Thursday 2 July 2015

The life of a Cornish miner in perspective

Around this time last year my good friend and Elsevier publisher Dean Eastbury and I walked the 9 miles between Tintagel and Port Isaac, said to be one of the most demanding stretches of the whole 630 mile South West Way (posting of 30 July 2014). We both agreed that it was one of the hardest hikes we have ever done, and there is no way that I could have contemplated walking it again the next day. In all we had made a vertical ascent of 2285 feet in 4 hours, and all we wanted to do on arrival at Port Isaac was visit the local pub and down a couple of cool beers in double quick time.

Dean and I are regular hikers, fit and healthy, and were walking in the clear Cornish air. So let's try to put my posting of 25th May into perspective where I talked about the 'hellish conditions' in the deep mines of Cornwall in the 1890s, recorded by photographer extraordinaire J.C. Burrow.

An American geologist on LinkedIn commented on the posting and Burrow's photographs "primitive by today's standards, but "Hellish"? What in these photographs invokes the term "Hellish"?

Well, let me explain. First of all there were no cages to haul miners up and down the shaft in the early days, although some of the deeper mines installed man engines, as shown in the posting. The main method of accessing the mine workings was by a series of ladders, sometimes stretching down to depths of 2000 feet or more. Not surprisingly falls were commonplace, particularly at the end of a long shift, where the ascent up the ladders "to grass" would be the equivalent of the walk that Dean and I did in the sunshine.

But these were not fit and healthy hikers - the miners were prone to many different diseases as a result of working daily in hot, damp and dusty conditions underground. Bronchitis, silicosis, TB and rheumatism were all common complaints, making life expectancy short, and few miners in the early days were fit to work beyond the age of 40. Even in the late 20th century many tin miners died from silicosis caused by rock drilling, but in the 19th century there was no dust suppression by water. Particles of mica dust punctured the miners' lungs - it was a terrible, wasting illness.

Conditions at the rock face were almost unbearable, temperatures reaching 45C due to the very steep geothermal gradient in Cornish granite. The cramped, hot tunnel ends were occasionally fouled by the stench of human excrement. In such damp, moist conditions, a disease known as ancylostomiasis thrived, the symptoms of which were red skin blotches and anaemia, caused by contact with a parasitic hookworm that lived in human faeces. The air in the mine was polluted by dust and fumes from detonated explosives and could barely sustain a candle, some miners choosing to snub their candles out and work in complete darkness in order to conserve air.

All miners, including the women and children on the surface would work a ten hour day, six days a week in the 19th century, and although many miners and their families lived in cottages rented from the mining company, many would still have to walk several miles to and from work, in clothes wet with sweat from hours of underground toil.

Life for a miner was a far cry from the romantic view portrayed in so many of today's tourist brochures and the success of Cornwall's tin mining industry often overshadows the human cost. And there is me whingeing about the gruelling walk that Dean and I did. It really puts into perspective how lucky we are today.


  1. Yes, they were subject to many diseases due to the conditions, which as you point out were horrid. However, they had to be of sturdy stock. My Hambley forebears have been miners going back to the 1820s and likely beyond. My Dad's generation inhaled sulfur smoke as children from the roastyards that were used until the1930s in Copper Cliff, yet 5 of the 6 of them were in their 80s and 90s when they died, including an uncle who spent his entire career in the Copper Cliff Smelter. This is natural selection at work!

    1. Yes Doug, conditions around Sudbury must also have been pretty horrendous. What is it like these days?

  2. The completion of the Superstack in 1972 and the reductions in sulfur emissions going to the stack have resulted in much improved conditions. The NASA astronauts can no longer use Sudbury as an analog for the moon because vegetation has regenerated to an extent that anyone familiar with the conditions pre-1972 would scarcely believe. There have also been cleanups in the watersheds-- it is now allowable to swim in Kelly Lake, which is downstream of the slag heaps. It was not considered safe to swim in it for close to 100 years...

  3. Burrows photos are anything but "hellish." For one thing they are "posed," with the debris and broken rock (that would otherwise have been there) removed. Conversely, he is to be commended for being able to get the photos at all. In fact, prior to the advent of digital cameras, one needed to use a 35-mm camera with a good lens together with 400 or 800 film to get an image and that with lots of spotlights...

  4. The photos aren't hellish, but the conditions underground certainly were. And yes, of course they were posed, that was the nature of photos in those days with very long exposures.


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