I always encourage my family history students to investigate the working lives of their ancestors and Levant Mine is a ‘must see’ for those with mining ancestors. My own Cornish ancestors worked on the land, rather than under it but it was fascinating nonetheless. Today was a great opportunity to learn more about Cornwall’s industrial heritage.
We arrived at the mine just in time for a guided tour by the indefatigable Richard and boy did he know his stuff. If you plan on visiting the mines, do try to coincide with a guided tour. Tours like this enhance a visit, as there is only so much you can learn from guide books and interpretation boards. Richard talked to us about the mine’s history, without the aid of notes, for two hours. No one dropped out of the tour, not even the two year old or the dog. We gained a real insight into the working lives of the miners. Any errors in what follows are mine and not Richard’s.
There are 1000 mine shafts and hundreds of miles of tunnels on the ‘tin coast’ in the far south-west of Cornwall and commercial mining, notably of copper and tin, has been going on here for 2000 years. There are several Zawns (wave-cut clefts) in close proximity and these might have revealed surface ore that encouraged the early miners. Written records of mining in this area date back to 300BC. The first documentary evidence of speculative mining at Levant is a map of 1748. This mining was by tunnel, rather than shaft and the tunnels were upward sloping, to allow water to drain out and also so gravity would aid the carts loaded with ore. The ore was then taken up to the dressing floor by horse whim. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were several small-scale copper mining ventures in the area but in 1820, twenty investors got together to fund the sinking of the first shaft. Their collective initial investment was £400. The shaft was quickly profitable and further shafts were sunk. As they went deeper, water became a problem and a series of increasingly large, steam-powered pumps were purchased over the ensuing years. By 1836 they were not only pumping water but also raising ore by engine.
In 1840 they purchased a beam engine from Harvey’s, the famous foundry in nearby Hayle. This engine remains in situ and running; the oldest engine to be in working order and still at its original site. In the early 1850s a depression resulted in the mass emigration of Cornish miners to hard-rock mining areas throughout the world. They took Cornish customs and the iconic Cornish mine architecture with them to places such as Mexico, South Africa and Moonta in South Australia.
There was some economic recovery in the late 1850s and in 1857, a man engine was installed. This was a hugely significant innovation as no longer did men have to climb 1200 feet of ladders at the beginning and end of the shift. With the engine, they descended in 12 foot increments, in time with the engine’s piston. In this way they made the descent in 130 stages and it took 26 minutes. The structure also allowed the out-going shift to come to the surface and the in-coming shift to descend simultaneously. Previously, there was only space for a single ladder, so it was not possible for miners to be going up and down at the same time.
The mine closed briefly in 1870 as removing water and digging through granite to follow the lodes was becoming prohibitively expensive but new investors were found and it re-opened. This decade saw an increasing use of steam engines and by 1880, pneumatic rock drills were use. These were huge and required several operators. They also created a great deal of dust, that led to lung complaints amongst the miners. Pit ponies were also used. They spent eighteen months continually underground before being retired to the surface, rehabilitated and sold.
In 1919 the man engine collapsed and thirty one miners were killed. This was followed by the bottom dropping out of the tin market. Treasury loans were taken out but they could not repay them and the mine closed in 1930. The workings were in use in the 1960s, as an extension of nearby Geevor mine but this too closed in 1990 and the shafts were allowed to flood.
Conditions underground were harsh, with 30 degree temperatures and debilitating levels of humidity. Add to this the smoke from the tallow candles, which were the only form of lighting and the dust and it is no wonder that the health of the miners was compromised and life expectancy was about forty. Surface work was undertaken by the bal maidens who worked the rock to extract the pure ore. Ragging, spalling, cobbing and bucking gradually reduced the rock in size and finally it was buddled to leave crushed ore. This had to be graded, or jigged, using a pumping action to force water through the ore. Copper smelting took place in Swansea, to save the cost of importing the coal. Tin however was governed by the ancient stannary laws and had to be smelted in Cornwall, so was taken to Penzance.
The noise of the mechanical tin stamps must have been overpowering. After the tin was buddle, a calciner was used to drive off the impurities, largely arsenic and sulphur. The smoke from the calciners would drift over local villages with resulting ill-effects on health. It was discovered that arsenic was a useful ingredient in insecticides that were used to combat the cotton bol-weevil. This meant that the arsenic was now a valuable by-product. There was an awareness that arsenic could be absorbed through the skin so exposed areas were coated with a thick, white clay paste to combat this. Working with arsenic also caused infertility and allegedly, men volunteered to work with arsenic as a method of family planning.
Richard is going to take us down a tunnel. This is slightly scary but we are up for (almost) anything. It is suggested that we remove our sunglasses as visibility is poor. I have recently acquired glasses that are also sunglasses for the first time. I am proudly wearing them. Great, so now I have the choice between not being able to see because I am wearing sunglasses and not being able to see because I have taken them off. I go for keeping them on. We wander down the tunnel and it certainly is quite dark. Then Richard realises that the lights aren’t working, so all we have is the emergency lighting. He fiddles with the fuse box a bit. We have already walked down the tunnel. I am wondering how we will get back if all his fiddling somehow extinguishes the emergency lighting as well. Never fear, a few messages on his radio and full lighting is restored. The trip ends with a visit to the engine room where we can see the 1840 engine in action, aided by Ron and Tim. Despite all this engagement with mining heritage, there is no sign of Aiden Turner.
I had originally planned to move on to Hayle but decided to go to Trengwaniton Gardens instead. We find this with no trouble but I had failed to check that the opening times would allow for this rearranged itinerary. They don’t. We may or may not return tomorrow. So it is back to the van for more relaxing, more fish and chips (fortunately for the ‘diet’ they only visit twice a week) and some Wimbledon on TV.
For more information about historic Cornish mining see here. If, like me, you are interested in the history of medicine and the ill-health of our ancestors, next month sees another opportunity to take part in my five week online course, ‘In Sickness and in Death: researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors’; there are still a few spaces.