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Parish near Redruth was once 'the richest square mile in the old world'

By West Briton  |  Posted: March 29, 2013

  • Davey's Whim in the foreground. : Colin Higgs

  • Davey's Shaft in the foreground. : Colin Higgs

  • From left, the clock tower, winding engine and pump house at Taylors Shaft. : Colin Higgs

  • Restoration work is carried out on the winding engine house at Taylors Shaft. : Colin Higgs

  • United Downs and Wheal Maid Valley feature: Taylors Shaft in the Wheal Maid Valley. Picture by Colin Higgs

  • Eric Rabjohns at Taylors Shaft with the Wheal Maid Valley behind him. : Colin Higgs

  • The Wheal Maid Valley stretching from Croft Handy to Twelveheads. : Colin Higgs

  • The Cohen and Moss engine house at United Mines. : Colin Higgs

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IF ASKED to name the richest square mile in the world today you would probably come up with somewhere like the City of London, Silicon Valley or Jwaneng diamond mine in south-central Botswana.

The same question asked nearly two centuries ago would have produced a much different answer and identified a location much closer to home.

Between 1820 and 1840 an area of land in the parish of Gwennap, near Redruth, was known as "the richest square mile in the old world" and produced a significant proportion of all the copper produced in the world.

It was an area that stretched from Crofthandy to Hale Mills Valley and from Carharrack to Sunny Corner, and included Wheal Maid, Consols and United mines.

Local historian Eric Rabjohns said: "These years saw this area becoming the greatest and the richest in the mining world, with Carharrack emerging as a village from a cluster of dwellings.

"The local scene must have been one of immense activity. Workers came flooding to the area, eager to take part in the emerging bonanza - and it certainly was for the mine shareholders.

"From 1819 to 1940, Consolidated Mines yielded close to 300,000 tons of copper ore, which sold for £2 million (worth more than £100 million in today's money)."

Between them, Consols and United Mines, and Wheal Jewel employed almost 5,000 people, and Carharrack grew from a hamlet of a handful of homes to a village full of miners' cottages and a population of 1,500 plus.

The mining boom led to employment in ancillary trades, with exponential growth in blacksmiths, carpenters, coal merchants, wheelwrights, engineers, candle makers, rope makers and horse traders.

As a result, by 1841, Gwennap had become the most populated parish in Cornwall with 10,796 residents.

But, like all good things, it came to an end, its demise caused by the availability of cheaper copper elsewhere.

Elsewhere, other mining areas, such as Camborne and Redruth, were benefiting from substantial quantities of tin discovered beneath the copper lodes.

But there was no such luck in Gwennap, where tin was not found in such profitable quantities (at least, not then).

The boom evaporated almost as quickly as it had arrived. Jobs disappeared almost overnight, and with very few opportunities available locally, the great Cousin Jack's exodus began. Today, the site is a vast, industrial wasteland, with little remaining to show its wealthy past.

There are still a handful of engine houses in various states of repair, a few stacks, a rare mine clock tower, and mining spoil stretching as far as the eye can see.

A £270,000 Natural England-funded project is currently under way to restore parts of this historic site.

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