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The Cornish Miner
The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site is not just about the impressive landscapes you see today, but also very much about its people. Thousands of Cornish men, women and children worked long hard hours to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving world. But although working in the mines was a tough existence, many found it preferable as it usually paid better than agricultural or fishing work at the time.
A miner’s life
Life for mine workers and their families was undoubtedly tough. Not only were they working for low wages and living off a poor diet, but the dust and fumes from difficult working conditions deep underground meant that miners were often considered old by their 40s. Mining was an unstable occupation subject to the unpredictability of the ore bodies being worked and the prices for metals on the world markets. If anything was guaranteed for a miner, it was an uncertainty about their future.
Their home life wasn’t any easier either. Miners had to learn to cope with poor health, whilst diseases such as cholera and typhoid stalked many of the new mining villages and towns with their lack of sanitation, uncertain water supplies and overcrowded homes.
Although the miners’ work was tough, the hours long and the rewards often little, the Cornish took an intense pride in their work and carried the technology and achievements of their industry throughout the world. Around 25% of the population worked in the mines, but it wasn’t just men who were employed in the industry.
Mining was frequently a family affair. In the early 1800s, women and children were working in the mines as well. Young women took work as bal maidens, dressing ore at surface. Using special hammers, they would carefully select and crush the ore to a manageable size before further processing.
Even though they took pains to protect the faces from the sun, wearing cardboard hoods to shade their complexions, contemporary writers noted their rough, chapped hands. Fancy gloves weren’t a luxury for these women, but a way of trying to stay young and attractive.
Children were soon involved in the tough world of work too and in 1839, there were 7,000 children employed in Cornish mines.
By eight or nine, a miner’s son or daughter was old enough to make their contribution to their family’s limited income. Until the age of 12, children worked mainly above ground doing menial jobs such as sweeping or, perhaps, tending the tin buddles or settling strips, but many complained about the effects of over-exertion in the 1842 Children’s Employment Commission report.
Eventually, changes in legislation regulated the use of child labour on mines, and increasing mechanisation gradually reduced and finally removed the need for this.
Living conditions for many families were shockingly hard due to a lack of sanitation, uncertain water supplies and overcrowded homes. But life wasn’t just brutish and short – these difficult conditions bred a strong sense of self-reliance, whilst shared experience built stronger communities.
For mineworkers and their families, homes were often small, cramped and perhaps unsanitary. Often rented on terms that guaranteed no promise of security, families involved in the mining industry had to learn to become mobile and adaptable.
Beyond the towns and villages, mining families often lived in granite or cob cottages on smallholdings with, perhaps, three to five acres of land to tend. This brought a degree of self-sufficiency where families could grow their food and perhaps keep a pig. Others lived in terraces or rows of cottages, whilst many lived in towns where gardens were small or sometimes replaced by courtyards – offering little opportunity to supplement their diet with garden produce.
Accommodating big families in damp overcrowded cottages with a lack of adequate sanitation meant a daily struggle. Sleeping arrangements were often complicated with several children sleeping in one bed. There would be no indoor water supply or bathroom – the lavatory being an earth closet outside – and the only heat came from an open fire.
Miners’ families often took in lodgers to supplement their incomes. In 1861, over 60% of the lodgers employed in the mining industry in Camborne and Redruth were accommodated in the houses of fellow miners.
In damp, overcrowded cottages, diseases such as typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were widespread.
Much of the Cornish mining landscape – over 80,000 hectares – is in upland rough ground; commonly treeless, exposed, and very wet with thin acidic soil. This ancient landscape was once heathland and, until the late 18th century, was largely unfarmed and used for common grazing.
Most of the mining industry’s housing was formerly located within existing market towns and villages in the mining districts, but during the early 19th century the Cornish copper mining industry was expanding into entirely rural areas. Mines were being opened up remote from established settlements, so entirely new villages and towns were developed to accommodate the new industrial population.
Mining wealth accrued by the landowners or mineral lords enabled the construction of grand new estates and gardens, while many older estates underwent elaborate transformations. Mineral lords, such as John Francis Basset, also made available previously uncultivated land for use and over 50,000 hectares were taken into cultivation during the 18th and 19th centuries. The impact on the landscape was considerable at this time with much moor and heathland coming into production for the first time.
Mining radically changed the population distribution within Cornwall, and as the mining industry gathered pace, there was a marked movement of mine workers and their families from west to east. Camborne grew from a small village to one of the largest towns in west Cornwall, witnessing significant inward migration from eight other districts.
Methodism encouraged pride and thrift, meaning that a miner’s home was usually clean, his children as well fed as possible and their clothes, although old, laundered and neatly patched.
Sewage and health problems
Such rapid industrialisation helped to create social problems similar to those encountered in other industrial areas of Britain. In the mid-19th century, the ratio of number of toilets to the number of houses was surprisingly low by modern standards. For this reason, people were forced to relieve themselves behind walls and hedges, making many suburbs offensive.
To make things worse, the towns’ wells were sometimes contaminated with sewage from overflowing communal cesspits, which were sometimes sited uncomfortably close to people’s doors. The suggestive names of such Redruth housing – Dung Pit Houses, Poverty Court and Dirty Court – reflect the poor 19th century living conditions in this part of the town.
In damp, overcrowded cottages, diseases such as typhus were endemic, and typhoid, measles, smallpox and diphtheria were widespread. During the cholera outbreak of 1848/9, figures for the Cornish Registration Districts show that locality was strongly linked to the level of fatalities, which were usually highest in densely populated, unsanitary large towns and mining districts.
Many rural areas were little better. The public outcry against the serious housing shortage and gross overcrowding in the Tavistock area was one reason which prompted the Duke of Bedford to construct purpose-built accommodation for his estate and mine workers.
It was only with the increased public health legislation of the late 19th century that conditions began to improve, but it was not until the mid 20th century that many mining villages received piped water or sewage systems. This did not occur in some of the former mining villages of the St Just and Gwennap districts until the 1960s.
Many of Cornwall’s mining towns and villages were rough places where rioting, fighting and heavy drinking were commonplace. Mine workers often met in local pubs or ‘kiddleywinks’ (beer shops) to split their monthly earnings. Gambling, singing and heavy drinking often ensued, leading to ‘Maze Monday’ when men were still too inebriated to turn up for work. Too much drink on payday was often the cause of disturbances, which led to Temperance Societies in some towns setting up Coffee Taverns as an alternative to the pubs.
Prostitution also flourished in many mining towns. The row of stones opposite Wheal Betsy engine house at Mary Tavy earned the sobriquet ‘Annie Pinkham’s Men’, an echo of the former prostitution in the village. Desperate times often called for desperate measures and reports of the concealment of births by women who had become pregnant out of wedlock made their way into the 19th century press with depressing regularity.
A closer community
Although many had a reputation for roughness, Cornish mining villages were usually close-knit places where people were often related and looked out for one another.
Episodes of crime, rioting and prostitution were only one side of life in mining communities. Mining towns and villages were also places where people could forget their worries and problems by attending events organised by local chapels, such as improvement societies, bazaars, penny readings and choral ensembles. Feasts and celebrations emerged – many marked by games, fireworks and singing – which were often a joyous sense of local identity.
The annual Sunday School Tea Treat, parish feast day and annual harvest were keenly awaited events in the social calendar. Lamp societies were established to raise money to put up gas lighting in mining villages in the late 19th century and women were involved in charity organisations such as the Dorcas Society to raise money for clothing and bedding for the most needy.
There were also new roads to self-improvement; Miners and Mechanics Institutes, reading rooms, music and poetry, and above all, Methodism. Although residing in humble surroundings, pride and thrift were qualities encouraged by Methodism, meaning that a miner’s home was usually clean, his children as well fed as possible and their clothes, although old, laundered and neatly patched.
Later in the 19th century, civic pride resulted in towns such as Liskeard, Truro, Redruth and Camborne making great attempts to outdo each other, erecting grand municipal buildings and elaborate shop fronts, as well as improving facilities such as public parks and gardens.
By the early 19th century, many of Cornwall and west Devon’s mines were huge employers. Despite being an intensive process of hard physical labour in often poor conditions, it was the first choice occupation for most Cornish men and women due to the generally better wages on offer. Mine workers usually spent around eight hours a day underground, often after walking several miles to work.
Miners worked in often cramped levels (tunnels) and stopes (galleries) where temperatures would often soar. The depths of mines in Cornwall were sometimes as much as 300-600 metres, (around 1,000 to 2,000 ft) and high temperatures made working conditions in some of the deepest mines appalling. In Cooks Kitchen Mine near Camborne, the temperature sometimes soared to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and in 1884, the east end of the level had to be left to cool for two months before it was possible to work there again.
Clothing and personal care
In such temperatures, miners often worked with little clothing. Flannel trousers, heavy boots without socks and a strong, resin-impregnated felt hat with a convex crown on which to secure a candle with a lump of clay, was all that most could suffer to wear. They sometimes left their home clothing in the engine house if they had no proper facilities to wash and change into dry clothes. The engine pool – the water reservoir for a steam engine – was a useful place to remove the worst of the grime at the end of the core (shift) if no washing facilities were available.
To try and improve working conditions, some bigger mines introduced ‘miners’ drys’ – changing facilities at the surface – where miners could wash and put on dry, warm clothing before leaving for home. These gradually became more sophisticated and eventually, by the 20th century, contained heated lockers and bathing facilities.
The main problem in the mines was bad air, which could be caused by low oxygen levels or through the presence of dust or fumes from rock blasting. Miners were often paid for how much ground was broken in a core (shift) and the time taken for blast fumes to disperse was therefore lost to production. This could lead to mine workers taking risks and re-entering a level before the fumes had cleared sufficiently. The air could be so thick with powder smoke at times that it made the miners regularly spit up quantities of black phlegm.
At times, it was almost impossible to see the shining end of the drill steel, which miners had to strike to drive the holes in which to place the explosives, resulting in some of the many accidents which occurred underground. Miners often had to climb vast distances carrying their tools and supplies before and after working but they only got paid when they started work at their pitch.
Surface workers also weren’t immune to the effects of mineral dust, particularly the bal maidens who crushed up copper ore into small fragments on anvils with large hammers. As lots of water was used in the dressing of ores, surface workers’ shoes and clothing were often wet and stained red from the iron oxide in the ore. Bal maidens wore large hats called ‘gooks’ to protect their heads and faces from flying stones, and a coarse hessian apron (a ‘towser’) with their legs wrapped in strips of material to protect them from the cold and damp.
In the early 1900s, rock-drill operators working on the Rand had an average life expectancy of four years. For this reason, the drills became known as “the widow maker.”
Mineral dust became more of a problem when pneumatic rock drills were introduced in the latter 19th century. These drills rapidly increased productivity, and although the number of Cornish mines fell in 1880, the amount of ore produced per person increased but a terrible price was to be paid for this increase. In the early 1900s, Redruth rock-drill operators who were working on the Rand had an average life expectancy of four years. For this reason, the drills became known as ‘widow makers’.
Sadly, employers were not at all keen to acknowledge the long-term damage that these drills had on their health. There was little in the way of compensation in Cornwall, in contrast to the Rand where miners received a lump sum payment in 1912. It was only when the Cornish Rock Drill, with its water feed to the drill tip, replaced the reciprocating piston drills that any improvement occurred, over 40 years after the large scale introduction of the rock drill to Cornwall.
Before the introduction of man engines, which were only installed in the bigger mines due to the high installation and maintenance costs, mine workers often had to climb hundreds of feet of ladders carrying their tools and supplies before and after working. Miners only got paid when they started work at their pitch and they were therefore grateful for any device that spared them the physical ordeal of climbing up and down numerous ladders.
Miners also had to carry their dinner with them, as communal mealtimes were underground. They carried their meal in a metal box called a dinner pail, which commonly contained a ‘pasty’ or ‘hobban’. Water was then carried in a small wooden barrel called an ‘anker’.
The first man engine in Britain was installed at Tresavean Mine in Gwennap in 1842 and the last to operate was at Levant, where a terrible disaster occurred in 1919, claiming the lives of 31 people when the cap that held the rod broke. On the whole, the man engine had a fairly good safety record and doubtlessly saved many miners’ lives, as countless accidents were caused by exhausted and malnourished miners falling from ladders, particularly at the end of shifts.
Accidents and injuries
Death and injury were an everyday threat. Despite later safety improvements, such as ladders being replaced by gigs, conditions remained dangerous below ground.The Health of Towns Association returns for 1841 showed that the average age of death in the Redruth district, the heart of Cornish mining, was 28 years and 4 months. Mining was a dangerous occupation where accidents from falling, blasting, drowning, rock-falls and entanglement in machinery –which often maimed and sometimes killed – were inevitable. Accidents with explosives were also common, even after the introduction of the miners’ safety fuse which was invented by William Bickford in 1831.
Miners often had to climb vast distances carrying their tools and supplies before and after working – but they only got paid when they started work at their pitch.
In 1846, 31 men were killed in the mines of East Wheal Rose and North Wheal Rose by torrential rain that flooded the workings. In 1893, at Wheal Owles, miners inadvertently broke into the flooded workings of Wheal Drea which caused a catastrophic run to surface, and 19 men and a boy were drowned.
In such damp, moist conditions, a disease named ankylostomiasis thrived. Its symptoms were red skin blotches and anaemia, caused by contact with a parasitic worm that lived in human faeces. It was not until the early 20th century that mines such as Dolcoath introduced pails to curb the spread of the disease,which may have been introduced to Cornish mines by workers returning from South Africa.
Later medical benefits
In 1844 mine adventurers set up a Practical Miner’s Society to address the lack of hospital care.The mine surgeon never ventured underground and injured men had to be hoisted to surface to receive medical attention. The time delay in doing so often proved fatal. Many mines operated a Miners’ Club; a weekly levy to ensure a few shillings a week would be paid to the miner’s family in case of accident or injury.
There was clearly a need for proper medical care, but the only hospital that existed was in Truro. E.W.W. Pendarves offered to turn a country house into a hospital, but these attempts were met with suspicion by the miners, who threatened to tear down any buildings constructed – an attitude by no means unique among British workers at the time.
With diseases and accidents so common in the mining districts, it took a concerted effort by the Rt. Hon. T.C. Agar-Robartes of Lanhydrock to initiate a successful scheme for a miners’ hospital in the 1860s that resulted in a hospital at Redruth supported by Lady Basset of Tehidy, Sir Redvers Buller and Mr Williams of Caerhayes Castle.