The life of a Cornish Miner

Man Engine tunnel, Levant Mine

For much of its life span Levant had five or six hundred employees, men, women and children. A typical miner’s day was long and very hard going; a life under the sea was not easy and life above it was hardly better.

'Those who are not killed by accident perish of exhaustion and excessive toil; the rock is hard and the ladders are so long... They produce riches, and scarcely enjoy common necessaries themselves.' Alponse Esquirose

There were three ever present dangers whilst working in the mine under the sea: temperature, ventilation and climbing ladders. The temperature underground was extremely high to the extent that miners rarely wore boots as they would fill with sweat so quickly.

The rickety climbing ladders down the shafts were another cause for concern; one wrong step would send a miner plummeting down to the depths below. The only light was from a tallow candle stuck to the miners’ helmets with clay. These were easily extinguished by drafts that ran through the tunnels.

There was also an ever present danger of rock-fall, either from a cave-in or blasting. Maimed or blinded men were a common sight in Cornwall in the 19th century.

Above ground

Workers on the surface had a healthier life than those below ground, but the distinction is only relative. One starry eyed reverend once wrote, 'The floors on which the bal-maidens work are kept beautifully clean, and the work is performed in sweet pure air. The happiness of sunshine is around the people, which brightens their lives'.

The reality was in fact slightly different. Working outside would mean battling against wind, rain and fog, and when it was not one of those, it was all three. Waterproof clothing was also fairly unknown at this time so it’s hard to imagine that this work completely ‘brightened their lives’.

After the toils of the day, there was always the walk home

Having survived the shift without mishap the Levant miner spent up to half an hour ascending the man engine to the comforts of the ‘dry’ or changing room. On emerging from this in his outdoor clothes he faced a walk home which could be several miles over rough cliff paths.

The small cottages that now litter the countryside would have been very crowded and the shift system of the mines meant that ‘hot bunking’ was routine.

A miner's diet was often very minimal: a cup of tea, perhaps made from mugwort, and a piece of barley bread sent a miner to work, with a hoggan (a baked pastry containing currants or figs and sometimes a piece of pork) for his croust or mid-shift meal. On his return his supper would probably be salted fish, potatoes and mugwort tea.