Case Study Site 19 – Mining and Engineering Heritage

Case Study Site 19 – Mining and Engineering Heritage

1.         Location

This generic case study assesses a range of mining and other civil engineering sites across Devon and Cornwall. 

2.         Why were the Case Study Examples selected?

As part of the wider CHeRISH project, an evaluation is being made of how historical images can support understanding of the management of coastal heritage risks.  In addition, the potential of art being used for other heritage-related applications is also being assessed.  In this particular case study, artworks depict various coastal infrastructure projects including bridges, piers and breakwaters, railway routes and coastal architecture, as well as the depiction of mining heritage.  These examples provide a broad range of images that provide additional information in support of written citations and texts regarding the particular sites, many of which are of historic interest. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

Within this case study examples are provided of a railway line running directly adjacent to the coast in south Devon, the construction of Plymouth Breakwater, pier construction and mining operations.  Many of these major projects had to take place in highly exposed locations, which faced the full force of Atlantic storm waves.  This often led to substantial delays and additional costs during the construction process.  In terms of mining heritage, since the early Medieval period, and almost certainly the Bronze Age, the mining of tin and later copper and other minerals, as well as China Clay, has been a key component of the Cornish economy.  Cornwall was Britain’s most important non-ferrous mining region and was the world’s largest producer of tin in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Furthermore, Cornwall produced some two thirds of the world’s copper during the first three decades of the nineteenth century (Gamble, 20111).  Because of the dramatic changes to the landscape, artists depicted the mining and quarrying activities in nineteenth century guidebooks or as individual artworks. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

This case study illustrates a number of examples of structures located adjacent to the coast, including the Plymouth Breakwater, which was commenced in 1812 at a cost of £1.5 million and funded by the Navy for the purpose of protecting Plymouth, Plymouth Sound and the anchorages contained within it.  This major feat of civil engineering, which involved the use of approximately three million tons of rock, was affected by the coastal weather conditions during the period of its construction and the design was modified as a result.  On the south Devon coast the section of railway line constructed by Brunel between Dawlish and Teignmouth was constructed immediately adjacent to the sea coast and included tunnels through the red sandstone headlands.  From time to time this railway line has been damaged by coastal storms, the most severe of these being the event in spring 2014 when a section of the main line was washed away, closing the route to Cornwall for several months. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage management?

The very detailed images provided in this case study illustrate methods of civil engineering construction, for example at Plymouth breakwater and Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge, at Saltash, together with the construction of the pier at Bournemouth.  The images also show us the condition of these various structures at the time the views were painted.  A watercolour by Alfred Robert Quinton shows the original condition of the elaborate Plymouth pier which was destroyed by enemy action in World War Two, and also the ornate Listed Burgh Island Hotel at Bigbury-on-Sea in about 1920.  In compiling a Historic Environment Record for such sites, the addition of images of the structures over time could form a useful addition.  Alternatively, a link can be provided to the source of the individual images alongside photographic records. 

In terms of mining, three examples are provided showing open cast and deep mining locations.  Because of the scale of activity in Cornwall, these subjects were of great interest to tourists, and were, therefore, included in nineteenth century guidebooks.  It has been noted that in a number of guides to the Cornish mining industry, artwork illustrations have not been included alongside many black and white photographs. 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from the sites?

This case study illustrates some of the great civil engineering projects undertaken in the south-west during the nineteenth century.  They show how bridges, breakwaters, piers, railway routes and hotels were constructed during the great period of Victorian (and Edwardian) development. It appears that few Historic Environment Records include or refer to images such as artworks in their citations, and it would be beneficial to include these for some of the more important sites. 

Figure 19.1: One of a series of fine lithographs by W. Dawson showing a section of the South Devon ‘Atmospheric Railway’ constructed by Brunel from 1844.  This remarkable route following the coast between Dawlish and Teignmouth was severely damaged in the 2013/14 storms.  (See also Case Study 11 for further artworks).

Image courtesy of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Figure 19.2: ‘The Floating of the last spar of the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash’.  English School Watercolour. 1859.  Another oil painting by T. V Robins depicts the opening of the bridge by Prince Albert on 2nd May 1859.

Image courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Figure 19.3: ‘The Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash’, c.1920 by Alfred Robert Quinton.  His detailed watercolours produced between 1904-1934 provide a wealth of coastal heritage (including architectural) information.  Over this time period he produced over two hundred watercolours of South-West England.

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 19.4: During the mid-to-late nineteenth century nearly every seaside town saw the construction of a pier or jetty.  This oil painting by John Wilson Carmichael painted in 1861 showing construction work in progress on Bournemouth Pier.  The 1,000 foot new pier replaced an earlier 100 foot jetty that was built in 1856.  The T-shaped pierhead was swept away in a gale in 1867.  A further iron pier replaced this structure in 1880.

Image reproduced with kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Museum & Art Gallery, Bournemouth.

Figure 19.5: A watercolour by A. R. Quinton, c.1925 showing the ornate Plymouth Pier, which was destroyed in a bombing raid in the Second World War.  Such architectural watercolours provide a valuate record of lost heritage.

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 19.6: ‘The Burgh Island Hotel’ at Bigbury-on-Sea’ by Alfred Robert Quinton, c.1930.  This Grade II Listed Building was built in 1929 of reinforced concrete in the Art Deco style.  It is one of numerous iconic seaside hotels that were built in outstanding natural locations around the coastline of South-West England between c.1890-1930.

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figures 19.7: The distinguished artist Philip Mitchell RI produced a series of views of the Plymouth coast, which were lithographed by W. Speat c.1850.  The view (left) shows the construction of the breakwater in progress.

Private Collection.

Figure 19.8: This view by Mitchell shows the Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse looking towards Mount Edgcumbe in about 1850.  Fine detail could be achieved through the lithographic printing process giving the prints a softer texture, more like that of an original watercolour.

Private Collection.

The Plymouth Breakwater was built by John Rennie and Joseph Waidbeye from 1812 at a cost of £1.5 million, which was funded by the Navy.  The Breakwater protects Plymouth, Plymouth Sound and their anchorages.  The Breakwater is 40 feet wide at the top and 200 feet at its base, 3,000,000 tons of rock were used for its construction.  The structure was completed in 1841.

A wealth of information on the Breakwater is provided by Steve Johnson at

Figure 19.9: ‘St Just United Mines’ by Thomas Hart. The widespread surface remains of the mine are located on the cliffs north of St Just. The first references to the mine date back to the 1670s although the mine didn’t appear on maps until 1748. The mine has been championed as one of Cornwall’s top ten mines due to its rich copper yields until the mines’ closure in 1930.

Image Courtesy of Penlee House Art Gallery and Museum, Penzance.

Figure 19.10: ‘The Dolcoath Mine’ by Thomas Allom (1832) is the most notable of the Camborne Copper mine series, containing the most complex arrangement of machinery in the country.  Passages were up to one mile long with multiple shafts in each; it maintained the accolade of being the deepest mine in Cornwall with a shaft 3,000ft deep.  It is first included in historic records in 1738 and was a prolific copper producer during the eighteenth century before switching to tin production in the late nineteenth, and finally closing in 1921.  It was the fifth largest copper producer, and highest producer of Black Tin in Cornwall.  After several failed re-openings, it was bought by South Crofty Mine in 1936 and became an integral part of Cornwall’s last tin mine of the twentieth century.

Figure 19.11: ‘The Carclase Mine’ by Thomas Allom (1832).  The name translates to ‘Grey Rock’, in reference to the decomposed granite that contains the deep, rich veins of tin.  The site is situated two miles north of St Austell, Cornwall and historic records suggest it has operated for 400 years.  Operations changed through time.  Tin used to be taken out of the mine on boats via a tunnel in the side of the cliff, but this practice was abandoned after the tunnel collapsed with boats inside it.  After this, waste was drained down-slope whilst the ore was pulverised and refined on site.

Figure 19.12: ‘The Chine Clay Pit’ by Laura Knight. 1914.  St Austell deposits of ‘China Clay’ were the first discovered in 1755.  It rapidly became popular in British pottery and for other uses in manufacturing processes including cosmetic products and medicine.  The Kaolin found in St Austell is of the highest quality and purity, giving its bright white colouring.  The clay is extracted by spraying with high pressure water jets; the waste is separated from the clay and then dried to remove surplus water and impurities.  Trains then took the clay to Fowey and Charlestown ports where it was exported abroad (75%) or elsewhere in the UK.  In 1910 Cornwall was producing 50% of the world’s China Clay, and St Austell’s pits alone, operating for over 300 years, contributed 120 million tonnes.

Image courtesy of Penlee House Art Gallery and Museum, Penzance.  Private Collection. © All Rights Reserved.

7.         References

  1. Gamble, B., 2011.  ‘Cornish Mines St Just to Redruth’.  Alison Hodge.  ISBN: 13 978-0-906720-81-3.