My title for this blogpost is borrowed from The Trevithick Society's 1992 publication: Levant: A Champion Cornish Mine by John Corin. The book has since been edited and expanded by Peter Joseph. My purchase of a 2013 edition would have happened within a year of arriving as a resident in Cornwall in January of that year. It has proved a most useful read.
|Levant Mine - a National Trust image|
I am one of those 'BOYS' in the title - which is a bit of a cheat because I am not proper Cornish. The other 'BOY' is most certainly a proper Cornish 'boy'. He is John Toman, a former chief surveyor and relief mine captain at South Crofty Mine in Camborne and the father of Belinda, one of our neighbours, up the Stennack in St Ives where we live. John is a very young 83 years and a man of God, an identity I gave him in my latest book, Dying to Know - Running through a Pandemic, published earlier this year.
John was my guide yesterday, Tuesday 24 May 2022, when we explored the grounds of Levant Mine. Am I a fortunate boy! I can't hope to share all that I learned yesterday - I am still digesting some of the technical detail, such as the geological importance of the 'contact' between the killas and the granite for locating the lodes of tin or copper, and the need to find the 1,000 foot level - but I would like to communicate a measure of the pleasure and pride that John feels for his lifetime in mining, and hisrespect for the men he knew in those mining years that began in 1960. The miners he remembers were men of charisma and strength, with such talents of brain and brawn. They were of course so young, too.
I have included a video made from the photos I took yesterday and you can see a number of images of the Levant Zawm - a zawm is a Cornish term for a chasm, large or small, in the cliff caused by erosion along a lode or other line of weakness. Notice the blue staining from the copper lode - and look for the granite stone walls of a ruined, roofless building. This was the workshop of the Rescorla family who for generations had made their living extracting the last of the metal from the crushed ore that had made its way down from the stamps. This place was called the 'tailings' since it was the tail end of the process. The Rescorlas then discarded the deads, the waste ore, into the sea. When John Toman started work at the beginning of the 1960s, he remembers seeing the Rescorla family at work in their workshop. It was no ruin, then.
|The Levant Zawm with the remains of the Rescorlas' workshop in the foreground|
John also pays handsome tribute to his boss in those early days, the late Jack Trounson, who earned such renown in the mining community and was later a president (1981-87) of The Trevithick Society.
Back in the late 19th century, when there was no such thing as Health and Safety, the average age of mortality for a miner was around 47; a typical miner had actually stopped working underground by the age of 28; he had 19 years left to see out his days, working with the children and the bal maidens on the surface for a time, before his respiratory problems became so acute he had to stay at home wheezing his life away at the cottage door.
|Cornish tin miners in the 1890s|
In the last century, by 1960 when John started his mining career, conditions had improved dramatically, but there was still the risk of ill-health and death. The men whom John remembers could not sustain their feats as drillers, blasters, and stopers beyond their thirties; they finished their time on the surface as general labourers. The strength and health of those men who worked and filled and emptied the trams on the tramways, deep down in the mine, also failed eventually.
John told me, yesterday, this striking story about such trammers, numbers of whom were Italian by birth:
"I was waiting for the bus at Penzance quite recently and this older man was next to me in the queue. He turned round and said: 'Where are you from?' and I said 'St Ives - I'm going back home'. I could tell from his voice that he had Italian blood in him. 'What about you?', I said. 'Where are you from?' He replied that he lived in Penzance now, in a big house with his family, but he had lived in Camborne. I said 'What did you do? and he said 'I worked as a trammer at Crofty'. I told him I had worked at Crofty, too. We worked out that he stopped working at Crofty the year before I arrived. I began to ask him for news of trammers I had known in their prime.
I uttered the name of the first Italian trammer that came to mind. Back came the reply. 'Dead'.
I offered another name I remembered. 'Dead'.
And then another. 'Dead'.
One last shot. 'Dead'
There was a brief silence, and then I asked: 'How come you are still alive?'.
'I only worked there for four years, from 1955-1959. What about you? You're still alive.'
I explained that much of my time was spent above ground because of my work as a surveyor. He nodded. We both understood."
Mining shortened life spans, even in the last century. Respiratory systems were not designed to sustain the dangers of mining. These are matters I explore in the book, Mine to Die, I am writing at present (around 15,000 words produced so far). But there were other risks too, down a copper or tin mine, extracting the metal ore. The Levant mine has a terrible story in its past that reveals the risk of industrial accident. John and I ate our sandwiches from our lunch boxes, sitting close to the site of the Man Engine shaft, where 31 miners died in 1919. We had paid our respects, a few minutes before.
|Thirty-one miners died in a Levant mine shaft - this memorial plaque is|
The official inquiry was held by an Inspector of Mines and the Inquest Jury's verdict was 'accidental death'. As my Levant book says, there would be more legal consequences today. During the early 19th century, as mines grew deeper and ladder-ways grew longer, it was realized that a mechanical means of raising and lowering men in the shaft would be more efficient and cost-effective, as we say now. No one was keeping a tally of how many exhausted men missed their step and fell to their death from such ladders. By 1856, a man-engine had been installed in the Engine Shaft at Lelant. On 20 October 1919, the rod that was attached to the beam at the top by two strap plates broke. An inspection three years before had failed to reveal a flaw. On that autumn day in 1919, there was a strange vibration in the machine and those fortunate enough to arrive at the surface very soon noticed that they had not been followed. The rescue parties had to make their way down the cliff to enter the mine by the adit. The upper part of the man-engine had fallen 46 fathoms (276 feet) to the 70 fathom (420 feet) level, destroying platforms as it went. This caused most of the casualties. The last body was brought out five days after the incident.
In 1970, a BBC 2 programme used surviving eyewitness accounts to tell the story of the Levant Mine disaster:
'The ladders was swinging 'forth and back, I found it very dangerous. A moan came from a man in front of me and there was a little piece of ladder there. ... I was a bunch of nerves, believe me, and there he was with all the slush and everything running from the shaft, right down his face and mouth, and he was pinned by his right hand and knee to the wall of the shaft one side, and the left hand outstretched and jammed that side. He started to moan and groan so, what I done, was put some timber there to take away the water that was runnin' in his face, and he was feeling very ... like ... he wasn't ... closed up then, went quiet so I guessed that I'd done something for him. Poor fellow he was picked up 'bout 5 o'clock in the mornin' ... He died later.'
William Lawry was a young lad who had started underground only about three weeks before. He had a very narrow escape:
'I was two steps above what we call the 80, that's 80 fathom (480 feet down the mine). That's where I was when the engine broke away and I was dug out two steps below the 80 - a fall of a matter of 48 feet. Now the man I worked with, he was a step above me and he was found down 110 (a fall of over 200 feet), and the man that was below me (one step below, a distance of 12 feet), a man called Willie Walters, he was dug out before they found me, and he was dead. So actually I was very, very fortunate. I had 36 stitches in my face and neck, lost all my front teeth, a collar broke, and eight ribs crushed. But - took me 12 months before I started to work again.'
Rest in peace, Levant miners.
Here is the video I made: