On 7th November 1849 John Batten wrote to John Rodda at Levant Mine advising his co-purser that
In consequence of the unfortunate circumstances in which our House has been placed it will not be in our power to undertake the next Levant pay. We therefore would propose that Mr Daubuz should do so and at the same time take (for the present at least) the general management of the mine.
John Batten had been purser at Levant since 1834 when he took over from his recently deceased father who had been purser since the mine reopened in 1820. John Batten senior, the third of that name, had been known as the King of St Just, so great were his business interests in the parish. Back in 1820 the King of St Just, together with Louis Charles Daubuz and Richard Boyns, had restarted Levant after 20 years or so of closure. The 1830s in particular had seen a fortune made from the rich chalcocite deposit discovered just weeks after the reopening. In ten years the mine had sold some £267,000 worth of copper ore, worth an estimated £25 million today.
Batten & Sons were more than just pursers: as partners in the Penzance Bank they were also the mine's bankers and in most accounts were the biggest creditor, supplying services and goods to the mine including lease of the ore plots near Penzance quay on which ore was stored pending sampling and shipping. They were also the second largest investor and a significant player in the tin smelting market. While L.C. Daubuz had provided the lion's share of the cash to start the mine and Richard Boyns had provided the technical expertise, Batten & Sons provided virtually all the commercial services and business management. A similar arrangement existed at both Wheal Reeth and Ding Dong mines where Batten & Sons were also purser/adventurers with Daubuz as a major investor.
So what was John Batten referring to with the brief phrase unfortunate circumstance? It became clear a week later when the failure of Batten & Sons became public knowledge. Batten & Sons did not have the cash to pay their debts or cover their costs. They resigned the purserships of Levant, Ding Dong and Wheal Reeth and gave up their partnership in the Penzance Bank, founded by John Batten II back in 1797. They drew up a full statement of their affairs, checked by T.S. Bolitho and J.J.A. Boase, and on the basis of that statement proposed a payment of 12 shillings in the pound to their creditors, half to be paid in three months and half in six months. The uncovered debts amounted to £39,198. The proposal was agreed by all creditors, including the three mines where they had been pursers.
John Batten's note to John Rodda as copied into the Levant Cost Book July/August 1849 (Cornwall Record Office)
What, precisely, had happened is not clear. There are no records of the web of Batten businesses and the Penzance Bank, now part of Barclays, also has no surviving archive for this period. Batten & Sons were not unusual in the scope of their businesses, the Bolitho family encompassed a similar scope as merchants, bankers, tin smelters and mining adventurers. The big difference between the two is that in the tin smelting war of the early 1840s they chose opposing sides. John Batten made his Trereife tin smelter at Penzance an integral part of the miners' attempt to break the tin smelters' cartel which had existed for years and was seen as responsible for the depressed state of mining. The Bolithos chose to stick with the cartel, the status quo, and so, interestingly, did the Daubuz family who still retained considerable smelting capacity. Batten was at odds with his main partner in several of his businesses, including Levant.
In the short term the miners' tin smelting venture seemed to be successful and led to a more audacious attempt to break the copper smelters' monopoly. Neither venture was ultimately successful, the challenge to the established tin and copper smelters failed and several of the personalities concerned went bankrupt. Batten & Sons survived in the short term but the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 30 November 1849 cited a figure of £40,000 as their losses from the truly unfortunate Cwm Avon business. (Cwm Avon was the smelter used in the challenge to the copper smelting cartel).
In essence it seems as if John Batten identified with the Cornish mining interest and risked his business by committing his resources to break the smelting status quo. He presumably thought that this course of action would be good for both his business and for the Cornish mining industry but hindsight suggests that he failed to see where the real strengths of his business lay and made a very bad decision.
Notification of the dissolution of the partnership between John Batten, Joseph Carne and Philip Marrrack, as bankers in Penzance, was published in the London Gazette of 2 November 1849. Notification of the dissolution of the partnership between John Batten and Benjamin Pidwell Batten was published in the London Gazette of 14 November 1849.
From the point of view of the historian of Levant Mine the exit of John Batten was a sad day, if only because it resulted in the pursership of Henry Borrow, a man whose handwriting makes count house meeting minutes a nightmare to decipher!
Levant Mine Cost Book July-August 1849, Cornwall Record Office
Newspaper refs as cited in text.
For an account of the Cwm Avon affair see D.B. Barton, A History of Tin Mining and Smelting in Cornwall, Cornwall Books, 1965 pp71-79
For more on the painting by Richard Pentreath see On This Day 1 August 1806