The East Wheal Rose mine disaster

On this day in 1846 39 lives were lost in one of Cornwall’s worst mining disasters. This occurred at East Wheal Rose, a silver-lead mine near the village of Newlyn East. At the time it was one of Cornwall’s most productive mines, employing 1,266 men, women and children. The account in the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that between 1 and 2pm on Thursday, July 9th, ‘one of the most awful thunderstorms ever known’ had broken near the mine. ‘Dense, heavy, purple-black clouds … poured down floods of rain’. The surface of the mine was awash within minutes and the water rushed northwards, the land sloping that way. As it did so it broke into the shafts and ‘rushing down into the levels … loosened and broke the timbers beneath, the consequence of which was the falling in of some other parts of the mine northwards.’

The site of the disaster in 1879. By this time the mine had closed.

Those in the more productive southern part of the mine fortunately had time to escape. Samuel Bastian, who was working there, explained at an inquest that ‘at about 1 o’clock, the candles … were all blown out by a rush of wind, which alarmed the men … they proceeded to grass as fast as they could’. Once there they discovered the water rushing into the shafts to the north. At Michell’s engine shaft 18 men came up but then no more as the flood continued to cascade into the depths.

Another witness, Ralph Richards, stated that the men who had rushed out tried frantically to divert the water from the shafts by makeshift dams and other means, but they were unsuccessful. Around 200 men eventually escaped from the flood by climbing up the ladders or by clinging on to the chains of the whim (winding) engines that had been set to work. At the time Richards was giving his evidence 43 men were unaccounted for, but four came to surface early the following morning, the last at 7am.

One miner – Frederick Sanders – was killed at the neighbouring North Wheal Rose mine. It was stated at his inquest that, after their candles had been blown out by the rush of wind, ten miners had gathered at the engine shaft. However, ‘the water was pouring down the shaft’. ‘Deceased attempted to get up the engine shaft against the stream’. He tried to convince the others to go with him but they wisely refused. ‘He was never seen alive after that’. After ten minutes the whim engine was set to work and six of the group got to the surface by holding on to the chain, while three others managed to escape via another shaft.

The ages given in the papers of the men who were killed provide a picture of the structure of the underground labour force at this time. The median age was 23, the youngest 15 and the oldest 58.

For those interested in surnames, the names of those reported missing were Bailey, Bartle, Bennett, Bice, Bishop, Clift, Eastlake, Ellery, Hosking, Jeffery, Kevern, Lampshire, Lanyon, May, Merifield, Michell, Pearce, Pengelly, Phillips, Pollard, Rowe, Stevens, Tippet, Tonkin, Trebilcock, Waters, White, Wilkins, Williams.

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