myCornwall traces the history of the Camborne School of Mines, discovering that some things never change.

Under a mizzle-filled sky at the Tremough campus in Penryn, a lesson on rock blasting is coming to an end. It may not be on every school’s curriculum, but for the class of individuals sat in this small room it will potentially take them across the globe.

The students are in their third and final year studying various degrees from Geology, to Mining Engineering at the Camborne School of Mines (CSM). Many have already travelled hundreds of miles to embark upon a career in their chosen field, and when the exciting day of graduation finally arrives they will be the latest in a long line of students to join over a century of history.

Camborne School of Mines

A survey class of 1908

“It’s not just chalk and talk”, describes Dr Andrew Wetherelt, senior lecturer at CSM. Hailing from Redruth, Andrew has lived the typically nomadic life of a modern mining engineer having worked in what is now Zimbabwe and on the Channel Tunnel. He has been there, done it, and now teaches it.

The value of being able to educate with such “real world” experience was advocated over 100 years ago by the school’s first principal, J.J. Beringer. He was one of many who recognised a need for the technical education of Cornwall’s miners. This was also recognised by the MP Sir Charles Lemon who proposed to build a mining college in Truro as early as 1838.

However, it wasn’t until Beringer delivered a lecture to the Miners Association in 1887 that the Camborne School of Mines was formed in the following year, with Beringer as it’s founding father and principal of some 28 years (a role in which he is said to have been in a class all his own).

Had he any idea of what CSM would grow to become, Beringer would have been a satisfied man.

Today, the school is internationally renowned and the class of third years I am amongst are a typically mixed bag of nationalities, including Bolivian, Omani, Nigerian, Zimbabwean and Botswanan. The atmosphere is filled with a buzz that would no doubt have been felt in the first few lectures of Beringer’s day, and this signifies one constant in a century of great change since CSM’s beginning: the students.

This is pleasingly apparent in the CSM magazine. In an issue published in 1900, W.R. Bateson writes from Concordia Mine in Argentina, which was over 12,000 ft and a three day mule ride from the town of Salta;

“This is the loneliest place possible, 120 miles from a town. Still I can be very happy here with plenty of work to do, otherwise it would be a bit lonely even for me, because the country around is practically a wind swept desert.”

Camborne School of Mines

J.J.Beringer: Camborne School of Mines first Principal and Founder. Photo provided by Camborne School of Mines

Among the reports back from far-flung posts abroad, is the local news. In 1921 three CSM students were convicted for “using explosives and causing damage to property”. However, these lucky individuals were let off when they promised, no doubt sincerely, “to carefully avoid doing anything of the kind in the future”.

Of almost equal importance it seems to the Camborne School of Mines (CSM)  agenda is sports. Every February the ‘Bottle Match’ takes place against long-standing rivals, the Royal School of Mines in London. The first was in 1902, making it the second oldest rugby varsity match in the world.

Several staff have also stood out in the CSM history books. Willie Thomas, the eldest son of renowned Mine Captain Charles Thomas, was reputed to have been a charismatic character who would often disagree with the authorities in the way things should be done. He was also a budding photographer, and was instrumental in developing King Edward Mine (KEM) as a valuable asset to the school’s education in 1897.

It was here that students developed skills in surveying and ore dressing in combination with the rest of the study which took place at the main campus building in Camborne. At this time there was just one course being taught – a 3 year diploma in Mining Engineering – but even then the school was internationally recognised. For example, an advert featured in a paper during the early 20th century calls for a mining engineer position in Spain and ends quite simply, “Camborne School of Mines man preferred”.

Slight misfortune struck in 1921 however, when Grenville Mine was shut which, being interconnected with KEM, flooded its underground workings and put a stop to mining of the Great Flat Lode forever. All surface work and study resumed in much of the same way until after World War One when the school was forced to employ a part-time principal, R.A. Thomas due to financial difficulty. Further problems arose in the wake of the Second World War, when student numbers decreased dramatically with a meagre 12 students graduating in 1944. A past student was even killed when a plane he was in was shot down over Lisbon.

However, numbers soon resumed at the war’s end and by the 1970s it was time for a new chapter in CSM’s history under the leadership of Principal Dr Peter Hackett. The School said goodbye to the building where Mining Engineering had been taught for over 70 years, and moved to the Trevenson campus in Pool where new degrees and diplomas in geology and mineral processing were introduced, as well as the lessons in mining and surveying once taught at KEM.

Camborne School of Mines

Camborne School of Mines Staff c1900

This made King Edward more or less redundant, but practical study continued at another nearby site – Holman’s Test Mine. Once a quarry supplying granite for Truro Cathedral, the mine does not contain any valuable ore (and never has), but as the name suggests, was the testing-ground for Holman’s latest and greatest inventions. The evidence of this can still been seen in the thousands of drilled holes peppering the myriad of tunnels that make up the mine.

Nineteen-year-old Bob Evans is one of many CSM students who have recently been honing their skills at the site in the run up to the forthcoming International Mining Games. “I come from generations of Cornish miners”, he explains, “and joined the School because there is so much opportunity”. Still in his first year, Bob has high hopes for the future and a clear idea of where he wants to be when he graduates; “Australia!” he says without hesitation.

Mine Captain Gus Williams tells me that this country in particular is popular with students. A former miner at South Crofty, he’s a humble man when it comes to his role, “‘Mine Captain’ was a great Cornish term in my mother’s day – they were pillars of society”. Nevertheless, Gus still has a great responsibility in running the site and, unlike the captains of old, has an additional role of helping students attain PhDs. “It’s a fantastic job”, he says, “being able to pass on knowledge – there’s enormous variation”.

Aiding Gus at the test mine with his hard-earned wisdom is Mike Osman, a man who, having retired in 1991 when South Crofty shut, jokes that he “should be at home collecting stamps!”. And yet it seems that a lifetime spent underground isn’t easy to leave behind. “I still miss it 20 years on”, he says, “there was great satisfaction and you almost felt self-employed. It was the best job in the world”.

Mike’s words are easy to believe considering that the students he is helping to train for the forthcoming games are doing so in their spare time. Most techniques that will be displayed at the games are in actual fact out of date and students such as Rachael Livsly say they do it simply because, “it’s fun!”

Camborne school of mines

Filling a wagon, probably on the 40-fm level Flat lode – about 1904

According to retired Mining Engineer, Tony Brooks, this is nothing new, “there’s always been a great working relationship between the lecturers and the students and a real sense of identity which is very important at CSM”. Having been both pupil and teacher at the school, Tony can speak from experience. He set up the CSM’s Past Student Association in an effort to link an international community that currently has over 800 members, and this has at times made the world seem very small. In Malaysia, he encountered a former pupil whose immediate question was, “is Tyacks Pub still open?”

That Tony can travel half-way around the globe to be asked such a question is a testament to the school’s level of influence. Geothermal analysis, laser 3D scanning and other such advance techniques not only put it at the forefront of a booming industry, but also show that it has clearly come a long way since J.J. Beringer first gave his lecture in 1887.

Nevertheless, the key ingredient to CSM’s success is, and always has been, its staff and students and these have always remained the same thanks to a strong identity and evident passion. The golden age of mining in Cornwall may be long gone, but the Cornish miner is still here and is still helping to carry the CSM motto across the world, to “Work hard, play hard”.


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‘School of Rock: Camborne School of Mines’ is taken from our February/March 2012. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine for more stories like this one.