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.