Thursday, 13 August 2015

Descent into a Cornish submarine mine in 1850

The remarkable photos taken by JC Burrow in the late 19th century and his accompanying notes on descending the mines with his equipment bear testimony to the hardships faced by miners working in the deep mines of Cornwall (postings of 25th May and 2nd July).
But there are few contemporary accounts of what it was like in those mines near Land's End, which worked rich copper lodes far out to sea- Cornwall's submarine mines (posting of 2nd October 2014).
A fascinating book was published in 1851 "Rambles beyond railways or notes in Cornwall taken a-foot" in which the author, W. Wilkie Collins, describes a walking tour of Cornwall with a companion in 1850, shortly before Brunel's railway line crossed the River Tamar and opened up Cornwall for mass tourism (posting of 10 December 2012).
On leaving Land's End the author describes how, walking northwards, after about 5 miles they reached the Botallack copper mine where, armed with a letter of introduction, they were escorted underground.
Approaching Botallack mines from Land's End, 2015
These were the days before portable cameras, so we must rely on Collins' vivid descriptions of Botallack, both on the surface and underground:
"We were told to go to the counting-house to present our credentials; and on our road thither, we beheld the buildings and machinery of the mine, literally stretching down the precipitous face of the cliff, from the land at the top, to the sea at the bottom. Here, we beheld a scaffolding perched on a rock that rose out of the waves—there, a steam-pump was at work raising gallons of water from the mine every minute, on a mere ledge of land half way down the steep cliff side".
The steam pump he refers to is the lower pumping engine of the famous Crowns Engine Houses. This was built in 1835 and in 1842 a discovery of rich copper ore was made in the 85 fathom (510 ft) level on Crowns Lode, extending out under the sea. This lode was the principal copper producing lode of the mine, and 7,200 tons of copper ore were produced in 1842-1845. By the time that Collins visited the mine the price of copper had fallen rapidly and tin soon became the profitable metal, the upper winding engine opening in 1862.
Botallack mines in the late 19th century......
..... and today
Collins describes the clothes that he was given for the mine tour:
"The clothing consisted of a flannel shirt, flannel drawers, canvas trousers, and a canvas jacket—all stained of a tawny copper colour; but all quite clean. A white night-cap and a round hat, composed of some iron-hard substance, well calculated to protect the head from any loose stones that might fall on it, completed the equipment; to which, three tallow-candles were afterwards added, two to hang at the buttonhole, one to carry in the hand."
As the winding engine was 12 years away, descent of the mine was by ladders, the dangers of doing this being described in the posting of 2nd July.
"We left the counting-house, and ascended the face of the cliff—then, walked a short distance along the edge, descended a little again, and stopped at a wooden platform built across a deep gully. Here, the miner pulled up a trap-door, and disclosed a perpendicular ladder leading down to a black hole, like the opening of a chimney....just as we seemed to be lowering ourselves into total darkness, we were desired to stand on a narrow landing-place opposite the ladder, and wait there while the miner went below for a light. He soon reascended to us, bringing, not only the light he had promised, but a large lump of damp clay with it. Having lighted our candles he stuck them against the front of our hats with the clay—in order, as he said, to leave both our hands free to us to use as we liked.
The process of getting down the ladders was not very pleasant. They were all quite perpendicular, the rounds were placed at irregular distances, were many of them much worn away, and were slippery with water and copper-ooze. Add to this, the narrowness of the shaft, the dripping wet rock shutting you in, as it were, all round your back and sides against the ladder - the fathomless darkness beneath—the light flaring immediately above you, as if your head was on fire—the voice of the miner below, rumbling away in dull echoes lower and lower into the bowels of the earth—the consciousness that if the rounds of the ladder broke, you might fall down a thousand feet or so of narrow tunnel in a moment—imagine all this, and you may easily realize what are the first impressions produced by a descent into a Cornish mine.
By the time we had got down seventy fathoms, or four hundred and twenty feet of perpendicular ladders, we stopped at another landing-place, just broad enough to afford standing room for us three. Here, the miner, pointing to an opening yawning horizontally in the rock at one side of us, said that this was the first gallery from the surface; that we had done with the ladders for the present; and that a little climbing and crawling were now to begin. Our path was a strange one, as we advanced through the rift. Rough stones of all sizes, holes here, and eminences there, impeded us at every yard. Sometimes, we could walk on in a stooping position—sometimes, we were obliged to crawl on our hands and knees. Occasionally, greater difficulties than these presented themselves. Certain parts of the gallery dipped into black, ugly-looking pits, crossed by thin planks, over which we walked dizzily, a little bewildered by the violent contrast between the flaring light that we carried above us, and the pitch darkness beneath and before us.
After we have walked a little farther in a crouching position, he calls a halt, makes a seat for us by sticking a piece of old board between the rocky walls of the gallery, and then proceeds to explain the exact subterranean position which we actually occupy. We are now four hundred yards out, under the bottom of the sea; and twenty fathoms or a hundred and twenty feet below the sea level. Coast-trade vessels are sailing over our heads.
One hundred and forty feet beneath us men are at work, and there are galleries deeper yet, even below that! The extraordinary position down the face of the cliff, of the engines and other works on the surface, at Botallack, is now explained. The mine is not excavated like other mines under the land, but under the sea! Having communicated these particulars, the miner next tells us to keep strict silence and listen. After listening for a few moments, a distant, unearthly noise becomes faintly audible—a long, low, mysterious moaning, which never changes, which is felt on the ear as well as heard by it—a sound that might proceed from some incalculable distance, from some far invisible height—a sound so unlike anything that is heard on the upper ground, in the free air of heaven; so sublimely mournful and still; so ghostly and impressive when listened to in the subterranean recesses of the earth, that we continue instinctively to hold our peace, as if enchanted by it, and think not of communicating to each other the awe and astonishment which it has inspired in us from the very first.
At last, the miner speaks again, and tells us that what we hear is the sound of the surf, lashing the rocks a hundred and twenty feet above us, and of the waves that are breaking on the beach beyond. The tide is now at the flow, and the sea is in no extraordinary state of agitation: so the sound is low and distant just at this period. But, when storms are at their height, when the ocean hurls mountain after mountain of water on the cliffs, then the noise is terrific; the roaring heard down here in the mine is so inexpressibly fierce and awful, that the boldest men at work are afraid to continue their labour. All ascend to the surface, to breathe the upper air and stand on the firm earth: dreading, though no such catastrophe has ever happened yet, that the sea will break in on them if they remain in the caverns below.
Hearing this, we get up to look at the rock above us. We are able to stand upright in the position we now occupy; and flaring our candles hither and thither in the darkness, can see the bright pure copper streaking the dark ceiling of the gallery in every direction. Lumps of ooze, of the most lustrous green colour, traversed by a natural network of thin red veins of iron, appear here and there in large irregular patches, over which water is dripping slowly and incessantly in certain places. This is the salt water percolating through invisible crannies in the rock. On stormy days it spirts out furiously in thin, continuous streams. Just over our heads we observe a wooden plug of the thickness of a man's leg; there is a hole here, and the plug is all that we have to keep out the sea."
And a reminder that rich seams of copper still lie below the Atlantic Ocean sea-floor:
"Immense wealth of metal is contained in the roof of this gallery, throughout its whole length; but it remains, and will always remain, untouched. The miners dare not take it, for it is part, and a great part, of the rock which forms their only protection against the sea; and which has been so far worked away here, that its thickness is limited to an average of three feet only between the water and the gallery in which we now stand. No one knows what might be the consequence of another day's labour with the pickaxe on any part of it."
And the retreat to the surface, or 'to grass':
"We next proceed to discuss the propriety of descending two hundred and forty feet more of ladders, for the sake of visiting that part of the mine where the men are at work. Two or three causes concur to make us doubt the wisdom of going lower. There is a hot, moist, sickly vapour floating about us, which becomes more oppressive every moment; we are already perspiring at every pore, as we were told we should; and our hands, faces, jackets, and trousers are all more or less covered with a mixture of mud, tallow, and iron-drippings, which we can feel and smell much more acutely than is exactly desirable. We ask the miner what there is to see lower down. He replies, nothing but men breaking ore with pickaxes; the galleries of the mine are alike, however deep they may go; when you have seen one you have seen all. The answer decides us—we determine to get back to the surface."
The 2nd edition of Rambles Beyond Railways..." is available from Amazon.


  1. Uau. Thanks, Barry, the text is fascinating!

  2. Such valuable historical documentation; it must never be lost or forgotten.


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