Sunday, 7 August 2016

Huge puppet honours Cornish innovation in mining

For the past two weeks the largest mechanical puppet ever constructed in Britain has been performing on a 130-mile journey from Tavistock in West Devon and through each of the ten World Heritage mining areas in the historic Cornish landscape, accompanied by more than a dozen "miners" and traditional "bal-maidens" who had the job of animating the steam-powered giant.
The epic journey of the giant "Man Engine", weighing 40 tonnes and over 10 metres tall when standing, marked the tenth anniversary of the date when the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The "Man Engine" at Geevor mine
 
Man engine at Dolcoath mine,
Camborne in the 1890s
Yesterday it came to the end of its journey, in the far west of Cornwall, via Poldark country to the Geevor tin mine, which ceased operations in 1990. Geevor is the most easterly of the submarine mines which worked copper and tin deposits far out beneath the sea bed. The submarine mines area was a fitting terminus for the Man Engine, named after one of Cornwall's most infamous innovations. Essentially a moving ladder, the man-engine worked by fixing platforms on the wooden rods, connected to the beam engine on the surface, which moved slowly up and down in the shaft. There were platforms and handles on the side of the shaft with similar platforms and handles on the moving rod. To go up the shaft, the miner would step onto the platform on the rod and ride up to the next platform. Here he would step onto a platform onto the shaft. He would repeat this until he got to the top.
A short distance westerly from Geevor is Levant, where copper and tin were mined for generations, and the mine workings extend over a mile out under the sea bed. in 1857 a man engine was installed to carry men many fathoms up and down the mine. In 1919, the man engine suffered a disastrous failure when a link between the rod and the engine snapped, killing 31 men, the tragedy sounding the death knell of Levant mining, which experienced a steady decline until its final closure in 1930.
Fittingly, to mark the end of the journey of the Man Engine, the names of all those killed in the Levant disaster were read out, together with the names of the 19 men and one young boy, who was on his first week at the mine, who died in January 1893 when flood water broke through the underground workings of Wheal Owles, west of Botallack. Their bodies were never recovered and the mine remained closed from that day.
Levant and Wheal Owles today
The Man Engine has been not only a celebration of Cornish mining but a reminder of the hardships and tragedies suffered by Cornish miners over the centuries.

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