Monday, 25 May 2015

An appreciation of JC Burrow- pioneering underground mining photographer

As many of you know, I started my career as a freelance photographer, long before digital photos were even dreamt about, so I have a pretty good understanding of f-numbers, shutter speeds, film speeds etc. Which is why I marvel at the photo below, taken deep underground in the East Pool tin mine, Cornwall. What makes this even more remarkable is that it was taken by a Camborne photographer, John Charles Burrow, who died 100 years ago last October! During the early 1890s he was commissioned by the owners of four of Cornwall's deepest mines, Dolcoath, East Pool, Cook's Kitchen and Blue Hills, to capture life underground.
 In order to do this Burrow, a pioneer of early flash photography, had to overcome the formidable difficulties of illuminating the workings by artificial means. He used limelight to set up his tableaux, an intense illumination being created in limelight burners when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide). Limelights required a full-time operator to regulate the oxygen and hydrogen gases and rotate the block of lime but they were not suited to providing light for the photographs as limelight doesn't give off very much blue light, to which early photographic plates were sensitive, so very long exposures were needed in a light so bright that the subjects tended to close their eyes. Light for the photographs was provided by magnesium flash powder, magnesium mixed with an oxidising agent such as potassium chlorate, which would ignite with very little persuasion by means of a miner's candle. Such early flash photography was not synchronised of course. This meant that the camera had to be set up on a tripod, the shutter opened, the flash triggered, and the shutter closed again - a technique known as open flash. In order to illuminate large spaces in an underground mine the shutter had to be opened for multiple exposures, so as to use the flash at different places to provide more even illumination.
Due to its "lightness, portability and moderate size" his favoured camera was a half-plate Kinnear bellows camera, similar to that on the left, using double dark slides. The camera was mounted on a sliding tripod, as sometimes it had to be tilted at an angle of 60 deg, and the front leg tied to a rock to prevent overbalancing! His wonderful series of photos was published in a book, 'Mongst Mine and Miners, in 1893, co-authored by William Thomas who provided descriptions of the scenes and the methods of working. The book was used as a teaching aid at the newly formed Camborne School of Mining.

Apart from the photographic obstacles that had to be overcome in those early days, there was also the considerable difficulty of transporting the camera, tripod, oxygen and hydrogen cylinders and flash materials underground, in light provided only by candles worn on helmets or caps. Ladders were most commonly used to progress from level to level, as shown in the photo on the right taken at the 180 level at East Pool Mine (the 180 level is 1080 feet below the surface, all depths in Cornish mines being measured in fathoms, a familiar measure to Cornishmen with their sea-faring tradition- similarly the head man on the mine was the Mine Captain, a term still used internationally today). Mortality rate among the miners was very high, due to rock falls, bad air and lung disease, but also due to the state of exhaustion produced daily by climbing to and from work on the ladders, it not being uncommon for 3 hours of a working day being spent on the ladders.
In the deeper mines man-engines were often installed, and the photo on the left shows Burrow's remarkable photo of the man-engine at Dolcoath. 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 and which were connected to the pump at the bottom of the mine. 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. Although intrinsically dangerous, the use of a man engine was in practice safer than climbing long ladders: it was less risky to be carried up at the end of a hard shift than to climb a ladder and risk falling because of exhaustion. It was also popular with the miners as they only got paid when they started work underground, so speeding up their journey to work increased their wages!
And work was dangerous and arduous in the extreme. From the 17th century techniques for drilling holes in rock were developed. In Cornwall a drill rod, or ‘borer’ was used to create the hole using a hammer. The borer was turned after each hit of the hammer, which would chip out a piece of rock, eventually creating a round hole, or ‘shothole’. Gunpowder could be poured into the hole and ignited to blast the rock apart. Drilling holes in the hard rock of Cornwall was laborious and time consuming and it could take many hours of strenuous effort to bore a 2ft (60cms) hole. Where the lodes of tin ore were narrow, miners had to do single hand drilling. The miner held the drill rod with one hand and used the other hand to hammer. ‘Double handed drilling’ where one man held and turned the drill whilst it was struck by two men with hammers was faster and often practiced where the lodes were wider. In the photo below, taken at East Pool Mine, the holes are being bored vertically upwards and the man turning the drill rod must have had complete confidence in the skill of his colleagues!
Fatalities and serious injuries were commonplace due to men falling from ladders due to sheer exhaustion, and to the ever-present threat of rockfalls, weak hanging walls being supported by wooden props, as in the first photograph above, where a suspicious part of the roof is propped by three pieces of Norway pine. The photo below, at the Blue Hills Mine, shows men putting in a new prop to support the roof.

The photo on the left was taken at the 412 level (2472 ft) level at Dolcoath Mine, where massive supports were in place, as the lode was of great width and the walls unreliable. Not long after Burrow took this photo the whole of the 'stull', or series of timbers, collapsed, killing seven of the men working underneath, one man being rescued unhurt after 37 hours.
Mining in Cornwall will forever be associated with tin, but when mining was at its peak it was copper which was the major metal mined. By the early 19th century Cornwall was the world's greatest producer of copper, as by 1740 deep mining had been made possible by the invention of the steam engine which was used to pump the water from the mines (see posting of 25 April 2015). By the mid 19th century, however, the rich copper deposits had become exhausted, and with the discovery of huge deposits in America the price of copper fell. However tin ore had been found in some of the deeper mines and, although on a smaller scale than copper mining, this led to a second mining boom and almost half of the world's supply of tin in the mid-nineteenth century was mined in Cornwall and Devon. By the end of the 1870's, however, this premium position was lost, with the emergence of Malaysia as the leading producer, and the discovery of rich deposits in Australia. So by the time that Burrow took his photographs mining in Cornwall was in rapid decline and by the end of the century only nine mines of any consequence remained, where 300 had flourished 30 years earlier.
Many mines closed in the 1890s and Cornish miners took their deep mining expertise to various parts of the world, notably the newly found deep gold reefs on the South African Witwatersrand. Some of the larger Cornish mines struggled on; Camborne's Dolcoath, the "Queen of Cornish Mines" originally mined copper but as this became exhausted tin was mined at depth and by 1882 had reached a depth of 2160 feet. It eventually became the world's deepest tin mine at 3300 ft but closed in 1920 when virtually worked out.
The last Cornish tin mine to close was South Crofty in 1998. Now all that remains of a once mighty industry are the evocative ruined engine houses, so much a part of the Cornish landscape, beloved of tourists, photographers and artists. But as you gaze in wonder at these crumbling granite structures, standing in now tranquil and stunning settings, spare a thought for the ghosts of those old miners who toiled and died in hellish conditions deep in the bowels of the earth, and were recorded for posterity by the camera of one of the great pioneers of photography, John Charles Burrow.



  1. Fascinating!

    I visited Cornwall last year with a special interest for ancient mining, but I didn't come across Burrow's early pictures.
    This is a true treasure! Is there any textbook with high quality reprints of Burrow's work, except the 1893 edition ?
    I wonder which is the very first picture ever taken underground.
    In Liege, I am aware of Gustave Marrissiaux 's work in coal mines but that is not before 1904-1905.[view]=search_item_list

    Thanks for this contribution
    Eric Pirard (U Liege, Belgium)

    1. Hi Eric. The book 'Mongst Mines and Miners, was reprinted in 1965 by D. Bradford Barton Ltd, but only a few copies remain. I managed to buy one (very expensive) from Amazon

  2. what a gem! interesting piece of history - thanks for sharing

  3. Having just watched the Poldark series on TV, your article has brought to life how arduous conditions were underground in those days. The man engine sounds fearsome, but why did they not use cages to take men up and down?
    Gregory Simpson, Cardiff, UK

    1. Cages could have been used in the early 1890s but the men and the owners preferred the man engine. The man engine took men up and down the shaft in a continuous stream, whereas cages were intermittent and held only a few men at a time. So on average it was quicker to move men by man engine, which satisfied the men and the owners. The man engine in fact had a fairly good safety record but the last to operate was that at Levant (see Cornwall's Submarine Mines- posting of 2nd October 2014), where in 1919 31 miners plunged hundreds of fathoms down the shaft to their deaths when the cap that held the man engine rod broke.

  4. Thanks Barry, this is really fascinating and as you had told me during Nickel '15, the photo quality is amazing.
    Best regards,
    Ian Townsend, Outotec, UK

  5. Tony Clarke, of King Edward Mine Museum, tells me that in 1886 the man-engine at Dolcoath was extended down to the 375-fathom level (2,250 ft.). It was finally taken out in 1897, after being idle for a time.

  6. One small thing to add. The big advantage of flash powder was that you could alter the charge according to the area or distance you had to cover (but with a big flash watch out for the smoke).
    Also, the light was spread very evenly, unlike that of an electronic flash, for example, which is much more directional and gives hard shadows. I found that out using an old bulb flash gun underground once. Must have been a bit of a bugger coping with condensation on the lens etc. underground.
    Cheers, Look forward to your KEM visit in June
    Tony Clarke, KEM Museum, Camborne

    1. Thanks Tony. Burrow did report that the high temperature of the mines caused condensation problems on the camera and the lens. And you are also right about the fog caused by magnesium flares - it was often impossible to take a second exposure on the same day because of this.
      See you at KEM in 2 weeks time with the Physical Separation '15 delegates

  7. My name is Ross Burrow... MEI blog. JC Burrow is my Great, Great Grandfather. Loved What you wrote. I have heard much about him, heresy possibly, at times via our family... You know how it is... We have the original "mongst, mines and miners". Contact if you wish. Cheers. Ross Burrow

    1. Good to hear from you Ross. I have great admiration for what your great great grandfather achieved

  8. An excellent article on JC Burrow by Francis Edwards


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment to and I will submit on your behalf