Interviewing young mine surface workers in 1841

Samuel Tippet was ten years old and worked at the dressing floors of Trethellan Mine near Lanner. His work for the previous fortnight had been ‘washing up’, cleaning the stones in wooden troughs prior to their dressing. Before, he was at the slimes but gave that up ‘because the slimes was knacked’. After this brief glimpse of Samuel’s Cornu-English dialect the account becomes more impersonal:

He lives with his grandfather about a mile off. He pays his wages to his grandfather. Had seven shillings a month on his first ‘spurs’ and now gets ten. He sometimes feels tired when he leaves work; chiefly in the back and legs. He brings potato ‘hobban’ with him for dinner. For breakfast he gets milk and water and bread, barley and wheat mixed. For supper baked potatoes, with pork sometimes. Goes to bed at eight; likes to stay up longer. He goes to school in the New Church (Lanner); has gone to Sunday-school two years. Learns to read and spell. Heard him read the Testament; he reads pretty well.

40 years after Samuel was interviewed Trethellan mine was disused

Other interviews were more revealing of the thoughts and feelings of the workers themselves. Fanny Francis, a 17 year old bal maiden at United Mines, Gwennap, had suffered from fits after a fall when carrying ore three months earlier. She attended the Bible Christian chapel and had been at day school before starting to labour at the mines at 11 years old. Her mother was a widow left with five children, all of whom had some schooling before being ‘put’ to the mines. Yet, according to Fanny, ‘they did not complain of the work’, although one can glimpse a sense of regret at lost opportunities in her final words – ‘but poor people cannot do all they could’.

This is an extract from my From a Cornish Study, page 109.

The Levant mine disaster

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.

Section of the man engine at Dolcaoth

‘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.’

A miner on the move

In 1862 a Parliamentary enquiry into the condition of metal miners interviewed several miners in Cornwall. Their life histories provide a fascinating insight into their moves from mine to mine. They indicate that miners moved frequently.

One of the most extreme examples was an anonymous miner at St Cleer. Aged 36 in 1862, he had not worked for 16 weeks, complaining of ‘weakness in the body and pains in the chest’. This man had first gone underground at the age of 12 but recalled 17 separate spells of employment involving 13 different mines over the course of 24 years.

He had begun working at Wheal Providence in Lelant, operating an ‘air machine’ (bellows). After working on the surface for the next four or five years he went underground again on tutwork contracts at nearby St Ives Consols. A short spell was spent working in east Cornwall at the booming West Caradon mine before returning to mines in the Lelant and Breage districts. He then upped sticks and moved east for a second time, spending time at mines in St Ive, between Liskeard and Callington, and across the border at East Crowndale mine in Tavistock. A few weeks back in the west at St Ives Consols was followed by spells at mines in the Caradon district, including Gonamena, Caradon Consols and West Caradon before his peripatetic career was cut short by illness.

Difficult now to imagine the Caradon mines as a hive of activity in the 186os

This example was exceptional in its mobility. Nonetheless, most of the other miners interviewed moved around regularly. It’s likely that such high levels of migration within Cornwall made the decision to move even further – to mines in North America, Australia and South Africa – an easier one.