Back in June, Jim (Devon and Cornwall NT Archaeologist) took me to Levant. In August, I spent a week at St Just, the local tin mining capital, a little south-west from Botallack and Levant along the West Cornwall coast.
Approaching the town, the landscape is studded with ruined towers and engine houses. On the skyline, two particular buildings stand out from St Just. On the left is the parish church tower and on the right is a much larger stone warehouse like building. Some great storehouse for tin ore perhaps.. no it’s the Wesleyan Chapel.
Tin mining here dates back to the Bronze Age but what you see when walking the beautiful rocky coastline are warning signs for deep shafts, piles of overgrown rock and debris and engine houses, lots of 19th century engine houses. Advances in steam engine technology were pioneered here. The mining remains have World Heritage Site status.. but how did it work and who was involved? Why would you need so many chimneys?
At Levant, we looked out to sea and Jim said that the best tin and copper ore veins went out under the ocean and that’s where the mine shafts lead, hundreds of metres out below the Atlantic. Sometimes the mines strayed too close to the sea bed in search of ore, the roof weeped water and was patched with wood and cement. In 1893, the Rev Horsefield described how the sea was an audible presence in the miners’ lives “and so near the surface of the bed of the sea that the rolling of the boulders to and fro and the roaring of the waves are distinctly heard by them”
That’s why so many engine houses are perched above the cliffs. Engines to ventilate the mines, to pump out the water that seeped into the workings, to bring up the ore …and at Levant they had a man-engine that took the miners down to the workings. They’d change in the dry-room, walk down the tunnel, take a lump of clay from their alcove above the shaft and then fix a lighted candle with the clay to the helmet. Not an easy place to work.. it was hot in the bowels of the earth..sometimes they just wore boots and helmets.
I found Rev Horsefield’s book in the cottage I stayed in at St Just and he, a rector from Manchester, compared the Cornish miners with the coal miners of Lancashire. In contrast to many of the miners he’d known, he said that the Cornish miners were full of faith in God. They worshiped in the great Weslyan church of St Just and other chapels along the coast (the Botallack Sunday School building is huge) and they sang hymns on their way to work. ‘They sang in the mines’ said Jim. “Have you ever been down a Cornish mine”. “No I said”.. “The acoustics are wonderful”.
The Reverend goes through the whole process: the compressed air drill at the mine face, the transport of the ore to the summit. Gangs of men broke the rock into smaller pieces and it was taken to a crushing machine to smash into powder. The powder was taken by water into a furnace where intense heat burnt off the arsenic from the ore which was deposited on the walls as a white powder. This was scraped from the walls from time to time and sold as the first product. From the calciner the remaining ore was conveyed by water to a series of soup-plate like features or buddles where the heavy tin gradually settled out and was collected.. the second product. Beyond this, the remaining material, with the lighter copper, was carried by water to a tank filled with old iron. The copper collected on the iron and was scraped off for a third product. So not just tin mines… it begins to make sense of all the ruins, the pits and the towers..
In 1919, less than a year after many miners returned from the horrors of the Great War trenches, the man-engine broke and the shaft bringing men up after a day’s work collapsed killing 31 of them.
These were dangerous places, abandoned shafts filled with water and were forgotten, sometimes new mine-shafts broke into them by mistake. This would release a tide of water which could drown the miners before they reached the ladders to escape. The Rev wrote of the 1893 Wheel Owles disaster near Botallack “As the torrent rushed into Wheal Owles it pushed the air before it, creating a great wind which blew out all the lights, plunging the terrified miners into absolute darkness. Those working on the upper levels narrowly escaped with their lives. Nineteen men and a boy were never seen again.Their remains are still entombed in the flooded workings.”
A meeting of 1000 miners took place at St Just demanding that the mine owners recover the bodies.. but it would cost £3000 and the mine was in financial difficulties.
Most of the Cornish tin workings closed in the later 19th century and the miners emigrated to find new opportunities in places like Canada and Australia. There are still many communities containing the descendants of exiled Cornish miners. A few years ago, we bumped into this global history at Greymouth on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand. A remote place, far from Cornwall, where tin miners had made a fresh life for themselves to quarry new veins of ore from under the sub-tropical bush.
Ding Dong, Levant and Wheal Jessie
Standing like bad broken teeth
in the jaw-bone of the Cornish land.
Are these the giants of the legends?
Singing in the man engine
Light song in the darkness and seeping damp
Songs of joy and youth in the open bath house
‘Old Hundred’chanting in the mist
and fog of the March dawn.
‘All people that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’
Stump, stump of the engine’s heart beating.
Songs of glory and of joy,
Rushing up,up on the waves of heat,
From the rumbling intestines
of Earth’s great stomach (Scott Tutthill, ‘Song for Past Cornish Miners’)