Born in Golant in 1848, Francis Oats moved to St Just with his family in the 1850s where they made their home in Church Street and his parents earned their living as grocers and bakers. By all accounts Francis was a quick learner and a pretty shrewd character and by the time of the 1871 census he is already listing his occupation as mine agent. He was in fact agent at Botallack and doing pretty well for a young man of 22. But Botallack was just the beginning of an amazingly successful career, by 1908 he was Chairman of De Beers, he'd moved from tin to diamonds and from St Just to Kimberley. Along the way his associates were men whose reputations and motives are now viewed with deep suspicion: Leander Starr Jameson, architect of the infamous Jameson Raid; and Cecil Rhodes, the wheeler dealer entrepreneur after whom Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe, was named but whose Oxford statue is now subject to a petition for its removal.
The house in Church Street, St Just, where Francis Oats grew up. (photo Ted Mole)
For all his success, international travel and famous associates Francis Oats appeared to have kept his feet firmly planted on the ground, one might even say St Just ground for he never forgot or disowned his roots and frequently returned to Penwith. To quote his granddaughter, Claire Leith, “In 1892 when Rhodes was buying his great house under the mountain in Cape Town…… Francis was upgrading his family living by buying 4, Market Street, later known as Carne house, to be a permanent St Just home for them all.”
While his fortune was made in southern Africa a good deal of it was spent in west Cornwall. In St Just he became the major shareholder and Chairman at Levant where he eventually owned 800 of the 2500 shares. His aim was to ensure the survival of the mine by judicious modernisation and investment but he met with limited success and a fair amount of frustration. He drove through the plan to build the new dry and the tunnel linking it to Man Engine Shaft but he was unable to reform the manner of selling tin; his proposal that tin be sold by ticketing rather than by private treaty to large shareholders, in this case Messrs Field and Bolitho, being defeated when put to the vote in 1890. Although he invested heavily in west Cornwall mining concerns, vested interests frequently acted against his plans for progress and by the end of his life he must have been dismayed at the state of affairs brought about by this lack of foresight, as he see saw it. By 1915, he set in motion plans for the closure of Levant, plans which were rescinded but nevertheless offer an indication of his despondency at the state of affairs.
Porthledden House on the skyline above the Kenidjack Valley and the huge Boswedden Mine water wheel pit, with Cape Cornwall on the right (photo Ted Mole)
A man who makes it to the top of a business such as de Beers and associates with men like Jameson and Rhodes is probably not going to be a saint but it's clear that Francis Oats was generally a well-liked man who progressed in the world by hard work, skill and honest dealing. The miners of St Just lost a friend when Francis Oats died but they were not the only ones:
“Not only has this country lost a man of outstanding ability and force, but I have suffered the loss of a friend for whom I have always entertained the warmest feeling of respect and admiration.”
General Louis Botha, first Prime Minster of the Union of South Africa (who fought on the opposite side to Oats in the Second Boer War)
Claire Leith, Tin and Diamonds: The Life and Times of Francis Oats, Trevithick Society, 2009
Cyril Noall, Levant: The Mine Beneath the Sea, Bradford Barton, 1970
Cornishman, 11th September 1918 (Obituary)