Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The Levant Man-Engine Disaster of 1919: a contemporary account

One year ago today Barbara and I were in the St. Just mining district of Cornwall for the centenary service of remembrance of one of Cornwall's worst mining disasters, at one of the county's oldest, richest and most famous mines, Levant ( posting of 20th October 2019).

October 20th 2019 in the miners' dry

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, after 110 years of continuous operation, in which it had produced 30,000 tons of 'black tin' (cassiterite concentrate) and 130,000 tons of copper ore, averaging 9% copper.

There are few contemporary accounts of life as a Cornish miner, toiling deep within the bowels of the earth, and in the case of Levant, one of the submarine mines, under the sea bed and over a mile out to sea. The 19th century author W. Wilkie Collins wrote about his brief and frightening descent by ladders down one of the submarine mines in 1850 (posting of 13th August 2015), but one of the most graphic accounts of life underground is by a young miner, Raymond Harry, who provided a vivid account of his early working life at Levant from 1917-1919. The Mine Under the Sea is a short book, originally published as an eight part serial in the Cornish Magazine in 1961 and is in book form published by Levant Publications (2007).

Raymond Harry was born on Friday 13th March 1903. He wrote under the pseudonym of Jack Penhale and the book is overlaid by the tragedy of the Man-Engine and also by the price that so any miners paid for their years underground. 

Raymond's father was a St. Just miner who, like so many others when Cornish mining was in decline, left Cornwall for the riches of the Rand goldfields and returned a few years later, a man old before his time “with hollow, sunken cheeks and without lungs to breathe”, the price of being exposed to fine quartz dust in poorly ventilated mines. William Thomas Harry went to South Africa in 1910 and returned in 1916 and by the end of 1917 he was dead at the age of 43. This was the fate of many young Cornishmen, lured by payments of around £100 per month, rather than the £6 per month in Cornwall. To live to 45 was to be an old man, and these young men knew the danger but thought to escape it.

In 1917 the bloodbath in Europe showed no signs of abatement and Cornish miners as young as 18 were needed to fight on the Western Front and to bore tunnels through no-man's land and plant explosives under German trenches. "Jack Penhale" was only 14 years old when he became a miner in 1917, first working on the surface in the 'dressing plant', but as the work was heavy and Jack was a small boy, he soon decided to seek his living underground and follow his father's footsteps into the mine.

So on his first day Jack wonders what he will find 2000 feet below the surface and under the bed of the sea as he enters the changing house, or "dry". The dry was brought into use in 1889, together with a connecting tunnel to the man engine shaft. This tunnel enabled men to get off the man engine, four fathoms (24 feet) below the surface, instead of at the surface, and walk into the dry without exposing themselves to the weather after coming from the hot mine. Near the entrance to the shaft was a bath, set into the concrete surface of the dry. Miners could only work about 6 hours at a time in the depths of the mine shafts, in part because it took so long to reach the working face and return. When they did return they were covered in dust and dirt and they took it in turns to bathe in the open tub, so that by the time the last man got in the water was filthy.

The ruins of the dry today, a pleasant end of a short walk from nearby Pendeen Lighthouse
The dry in the early 1900s. The railings in the foreground are around
the spiral staircase leading to the man-engine tunnel
Grandson William by the bath near the man-engine staircase
The Man-Engine tunnel today

Jack must have felt conspicuous in his clean clothes, unlike the other miners who changed into clothes stained red from the hematite in the ore - linen trousers, a thin coat, hobnail boots and a strong helmet onto which was attached, by a ball of clay, a candle, the only source of illumination underground.

Pupils from the Cape Cornwall school by the dry at the centenary service

Will, an experienced miner, was allocated to take care of Jack's first descent into the abyss as there was no cage to lower the men down the main shaft a couple of hundred yards from the dry. Instead Jack and his companion would have to ride the ancient man-engine, which for 60 years had been taking men 1600 ft below ground, although Jack would know that the miners referred to this as the 266 fathom level, all depths on Cornish mines being measured in the ways of the County's sea-faring tradition, a fathom being 6 ft. Likewise the man in charge of the mine was the Captain.

Lighting their candles, Will and Jack descended the stairs leading to the darkness of the 60 yard tunnel leading to the man-engine, where a number of miners were waiting in turn to step onto the huge plunging wooden rod, activated in its up and down motion by a steam-driven beam engine on the surface. Six times every minute the beam rose and fell and one by one Jack watched the men disappear down the shaft, and then it was his turn to ride the man-engine, in tandem with his new companion Will.

As the beam stopped briefly at the top of its stroke, Jack, with no doubt much apprehension, was guided by Will onto one of the rod's 133 steps, attached 12 feet apart all the way to the bottom of the shaft. At the side of the shaft were corresponding platforms, or sollars, also spaced at 12 foot intervals. Grasping the iron handle attached to the rod the beam reversed, and Will and Jack were carried their first 2 fathoms into the void, stepping off the platform as the beam reached the end of its downward stroke. They then waited for the next platform to come up and stepped onto it as the rod stopped. 

And so, on and off 133 times, they make their way down to the 266 fathom level. During the 25 minute journey Jack's candle shows the rocky sides of the shaft glistening with dampness, and at two levels large wooden launders crossed the shaft carrying water from the upper workings of the mine into adits leading out to the cliffs. These adits prevented the water from percolating down to the lower working, from where it would have to be pumped up again by the giant Cornish pump at the main shaft. At the 24 and 110 fathom levels he sees balance boxes, huge boxes filled with stones and iron, pivoted to the rod and relieving the beam engine of the full weight of the rod and its column of men.

Jack also has time to notice that beside the rising and falling rod are ladders leading to the surface, and a wire rope which can be used to signal the beam engine driver. At the 150 fathom level the shaft narrowed for 6 fathoms, with barely room for the rod and step, but Jack did not know that two years later the lives of many men would be saved by this brief narrowing of the shaft.

Finally reaching the 266 fathom level, Jack and Will leave their step and move seawards through the low and narrow tunnel leading to the main pumping shaft, where a ladderway leads further into the depths, next to the plunging rod of the pump, which is so close to the ladders that climbers could easily be struck by the rod and knocked down the shaft. Three ladders Jack and Will descend, with the swish of water echoing in their ears, the water being pumped through a large vertical pipe and forced up from one level to the higher one by the sheer weight of the immense wooden rod. Finally reaching the 278 fathom level, Will leaves Jack in the charge of another experienced miner, who looks after him for the day, taking him out to the submarine workings of Levant, the mine under the sea......

Aerial view showing the dry and the main shafts
Levant in the 1890s with pumping engine house in the centre

Two years later Jack is an experienced miner. He has learned from experience how death is an ever present threat, having narrowly survived a cave-in and a nightmare ascent of 1400 feet in total darkness by ladders in the main pumping shaft, with water cascading down on him and the blacksmith, who had been asked to find the source of a major fault in the huge pump. But in October 1919 Jack had his closest brush with death.

For every day of his life as a miner he had ridden the ancient man-engine down into the depths, one of 50-60 men in each of the three eight-hour shifts. But in the October of that fateful month Jack and his companions had noticed a slight vibration as they neared the surface, so faint as to cause little concern.

On that Monday of October 20th Jack joined the other men coming from their various working places and hurried to the man-engine shaft, hoping to be the first there to secure a step.  Like many of the younger men in the upper levels, Jack chose to climb ladders in the pumping shaft before moving to the man-engine shaft at the 120 fathom level where he waited on the sollar for the engine to begin its everlasting bobbing up and down, before stepping on the rod for the very last time, on the very last man-engine in the world.

As he was transported up the shaft, step after step, the tremble in the rod seemed plainer than in previous days but soon he reached the surface and walked through the tunnel and up the spiral staircase to the dry, having escaped the holocaust by about one minute.

In the dry things seemed unusually quiet and nobody else was coming up the stairway. One of the miners peered down then walked back along the tunnel returning in moments shouting "the engine is gone!".

Looking down the stairway leading to the man-engine tunnel
The man-engine was indeed gone. It had collapsed at almost the height of its upwards stroke, falling back on itself and carrying ladders, solars, men crashing down to the 150 fathom level, piling up on itself in this narrow part of the shaft, where most of the fatalities occurred.

The rescue operation was truly heroic, men from Levant and other mines entering the workings via the adits on the cliffs, or by other shafts through inter-connecting levels, returning horror-sticken by the indescribable scenes that they had witnessed in the shaft. The last of the 31 bodies was recovered five days after the accident. 

The man engine had been smashed beyond repair so a week after the disaster it was decided that operations would resume but be confined to the upper 150 fathoms, the men having to resort to ladders, the primitive conditions of an earlier age before the invention of the marvellous labour-saving machine.

Today, 90 years after its closure, Levant is owned by the National Trust, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region of Cornwall's submarine mines. At the heart of what is now a museum is the restored 1840s beam engine, the only engine in Cornwall still powered by steam.

Levant today

And what became of "Jack Penrose"? Raymond Harry left Levant in 1921 for Canada and the USA. In 1924 he worked as a gold miner in Timmins, Ontario, and he returned to Cornwall in 1928, where he opened a grocery shop not far from Levant. He sold the shop in 1960 and moved to Penzance but what became of him after that is a mystery. 



  1. Barry,
    Let me salute you for gathering such detailed history, the way you narrate and make strong impression with those photos--how you gather--you are a wonder.
    So much to note how people worked so hard in such difficult times and conditions with safety and security not guaranteed which kept the wheels of mining going which led to all the progress of Society over the years.
    The Moral--with all the scientific and technological tools, our profession is getting a bad image--
    Hope we take a hard look at the past and make the future of our profession more safe, environmentally acceptable to Society with practices which are energy efficient and economical--we have to make it more attractive and exciting and earn the respect we deserve from the Society.

  2. What a fascinating read!! I am attempting to order ‘The Mine Under the Sea’. Your descriptions of the scenes were so real. I read your account twice and it is amazing. Next time we are in Penzance, it will be a must to visit. To think we were so close. So glad it is a Heritage site now and the steam engine has been restored. Thank you, Barry.
    Donna Starkey, Oakville, Canada

    1. Thanks Donna. Next time you are in Falmouth for a Physical Separation conference, an outing to Levant and Botallack will be on the agenda. It's my favourite area of Cornwall.

  3. Hi Barry. I am from Timmins, mentioned in the blog, and worked for several years in the Bell Creek Mill. I am an avid follower of your truly wonderful blogs, and Cornwall is on my list of places to visit after the awful pandemic is over.

    Do you know of any guided tours of the 'submarine mine' area, as I would definitely like to do this.

    Peter Spooner, Timmins, Ontario, Canada

    1. I don't know of any tours Peter, but I am always looking for an excuse to go down to the Penwith peninsula, so would be very please to show you around the area. That applies to anyone else who would like to visit my favourite area of Cornwall. It is no small wonder that they decided to film the Poldark series around there.

  4. Barry, Re: Tours - it will all be different at the moment because of Covid, but the National Trust did tours of their own site, and of course there are guides at Geevor Museum - many of them are former miners. I can't remember any details but I think there were some guided walks available in the wider area. I'd suggest asking Mike Simpson at Geevor. Also the community centre "The Centre of Pendeen" have a lot of local information; and there's the Library/Tourist Information in St Just. I hope this is helpful.

  5. Documentary made in 1970 where witnesses to the Levant Mine disaster talk about what they saw. https://youtu.be/c_x5LMmXe5s


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