On this Day 13th August 1792

The Wherry Mine - One of the richest mines in Cornwall?

On 13 August 1792 the Sherborne Mercury carried a short piece which ran as follows:

The present high price of tin has caused a rage for mining in Cornwall…. One of the richest tin mines in Cornwall is near Penzance and lies under the sea, which is excluded by iron funnels, or shafts rising above the level of high-water; so that the workmen hear the dreadful roaring of the waves, and the rolling of the vast rocks over their heads, and may each of them say with David, “There is but a stop between me and death”.

The Wherry Mine, Penzance (Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, vol. 1, 1818)

The Wherry Mine, Penzance (Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, vol. 1, 1818)

While one would hesitate to suggest that a journalist or newspaper proprietor was colluding with a vested interest it does seem to be stretching the truth a bit to suggest that the Wherry Mine is one of the richest tin mines in Cornwall. In 1792 the mine had been working on a small scale for three or four years on the initiative one Thomas Curtis and the Adventurers were now seeking an agreement to build a pumping engine on the mine. An engine means more financial commitment and it's tempting to think that the piece in the Sherborne Mercury is simply intended to drum up interest in the mine with little regard for the truth of the situation. The passage about the rocks rolling around is merely there to add a bit of local colour or romance and has probably been lifted from William Pryce's Mineralogia Cornubiensis (1777) in which the submarine mine at Wheal Cock (St Just) is described in similar terms:

Tinners underneath hear the break, flux, ebb, and reflux of every wave, which, upon the beach overhead, may be said to have had the run of the Atlantic ocean for many hundred leagues and, consequently, are amazingly powerful and boisterous. They also hear the rumbling noise of every nodule and fragment of rock, which are continually rolling upon the submarine stratum which, altogether, make a kind of thundering roar, that will surprise and fearfully engage the attention of the curious stranger.”

On the other hand, in September 1792 no less a person that Davies Gilbert wrote to John Hawkins informing him that, “The coarse of stanniferous porphyry, near Penzance, (the Wherry) promises to make a very great mine. There are indications of the tin being continued to a great extent in both directions, and the bottoms are growing longer, and remain rich.” Note the difference between the account of the journalist and that of the scientist. The Sherborne Mercury claims that the Wherry is one of the richest mines in Cornwall while Davies Gilbert says that it promises to be a very great mine.

Gilbert may well have been correct in his assessment but the mine was, to say the least, a challenging proposition and despite selling an estimated £70,000 worth of black tin it closed in 1798, possibly as a result of severe storm damage. It may be that the shaft and bridgeworks were destroyed by a collision with a ship, certainly William Lovett says this was the case and moreover the accident resulted in a “plentiful supply of raisins” in Penzance and Newlyn. Lovett names the ship “the fig-man, as she was called”, possibly indicating that she was known locally as the fig-man but it was not her real name (note the lack of capitalisation), suggesting she may have been a regular fruit carrier from the Levant. Whatever the details, the mine stopped working in 1798 and but for a short re-opening in the 1830s that was it. Not so much a Wheal Do'em as a cagey Wheal See, or should that be Wheal Sea?

For a more serious and detailed account of the Wherry Mine please see Peter Joseph's So Very Foolish: A History of the Wherry Mine, Penzance, published by The Trevithick Society.

Sources

Sherborne Mercury 13 August 1792

William Lovett, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom, with Some Short Account of the Different Associations he Belonged to and of the Opinions he Entertained, 1876. available online

John Hawkins, On Submarine Mines, Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, Vol 1, 1818 p127.

William Pryce, Mineralogia Cornubiensis, James Philips, London, 1778.
Needless to say copies of the original edition are now very pricey but a facsimile edition from Bradford Barton can often be found at ABE Books http://www.abebooks.co.uk or it can be sourced free of charge online.




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