Tin mines have been an iconic part of Cornwall’s landscape for thousands of years.
They were even instrumental in helping create the county’s other most enduring icon, the Cornish pasty, which was created for miners as a regular meat-and-potatoes dinner cooked into a portable form.
Cornwall’s emblem, the flag of St Piran, is based on the county’s history of mining – the white cross on a black background representing white veins of tin amid the dark rocks.
In the latter half of the 19th century, there were more than 2,000 tin mines across Cornwall, making it the world leader in tin mining.
But production peaked in the 1860s at 10,000 tonnes per year and gradually, as competition from lower-cost locations including Australia, Asia and Latin America kicked in, Cornwall was displaced.
The last tin mine, South Crofty, at Pool, near Redruth, closed in 1998 following years of losses, bringing down the curtain on more than 400 years of mining at the site.
Since then, there have been sporadic suggestions that it could re-open, usually when the price of tin was doing well. Those plans were scuppered when the price of tin returned to earth.
On Monday, though, came the strongest indication yet that a revival is possible.
The Canadian company Strongbow Exploration – which bought South Crofty from administration in July 2016 – announced plans to float on the Alternative Investment Market next month.
It is looking to raise £25m during the next 18 months “to progress to a production decision”.
Image: Strongbow hopes South Crofty can be operational again by 2021
The money raised will be spent on removing water that has accumulated in the mine over the years, which is expected to be completed between March and September 2020, potentially paving the way for production to begin in 2021.
Richard Williams, chief executive of Strongbow, said the recovery in tin prices – and expected demand in future – was what gave him confidence that the mine could remain sustainable once reopened.
He said that tin was primarily used as solder, a compound used in all electronic devices, but that, while demand was “projected to remain stable for the foreseeable future”, supply was expected to fall during the next four to five years as production from China, Malaysia and Peru, fell.
Mr Williams said that the price of tin had risen by 60% since January 2016 and now stood at $21,000 per tonne.
He added: “The project has all necessary permits in place and, as a former producing mine, offers great potential at a relatively low risk.
“The global demand for tin, especially in consumer electronics, combined with current tin price forecasts, underpins Strongbow’s strategy.”
A report prepared by the company in March last year anticipated a pre-production period of two years, followed by eight years of production, with the mine expected to produce an average of 9.17 million pounds of tin per year.
An initial capital cost of $118.4m (£87.3m) was projected, followed by a further $83.8m (£61.3) over the life of the mine.
It said that, despite the decline of mining in Cornwall, “mining capability and knowledge” was still present in the workforce.
The nearby Camborne School of Mines, part of the University of Exeter, ensures a ready supply of geologists and experts in mining engineering, while mining equipment and support is also available from the county’s remaining china clay open pit mines.
The potential game-changer for South Crofty, even if the tin price disappoints investors as on previous occasions, could be lithium.
Image: Lithium is widely used in the production of batteries for smartphones, cars and planes
The metal, used in batteries that power electric cars, is expected to be much sought-after in coming years and the brine emanating from springs in the area near the mine is said to be rich in it.
Sceptics will note that there have been numerous false dawns for South Crofty which, from 1982 to 1988, was owned by RTZ, now part of the FTSE-100 mining giant Rio Tinto.
Previous re-openings of Cornish tin mines have disappointed in the past, most notably when RTZ opened the old Wheal Jane mine near Truro in June 1979, only for it to close in early 1991 – leaving South Crofty as the county’s final remaining tin mine.
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However, in neighbouring Devon, there are signs that reviving mining is possible. Australian mining company Wolf Minerals began production of tungsten at a mine at Hemerdon, just outside Plymouth, three years ago. That site had been out of use since 1944.
Progress has not been as good as expected and the business remains loss-making – but it is a beacon of hope for what could unfold on the other side of the Tamar Bridge during the next decade.