A woman's work... the ladies of Levant

Balmaidens, Levant

It was usual practice to employ women and girls on the dressing floors at the mines in Cornwall, and Levant was no exception. It was one of the few mines to continue to employ them as late as the First World War. These ‘bal maidens’ worked on both the copper and tin dressing floors at Levant, where tasks were allocated according to strength.

The first dressing task undertaken by women and girls on both the copper and tin floors was spalling, or breaking rocks. Once the male surface labourers had broken the very largest pieces of mineral coming from below ground, older women and girls broke (or spalled) these blocks into fist sized nodules with long-handled hammers.

On the tin floors, these pieces were then taken to the stamps to be pulverized. The resulting fine tin-stuff was then subjected to various washes to separate the ore from the waste.

Breaking copper

The scene at the copper floors would be rather different, as most of the copper had to be broken by hand and could not go to the stamps. The spalled material was cobbed (broken to nut sized pieces) by mid-teenaged girls. The very youngest girls (usually about nine or ten years old) would begin work at the picking tables where they sorted the cobbed material. Here they learnt to identify different types of ore, as well as their value.

The purest pieces of ore were picked out and collected and the waste rock thrown into boxes on the floor. They would leave the mixed grade material on the table, and older girls would sweep this into barrows and carry it to a bucking mill. Here the very strongest girls and women stood at an anvil set into a table and pounded the ore-stuff to a powder. This was then taken on to the buddles for washing and separating.

Levant's bal maidens

Initially, two teams of bal maidens worked at Levant; on the copper (cobbing) floor and at the Trewellard water stamps. In 1841, these teams totalled about 60 women and girls, probably with about equal numbers in each. By 1844, a third team were working at the new steam stamps and the number of tin dressers had risen to over 100 by the early 1850s, giving a total number of bal maidens at about 140. From then the numbers of bal maidens began to decline.

Large rocks, small wages

During the 19th century the working day was 7am to 5pm (minimum) regardless of age, with much of the work done in the open air, or under very primitive shelters. Bal maidens worked in almost all weathers, only stopping if the water for dressing had frozen or had failed, due to drought.

The Levant bal maidens were paid 11-18s per month (depending on age). They stopped work on marriage, but widows or children of Levant miners were probably given preferential employment. Among the youngest recorded were 8 year-old Grace Bottrall (of Carnyorth) who began work in 1860, and 10 year-old Grace Trembath (of Bojewyan) who began in 1844 and was seriously injured at Trewellard Stamps in 1845.