The Wheal Owles disaster of 1893

Early in the morning of January 10th, 1893, young Johnny Grenfell left his cottage at Tregeseal just north of St Just, to walk up the hill towards the sea and his work at Wheal Owles. He must have been day-dreaming that morning as, on his arrival, he realised he’d left some of his underground clothes behind. Hurrying back, his mother was horrified to see him. Everyone knew it was bad luck for a miner to return home from the bal before starting work.

Johnny must have tried to calm her fears but may have felt a little uneasy, recalling that another miner at Wheal Owles, Thomas Henry Lutey, had had a premonition a few days earlier. He had thoroughly alarmed his comrades by running through a level screaming ‘Water! Water!’

The pumping house at Cargodna shaft

Nevertheless, both Johnny and Thomas Lutey joined 38 other underground miners on the 8am core, or shift. They descended, some singing carols as they did, to five working levels spaced ten fathoms, or 60 feet apart, from 45 to 85 fathoms below adit. This was at the Cargodna section of the mine. The neighbouring, but unconnected part of the mine to the south and east, known as Wheal Drea, had been abandoned in 1884.

Around 8.45 the tributers at the 65-fathom level blasted the rockface. It’s unlikely they survived for long as a huge volume of water immediately poured through the rock and flooded the level. They had accidentally broken through to the flooded Wheal Drea section. Reaching the shaft, the water cascaded down to the lower levels. All those working at the 85-fathom level were drowned. The rush of air had extinguished their candles and the torrent of water filled the shaft before they had a chance to grope their way to it.

Four miners at the 75-fathom level who were closer to the shaft amazingly managed to fight their way up the ladders to eventual safety. As the waters rapidly rose – it’s been estimated by 95 fathoms or 570 feet in just 30 minutes, those miners working in the 55-fathom level above the breach heard the loud roaring and felt the rush of air. In the dark, they began to negotiate their way back through the level to the shaft. Quick thinking by an experienced miner – James (Farmer) Hall – saved their lives. Hall told some to jump into an empty tram wagon, which he and others pushed along, knowing the rails would lead them to the shaft.

Once there, despite the ladders shaking violently as the waters rose, they made it to the surface. Twenty miners, or half the core, had lost their lives. Thomas Lutey, who had had the premonition, and Johnny Grenfell were both among the survivors. Lutey was one of those who escaped the 75-fathom level and Grenfell got out of the 55-fathom level. Lutey never worked in a mine again, preferring to make a precarious but safer living hawking oranges around the district.

Apparently, the mine plans had been faulty, indicating that the workings at Cargodna and Drea were separated by 18 or 19 fathoms of rock when they were in fact very close and working the same lode, not two parallel lodes, as had been thought. Wheal Owles never re-opened.

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