A hundred years ago today the man engine collapsed at Levant mine, Pendeen, near St Just. This was the second worse mine disaster in Cornwall’s history. Thirty-one miners lost their lives and many others were badly injured. The man engine was a device that conveyed miners to and from the surface, allowing them to avoid the former, laborious climb up the ladders at the end of their core (shift). It was invented in 1841 by Michael Loam of Liskeard, although his design owed much to similar contraptions at work in Germany. The first man engine was installed at Tresavean Mine, Lanner and it was then adopted in several of the larger and deeper Cornish mines.
A report in The Times on the disaster explained how the man engine operated.
‘It consists of a ponderous wooden beam [in fact several sections of beam bolted together] which extends from the top to the bottom of the shaft, which is 600 yards deep. At intervals of 12 feet are steps on the beam, each of which affords foothold for one person, while on the side of the shaft are stationary platforms at intervals of 12 feet. At every stroke of the engine the beam is raised and lowered, and the men step on and off the platforms and are carried up or down by the movement of the beam. It is a rather slow process, but has been carried on for years without serious accident’
That was not the case on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 20th however. The Times went on to describe what happened.
‘From 100 to 150 men were on it when the change of shift was taking place. When the connecting rod broke the engine was at the top of its stroke, and the gigantic beam with its load fell 12 feet. Many of the platforms on the side of the shaft were smashed, and the men on them were knocked off and crushed. Some were unhurt and managed to reach the surface. Rescue parties brought out others, but a number of miners at different levels could not be reached …’
The engine rod had only dropped 12 feet but in doing so had taken away much of the timber work on which men were standing. The local paper, the Cornishman, carried an eyewitness account from a young miner, Robert Penaluna, who was riding on the engine at the time of the collapse …
‘When the engine broke it was a tremendous crash for in dropping she knocked away timber and everything else in her path. The engine rod on which we were travelling shook violently. The smash gave a terrible shock to us all … the screams of some of the men were awful, as they gripped the rod like grim death … I wouldn’t go through an experience like that again for the world.’