money in mining and not much money anywhere else — farming was hard and yielded poor results (see directly below). They also fish but there are apparently laws set up to control this so as to make sure the money to be gotten from it in large amounts goes to the powerful in the area. One scene late in Ross Poldark shows Ross and Demelza going to watch some fishing in the early dawn because that’s when the fish return from somewhere to other and also to evade these authorities. I can see why people preferred to smuggle, but it was dangerous. To offset starvation people also poached. For that they were thrown in jail to die if they were caught.
Cornwall has however for a long time been a poverty-sticken place. Why? It’s not good for growing things, and it’s not good for farming cattle in ways that make money. Corn – or bread (corn was the generic word for grain) riots occurred everywhere in the UK periodically as people were left to starve. Famine is sociologically engineered – it is the result of the food level in a given area going down where a large number of people have a precarious access to it – people can starve and huge amounts of food be shipped abroad. These corn riots, harsh repression and hanging occurred until the corn acts were passed in 1840
The focus of the book is especially the later 17th through 19th centuries where many new techniques and forms of mining emerged.. Beautiful pictures and informative box type articles on some of the pages on people and where scholarship is to be found. Buckley’s book is the result of not only personal decades of scholarship; it builds on a century of real serious effort by geologists, scholars, politicians, miners.
We learn of many important individuals, I’ll mention Thomas Bear for his inventions; wealth, connections and yourself being a “venture capitalist” and politician is found in Sir Francis Basset, Lord de Dunstanville of Tehidy (1757-1853). In the second trilogy of the Poldark novels he figures as someone Ross is able to work with and borrow money from to form a combination against enforced bankruptcy.
Its subtitle is “A world of payable ground.” It’s about more than mining. Through the experiences of people who mined from the working miners to the people who owned the ground and exploited them insofar as they could to the powerful kingly type players, he illuminates economic and political relationships of the time with real insight, lucidity and deep humanity.
Also very worth while: A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, The Cornish Miner. I’ve written about Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground (neolithic Cornwall, its mythic penumbra) on my Sylvia blog.
Mary Waugh Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall, 1700-1850. This excellent concise book shows the trade occurring all over the coasts of England where serious fishing and mining occurred. How widespread and (yes) violence on both sides (the smugglers and all the local people helping them) and the preventionmen (and the establishment on their behalf with their prisons and punishments like hanging, transportation) were — especially in Kent and Sussex. (The picture people have of Austen’s world as a gentle one is just ludicrously wrong). It was known companionably as the free trade.
How this relates to Poldark novels
In Demelza Ross is trying to start a business that will support him as a gentleman through mining. Ross’s problem is he is not going to get enough money for copper; among the reasons for this is there is a monopoly by the bankers and outsiders who buy the copper and sell it to foreign markets. Eventually what emerges is Ross in secret (he’s allowed) takes the small company he has begun, calls it the Carnemore Copper Company, based on something that really occurred, it was called the Cornish Copper company; a group of Cornish people attempted to wrest smelting of copper, selling and trading it abroad to get decent prices.
The death of Francis Poldark from drowning — this is done with psychological depth and individuality in the books
and 1970s mini-series, but it was actually a not atypical accident
He’s up against the difficult technology: how dangerous it was. and early on because he does not have enough money to build safe enough structures, a mine collapses. He is heroic trying to save all he can, but one character who has become familiar to us and has a family dies. The Poldark novels were written the later 1940s-50s in the UK where the labor gov’t made an attempt at building a progressive society. They reflect this time.
A worthwhile essay by Nickianne Moody: “Poldark Country and National Culture.” She opens dryly and her tone is academic austere but she makes good points about the reasons for the success of the novels and the first mini-series. She means us to compare this need for nostalgia and reassurance in 1945-53 and again the 1970s against a bleak backdrop of post World War Two and economic hardship and decline and the ruthless policies of the Thatcher era with the astonishing success of Downton Abbey in the 2nd decade of the 21st century with a similar backdrop of economic hardship, and sense of betrayal and ruthless social policies, only as Moody points out the Poldark books are not complacent and not supporting the oligarchy.
Inexplicably Moody does not refer to the one-off movie of the 8th book, Stranger from the Sea, that was made in 1996 and was a flop: due mostly to the fanatical energies of the Poldark Appreciation Society whose anger at the exclusion of Ellis and Rees from the new production knew no bounds, and which Nickianne Moody treats with a certain unqualified (too much) respect. People are afraid of fan groups.
The essay comes from Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Elia Westland and has two opening essays on the history of Cornwall , 16th to 18th century and 19th to 20th, on various writers (besides Graham, Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier, the poet, John Harris, Thomas Hardy, and aspects of Cornwall (geography, the railway, regional differences)
I wonder if the new 2015 Poldark series will have time — allow for the necessary meditative quiet pace and coherent dialogue — to do justice to the treatment of mining, attempt at breaking a monpoly, the smuggling and fishing and farming to survive the way the 1970s series did. I doubt it. I will be writing on the new film adaptation after all 8 episodes of this year’s coverage of the first four novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, and Warleggan) conclude.