The ‘Mine Beneath the Sea’: resource extraction in a day of ingenuity

The Cornish landscape is strewn with reminders of its industrial – not to mention industrious – past, a throwback to the ‘good old days’ of British ingenuity and invention.

Long disused chimney stacks stand sentinel above the wind-battered coastlines, their silent reverie eerie yet captivating. Ramblers and dog-walkers step over concrete plinths and rubble-strewn compounds, the bricks stamped with the emblems of manufacturers long since liquidated.

On a recent visit to the Southwest I visited one of the better-preserved bastions of Cornwall’s industrial archaeology. The Levant Mine at Pendeen is managed by the National Trust and provides a snapshot of a long-forgotten era in British history. It was an era of exploration and extraction, of daring commercial ventures and technical gambles, of wondrous profit and devastating loss.

‘The mine beneath the sea’ as it came to be known, Levant opened in 1820 as a copper concern. Located on a remote, windswept headland, one can only imagine the conditions working at the surface, let alone down in the murky depths.

By the 1850s tin had become the major preoccupation, with tunnels reaching out more than 1.5km into the sea, an incredible feat of engineering given the relatively primitive technology of the day.

Surface workings at Levant Mine c. 1910. Formed with a capital of £400, the mine made £170,000 from copper in its first 20 years. In its heyday it employed 320 men, 44 women and 186 children

Hoisted to the surface by beam engine, the mined materials were then transported by an internal tramway system to the dressing floors where the valuable ores were separated from the worthless rockface by women and children.

Not satisfied with manpower alone, dedicated pit ponies were hoisted down the shafts tail first where they were fed and stabled for up to three-year periods without seeing daylight. Their ability to lug wagons full of ore from beneath the sea bed to the foot of the shafts was invaluable, though how happy the poor beasts were in their subterranean netherworld is another matter.

Either way, Levant remained one of Cornwall’s most productive mines throughout the rest of the 19th century and it only closed in 1930 when further extraction became uneconomical.

Today such enterprises draw scorn (particularly in the Western world), the environmental, financial and political costs often considered too great for an idea of merit to be pursued.  This is not to advocate a resurrection of the British mining industry but the regulations surrounding the exploitation of natural resources dissuades the type of ingenuity embodied by the Levant Mine.

This is particularly important when it comes to energy security.

With our staple energy reserves of oil and coal fast depleting, a renewed mistrust in nuclear power after Fukushima, and a contested environmental debate regarding fracking, where is the spark of tomorrow to come from?

Scotland has recently put a moratorium on fracking

Renewable energy is seen as the great hope, a relatively uncontroversial and inherently safe source, though heavily reliant on the unpredictable elements. Solar and wind farms will continue to spring up, their dull, sanitised designs unable to hide the flaws in the policies behind their propagation.

What of human ingenuity? What of the great engineering discoveries of the future? Doubtless we are capable of ever deeper oil extraction, of drilling into the earth’s core to harness geothermal energy, of converting disused quarries into pumped storage facilities. But who is backing our engineers, our geologists, our scientists?

Iceland proposes to drill boreholes more than 5km into the earth to harness geothermal energy but such techniques are likely to receive short shrift elsewhere

The private sector can only do so much, and companies investing in the power of tomorrow are often put off by a lack of governmental support or initiative. The political concerns of the few – whether it be a need to appease environmental groups or vote-winning constituencies – tend to outweigh the needs of the majority.

This is not the 19th century and, to be honest, that’s a good thing. But the overregulated, intellectually and technologically stifling climate of the 21st century certainly has its pitfalls.

You will not get another Levant Mine, especially not in the UK. At least as a monument, it stands as a reminder of what we have sacrificed in the name of inclusivity, consensus and caution.

Gone are the days when people, and companies, could just do things.


May Ignores Heath Folly and Pays the Ultimate Price

A couple of months ago, I mused in these pages whether Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election would backfire, as it did when her predecessor Edward Heath took a similar decision back in February 1974.

As it transpires, May’s gamble has not paid off. Although her Conservative Party garnered the most votes in the 8th June election and remains the largest within the House of Commons, a surge by Labour has resulted in a hung parliament and the end of the Tory majority.

Theresa May’s tenure at 10 Downing Street looks increasingly untenable

The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).

As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.

For years the DUP was led by the formidable Ian Paisley as a staunch opposition to Republicanism in Ireland

Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.

The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.

Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.

Corbyn has hailed Labour’s election defeat as a victory, yet it is unlikely that he would be able to live up to his campaign promises were he to become Prime Minister

Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.

With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.

How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.

Edward Heath heads to the polling station in 1974. He would be out of office within days