Waterwheels were used to power machinery from early times.
From the 16th century water wheelswere used in mining. They were used for powering stamps to break rocks so that the metal could be extracted. Waterwheels were also used for pumping water out of mines.The earliest ‘water stamps’ were probably introduced to
Waterwheels were very cheap to run. They used the power of running water which would come from a river or stream. The water could be used again further downhill and returned to the river. They could not be used unless there was a water supply and would not work if the water supply dried up or froze.
Most waterwheels used on mine sites were in stone lined wheelpits turning on an axle mounted on the edge of the pit. In the later 18th century waterwheels were often replaced by steam engines.
In West Penwith, long channels were often dug to collect water and take it to waterwheels as there are few rivers and streams in the mining areas. The water could be used again further downhill and returned to the river. The Kenidjack valley, near St. Just –which has one of the few streams in this area – had a whole series of water powered sites along its short length. The most downstream of these was Wheal Call, at the mouth of the stream, where the massive pit of one of the largest wheels in Cornwall can still be seen.
Waterwheels could not be used unless there was a water supply and would not work if the water supply dried up or froze. Their obvious disadvantage is that they can only be sited where there is a good natural water supply. The cotton mills of Lancashire could be sited anywhere that was suitable, but a mine can only be where the ore is. Thus, from the later 18th century onwards, waterwheels were being replaced by more powerful steam engines which could bring power to the mines.
In the 19th century a new type of wheel called a Pelton wheel was used at some Cornish mines. It used water under high pressure and needed a pipe running steeply downhill to produce this. The wheel turned at a high speed. They were sometimes used for electricity generation. At Cot Valley, near St. Just, a mine was reopened in during the Second World War because tin was in short supply. A mill was built to treat the tin and a Pelton wheel was installed to provide power. The remains of the pipe run coming down the hillside from a leat can still be seen.
The Water Wheel at Geevor.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of the A Cocks at Cornwall Council