A word first about the images that accompany the text. In 1893, the photographer, J.C. Burrow, was commissioned by local mine owners to bring the underground world of tin mining to life. He used very early flash photography techniques in these images from four tin mines at Camborne, Dolcoath, St Agnes and Pool. And now, to continue:
'One all-important dimension in this Cornish industrial landscape is, nevertheless, missing. Where in the description are the women and children working above ground, where are the men working below ground? It is as if they have been airbrushed out of the picture. The wealthy and powerful had reasons to fear the masses and distance themselves from that world; the shadow of the guillotine and the events of the French revolution at the end of the eighteenth century cast a long shadow over Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century as industrialisation and the exponential increase in population reshaped the world. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the social conscience of a few enlightened reformers within the Westminster elite led to such eye-opening documents as Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population (1842) and the slow acceptance of the need for reform.
The fabulous wealth of men such as Taylor (who came to Cornwall from Norwich to make his fortune) and Halse was made through the sweat and labour of fellow human beings, labouring under the ground in appalling conditions with their heads filled with the constant fear of death or injury. A.K. Hamilton-Jenkin, in his seminal work on the Cornish Miner (1927), noted that one writer in 1847 calculated that nearly one out of every five Gwennap miners incurred a violent death to produce the copper that made such a contribution to the wealth of the country. Descending and ascending the mine shafts for hundreds of feet by rope ladders was fraught with peril, to name one particular hazard. Medical authorities calculated that in the 1850s, in and around the St Just mining area, the average age of a miner was in the late twenties; the average death age was around the late forties. A miner who escaped the perils of a premature death faced a future of light surface work or at worst
nearly twenty years of unproductive life as a result of accident or disease.
The installation of steam-powered man-engines, the first in the 1840s, to drive a series of interconnected small platforms that were raised or lowered twelve feet in the shaft at every stroke of the engine, saved many lives. However, the development later in the century of the machine drill turned out to be deadly for the miner underground. In 1904, a Government inquiry into The Health of Cornish Miners established that there had recently been “an enormous increase in the death-rate from lung diseases, in miners particularly between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five”. The death-rate among Cornish miners was eight to ten times higher than that for coalminers. The explanation lay in the machine-drilling of granite that produced clouds of dust containing fragments such as quartz that were inhaled and over time effectively punctured the lungs – the medical condition known as phthisis was the new killer. Ameliorating the effects of dust inhalation, particularly through water spray, became a twentieth-century priority.
The labouring mass of humanity that worked the Cornish mines over the last three centuries were sustained not through the benevolence of the mine owner; the money the miners earned when the markets were paying good prices was more than they could have made from farming or fishing but amounted to a risible fraction of the profits made by the owners. They were sustained by other means, perhaps above all by their own camaraderie in the face of accident and death. Drink provided an acceptable social release of working pressures. Many embraced the salvation offered in this life and the next by the good Lord as revealed through the Methodist evangelism that the Wesleys brought to Cornwall in the second half of the eighteenth century. John Wesley preached 18 times between 1762 and 1789 at Gwennap Pit, a hollow formed by the subsidence of old copper mine workings on the edge of what was described as the richest square mile in the world. Christianity and Mammon have always had an uneasy relationship.
As Jim and John told their stories of life under the ground, Jim with his focus on water drainage and supply, John from his mining perspective, an undercurrent of danger, fear and death was never far from the surface of the tale. Sometimes, it burst through to harrowing effect. They shared an account of a young miner they knew who on the spur of the moment decided he would get his tea break early and attempted to hitch a lift on a kibble – a large bucket – that was being raised up through the vertical shaft to the surface. He misjudged the move and was left hanging on by his fingertips. The men at the top of the shaft saw him come into view as he and the kibble neared the surface. His last words were: ‘I can’t hang on anymore. Goodbye.’ It took the other half of the day to get his body back to the surface.
Fear and the closeness of death; the sheer peril of going underground surfaced in Jim’s account of an adit inspection that very nearly cost him and his miner companion their lives. Adits are drainage channels, generally at a relatively shallow depth, inclined gently towards the outside to allow passive drainage. The survey map on our table showed clearly the course of the adit for the Stennack lode, intersected at intervals by the vertical shafts excavated through the rock to reach the lode. Jim had determined that this adit needed a clearance and maintenance inspection.
Ankle deep in water, Jim and a local labourer entered the adit through a shaft in the town itself. Jim had his measuring instruments, the labourer his tools; a telephone system had been set connecting Jim with a water board architect at the top of the shaft ready to plot the information, the measurements and bearings, passed on by Jim through the telephone. Jim and the labourer began to thread their way through the tunnel that measured around five feet by three feet for most of its length, around two hundred feet beneath the surface. After an hour or so when they were more than half way up the Stennack Jim noticed that the water level had reached his calves. The phone line connection had begun to crackle and was then lost. ‘I think it’s time to turn back’, he said to the labourer who had scarcely noticed the rising water. Their return journey in that dark, low narrow tunnel became a race for survival as the waters rose steadily around them towards the top of the five feet high ceiling in the tunnel. They just made it to their entry shaft before the waters covered them completely. A white-faced architect met them with the news that there had been a cloud burst over St Ives and the Stennack was awash.
Jim spoke with pride of the engineering achievements of H.E. Phillips, the man in charge of the mains water supply for St Ives from the 1930s. In 1935, Phillips oversaw the construction of a project to use the waters gathered in the now disused Trenwith mine area to supplement the town’s water supply, specifically to supply the Downalong area of central St Ives. Effectively, 200 million gallons of water were contained by an underground dam, controlled by a penstock, a valve or sluice gate, which in the course of time Jim through his rising seniority was able to operate. He quickly learnt to fasten himself to a nearby structure to stop himself from being washed away in the surge of thunderous water released as the valve opened.
The Trenwith mine had yielded both copper and tin in the first half of the nineteenth century but falling international prices forced its closure in 1856 as a copper producer. However, in 1908 Trenwith reopened as a radium mine under the control of the Germanowned British Radium company, with some of its output being used by Madame Curie in her experiments. It had been in the 1840s that some of the Trenwith copper ores had been found to be mixed with pitchblende, a mineral then of little perceived value, but later to be worked as the source of radium. The Company had plans to turn the Great Western Railway Tregenna Castle Hotel in St Ives into a health resort – a Cornish spa - utilising the supposed curative properties of the water but these ideas came to nothing and the mine itself was forced to shut down with the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914. 6 Jim told the tale passed down to him of a rich German who bought at some expense measures of radium to cure his illness and died of a radiation overdose soon after – but evidently the radium content of the water supplied to Downalong residents from 1935 was safe enough. Both John and Jim drank it as children in Downalong as did tens of thousands of others. Those who implemented European health and safety legislation in the 1970s perhaps erred on the side of caution when it was decided that Trenwith water was no longer suitable as a source.
One last story remains, a warning perhaps for the future since so many in St Ives live above the industrial mining landscape buried beneath the surface. Jim told the tale of the lady in one house in Trenwith Place towards the bottom of the Stennack who was awakened one night over fifty years ago by an alarming sound from downstairs. Fearful, she descended the stairs and looked round the living room. Nothing out of place. She opened the kitchen door, hesitated before entering the room, reached for the light and lo! Before her stretched a gaping hole, a sixty foot drop into the world beneath her feet. The kitchen floor had disappeared into an old, unmapped mine shaft. The shaft infill had collapsed.
To have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of Jim and John and see the survey plans, to have seen the jar containing almost pure tin extracted from the ore, is to have experienced the wonder of recapturing the past. All who value the understanding of those things that have shaped us will appreciate what we were gifted. A Cornishman, Nicholas Johnson, who played an instrumental part in the inscription of the Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape in the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2006, has stated that overall there was little recollection of mining’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heyday among the Cornish: ‘… once [the memory of mining] passes beyond your grandfather, it almost passes out of mind.’ I hope this essay can play some small part in keeping the past alive.