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Adventurers Visit George and Charlotte

The copper in the mine is all mine, all mine…

At 9 a.m., we boarded one of the coaches in Mr Tilley’s well-appointed fleet, belted up and set off for our destination full of expectation and excitement. After a short detour owing to a road closure, we arrived at Morwellham Quay and alighted into bright sunshine. First, we were escorted to a room where we watched a video about the history of Morwellham, which focused on the Victorian period. We learnt that Morwellham was at its busiest in the 1860s when mines in the Tamar Valley were some of the biggest in the world. Having learnt about mining, we were eager to take a ride into the mine just down river from the quay. We walked the short distance to the ‘station’ where we boarded the carriages of a train pulled by an electrically powered engine.

We entered the mine at one of the entrances to the Deep Adit. From time to time, we stopped to view life-sized dioramas of the miners at work, and the water-wheel which was used to pump water from out of the lower levels of the mine. One of the ways in which ore was extracted was by lighting fires next to the rock face and quickly cooling the heated rock with water. The rapidly cooling rock would crack and split. Later, productivity was increased with the introduction of gunpowder into the process; although the process of extracting the ore was still a laborious task: at first, the holes into which the gunpowder was loaded were made with a drill bit and sledge-hammer, but the innovation of drills powered by compressed air meant that the process was rendered a little easier (if considerably more noisy) for the miners.

Once the ore had been extracted, it was sent to the dressing floor. Here the ore was sorted according to size and then broken by women (known as bal-maidens) using sledge-hammers into pieces the size of large eggs. The ore containing a high copper content was placed to one side and the pieces of ore containing smaller amounts of the metal was passed on to the children (usually girls of seven or eight years of age earning three or four pence per day) to refine further until the pieces are about the size of a marble. We had a go at breaking some ore. We were exhausted after only a few minutes at the task; it didn’t require a lot of imagination to know how we might have felt after a shift of twelve hours! At least we were allowed to take some copper ore as a souvenir of our visit. From the dressing floor, the ore was then usually transported to South Wales to be smelted into pure copper. As it takes four tons of coal to produce one ton of copper, it made more economical sense to take the copper to the coal rather than bring the coal to the copper!   

Although the labour of children was exploited in the mine and on the dressing floor, some children were lucky enough to attend a school, founded by Elizabeth Rundle in the 1830s, where they were drilled in the three Rs – and, of course, their duty to God and the monarch. Discipline was strictly enforced, often with the application of a cane to the tenderer parts of the anatomy, or, perhaps less physically painful but no less humiliating, the donning of a dunce’s hat. Attendance was not compulsory, and parents had to pay a penny per week per child for the privilege.

One of the most interesting and amusing activities of the day was dressing in clothes of the Victorian period. At this time, more so than today, there was a clear distinction in the quality and elegance of the clothes worn by people at different levels of society: silk, satin and lace compared to cotton, linen and shoddy.  Dressed in our Sunday best, we posed for a photograph outside the chandler’s shop once owned and run, very successfully, by Jane Martin.

We certainly enjoyed our visit to Morwellham Quay and thank Miss Mars for organising the trip, and to Mrs Gubbin, Mrs Lamble, Mrs Mart and Mr L for accompanying us on the visit.