The View from England: World leaders to converge on historic mining region

Carbis Bay near St Ives on the South West Coast Path in England. Credit: acceleratorhams/iStock.

In mid-January it was announced that the next G7 Summit will be held at the tiny seaside village of Carbis Bay on Cornwall’s north coast. The June 11-13 meeting at the Carbis Bay Estate, near St Ives, will be the first face-to-face meeting of world leaders for nearly two years (last year’s G7 meeting in the United States was cancelled because of the Covid pandemic, and the Saudi-hosted G20 meeting was moved online).

The new U.S. president, Joe Biden, is among those expected to attend the three-day meeting, along with leaders of the other G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, plus representatives from the European Union.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also invited Australia, India and South Korea to attend as guests, in an apparent effort to convert the annual summit into a meeting of ten leading democracies.

Largely remote from the rest of the country, Cornwall has much in common with its geographic neighbours across the water – Wales, Ireland and Brittany. Celtic and pagan traditions were popular in all four of these areas.

Unconstrained by the religious fervour that took hold in the rest of Britain, Cornwall’s myths and legends thrived. The most famous tale associated with Cornwall is, of course, King Arthur, who was said to have been conceived at Tintagel Castle, just 90 km northeast of Carbis Bay. According to medieval histories, the legendary British leader led the country’s defence against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries.

Early Arthurian legends include his famous sword, ‘Excalibur’, and ‘The lady of the lake’, the latter being allegedly Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor. Not to be outdone, the French added the Holy Grail, a handsome knight (Lancelot) and a love triangle to the story (through the 12th-century writer Chrétien de Troyes), and Arthurian romance became a significant strand of medieval literature.

During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), the narrative shifted from King Arthur himself to the Knights of the Round Table. The number seated around the table at Arthur’s stronghold of Camelot is disputed (commonly 12) but most sources agree that these chivalrous knights met in Cornwall to discuss matters of state, and to seek the Holy Grail.

Presumably for sounder reasons, Prime Minister Johnson described Cornwall as “the perfect location” for the G7 summit. While making the announcement, he also referred to the role the region’s tin and copper mines played in the country’s industrial revolution 200 years ago.

Indeed, Cornwall was the most important metal-mining county in the U.K. with an output that dwarfed its rivals. Cornwall, together with associated districts just to the east of the Tamar River (the border with Devon), has produced nearly all of the country’s tin and arsenic, and most of its copper.

Tin production in Cornwall was 2,600-3,400 tonnes annually from 1750 to 1816, then regularly well over 4,000 tonnes per year until the mid-19th century. By 1855, there were 133 mines producing tin in Cornwall and 97 copper-producing mines, although the latter had fallen to just five by 1913.

Cornwall was responsible for around half of the U.K.’s total metal production during the second half of the 19th century. Over 1,500 separate mining ventures were recorded to have produced ores of various types during that period.

Cornwall was also the most important silver-mining county in the U.K. during the third quarter of the 19th century, and silver production reached a peak of over 300,000 ounces in 1869. Lead production was taking place on a large scale during the first half of the 19th century but had dwindled to nothing by the late 1880s.

The only important mineral that the county did not possess in commercial quantities was coal. This stymied industrial development in the county, with most of the metal ore being shipped to the burgeoning heavy industry to the north, especially in the ‘black country’ around Birmingham.

Although lithium extraction in Cornwall is now showing great promise (and will be covered by this column shortly), the demise of metal mining, and the absence of any offsetting industry, has left Cornwall as the U.K.’s second poorest area (after West Wales) and amongst the poorest regions in the whole of Europe. According to the E.U.’s data agency, Eurostat, the people of Cornwall have an average income of only US$20,000 per year. Until Brexit, the region had been receiving more economic aid from the E.U. than any other part of the U.K.

The lesson from history is clear, mining regions can only gain long-term benefits if they are able to beneficiate the metal that they hew from the ground. Carbis Bay is pretty but it is no Camelot, and Boris is certainly no Arthur, but even our mythical leader would have struggled with the economic cards dealt to Cornwall.

Dr. Chris Hinde is a mining engineer and the director of Pick and Pen Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm he set up in 2018 specializing in mining industry trends. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Metals and Mining division.


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