Ertach Kernow - The Trevithick Society & Cornish mining heritage

Richard Trevithick in front of Passmore Edwards Library Camborne

King Edward Mine near Camborne now an important museum venue and is where the Trevithick Society hold their regular meetings. I was very pleased to take up their request to provide an illustrated talk there last week on Cornish Shipwreck and Rescue. Travelling around Cornwall is a great opportunity to have a chat with some of the many volunteers working in the Cornish heritage sector and find out about what they do and how they operate.

The Trevithick Society has been going for some eighty years and over the years has carried out some fantastic work in preserving and sharing aspects of Cornish industrial heritage. The Cornish Engines Preservation Committee was founded in 1935 and later in 1944 formed the Cornish Engines Preservation Society. In turn this group merged with the Cornish Waterwheel Preservation Society and became what is now the Trevithick Society, named after Cornwall’s great engineer Richard Trevithick.

Today visitors to the Levant Mine at St Just in Penwith benefit from the past work of volunteers of the Cornish Engines Preservation Committee and subsequent Trevithick Society members. In 1930 the price of tin had plummeted and the Levant Mine closed. The closure meant that the whim engine used to raise ore from the mine was superfluous to requirements and was destined to be scrapped. This was the oldest working engine in Cornwall still in its original location having been completed in 1840 by Harvey’s of Hayle. Formation of the committee was the first step towards preservation of this important historic part of Cornwall’s industrial past. Fortunately sufficient money was raised just in time as the engine had started to be dismantled. Following on from their original remit was to  then save the Levant whim’s surface plant from scrapping. The Cornish Engines Preservation Committee began research in 1943 to ascertain what other engines and structures were at risk, the resulting survey being published in 1945 and updated and republished in 1953. It was again reprinted for the society’s 50th anniversary in 1985 when nine of the ten engines listed in 1953 still survived. The Cornish Engine was designed in Cornwall specially for mining and the largest collection of these is held by the London Museum of Water & Steam, of which three were actually built in Cornwall.

Continuous engine maintenance at Levent Mine
Part of Levant Mine 2019

As always click the images for larger view

Trevithick Society newsletter No'46 (Engine houses demolished)
Gould's Engine House Wheal Grenville Mine

Like many of Cornwall’s longstanding societies of Cornish national interest the Trevithick Society produces an annual journal. In the first edition of 1973 the editorial began ‘The Trevithick Society has been a surprising omission from the now long list of clubs and societies throughout Cornwall who produce some form of journal or periodical.’ This omission has more than been rectified with an outpouring of newsletters starting in December 1970 besides the annual journal, together with well over fifty other Cornish mining and engineering publications.

Today with greater appreciation that Cornish industrial heritage is an important factor in modern tourism, engine houses and mines stacks are far more valued. Over the years Trevithick Society members and volunteers have undertaken a huge amount of recording across the whole of Cornish industrial heritage including many engine houses which have sadly been destroyed. An example of this is the report from 40 years ago in the August 1984, No’ 46 Trevithick Society newsletter on the destruction of the engine houses at Wheal Grenville and Penhale. This was brought to the attention of the Trevithick Society by the Cornwall Committee for Rescue Archaeology, a fine example of collaboration between Cornish heritage organisations in preserving knowledge.

Perhaps today one of the Trevithick Societies most well-known activities is running the ‘Puffing Devil’. This is a replica built by the Trevithick Society of Richard Trevithick’s 1801 engine, which inspired the song ‘Going up Camborne Hill’. Maintained by the society this is a regular feature around Cornwall at a variety of events with its most recent outing at Trevithick Day in Camborne on 27th April this year. The work relating to this engine alone helps keep the name of Richard Trevithick and his achievements alive besides the other activities of the society.

These days another major achievement by the Trevithick Society may perhaps understandably be overlooked here in Cornwall. This is the preservation of what is now known as the Snaefell Mine Waterwheel at Laxey in the Isle of Man. This huge waterwheel measuring 50’ 6” in diameter was built in Wales in 1865 at the L & G Howell Ironworks at Hawarden in Flintshire. It pumped water from the Snaefell Mine until 1908 when the mine closed. Transported to Cornwall the waterwheel was erected at the Dursford china clay works at Blisland a previously closed site being reopened from 1908. The waterwheel was then known as the Gawns Wheel. After about 40 years this pit closed, and the wheel was left to decay until in 1971. Ownership was then transferred  to the Cornish Waterwheel Preservation Society which merged to form the Trevithick Society in 1976, who preserved the wheel’s components. Ownership was transferred and the wheel re-erected at Laxey in 2003. What a wonderful contribution to not just Cornish but Celtic heritage by the Trevithick Society this outstanding waterwheel built, worked, preserved and now situated through three Celtic nations during its lifetime.

Trevitrhick Society's 'Puffing Devil' in 2020
The Gawns Wheel located on Bodmin Moor now preserved at Laxey Isle of Man

Sharing a range of Cornish topics is of interest not just here in Cornwall where the talks at King Edward Mine are held. With a good number of society members throughout the world the talks are also shared via Zoom. This is becoming a much more important way of sharing Cornish heritage and certainly a benefit that emerged from the recent pandemic. These days societies of all types need to embrace technology in communicating with their members, sharing information and carrying out activities. That the Trevithick Society, which preserves historic technology has taken this on board is terrific.

King Edward Mine is a great venue for the Trevithick Society having an interesting museum of mining artefacts and rare engineering exhibitions. The site is now owned by Cornwall Council but has been run by the Camborne School of Mines and is still used by them for various activities. The history of the great Cornish engineering firm of Holman Brothers is well represented at King Edward Mine and the facilities there are an important part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. It must be said that the work carried out by the Trevithick Society and their forebearers of the Cornish Engines Preservation Society and Cornish Waterwheel Preservation Society has strongly supported the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site through their engineering preservation and expertise. This is exhibited not for example at just at the Levant Mine but also at the East Pool Mine and elsewhere.

King Edward Mine
King Edward Mine - Holman winder engine

Like many longstanding Cornish heritage organisations the demand for expertise and wider input is always in demand but is falling on fewer and older people. It really is crucial that the accumulated knowledge gathered over many decades is passed on to the next and future generations. It may be too late when people eventually wake up and appreciate the risks of loss of knowledge to Cornish heritage as well as skills employed are gone forever. Perhaps there should be greater emphasis at schools and colleges about Cornish heritage and the huge width of interests open to students. I’m sure there are many young people who would be happy to learn historic engineering skills to enable them to help maintain Cornwall’s industrial heritage far into the future.

It was also very encouraging to learn about the work being carried out in Camborne, which will be of great benefit to the Trevithick Society and the towns other future heritage needs. The former Victorian Board School in Basset Road now known as the Basset Hub is a Grade II listed building adjacent to ‘The White House’ a 19th century villa. These two historic buildings are being preserved in a major repurposing renovation project to include youth facilities, education spaces and exhibition areas as well as the town’s library. The completed project will also include performance and music space as well as a café and co-working opportunities. This is an exciting project and an example for other towns which lack these facilities to make the most of their own existing historic buildings. The Trevithick Society will be housing their own extensive library and archive as well as the ‘Puffing Devil’ here thus creating a major asset towards Camborne’s town and Cornish heritage.

Basset Centre Camborne

Climate change and anticipated wetter weather will encourage quality tourists as well as Cornish internal tourism to such places which have galleries, museums, theatres and auditoriums for local performance art and entertainment. There seems no doubt that the Camborne-Redruth area is embracing change and evolving into a serious wide-ranging Cornish cultural and heritage hub. Great news for many Cornish national heritage organisations such as the Trevithick Society as well as smaller local groups.

The Trevithick Society & Cornish mining heritage
The Trevithick Society & Cornish mining heritage
Ertach Kernow Heritage Column 26th June 2024 – Kernewek; Politics & Heritage; Quality Tourism; Laughing in Falmouth
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers
Ertach Kernow shared in VOICE, Cornish Times, Cornish & Devon Post newspapers