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Alten Mines, Kåfjord, Norway

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Mining in the Land of the Midnight Sun: The Cornish at the Alten Mines in Kåfjord, Norway

The Alten mines are situated deep inside the Norwegian Arctic, over 1,500km from the capital, Oslo. The majority of the old mines and smelting works are situated at Kåfjord, a village on the shores of a small bay in the Kåfjorden, about 18 km west of the town of Alta. Kåfjord is part of the Alta municipality (in the old Finnmark County) and lies in territory belonging to the indigenous Sami nation.

Ore was first discovered in this area in the 17th century, and prospecting began in the first half of the 18th century resulting in the opening of some trial pits. But it was not until the British period from 1826-1878 that the mines in Kåfjord were worked with vigour. The largest and most important deposits are near the village of Kåfjord, but there are also mines and workings from north of Mølleelva to Innerstrømmen.

The Alten Mines and associated copper smelting works were the first major industrial enterprise in this part of the Arctic and by the 1840s, Kåfjord village had grown to become the largest settlement in Finnmark County, with over 1,000 inhabitants.

Kåfjord, Norway
Kåfjord by A. Mayer 1838. National Library of Norway


The Beginning of the British Era

In 1824, a London-born tradesman and merchant, John Rice Crowe (1795–1877), was staying in Trondheim. While there, he was shown a lump of ore which came from Alta. He had the rock analysed and it turned out to have a surprisingly high copper content. In the spring of 1825, Crowe returned to Finnmark County to investigate the ore deposits of the Kåfjorden accompanied by a young Cornish mining expert named Captain Joseph Michell (1802-1864) of Tresavean, Gwennap.

That summer Michell prospected the greenstone strata on both sides of the Kåfjorden, and discovered veins of limestone and quartz containing chalcopyrite and pyrite. The whole of the Alpine region seemed to be impregnated with copper ore, and analysis of the samples Michell collected indicated a far higher copper content than many contemporaneous Cornish mines, and higher than the famous Røros Mine further south in Norway, which had been discovered in 1644.

With such promising signs, in October 1825 Crowe applied for permission to open a mine and smelting works in Kåfjord. His application was granted by royal decree on the 27 February 1826, and the company was exempted from all tithes and dues for 10 years from the moment it began smelting ores. The copper works was permitted to take timber for development of the mine free of charge, but not firewood or building timber. It was also stipulated that pit coal was the only fuel to be used in smelting the ore.

The Alten Mining Association

With a group of Hammerfest merchants, Crowe set up the Alten Mining Association. The shareholders included Scotsman, Henry Dick Woodfall (1796–1869) who together with Crowe held 40 shares, and A.F. Nellen and the Ward brothers who had 80 shares. Crowe and Woodfall served as Directors and appointed a merchant named Klerck as the company’s Agent. He resided in Bossekop (an old Sami trading post and market place on the shore of the Altafjord), which is now part of the western end of the town of Alta.

The remainder of the mining property was held by purchase. On 17 May 1827, Maret Aslaksdatter from Dullan in Kåfjord signed a contract transferring the right to exploit the copper ore deposits found at Kåfjord to John Rice Crowe. In return, she was paid 50 våger (about 900 kilograms) of whole-grain rye flour, and was given a small pension by the company. The company obtained prospecting rights for the whole of the western part of Kåfjord as far as Auskarnes, and permission to prospect for ore in Kvenvik.

John Rice Crowe also took an interest in the ore deposits in Kvænangen, some 32km by land to the west of Alten, which had been known about since the 18th century. With a group of merchants in Hammerfest, he founded the Quenangen Mining Association to mine in Kvænangen. Around 1827, they investigated the ore deposits, and the surveys continued for many years, but no serious mining was done there until the late-1840s.

On 1 July 1826, mining began in Kåfjord with 11 men, all from the Røros Mine. Although it was situated in the high Arctic, with white nights in the summer and months of semi-darkness or twilight in winter, Kåfjord was in a very favourable location. The majority of the ore deposits were in the mountainside right above the fjord which was mostly ice-free all year, although from time to time the fjord did freeze over, and drift ice blown about by heavy gales sometimes damaged jetties.

The harbour facilities were located directly below the principal mine where inclined planes could transport the ore straight from shafts and the mouths of adits to the dressing floors. Ships of almost any burthen were able to moor at wharfs less than 100 metres away, and the dressed ore could be easily wheeled on board. Two small rivers in the vicinity of the mines provided enough water to dress and crush the ore.

Alten copper works and mines, Kafjord, Norway 1832
The Alten Copper Mines circa 1832. By permission of the British Library (8227.b.5)


However, dressing operations were largely suspended in the winter months, as little could be done even in the midday without candles and lamps, which made it difficult to distinguish the various kinds of ore, even to a trained eye. In addition, the temperature can dip to well below -10C, causing ice to form on water-driven machinery such as stamps and separators, which would have damaged them. These factors caused a partial interruption in underground operations during the summer as the backlog of ore at the surface had to be dressed ready for smelting.

Prospecting for lode outcrops was also impossible outside of the short Arctic summer due to snowfall, and the effects of ice accumulation in the shafts and workings, which did not thaw until late summer each year, often made working difficult. But it was far easier to transport the ore overland by sledge when the snow lay thickly on the ground.

In January of 1827, Woodfall and Klerck went to the Falun Mine in neighbouring Sweden to recruit miners. These men arrived at Alta in July. They joined the Norwegian miners from Røros and Folldal (another copper mine in the former Hedmark County) who had arrived in May 1827, allowing regular mining operations to commence.

Although at first people were hesitant to come to the fledgling community of Alten without a strong financial incentive, this gradually changed as the community grew. The mines began to attract immigrants from northern Scandinavia, including people from northern Finland known as the Kvens. They were employed as casual surface labour and occasionally as ‘tutworkers’ undertaking non-productive but necessary tasks underground.

But Crowe soon realised that the Norwegian, Swedes and Kvens, although good workers, nonetheless lacked the mining skills and knowledge possessed by the Cornish, who were considered to be the best miners in the world. Crowe therefore arranged for the recruitment of a group Cornishmen (sources differ, but they numbered between 6-10), probably with the help of Captain Joseph Michell.

Getting There

The Cornish mineworkers could have sailed in ships carrying copper ore bound for the Swansea smelters from the north coast ports of Hayle or Portreath. As Alten’s copper ores were also being smelted in Swansea at the time, they might have embarked on a ship travelling to Kåfjord from there. Alternatively, they could have sailed from Falmouth to Liverpool, and onward to the important trading port of Hammerfest, before heading south to the mines.

It took around 15-25 days by sea to reach the Alten Mines during the summer months when communications with Swansea were frequent. The journey during winter took four weeks via Sweden.

The Cornish at Kåfjord

The first of the Cornish recruits seemingly arrived in Hammerfest at the beginning of July 1827. However, on seeing the challenging conditions in which they were expected to work, they immediately demanded an increase in pay. Crowe had already contracted them on wages which were higher than the Scandinavian miners, and when this fact became known to them it created considerable ill-feeling, and they too called for better wages.

Woodfall had not been convinced that bringing in Cornish labour was the best way forward, and it soon became apparent that the mines could not be run economically with them on the pay roll. The decision was made to retain just two Cornishmen. The first was the foreman of the stamp mill, who was kept on to instruct the Scandinavian mineworkers how to separate the ore from the waste rock. The second was a timberman, whose work of shoring up the mines was a highly skilled and dangerous job. The remainder were sent home in the autumn of 1827.

Crowe continued to believe that highly skilled Cornish labour would benefit the Company, but Woodfall remained resolutely opposed to this. He preferred to recruit mineworkers from Foldall and Røros, and encouraged the men to being their wives and families with them to build a permanent colony at Alten. However, the works often suffered from lack of hands over the coming decades, particularly around harvest time, when people returned to their farms to bring in the hay. Nonetheless, there was always a Cornish presence at Alten among the management and in posts requiring specific skills, betrayed for instance, by entries in the rites of life registers and census returns.

Captain Petherick’s Report

Indeed, the Cornish connections with Alten were far from over. In 1831 the works and surrounding area were surveyed by Norwegian geologist, Professor Kielhau who reported favourably on the permanency of the principal lodes. Work was then focussed on the Old Mine and the New Mine. The latter was known as Michell’s Mine, after the Cornish mining Captain who had discovered the two lodes on which it was wrought. 

Map of Alten Copper Mines and Kafjord, Norway
Map of Alten Mines and Kåfjord. By permission of the British Library (8227.b.5)


In 1832, the partners realised that in order to expand and more fully develop the property, they required additional finance and therefore planned to attract share capital by relaunching the company to shareholders. Cornishman, John Petherick, a Gwennap-born Mine Agent at Fowey Consols, was called upon to survey the mines and to produce a report.

He concluded that the lodes were numerous and powerful, yielding an abundance of ore disseminated in an unusually equal manner through nearly their whole extent. Some of Alten’s copper ores (bornite) were especially suitable for smelting as they contained low amounts of iron and were accompanied by quartz and calcareous spar. Even the poorest Alten ores that had been subjected to an improved mode of dressing had yielded around ten percent of copper, while the highest gave from fifteen to seventeen per cent. Since its inception, the company had raised and sold 3,000 tons of ore at the Swansea ticketings, and a profit of nearly £2,000 had been realised.

An inclined railway had been constructed a distance of 1,200 feet from the main lode to a crushing mill, sited above the fjord’s shore. This crushing apparatus and the patent separators used to dress the ore were powered by a waterwheel fed by a leat almost 2 miles long. The patent separators were highly likely to have been those developed at Fowey Consols in the late-1820s by Thomas Petherick, John’s brother. Initially, the ore was transported by horse from the crushing facility to the harbour, but in 1828 a railway line was built from the dressing floors to the sea. With this, the Alten Copper Works established the northernmost rail-road in the world.

A settlement of a few miserable turf-roofed huts had given way to comfortable houses in a thriving and expanding village, which workers from Sweden, Norway and Finland resorted to for employment. Petherick hoped that the influx of workers would enable the stockpile of ores accumulated over the winter months to be dressed more rapidly during the summer without taking labour away from the underground operations. Much of the surface dressing operations increasingly fell to female Kven immigrants who proved themselves to be adept ore dressers.

There were three shafts on a lode passing through the Old Mine: Kielhau’s, Bergmester’s and Nellen’s, with the richest ground lying to the east of Nellen’s Shaft. Petherick noted that the ore had been exploited irregularly and recommended that a systematic method of mining should be introduced to avoid unnecessary expense.

Michell’s Lodes in the New Mine lay considerably to the west of the Old Mine. The principal shaft was named Michell’s, and the two others were Mancur’s and Ward’s. Mancur’s Shaft at 800 feet above sea level, was the most elevated on the property, and lay almost immediately over the Old Mines. The Four Brother’s Lodes lay a short distance to the east of Michell’s Shaft and were still being proved with promising results. In addition, workings had been opened out on Nellen’s Lode and Woodfall’s Lode. Petherick’s Lode, a brilliant recent discovery, looked to be the richest yet.

Alten copper mines cross section, Kafjord, Norway 1832
Cross section of Alten Mines, 1832. By permission of the British Library (8227.b.5)


Petherick recommended several changes: the acquisition of a new and more powerful crushing machine and three additional separating machines for dressing the ore; the installation of a stamping mill for returning the halvans which could not be worked by the present waterwheel; the construction of two inclined plains between the Old Mine and Michell’s Shaft; and the erection of dressing floors. He also advised that where economical, rail-roads should be introduced into every part of the concern.

Since its inception, the company had spent £27,000 in the erection of works and proposed to pay this off in instalments. When this was achieved, the proprietors would formally resign all right and title to the property into the hands of the Adventurers, among whom the whole of the profits would be divided. It was confidently expected that Captain Petherick’s recommendations would be carried out in two years at a cost not more than £6,000 over and above the produce of the mines.

The 1833 Reorganisation

In August 1833, a successful meeting was held at the London Tavern, London, for the purposes of forming a new company. John Labouchere, William Ward and A.A. Mieville were appointed as Provisional Directors. Around 12 mines and workings were taken up in 1833-34, and work had begun on the creation of large spalling houses on the new dressing floors which would enable work to continue in the winter.

Launch of Alten Mining Association 1833
Advertisement in the Guardian and Daily Advertiser, August 1833


The previous owners had not wanted to sink their capital into building a smelter if the mines proved to be a white elephant, and all of its ores had been sent to Swansea. In 1835, work was advanced in building a smelting house 120ft long, 40ft wide and 18ft high. The furnace was finished with just the cramps and the stack to be built.

Some of the new dressing machinery was manufactured in Cornwall, because in 1835 it was noted that work at the site had been retarded by the loss of a vessel conveying [a new more powerful] Cornish rolls crusher and tram rail from Cornwall to Liverpool.

In 1836 the Alten Mining Company acquired the Raipas Mine. This was located around 260 metres above sea level on Lille-Raipas, a mountain ridge about 5km southeast of Bossekop. This exposed working lay a considerable distance from Kåfjord and was on the other side of the Alten River which was best navigated in winter when it was frozen. When in spate it was impossible to cross by ferry. In winter the ore was taken cross-country by sledge to Bossekop where it was stored and then shipped by sloop down the fjord to the smelter. A carriage road was later built from the mine to the company’s wharf at Bossekop, facilitating the carriage of ores in the summer.

Raipas proved to be a brilliant new discovery and became one of the mainstays of the company, particularly its No. 11 Lode, which provided over half of the total tonnage of the mine. It got off to a flying start, producing 900 tons of ore, 250 tons of which had a copper content of 25 per cent in 1839. This helped to offset the diminishing returns from Ward’s and Michell’s Lode. The smelter, which had been enlarged in 1838, was then in full operation and producing copper of a superior quality.

Crowe seems to have had his way over the recruitment of ‘English’ miners, as a number of them arrived at Alten in 1838 and accommodation had to be built for them both there and at Raipas. Whether this contributed to Woodfall’s decision to step down as Superintendent of the mines in 1840 is unclear. By 1842, a new Superintendent, Charles Engstrom, had been appointed.

The New Smelting Works at the Alten Mines

In 1840, new discoveries of ore were made and named Inner Stream Lodes (or Bridge Lode) and Ryper’s Lode, the latter which was situated west of the original workings. The company also redeveloped the smelting works, adding two new blast furnaces and a steam engine to provide the blast. The smelter used imported English coal which arrived during the summer months. Some of this coal came from the ports of Hartlepool, Sunderland and Newcastle.

Crowe described Alten’s copper smelting process in 1840. Yellow sulphurous ores, from 5 to 8 per cent, were calcined in kilns in the open air, 40-60 tons at a time. A few faggots of wood were placed underneath the ore which was piled up in a round heap. It was then lit and by the time the wood had been consumed, the sulphur had ignited. To prevent the process from proceeding too rapidly, the heap was covered over with a thick layer of fine ore to regulate the draft and combustion. This process, which took around eight days, had to be carefully managed so that the ores did not run together to form a mass would have been difficult to reduce without a loss of copper.

Interior Alten smelting works, Norway 1838
Interior of smelting works, Lauvergne, 1838. National Library of Norway


The calcined ores were then mixed with about one third of their weight of coke and submitted to a blast furnace in which it was possible to reduce 4-5 tons of ore in 24 hours. Crowe noted that this furnace was preferable to the reverberatory furnace, as the separation of the metal from the slag was more perfect, and was not as dependant on the attention and mechanical skill of the furnaceman.

The regulus from this process was generally around 30 per cent copper. This then underwent a further calcination for 24 hours, sometimes in small kilns, and at others in a regular calciner. The calcined regulus was then smelted at about 25cwt at a charge for 3-6 hours in the metal furnace. Six charges could therefore have been reduced in a 24-hour period. This process produced what was known as ‘purple metal’. This was then passed through the roaster which brought it to ‘black copper’. This was refined and shipped in the shape of tough cake copper to Tromsø by a galiot named Alten, and thence by steamer to England or Hamburg. It was destinated mainly for the French market.

The Alten Mines were then the largest works of their kind in Norway, employing 651 workers, including women and children. By comparison, the mines and smelting house in Røros had 314 workers, half the number at Alten. Moreover, the Røros works were far less advanced than Alten, relying on hand dressing of ore, calcining in the open air and the use of a primitive blast furnace fuelled by charcoal which processed 300-400 tons of copper ore annually. The copper was not refined but exported in rosettes known as gahr kobber, primarily to markets in Amsterdam and Hamburg.

Alten mines, Kåfjord, by Mayer 1838
The mines and smelting works in 1838, Mayer. National Library of Norway


Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man…

However, a series of lean years bit hard into the company’s profits to such an extent that the Board of Directors mooted selling the mines to a Hamburg group for £37,000 in 1843. Woodfall had been dispatched to the mines at the end of 1842 to investigate why the company was in financial difficulties and discovered that the cost of breaking the Raipas ores prior to smelting, in order to achieve a suitable flux in the furnace, was too expensive. To avert financial calamity, he immediately ordered Charles Engstrom to reduce the establishment and ordered all reserve ores to be converted into copper.

Crowe further explained the lack of profitability as a culmination of several factors: numerous experiments and failures in smelting (it had actually taken the company three years of careful chemical analysis and modifications to perfect their smelting methods due to the presence of ores with a high level of iron pyrites and sulphur bound in a quartz matrix); the rebuilding of all the furnaces; constructing new rail-roads to the smelter and erecting new dressing and stamping machinery; building a new warehouse and jetty at Bossekop and a house at the Raipas Mine; and the falling in of the United Mines in 1842.

The company’s fortunes improved on the back of the discovery of Wilson’s Lodes and a promising new lode at Gurænvig (Quonovig), some two miles from the Kåfjord works. This had been made late in the season of 1844 on the extreme end of a projecting ledge which inclined rapidly from a narrow mountain terrace, the back of which rose abruptly to 1,000 feet.

However, the upper lodes in Michell’s were by now almost exhausted and the cost to unwater the levels below the adit, especially after the winter snows had melted, were prohibitive. Michell’s was an important mine as it provided the best ores to use as a flux in the smelter.

A difference of opinion among the Mining Captains arose as to whether it was best to recommence driving the Deep Adit towards Bergmester’s Shaft in the Old Mine in order to open new ground and enable the drainage of all the workings above. The alternative was to continue driving the Shallow Adit on lode in the New Mine, work which had been halted in 1839, in order to more fully access Petherick’s, Woodfall’s and Ward’s workings (known collectively as the United Mines), thus providing the smelter with the requisite flux ores.

The latter plan, favoured by Charles Engstrom, would allow the New Mine workings to be re-dialled prior to driving the Deep Adit in the Old Mine. The first plan would take 15 months to complete, but the second, 2 years. The options needed to be carefully considered, as the unprecedented low price of copper ore had led the company to declare a deficit, and a call of £1 per share was made.

Captain Stephen Henry Thomas (1813-1869), who had had been employed as a laboratory engineer at the smelting works from 1836 to 1841, and then became the manager of the Averøy Mining Company (working copper mines on Averøya island), returned to Kåfjord in 1844 to inspect the mines and ascertain the true state of affairs. That same year, Crowe stood down as the Superintendent and Engstrom, fearing that his services would no longer be required, resigned. Thomas became the Manager, Mine Agent and Principal Smelter, positions he held until 1857. He was noted to have performed his duties with utmost zeal and ability, earning him the highest praise from the Board of Directors.

Stephen Henry Thomas of the Alten Mining Company and Norwegian Member of Parliament (Storting)
Captain Stephen Henry Thomas.


He was, of course, a Cornishman, born in the very crucible of Cornish copper mining at Trevarth in Gwennap. An extremely erudite man with scientific qualifications as a geologist and mineralogist, as well as many years of practical knowledge, he slowly turned around the fortunes of the Alten Mines.

One of the changes he implemented was to suspend smelting operations in the summer to concentrate on raising and dressing ores, which could then be sorted in the most advantageous mixtures for smelting during the winter months. This effected a considerable saving in costs. Using specialist dialling equipment, he also carried out the most intricate survey he had ever undertaken on the Riapas Mine, the company’s most important holding, and made immediate improvements to it by sinking a new shaft to facilitate a more direct communication with the surface.

He also seems to have pressed ahead with plans to drive the Deep Adit on the Old Mine, and explored every inch of the property, reworking old halvan heaps and opening out new lodes. These included New Lodes situated below the Old Mine; Melsvig (secured by the Company in 1848); Mathisen’s Valley (located on a steep and dangerous mountainside, requiring men to carry the ore out in sacks); and Cole’s Mine which provided an additional source of good flux ores for the smelter. He also revisited old workings such as Carl Johan’s (stopped for over 20 years), Powder House Mines (stopped in 1839) and Church Lode.

More importantly, he introduced the Cornish tribute system of mining to Alten. The men were paid a proportion of the value of the ore they produced, after deducting the cost of ore handling and processing, and of supplies such as candles, blasting powder and tools. 

The Scandinavian mineworkers took to this system remarkably well. The consumption of materials in proportion to the amount of ore raised was greatly reduced, enabling work to recommence on many of the old workings which had been abandoned. The tribute system also led to a desire for competition among the men, and made them more careful in selecting and sorting the ores, all of which raised productivity levels and reduced costs to the company.

From the time it began smelting ore, the company had received a Crown exemption from tithes and dues on its produce and materials required for mining and smelting for a 10-year period. This had expired in 1847. But Captain Thomas successfully petitioned the Norwegian King and obtained a further 10-year exemption.

Kven women dressing ore, Alten mines, Norway, 1838
Kven women dressing ore, 1838, Mayer. National Library of Norway


War and the Merger with the Quenangen Mining Association

Both the switch to tribute-pay and the exemption from dues were very fortuitous and likely saved the company from a very uncertain future, as the low price of copper ore in 1848 due to the revolutions sweeping Europe, had undercut the company’s profitability and driven down wage rates at Alten.

In 1850, following a complete rebuild of the smelter’s furnaces, the company began smelting copper ores raised at the Quenangen Mines in Kvænangen. These were located 32km by land from Alten, and 11km south east of the trading post of Badderen on the eastern side of Kvænangen Fjord. The Quenangen Mining Association had also been set up by John Rice Crowe and partners around the same time as the Alten Mining Company.

The mines at Kvænangen included the Edward, the company’s earliest working located a few kilometres from the sea on the River Kjækan, and the Gamle Mine. Lode outcrops over 600 metres above sea level were then discovered on the Badderen River. The company had to construct housing for workers in Kjækan and temporary shelters for the mineworkers who were working the new mines high on the mountain.

Kjækan, Kvænangen mines, Norway, 1951
Kjækan, main settlement for the Kvænangen Mines, 1951. National Library of Norway


All of this ate into the Quenangen Mining Association’s profits at a time when the price of copper had begun to fall. By the late-1840s it was struggling, and had consequently been re-capitalised by becoming a shareholding company. It seems many of the shareholders were associated with the Alten Mining Company which undertook to work its mines. The Quenangen ores, shipped by sea, were a welcome addition to the Alten copper smelter, as they increased throughput and provided additional sources of flux.

Throughout the 1850s, the price of copper was low on account of the market being flooded with ores from Cuba, Chile and Australia. The company responded by implementing changes to its methods of smelting in an attempt to improve profit margins.

But the company was once more adversely affected by forces outside its control with the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856). A significant proportion of Alten’s provisions were supplied by Russian traders from Archangel who frequented the port of Hammerfest to barter their wares. Supplies such as meat, salt beef, rye four, planks and candles were suddenly unavailable due to a blockade in the White Sea. Additionally, the cost of coals rose steeply, but fortunately Captain Thomas, sensing an impending blockade, had the foresight to stockpile enough coal in the preceding year to ensure the smelting works was able to continue its work largely uninterrupted.

The price of coal remained high after the Crimean War, standing at about 12s per ton, up from the 8-9s of previous years. The reduction costs of copper ore per ton were 25s, and for metallic copper, £21 12s. In the decade before the War, over £7,500 had been paid out in dividends, but in 1856 there had been a loss on the company’s workings of over £2,600. The time had come to either raise fresh capital or to dispose of the company.

In the event, the board decided to merge the Alten Mining Company with the Quenangen Mining Company to form a limited liability company, a decision that was mutually beneficial to both enterprises. Although Quenangen was producing rich ores, if the Alten works closed, shipping these to Britain for smelting would have made operating costs marginal at best. The Alten and Quenangen Mining  Company Ltd. was thus formed in 1857.

That same year, Captain Thomas resigned his position as the Director, having taken the post of Director of the Chilean Copper Smelting Company at Copiapó in Chile. For many years he had been a towering presence at Alten, and was known as ‘King Thomas in Kåfjord’. He had made great attempts to foster harmony among his multi-ethnic workforce, treating them with utmost respect. He spoke Norwegian fluently, having taken a Norwegian wife in 1839 (he was remarried at Alten in 1847, also to a Norwegian woman), and also knew some Kven, a Finno-Ugric language.

He was the first foreigner to be elected a Member of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament). In the parliamentary elections in 1851, he stood for election as a Deputy Representative in the constituency of Finnmark County. Article 61 of the Constitution stated that ‘No one may be elected Representative unless he is 30 years old and has resided in the Kingdom for 10 years’.

Thus, although Captain Thomas was not Norwegian, he had lived in Norway since the mid-1830s and there was no legal impediment to him running for office. In 1851, there were only 35 electors in the Finnmark County, and Captain Thomas received 9 electoral votes, four more than the parish priest. He remained in office and was a member of the Business Committee until the late-1850s when he left Norway for Chile.

Thomas later returned to Norway, settling in Oslo with his family where he died in 1865. He was replaced as the Director at Alten by Englishman, J. M. Carey.

The Twilight Years at the Alten Mines

At the beginning of the 1860s, the mines were producing just over 230 tons of copper ore containing 4-12 per cent of copper. Exploratory works for new lodes resulted in the discovery of a rich new mine named the Cedar in Kvænangen in 1863-4, but this did not offset the gradual downward trajectory of the company’s fortunes. Moreover, Michigan-based mining companies such as the Quincy Mining Company had been poaching the company’s Kven mineworkers with offers of better wages and prepaid tickets to emigrate to America, which caused labour shortages.

The financial shockwave to the copper market caused by the 1866 collapse of British banking giants, Overend and Gurney, resulted in the company wanting to abandon the whole operation. In the event, it clung on, but in a period of declining ore prices, the establishment was pared right back from the late-1860s.

In 1873, J.M. Carey stood down as Director and his place was filled by Captain Jeremiah Davey Holman (1851-1923). Holman was also a Cornishman, the son of a Mine Agent born at Drawbridge in the parish of St Neot near Liskeard. He had begun his mining career in the South Caradon Mine at St Cleer, where his father, John, was a Mine Agent. In 1864, his father had been appointed Mine Manager with the Norwegian Mining Company which was working a group of mines near Drammen. This probably gave his son an introduction to Norwegian mining.

Jeremiah Davey Holman, Alten Mines
Captain Jeremiah Davey Holman.


Captain Holman presided over a company that had been slowly dying for years. From 1873-74 it was no longer cost effective to smelt ore at Alten and the works closed, further reducing the labour force. The Alten Mining Company limped on until 1878, when it finally ceased trading, thus bringing to an end the period of British involvement.

Captain Holman returned to the family home, Oakfield House, in the village of Crowsnest, St Cleer, where in 1881 he was noted as an unemployed Mine Agent. He married in 1884, and he and his wife left Cornwall for Ontario, Canada. The Michipicoten Native Copper Mining Company had appointed him the Manager of the Quebec Mines on Michipicoten Island, where he joined numerous Scandinavian mineworkers. He later returned to Norway to manage the Åmdals Verk Copper Mines in Telemark. He died at Plymouth in 1923.

Just as the commencement of the Alten Copper Mining Company over half a century earlier had a Cornish connection on the back of Captain Joseph Michell’s discovery of rich copper lodes, so too did its ending. At the behest of the Board of Directors, the mining machinery, including a 12hp portable steam engine that had only been in use for about 12 months, mining equipment such as whim kibbles and dialling instruments, and surplus supplies including various explosives, were transported from Alten and put up for sale by auction at Falmouth Docks in Cornwall.

Alten mine, Norway, equipment sale, 1878
Equipment sale, October 1878. Western Morning News


In 1896 Nils Persson, Swedish consul, who had bought the property rights to the ore deposits in Sulitjelma, acquired the Alten copper mines and smelter, renaming them Alten Kobbergruver. The dilapidated buildings of the British period were repaired and new ones constructed. In 1903 the mine was linked to a plant producing electricity and some processes were mechanised. But the exhaustion of the lodes made mining unproductive and the mines finally closed for good in 1909.

Kåfjord, an ‘English’ Village in the Arctic

Kåfjord rapidly became the largest settlement in Finnmark County. In the 1835 census, it had a population of 655, comprised of 388 Norwegians (including Swedes), 253 women, 12 ‘Englishmen’, and two Germans.

The village lay to the southwest of the smelting works. The company, which operated on a paternalistic basis, provided a well-stocked shop, a church, a school, medical facilities and places for entertainment. From September 1827 two Company Directors were permanently resident there, occupying an elegant two-storey Mine Manager’s residence which was begun in 1828 and finished the following year. This burnt down in 1838, and John Rice Crowe and Captain Thomas were reimbursed £150 for damages due to the fire.

It was rebuilt and surrounded by a landscaped English-style garden with lawns, pathways, flower beds and clumps of birch trees. There was also a dovecote, a tennis court and a bowling alley, and hops were planted against the house wall. Between this house and the sea, were several well-built wooden houses occupied by the Mine Captains and administrative staff. The standard of their housing represented an intermediate stage between that of the directors’ and workers’ houses.

The Church and Cemetery

Sunday services were first held at the Mine Manager’s house in accordance with the Anglican church ritual. But residents had to travel to Talvik on the western side of the Altafjord for baptisms, weddings and funerals. A wooden Anglican Church was built at Bukta in Alta, but was then dismantled and shipped to Kåfjord in 1837. Here it was re-erected at Gabrielsnes, a central position in the middle of the mining community, and consecrated on 10 September 1837. The church is architecturally unusual, having features such as gothic-style windows and a steeple which make it look quite ‘British’.

In 1842, the Norwegian government permitted the services to be held in accordance with the Anglican Church ritual. Kåfjord Church was the first place of worship in Norway to be opened to worship by another religious community.

In 1836, a Scottish student named William Dawson Hooker visited Finnmark County. He notes that Captain Thomas showed him a church that was under construction. Thomas explained that when completed, it was to be transported by land and sea and erected in Kåfjord. It has also been claimed that Captain Thomas was the architect of this church. While he designed the church at Alta in 1858, it is believed that the Kåfjord church was the work of Norwegian architect, Hans Ditlev Linstow.

Alten was torched by the Germans during the Second World War, but the Anglican Church, although badly damaged, survived. In 1969 it was restored with an interior reflecting that of the British period. The graves of the British immigrants are by the eastern wall of the church.

Anglican church, Kåfjord, Norway
Anglican Church at Kåfjord. National Library of Norway


This church witnessed several baptisms, weddings and funerals of Cornish people at Alten. For example, London-born Samuel Monk, Captain of the Raipas Mine, married Mary Hoskins, daughter of William Hoskins of Cornwall, on 13 April 1840. Their marriage was witnessed by H.D. Woodfall and Captain Stephen Henry Thomas, who was himself married there. Captain Monk died at the mines on 29 March 1858 and was buried at Alten. His wife took their Alten-born children to Liskeard in Cornwall.

Baptisms included the children of John Trenery whose wife, Elizabeth (née Lukes) joined him at Kåfjord. The couple were married at St Blazey in Cornwall in 1829. He was described as a carpenter when his eldest son, John junior, was baptised at St Blazey in November 1830, and was probably connected with Fowey Consols Mine. At least two children were born to the couple before they moved to Trondheim where John died in 1864. Their son Thomas William Hooker (named perhaps after William Dawson Hooker?) born at Kåfjord in 1839, became an engineer. He married a Norwegian and spent some years in the country before moving to Britain.

These family stories illustrate the human links that once bound this remote Arctic mining settlement closely to Cornwall.


Further Reading on the Alten Mines

Aase Kristin H Abrahamsen and Anita Veiseth, Nordkalottens første storindustri: kobberverket i Kåfjord, Alta (Alta, 1997).

Erland Scheen, ‘Kong’ Thomas i Kåfjord og hans reisedagbok fra Vestlandet i 1844 (Oslo, 1957).

Visit the Alten Mines

Visitors to the mine site can enjoy a 1.2km sigposted ‘cultural path’. The nearby Alta Museum has some mining related information. 

© Sharron P. Schwartz, 2023.

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