All About Looe


The Railway and the Copper Crisis







Before long animals, wagons, and even the canal could not cope with transporting the growing quantities of ore and granite from the hills north of Liskeard down to Looe.  Thus it was decided that a short Railway would be the solution to the problem.

The Railway was built on land owned by the Buller family, and ran parallel with the existing canal.  It was opened in 1860 and still exists today as a single branch line running along the scenic wooded riverbanks – the Looe Valley Line.


The railway resulted in making the canal largely redundant, as the track was laid right down to and along the quays,  to within 3 or 4 feet of the edge, enabling the copper and granite to be transported as close as possible to the waiting ships moored along side.


The original railway was not steam powered, but was designed for gravity and horse-drawn operation. The output of the mines and quarries was sent down the line in the evenings in detached trucks, each under the control of a Breakman.  The empty trucks were then hauled back up the next day by horses.


All seemed to be going well with this boom in industry, however, the copper industry was soon to take a sharp downward turn.


The price of copper fell dramatically, followed by the price of tin.  Also the quality of the ore being mined in Cornwall was falling, supplies diminished, and then there was foreign competition to contend with. The chief competitor in copper production was Chile, followed by Australia and the United States of America.  Cheap tin was becoming available from Malaya, Australia and Bolivia.  Their mines were richer, shallower and less costly.


The Cornish mining industry was thus plunged into crisis.  The Cornish mining industry was thus plunged into crisis.


After 1856 there was a marked decline in the output of Cornish Copper, culminating in the great crash of 1866, when 20 mines closed down.  

For those miners still working, wages had fallen drastically and many families were forced to fall back on “The Parish” or the Workhouse.  The following year, 1867, was even worse, when a further 11,000 miners lost their jobs.  Two thirds chose to emigrate rather than face a bleak existence on the Parish.  


Between 1871 and 1881 Cornwall’s population fell by a further 9 per cent. A steady trickle had soon developed into a flood, known as the “Great Migration” of Cornish folk, and thus the population of Cornwall fell dramatically.  


There was a well known saying :

“Wherever a hole is sunk in the ground,


you will be sure to find a Cornishman at the botton of it !”


However, some miners and their families decided to stick it out and remained in the area, but their wages were abysmally low.  Somehow they just managed to eke out a meagre living as the industry slowly approached its demise.   By the end of the 1800’s most mines had closed.


An extract from the newspaper


The West Briton


dated 20th September 1865 :


“Employment is more difficult to obtain, emigration is going up on a scale hitherto unprecedented, and many of the small undertakings are being wound up and the large ones becoming unprofitable.  Trade is falling off by degrees, and credit is considerably dearer, while the small trader is suffering from heavy bad debts suddenly made through customers emigrating.  Respecting the mining interests, there is but little of encouraging character, and until a reaction sets in, things must go from bad to worse.”


This down turn in trade was to severely affect the tradesmen of Looe.  


By 1910 the items passing in and out of the port of Looe had altered greatly.  It then imported coal and limestone and shipped out such items as bark, fish, granite, and china clay.




By the 1880’s the railway was in serious financial difficulties, but fortunately this coincided with the Victorians

discovering Looe as a holiday retreat. Passengers then took the place of freight.


Later improved road communications gradually, meant that Looe become a very popular attraction to tourists and holiday makers.


This is now Looe’s main industry.


Next - The Fishing Industry of Looe

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