The Copper crusher -John Taylor’s most important invention

History never is simple; which is a good thing. When and where was the copper crusher (Cornish rolls) invented? A simple question, but with two answers. 

A lead crusher in the Wicklow mountains

Two tales of invention

Tale 1 The Wheal Friendship story

“In 1796, John Taylor improvised a crushing machine (Cornish rolls) at Wheal Friendship in Devon from two discarded pump main pipes….” Bryan Earl, Cornish Mining

Take 2 The Wheal Crowndale story

” the first ever roller crusher was created in 1808 in Devon at Wheal Crowndale copper mine near Tavistock, then managed by John Taylor. His experimental machine was water powered and apparently used two pieces of cast iron rising main (pumping pipes), but chilled cast iron became the standard material, due to the considerable force needed to crush the mineral.” Industrial Archaeology of the Tamar Valley Research by Robert Waterhouse FSA, assisted by the Morwellham Archaeological Group, 2002-2010.

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None of the many books on my shelves that cover the invention include both stories, and Roger Burt in his biography mentions neither, so which one is correct?

A possibility exists that both are, that is the young Taylor played around with pump mains at Friendship to arrive at a working model, and once the concept was proven built his first productive crushed at Crowndale.

Although this of this chain of events makes sense, it leads to the conclusion that John was involved with Wheal Friendship two years before that fateful day when he was offered its management. It means that at the age of 17 he was already tinkering away with engineering ideas at the mine, if so it makes that blatant act of nepotism of 1798 (see earlier post) less surprising then it first appears.

The importance of the invention

A copper crusher

Tin and copper ore demand different dressing floors to release the wealth from the rock. Tin dressing floors were packed with machinery, copper floors full of women and children. This was a difference enforced by the nature of the minerals.

Tin was dense, and could be liberated by stamping the rocks to a sand that was then separated from the waste rocks in a wide range of buddies, pits, frames, shaking tables, and other assorted devices that relied on it being denser when suspended in water.

Remains of a crusher house at Herodsfoot lead mine in Cornwall

Copper was lighter and had an unfortunate tendency to break into too fine particles under the heads of stamps. The two characteristics resulted in too much ore escaping the system if the rock was stamped. Copper ore was therefore treated by a series of processes such as bucking, cobbing and spalling. All processes that described hitting the rocks with hammers.

John Taylor’s achievement was to replace part of this manual intensive work with a machine. A machine that took lumps copper ore and crushed it to a smaller size, but without causing large losses that a set of stamps would cause.

How the crusher operated


Like all good inventions,  Taylor’s design was simple. Ore was fed from a hopper between the two rolls, which were geared to turn inwards against each other, crushing the ore. A weighted arm was used to maintain the correct pressure on the rollers. The concept was similar to one used on apple crushers, perhaps they were the inspiration for his invention.


The next stop on this wander around John Taylor’s life will take this blog far away from the Devon countryside into the depths of the Welsh Mountains.

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John Taylor and the Halkyn Mines

Whilst this series of posts have a tendency to focus on Taylor’s work in Cornwall and Devon, occasionally it will wander across Britain, and this is such a post.

1812 was the year in which John Taylor made a surprising move, he resigned all active commitments in West Devon to established chemical works in Stratford Essex. This was a start of a several non-mining interests of Taylor and Sons, but as they fall outside of my Trevithick Society talk I will resist the temptation to dive down those rabbit holes in these posts.

Taylor did not stay away from mining for long, and when he returned it would be on a North Wales mountain, many miles away from Devon.

Halkyn2016 Ordnance Survey
Contains OS data © Crown copyright  published under OGL

In 1813 he became the agent to Lord Grosvenor rich lead mines around Halkyn mountain in Flintshire.The Grosvenors had been successfully working these lead mines for generations, but by the 19th century the mines were in decline, and they brought in the young Taylor to rejuvenate their fortunes.

The move to Flintshire was probably arranged through the Duke of Bedford’s agent, John Adams, who had acquired a great regard for his work at Wheal Friendship. But just as happened at Friendship, Taylor soon turned the opportunity offered by personnel contact into success.

This remote mountain was the first site of a formula for success that Taylor and Son’s became renowned for; move into a flagging mine, import Cornish mining technologies and management systems, invest in modernising, and add some of Taylor’s tight financial control. His success at Halkyn launched a campaign of moving into almost every metal mining district in Britain.

Seen from the stance of mine owners, investors and Cornish miners Taylor’s involvement in Flintshire mining was a resounding success. It enabled the mines to survive depressed copper prices to become the richest in the district. Many of the Welsh miners thought differently though. To them it was an erosion of conditions, and opposition to his methods would lead to industrial disputes and riots. Their were disputes about poor timbering , disputes about the rules he introduced, disputes about ventilation, and disputes about working hours.

Such industrial unrest was rare in Cornwall, but there the ‘system’ had evolved alongside the miners culture, rather then imposed from the outside. Or perhaps the ‘Cornish’ system had evolved because of the working culture of miners West of the Tamar.

It was the increase in the working day from six to eight hours that caused the most violent disputes. When Taylor and Sons attempted to introduce it to their Pant-y-go Mine, in 1850, 500 miners ransacked managers houses. The local police were powerless to act, and a detatchrment of the 86th Regiment was to regain control together with constables with drawn cutlasses.


OS 1884 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. Website

The strike lasted for twelve months, twelve months when both the mines and miners suffered badly. Their was damage to mine shafts, and miners sent for hard labour after conviction for riot. But the Taylor’s would eventually get their eight hour day when the men eventually gave in.

To learn more about the riots pop across to the Flintshire lead mining website. To learn more about the ‘Cornish System’ follow this blog to catch the next post.

If you are still wondering about those ‘rabbit holes’ that I am resisting diving down, here they are-

Manufacturing Vitrol, producing gas from oil, refining sugar, manufacturing portable printing machines.

Opposition continued however and the following year several hundred men demanded a return to 6 hours due to such wet unventilated conditions in the mine.


John Taylor and the Tavistock mines

As my talk at the East Cornwall Branch of the Trevithick Society approaches, so more posts about John Taylor will arrive on this blog. This one looks at his other West Devon mines.

Soon after proving  his worth at Wheal  Friendship, John Taylor quickly expanded his influence in to other mines near Tavistock. In doing so he created a mining district that would link the wealth of the Stannary Town and Taylor together for many decades.

Wheal Crowndale
John Taylor had a direct financial interest in its reopening this mine in 1879 and acted as its agent. This was only one year after his appointment at Wheal Friendship; an indication of his rapid rise in wealth and recognition of his talent.

An important feature of the mine was its long wide leat, fed from a weir at Tavistock. This leat would form the basis of his best known engineering achievement, the Tavistock Canal, the subject of the previous post. A subject of a post to come is his invention at Crowndale of the copper crusher, or ‘Cornish Rolls’.

For 10 years the mine was rich, even to the point of overtaking the success of Friendship. Unfortunately its richness was short lived and from 1810 its output declined. In 1824 Wheal Crowndale closed. A small scale re-opening occurred in 1850.

Wheal Crowndale in 1883, Ordnance Survey

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
This was linked physically and financially with the Tavistock Canal. At times the mine supported the finances of the canal, at other times the situation was reversed.

Wheal Crebor was sunk at the eastern portal of the canal tunnel. Its hauling shaft is perched above the canal bank, deep in the tunnel lobby cutting.

Tree roots trailing down one of Wheal Crebor’s shafts

Crebor’s first ore sales were in 1805,  and by 1809 the canal  had reached the mine from Tavistock. Like Crebor its reserves proved short lived, with output diminishing after 1815. Canal profits were used for a while to support the mine, but it closed in 1828.

Later workings by new companies occurred in the 1840s, 1850s and 1880s. Wheal Crebor finally closed in 1889.

Wheal Crebor in 1884, Ordnance Survey

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

An impressive feature of the mine is the incline hauling shaft perched on the Canal’s entrance. This is a typical John Taylor piece of engineering, but one that is hidden away from public view on private land.

Wheal Betsy
This is the odd one out of Taylor’s Tavistock mines; lead not copper was contained within its ores.

In 1816 the mine was managed as part of Wheal Friendship, and making a loss. But by 1818 John Taylor had transformed the mine’s fortunes, and it was returning a profit. A major part of his work was building a  leat from Hillbridge within the Tavy Valley.

Depressed lead prices returned the mine to a loss by 1830. This instigated Taylor starting an adit from Wheal Friendship in 1835. In  1837 the mine was separated from Wheal Friendship, and the mine abandoned before mid century. In 1850 it was reworked as North Wheal Friendship and later as Prince Arthur Consols. This last working built the engine house that still stands beside the Mary Tavy to Okehampton road, one of the best known industrial heritage landmarks in Devon.

Next post inbound …..the copper crushed, or as it became known the ‘Cornish Rolls’.

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The Tavistock Canal- John Taylor’s enduring memorial

My rambling around the life of this mining genius now takes this post to the subject of canals. A canal that contains one of the most amazing civil engineering achievements of its time- The Tavistock Canal. The post also gives me an excuse to give an airing to some photos taken whilst assisting in an official survey of the canal.  An amazing chance to see Taylor’s work close up.Note their is no public access to the canal tunnel; this survey was conducted whilst the waterway was drained for maintenance.

“Few things today are more evocative of the ambitions and energies of the early nineteenth-century leaders of industrial enterprise than this 4 1/2-mile waterway which connects the Tamar to the Tavy.” F Booker, I.A. The Tamar Valley.

This paragraph from Frank Booker captures the boldness displayed by Taylor in his most impressive civil engineering project.  For two miles this canal lies deep underground, in a tunnel driven through the watershed between the Tavy and Tamar.  Once through this barrier Taylor joined the canal with the Tamar with an impressive 237 ft incline plane.

The Western portal

The success of Taylor’s  Wheal Friendship and Wheal Crebor overloaded the antiquated transport system around transport. Laden pack horses and mules tracking the muddy pot holed lanes were an expensive and slow method of moving ore. This spurred Taylor in 1800 to start investigating building a  canal. His concept was wider then just a canal; he also intended the waterway to power waterwheels and open up new mineral resources within its tunnel.


All the land required for the Canal was provided for free by the Duke of Bedford. In return the Duke expected to receive increased dues from Morwhellham quay and mine dues. The canal act was passed in 1803, with the first work starting in August of that year.  1803 turned out to be the start of a long and frustrating construction purpose.  The tunnel was plagued by hard elvan courses, bad air and water ingress into the shafts.

The East Wheal Russel lode within the canal

Taylor solved the bad air problem by inventing an air engine. This was an engine that used water to remove the bad air from the mine, and it was an invention that won Taylor a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts. To solve the problem of water ingress he built a 40 foot water wheel at the northern end of the tunnel that was powered by the flow running  of the canal. Flat rods from the wheel ran over Morwell Down to power pumps on the Tunnel’s shafts.


The tunnel was eventually holed through in August 1816, and the canals opening followed in June 1817. Fourteen years had past since the first work had started on the canal, fourteen years in which about  £70,000 had been spent on its construction.

Dividends started to be paid in 1819, but the canal was destined to be only a modest financial success. This lack of large profits was caused by the short lifespans of Crowndale and Crebor mines combined with a nationwide depression that impacted on the amounts of other cargo.

Traffic improved for a while from the mid 1830s to 1840s but the Canal never became a massively profitable. The failure of the Tavistock Mines and arrival of the railway led to its closure in 1873.


This closure was not the end of the useful life of the Tavistock Canal though. In 1933 is was brought back to life to provide the water supply for a hydroelectric power station, a use it still has today.

The Eastern portal (no public access)

Some figures
Maximum Tonnage carried: 21,571 in 1819
Other Peaks 20,006 in 1837
20,132 in 1847

These indicate a maximum carriage of a about 60 tons per day.

Maximum dues paid of £1,167 in 1837.
Maximum dividends £5 in 1827.


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Wheal Friendship-The mine that made John Taylor

As my preparation for next month’s Trevithick Society talk continues this blog will continue its ramble around the life of John Taylor- the Victorian Mining genius.

In 1798, near Mary Tavy in Devon,  there was an extraordinary event that transformed the life of the young John Taylor, and changed the economic fortunes of the Tavistock District.


1883 Ordnance Survey
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Sometime in that year the nineteen year old Taylor visited Wheal Friendship mine with members of the Martineau, family. The family were both major share holders on the mine and close family friends of the Taylor’s. And so, as members of two Norwich families met on the western border of Dartmoor, far from their homes, they made a daring  decision, to give the young Taylor the management of the mine.

Wherever it was Taylor’s genius so impressed the mine owners that they had to offer him the post, or that this was a blatant act of nepotism is hard to tell so far distant from the event, but either way it was a bold move. John had no experience in the mining industry, he was very young for the position and did not come from the area. It has been claimed that it was John’s comments made on the mine’s operations that swayed the Martineus on that day; whatever the reason they were never to regret their decision.


2016 Ordnance Survey
Contains OS data © Crown copyright  published under OGL

John immediately started a transformation of the mine that he would repeat many times in his career. He secured the long term profitability of the mine with heavy investment in mechanisation and modern technology. He demonstrated a faith in the long term, rather than chasing quick returns.

By 1801 he had started construction of a complex system of leats that enabled Wheal Friendship to build the most mechanised dressing floors in the South West, and made the mine the largest copper producer in the Tavistock District.

In 1803 Taylor commenced a massive civil engineering project as part of the Mine’s infrastructure, the Tavistock Canal. But that will be a topic for a later post.

Despite of this success, John took a surprising step in 1812 by resigning from his commitments in West Devon to establish a chemical works in Stratford, Essex. But this exile from Wheal Friendship was not to be permanent. For in 1816 the mine requested that he should return as Secretary to the committee of Management, a position with wide powers over the finances of the mine, and its day to day working.

At the time of John’s return Friendship was being worked as joint concern with Wheal Besty, and the company was not in a good financial condition. But by 1817 he had cleared the debts, and by 1818 both mines were in profit. On December the 1st the sole responsibility of running the mine passed to John, in whose hands mine prospered for almost 50 years. The mine became the second largest copper mine in Devon, it would play a major part in the economy of the Tavistock area, make Taylor’s fame and much of his fortune.

Water power played a major part in Wheal Frenship’s operations. Large leats contoured their way many miles from the rivers of Dartmoor to feed a complex, and well planned, system of water distribution on the mine.

Among the many waterwheels on the sett was a huge 50 foot wheel at Old Sump shaft. Two wheels were built underground, one with 52 foot diameter was said to be the most powerful installed in Britain at that time (125 hp).

Taylor believed in investment for long term profits, strategy that set him apart from many other mine owners of the day who operated mines to achieve rapid returns at the expense of long term profits. An example of this is use of incline planes.

in 1826 he sunk a new incline plane at Friendship.  It inclined at 40 degrees was 7ft high 5 feet wide. The wagon carried one ton of ore and was hauled by 40 foot waterwheel. Incline planes was one of John Taylor’s technical specialties. Although they required more capital to sink then traditional shafts they greatly improved the deficiency of hauling ore to the surface.


Click here to download the above leaflet from South West Water

In the 1930s the John Taylor’s  leat was converted to supply the hydro electric power station at Mary Tavy. It is fitting that Taylor’s civil engineering achievements in tapping the power of the Dartmoor rainfall found use in the 20th century.

Some notes on Wheal Friendship
This mine worked for 130 years.

Activity started on the mine in 1769 (or 1870 depending on source).

It was located both sides of the main road in Mary Tavy.

Copper the principal product until the 1870s when arsenic became the main revenue earner.

It reached a depth of 220 fathoms.

In 1865 it was estimated that it had raised 145,805 tons of copper, 1170 tons of lead , 120 tons of tin and 4,343 tons of arsenic.

In the 1880s it was revived by the Devon Arsenic company.
In 1880 the mine’s name was changed to Devon Friendship

Work ceased in 1900 resuming in 1907.

Wheat Friendship was abandoned in 1925.

Some limited reworking occured in the 1930s, 40s and 50s

In the 1930s the leat was converted to supply the hydro electric power station at Mary Tavy.


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John Taylor- the forgotten hero of Norwich

I have wandered around the web amongst the many pages devoted to Cornish mining and have found many mentions of John Taylor. I have hunted, and hunted the pages covering Norwich history, and found not a mention.


I have wanderd the streets of Tavistock in Devon and stumbled across several references to him. And yet my friends have explored the streets and museums of Norwich and never found a trace.

Here was a financial genius  who developed what was at one time the biggest copper mine in the world, a civil engineer who built some amazing industrial complexes, a scientific expert who influenced some of the great advances in steam engine development, who is not recognised in his home town. Check out the various website lists of famous Norwich figures and you will find footballers, pie makers and hymne writes; not a mention of Mr. Taylor


Copyright Ordnance Survey

John Taylor was born at  75 Gildengate , now St. George’s Colegate, in Norwich. On 22nd August 1779. Nearby is the Octagon chapel founded by his Great Grandfather.


Image from Wikipedia

He came from a closely knit dissenting family, whose Unitarian beliefs underpinned much of his future success. He was brought up with a ethos of maintaining close control financial matters and a strong sense of honesty. These traits influenced all is business operations, traits that were rarely found in the shady world of Victorian Cornish mining.

His mother had an active interest in his education. John was given private tutoring, followed by a local day school. On completion of schooling he was apprenticed as a land surveyor and civil engineer. Valuable skills that he utilised to transform many a mine.

Another Norwich influence that played a major part in Taylor’s success was the longstanding family friendship with the Martineau, a family who were also Unitarians. The Martineu’s were more prosperous then Taylor’s. Their interests included brewing, banking and sugar refining. Importantly for this story they also owned shares in Wheal Friendship, a copper mine on the western fringe of Dartmoor.

The Matinue’s do have many mentions within the pages of Norwich’s history. A society even exists dedicated to their political legacy. Yet again however, John Taylor is absent from the story. I could not even find a mention of Wheal Friendship.

Screenshot of the Society's home page

Taylor was unique as a successful outsider in the Cornish Mining industry. A ‘wise man from the east’ who knew the industry better than those brought up amidst the engine houses and waste tips. His success was influenced by his up bringing in Norwich, and yet the town appears to ignore him.

So, if you are an engineer, historian,  or any other proud resident of the Norfolk town please consider doing your bit to raise his profile. Do not let the Cornish and Devonians claim all the credit for his work. Share this post if you agree.