Sunday, 20 October 2019

The centenary of Cornwall's worst mining disaster

The iconic Crowns Engine houses at Botallack near Land's End typify 19th century tin mining, two engine houses, the large one for pumping water, and the smaller one for hoisting ore from the depths.
Crowns Engine houses, the lower for pumping, the upper for hoisting
But how did the miners get underground, I am often asked? In the majority of cases it was via ladders which disappeared into the gloom via narrow openings on the surface (Descent into a Cornish submarine mine in 1850, posting of 13 August 2015). 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. 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!
Ascent "to grass" in deep Cornish mines, 1890, by ladders and man-engine
Levant, like nearby Botallack, was one of Cornwall's submarine mines (posting of 2nd October 2014) where the mineral lodes extended beneath the ocean floor in a vast labyrinth of tunnels extending more than a mile out to sea.
A man engine was installed at Levant in 1857 but in 1919 it suffered a disastrous failure when a link between the rod and the engine snapped, killing 31 men, injuring many others and devastating the St. Just district mining community. This tragedy was the death knell of Levant mining, which experienced a steady decline until its final closure in 1930.
Levant Mine as it is today
Today was the 100th anniversary of the disaster and hundreds of people, including relatives of those killed, attended a very moving service this afternoon in the ruins of the mine 'dry' from where the miners accessed the tunnel which led to the man-engine, and their 30 minute journey to a depth of 1600 ft. The disaster was particularly tragic as many of these men had survived the horrors of the Great War, the role of experienced miners in the battlefields of Belgium and France testing their courage and endurance to extreme limits. 
Some of the relatives of the miners who perished, at the centenary service
Pupils from Cape Cornwall school
Representing the Cornish Mining Sundowners at the man-engine shaft:
Barry Wills, Linda Shimmield, Barbara Wills, Sam Wood and Carol Richards
This afternoon's service, and enactment of the events of October 20th 1919 by pupils from nearby Cape Cornwall school, was a reminder of how dangerous mining was, and still is, but also of the pride that miners have in their profession, recognising its vital importance to society, a view which unfortunately is not appreciated by many outside our industry.
A memorial in honour of the courageous men of the St. Just Mining District.
who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions, and the women
and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore


  1. nice one Barry.
    Steve Canby

  2. Thanks, Barry. This was a nice memorial to a very tragic event.

    Doug Hambley, PE, PEng, PG
    7+ generation Cornish miner/mining engineer
    Lakewood, Colorado


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