Saturday, June 14, 2008

More Cornish History

Writing about the Jewish history of Penzance sent my thoughts off on a Cornish rabbit trail. I have been doing some more internet research and plan to bore you with the details share the results with you over the next few days. (This is a random, eclectic sort of blog, right? You enjoy the element of surprise, yes?)

During my pre- and early-teens my great-uncle was the Methodist minister at St. Just in Cornwall. (Look on a map, find the most westerly point of England - Lands End - and work up the coast a few miles). We spent many holidays there, and the area made a deep impression on me - so much so that I have had a hankering to live there ever since. When we were there we always attended Uncle's church, and being a very visual person who struggles dreadfully with aural learning I spent a lot of time reading the memorial plaques on the wall while the sermon washed over me. One particularly poignant one was a memorial to a mine disaster in the area, with substantial loss of life. For some reason this came back to me while I was thinking about Cornwall, and I decided to see if I could find out the background - what happened, and when.

I could find no record of the actual plaque on the internet, and concluded that it must have referred to one of two calamitous mining accidents that took place in the locality. The St. Just area has a long history of tin mining, and the area around St. Just is dotted with old engine houses and air shafts, all now in disrepair. It was a precarious industry, both economically, with periods of boom and bust (it is now irretrievably bust), and physically, with a high risk of accidents. In addition to the normal risks of mining, the proximity to the sea added another. The picture below shows the Botallack mine, perched on the cliffs over the Atlantic.

Picture: PZNow

The first accident took place at Wheal Owles mine near Botallack in 1893. Forty-one men and boys were working underground when there was an accidental breakthrough into a flooded, adjacent mine. Twenty were drowned. This report on one man's heroism was included in The Cornishman:
Five miners were saved by the efforts of one “Farmer” Hall who had been working with two boys at a stope in the 55 level. When he saw the sides shaking and gravel falling he realised the water had broken through from the old workings he called to the 2 boys to follow him and shouted a warning to two men working a short distance away. Hall found a tram-wagon, put one of the boys in it & told the others to hold on to him and each other and headed off at speed into the darkness. They overhauled another miner on the way and Hall told him to run on before them. To make matters worse, the boy jumped out of the wagon and fell down an 18ft cavity. He climbed up the side and when within reach was grabbed by one of the other miners, James Williams and pulled out. With the others scaling the shaft- side ladders , Hall went to see if he could find anyone else. He briefly spoke to others some distance away and below him. But then there was silence from their direction. “Farmer” Hall was the last man to leave Wheal Owles. (Source: West Penwith Resources)
A contemporary dialect poem The Flooding of Wheal Owles describes the disaster:
..Tellee about Wheal Owles, sir—the flooded Cornish mine!
’Ow the waters chuck’d the levels where the sun don’t never shine;
’Ow the twenty men are lyin’—stark, lifeless, lumps of clay,
Where the rushin’ torrent wash’d thum when the rock-wall brawk away ...
My hunch is that this was the disaster commemorated in the Methodist Chapel as a centenary memorial service was held there in 1993 and it was geographically nearer to St. Just.

The other possibility is the Levant Mine disaster of 1919, when 31 men were killed by the collapse of a "man engine", a kind of primitive lift (elevator). This extract from a full report in The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph describes the contraption and the effect of its failure:
"The tragedy was the work of an instance. Something snapped - perhaps an iron cap or bolt - and what as been described as a living pillar of men, dropped down the man engine shaft, crushing many to death, mangling more with debris of breaking wood and metal - the beam of the man engine, the ladder ways in the side of the main shaft, and the platforms cut in the side of the shaft. Imagine square wood beams 40 feet long, braced together in long stems and held perpendicularly 1,800 feet in height in a mine shaft. Jutting out of this beam which moves up twelve feet and then down twelve feet like the Cornish pump which raises the water and drains the mine, are steps. On each step was a man, and from 130 to 150 were standing as a human pillar on this structure, or waiting on the side platforms to take the next step, as they ascended from their work. About twelve had stepped off in safety on reaching the surface. When the man engine ascends and is at the top of the stroke as on Monday (the men having completed their day's work about 2-30 p.m.), the machine was practically full of men, each one, as it were standing above the head of the other on the projecting step. An instant later all these miners would have stepped off and paused on the side platforms, or sollors, for the next up lift of the engine. That instant meant life or death to thirty or more men. The scene was indescribable. The rod released from its top cracked in several places, and the structure crashed down in a mass of debris. As its foot was at the bottom of the shaft it could only have dropped the twelve feet if it had not snapped in other places. The worst chokage was in the upper part of the shaft."
This disaster was still in living memory in the days of mass TV. These extracts from a 1969 BBC documentary are available online: a description of life at the mine (including a visual showing how the man engine worked), and a widowed mother recalling the day her husband did not return home. The Cornishman article includes a list of those killed and injured. The dead included many men with dependents; saddest of all was the widower whose wife had died a few months earlier leaving eleven children orphaned.

The Levant Mine is now owned by the National Trust, and a restored steam engine can be seen in operation there.

3 comments:

Shari said...

I do enjoy the element of surprise. Yes! This is particularly interesting as Sam went into a mine as part of his internship this week. 4 miles in and 4ft. clearence. He rode a rail cart on his back for an hour to get to the operation and then spent 8 hours on his knees. Who knew men still work in these conditions??? I was very relieved to see him back home!

Missus Wookie said...

I love the electiveness's of your blog :) Lighthouses are something I have a soft spot for - thanks for the websites!

Elizabeth said...

I really enjoyed this article. I've always had an interest in Cornwall, my impression has been that of a wild and diverse land.