I’ve spent the past few days in Redruth, Cornwall, researching material for my next novel. A delightful experience in some ways – in others, not so good.
Since the Eighteenth century Redruth has been at the centre of one of the richest mineral mining areas in the country, producing tin, copper, cobalt and side products such as arsenic. By the 1850s this area was producing two thirds of the world’s copper and the local landowners and professional men in associated industries grew very wealthy, a fact that is reflected in fine homes they built for themselves and the proud, granite buildings that line the town’s streets, their dates and functions confidently carved into their fine frontages.
All this industry produced a population explosion – and conditions in which the ordinary miners lived were nothing like those of the mineowners. The work was hard, dangerous and very unhealthy – average life-expectancy for a miner was less than forty years and there was, unsurprisingly, a lot of drunkenness and violence. The areas surrounding the fine houses were filthy and muddy, many miners walked miles to and from work along lanes thick with gorse and brambles, the air below ground was foul and polluted with dust and fumes and the air above ground was often not much better. It was not an unusual sight to see a man clinging to a post or wall, hardly able to stand because of the damage to his chest and lungs.
All this, added to the normal Cornish damp, meant that tuberculosis flourished and claimed hundreds of lives.
And then the bottom fell out of the copper market and, although tin was still being extracted, this work was less labour intensive so that in the later years of the Nineteenth Century miners were emigrating in their thousands – hence the saying that any hole in the ground in America, South Africa or Australia would have a Cornishman at the bottom of it.
Both the tin and copper markets have fluctuated since then but now all that is left of this great industrial heritage are the, mostly ruined, engine houses that dot the landscape, a few mining museums and hundreds of old shafts – now covered in, although when I was a child we were always warned not to venture in amongst the blackberry bushes for fear of falling down one. Even now there are notices warning you, in certain places, that you park at your own risk because of ‘unsupported mine-workings.’
The proud public buildings and shop front mostly remain but below so many of the decorative, granite frontages are modern, often shoddy-looking fascias. And where there were were once fine shops selling a range of drapery, millinery, furniture, saddlery that made the town an attractive commercial centre, you are more likely to find cheap clothing, the usual range of charity shops or empty windows offering glimpses of someone’s broken dreams. Too many buildings sport notices saying Dangerous Structure, Do Not Enter.
I don’t want to think this way about Redruth, however. Its great days are, of course, behind it, but it’s still a vibrant community, reflecting the tenacity of those early miners and mineowners and, with St Piran’s Day almost upon us, I will write more…