Read CHAPTER TWENTY ONE of Deep Down‚ a Tale of the Cornish Mines , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

TREATS OF TIN-SMELTING AND OTHER MATTERS

There is something grand in the progress of a mechanical process, from its commencement to its termination.  Especially is this the case in the production of metals, nearly every step in the course of which is marked by the hard, unyielding spirit of vis inertiae on the one hand, and the tremendous power of intelligence, machinery, and manual dexterity on the other.

Take, for example, the progress of a mass of tin from Botallack.

Watch yonder stalwart miner at work, deep in the bowels of the mine.  Slowly, with powerful blows, he bores a hole in the hard rock.  After one, two, or three hours of incessant toil, it is ready for the powder.  It is charged; the match is applied; the man takes shelter behind a projection; the mass is rent from its ancient bed, and the miner goes off to lunch while the smoke is clearing away.  He returns to his work at length, coughing, and rubbing his eyes, for smoke still lingers there, unable, it would seem, to find its way out; and no wonder, lost as it is in intricate ramifications at the depth of about one thousand five hundred feet below the green grass!  He finds but a small piece of ore ­perhaps it is twice the size of his head, it may be much larger, but, in any case, it is an apparently poor return for the labour expended.  He adds it, however, to the pile at his side, and when that is sufficiently large fills a little iron wagon, and sends it up “to grass” through the shaft, by means of the iron “kibble.”  Here the large pieces of ore are broken into smaller ones by a man with a hammer; as far as the inexperienced eye can distinguish he might be breaking ordinary stones to repair the road!  These are then taken to the “stamps.”

Those who have delicate nerves would do well to keep as far as possible from the stamps of a tin-mine!  Enormous hammers or pounders they are, with shanks as well as heads of malleable-iron, each weighing, shank and head together, seven hundredweight.  They are fearful things, these stamps; iron in spirit as well as in body, for they go on for ever ­ night and day ­wrought by a steam-engine of one hundred horse-power, as enduring as themselves.  The stamps are so arranged as to be self-feeders, by means of huge wooden troughs with sloping bottoms, into which the ore is thrown in quantities sufficient to keep them constantly at work without requiring much or constant attendance.  Small streams of water trickle over the ore to keep it slowly sliding down towards the jaws, where the stamps thunder up and down alternately.  A dread power of pounding have they, truly; and woe be to the toe that should chance to get beneath them!

The rock they have to deal with is, as we have said, uncommonly hard, and it enters the insatiable mouth of the stamps about the size of a man’s fist, on the average, but it comes out from these iron jaws so exceeding fine as to be incapable of thickening the stream of reddish-yellow water that carries it away.  The colour of the stream is the result of iron, with which the tin is mingled.

The particles of tin are indeed set free by the stamps from solid bondage, but they are so fine as to be scarcely visible, and so commingled with other substances, such as iron, copper, sulphur, etcetera, that a tedious process of separation has yet to be undergone before the bright metal can be seen or handled.

At the present time the stream containing it is poured continuously on several huge wooden tables.  These tables are each slightly raised in the centre where the stream falls, so that all the water runs off, leaving the various substances it contains deposited on the table, and these substances are spread over it regularly, while being deposited, by revolving washers or brushes.

Tin, being the heaviest of all the ingredients contained in the stream, falls at once to the bottom, and is therefore, deposited on the head or centre of the table; iron, being a shade lighter, is found to lodge in a circle beyond; while all other substances are either spread over the outer rim or washed entirely away.  When the tables are full ­that is, coated with what appears to be an earthy substance up wards of a foot in depth ­the rich tin in the centre is carefully cut out with shovels and placed in tubs, while the rest is rewashed in order that the tin still mingled with it may be captured ­a process involving much difficulty, for tin is so very little heavier than iron that the lighter particles can scarcely be separated even after repeated and careful washings.

In old times the tin was collected in large pits, whence it was transferred to the hands of balmaidens (or mine-girls) to be washed by them in wooden troughs called “frames,” which somewhat resembled a billiard table in form.  Indeed, the frames are still largely employed in the mines, but these and the modern table perform exactly the same office ­they wash the refuse from the tin.

Being finally cleansed from all its impurities, our mass of tin bears more resemblance to brown snuff than to metal.  An ignorant man would suppose it to be an ordinary earthy substance, until he took some of it in his hand and felt its weight.  It contains, however, comparatively little foreign substance.  About seventy per cent of it is pure tin, but this seventy per cent is still locked up in the tight embrace of thirty per cent, of refuse, from which nothing but intense fire can set it free.

At this point in the process, our mass of tin leaves the rough hand of the miner.  In former days it was divided among the shareholders in this form ­each receiving, instead of cash, so many sacks of tin ore, according to the number of his shares or “doles,” and carrying it off on mule or horse back from the mine, to be smelted where or by whom he pleased.  But whether treated in this way, or, as in the present day, sold by the manager at the market value, it all comes at last to the tin-smelter, whose further proceedings we shall now follow, in company with Oliver and his friend.

The agent of the smelting company ­a stout, intelligent man, who evidently did “knaw tin” ­conducted them first to the furnaces, in the neighbourhood of which were ranged a number of large wooden troughs or bins, all more or less filled with tin ore.  The ore got from different mines, he said, differed in quality, as well as in the percentage of tin which it contained.  Some had much iron mixed with it, in spite of all the washings it had undergone; some had a little copper and other substances; while some was very pure.  By mixing the tin of different mines, better metal could be procured than by simply smelting the produce of each mine separately.  Pointing to one of the bins, about three yards square, he told them it contained tin worth 1,000 pounds.  There was a large quantity of black sand in one of the bins, which, the agent said, was got by the process of “streaming.”  It is the richest and best kind of tin ore, and used to be procured in large quantities in Cornwall ­especially in ancient times ­being found near the surface, but, as a matter of course, not much of that is to be found now, the land having been turned over three times in search of it.  This black sand is now imported in large quantities from Singapore.

The agent then conducted his visitors to the testing-house, where he showed them the process of testing the various qualities of tin ore offered, to the House for sale.  First he weighed out twenty parts of the ore, which, as we have said, resembled snuff.  This, he remarked, contained about five-sixths of pure tin, the remaining one-sixth being dross.  He mixed it with four parts of fine coal dust, or culm, and added a little borax ­these last ingredients being intended to expedite the smelting process.  This compound was put into a crucible, and subjected to the intense heat of a small furnace for about twenty minutes.  At the end of that time, the agent seized the crucible with a pair of tongs, poured the metal into an iron mould, and threw away the dross.  The little mass of tin thus produced was about four inches long, by half an inch broad, and of a dull bluish-grey colour.  It was then put into an iron ladle and melted, as one would melt lead when about to cast bullets, but it was particularly noteworthy here, that a very slight heat was required.  To extract the metal from the tin ore, a fierce heat, long applied, was necessary, but a slight heat, continued for a few minutes, sufficed to melt the metal.  This remelted metal was poured into a stone mould, where it lay like a bright little pool of liquid silver.  In a few seconds it solidified, retaining its clear purity in all its parts.

“That,” said the agent, “is tin of the very best quality.  We sell it chiefly to dyers, who use it for colouring purposes, and for whom no tin but the best is of any use.  I will now show you two other qualities ­ namely, second and inferior.”

He went to a small cupboard as he spoke, and took therefrom a small piece of tin which had already gone through the smelting process in the crucible above described.  Melting this in the ladle, he poured it into the mould, where it lay for a few moments, quite bright and pure, but the instant it solidified, a slight dimness clouded its centre.

“That,” explained the agent, “is caused by a little copper which they have failed to extract from the tin.  Such tin would not do for the dyers, but it is good for the tin-plate makers, who, by dipping thin sheets of iron into molten tin, produce the well-known tin-plates of which our pot-lids and pans, etcetera, are manufactured.  This last bit, gentlemen,” he added, taking a third piece of tin from the cupboard, “is our worst quality.”

Having melted it, he poured it into the mould, where it assumed a dull, half-solid appearance, as if it were a liquid only half frozen ­or, if you prefer it, a solid in a half molten state.

“This is only fit to mix with copper and make brass,” said the agent, throwing down the mould.  “We test the tin ore twice ­once to find out the quantity of metal it contains, and again to ascertain its quality.  The latter process you have seen ­the former is just the same, with this difference, that I am much more careful in weighing, measuring, etcetera.  Every particle of dross I would have collected and carefully separated from any metal it might contain; the whole should then have been reweighed, and its reduction in the smelting process ascertained.  Thus, if twenty parts had been the weight of tin ore, the result might perhaps have been fourteen parts of metal and six parts of dross.  And now, gentlemen, having explained to you the testing process, if you will follow me, I will show you the opening of one of our furnaces.  The smelting-furnace just shows the testing process on a large scale.  Into this furnace, six hours ago,” he said, pointing to a brick erection in the building to which he led them, “we threw a large quantity of tin ore, mingled with a certain proportion of culm.  It is smelted and ready to be run off now.”

Here he gave an order to a sturdy man, who, with brawny arms bared to the shoulders, stood close at hand.  He was begrimed and hairy ­like a very Vulcan.

Seizing an iron poker, Vulcan probed the orifice of the furnace, and forthwith there ran out a stream of liquid fire, which was caught in an iron bowl nearly four feet in diameter.  The intense heat of this pool caused the visitors to step back a few paces, and the ruddy glow shone with a fierce glare on the swart, frowning countenance of Vulcan, who appeared to take a stern delight in braving it.

Oliver’s attention was at once attracted to this man, for he felt convinced that he had seen his face before, but it was not until he had taxed his memory for several minutes that the scene of his adventure with the smugglers near the Land’s End flashed upon him, when he at once recognised him as the man named Joe Tonkin, who had threatened his life in the cavern.  From a peculiar look that the man gave him, he saw that he also was recognised.

Oliver took no further notice of him at the time, however, but turned to watch the flow of the molten tin.

When the iron cauldron was almost full, “slag,” or molten refuse began to flow and cover the top of the metal.  The hole was immediately plugged up by Vulcan, and the furnace cleared out for the reception of another supply of ore.  The surface of the tin was now cleared of slag, after which it was ladled into moulds and allowed to cool.  This was the first process completed; but the tin was still full of impurities, and had to undergo another melting and stirring in a huge cauldron.  This latter was a severe and protracted operation, which Vulcan performed with tremendous power and energy.

In reference to this, it may interest the reader to mention a valuable discovery which was the result of laziness!  A man who was employed in a tin-smelting establishment at this laborious work of stirring the molten metal in order to purify it, accidentally discovered that a piece of green wood dropped into it had the effect of causing it to bubble as if it were boiling.  To ease himself of some of his toil, he availed himself of the discovery, and, by stirring the metal with a piece of green wood, caused such a commotion that the end in view was accomplished much more effectually and speedily than by the old process.  The lazy man’s plan, we need scarcely add, is now universally adopted.

The last operation was to run the metal into moulds with the smelter’s name on them, and these ingots, being of portable size, were ready for sale.

While the agent was busily engaged in explaining to Charles Tregarthen some portions of the work, Oliver stepped aside and accosted Joe Tonkin.

“So, friend,” he said, with a smile, “it seems that smuggling is not your only business?”

“No, sur, it ain’t,” replied Joe, with a grin.  “I’m a jack-of-all-trades ­a smelter, as you do see, an’ a miner also, when it suits me.”

“I’m glad to hear it, my man, for it gives you a chance of coming in contact with better men than smugglers ­although I’m free to confess that there is some good among them too.  I don’t forget that your comrade Jim Cuttance hauled me out of the sea.  Where is he?”

“Don’t knaw, sur,” replied Tonkin, with an angry frown; “he and I don’t pull well together.  We’ve parted now.”

Oliver glanced at the man, and as he observed his stern, proud expression of face, and his huge, powerful frame, he came to the conclusion that Cuttance had met a man of equal power and force of character with himself, and was glad to get rid of him.

“But I have not gi’n up smuggling,” added the man, with a smile.  “It do pay pretty well, and is more hearty-like than this sort o’ thing.”

“I’d advise you to fall back on mining,” said Oliver.  “It is hard work, I know, but it is honest labour, and as far as I have seen, there does not appear to be a more free, hearty, and independent race under the sun than Cornish miners.”

Joe Tonkin shook his head and smiled dubiously.

“You do think so, sur, but you haven’t tried it.  I don’t like it.  It don’t suit me, it don’t.  No, no; there’s nothin’ like a good boat and the open sea.”

“Things are looking a little better at Botallack just now, Joe,” said Oliver, after a pause.  “I’d strongly advise you to try it again.”

The man remained silent for a few minutes, then he said, ­“Well, Mr Trembath, I don’t mind if I do.  I’m tired o’ this work, and as my time is up this very day, I’ll go over to-morrow and see ’bout it.  There’s a man at Newlyn as I’ve got somethin’ to say to; I’ll go see him to-night, and then ­”

“Come along, Oliver,” shouted Tregarthen at that moment; “it’s time to go.”

Oliver bade Tonkin good-afternoon, and, turning hastily away, followed his friend.

The two proceeded arm in arm up Market-Jew Street, and turning down towards the shore, walked briskly along in the direction of the picturesque fishing village of Newlyn, which lies little more than a mile to the westward of Penzance.