Industrial Rides: A Cornish tin mine ….. “crushing suffocation”!

My great grandfather, William Waters, was born in 1841, and by the time of the Census 1851 he was 9 years old and working in a Cornish tin mine alongside his father, Joseph. When the 1891 census was taken he was 49 years old and working in a Cumbrian iron ore mine with his son, William jnr who was 18 years old. By the 1901 Census William snr was dead ……… at 59 years of age. He was lucky, the average life expectancy of a miner in the Redruth area in 1841 was …… 28yrs – 4months! And a letter with analysis to the West Briton in January 1839 outlines the life expectancy of miners being 11 years fewer than that of men in other occupations. Rock falls, drowning, falls from ladders, explosions and the deadly deterioration from silicosis all contributed to miners deaths in the St Austell area.

Multiple generations of my ancestors lived and died around Redruth and St Austell across at least 300 years. These were some of the thoughts at the front of my mind as we parked the car at the Geevor Tin Mine near St Just.

Outline map of the Geevor tin mine, Cornwall

Dr C tootled off to the coffee shop for an hour on her daily “text-fest” with Nepal as I paid my entry fee for the self guided tour above ground and a guided tour below. I had only a few minutes before going underground so the mine buildings would have to wait until later.

After introducing himself and gearing us all up with long coats and hard hats, our guide led us away from the buildings and towards the sea for about 100 metres to the entrance of Wheal Mexico, a shaft from the mid 1700s. A few introductory words later, he opened the stout wooden door and led us into a black hole. He was the only one with a dimmed lamp and he asked us not to use our phone torches as it would spoil the effect.

We’d gone only a few yards and I already had a feeling of crushing suffocation as the dripping walls of the tunnel brushed against my arms. How on earth did people spend 8 hours down here? Having ice climbed on frozen waterfalls and traversed many narrow arête in the Alps and Himalaya I have no fear of heights, but this was different ….. my mountaineering was voluntary and for pleasure, this was to feed your family and must have been purgatory en route to hell itself!

We continued around twists and turns, occasionally stopping to examine different coloured rock walls or observe a half boarded hole we were told went down for hundreds of feet, with miners being lowered on ropes with hammer and chisel as their only tools in the 1700s.

We stopped again, and now we were told about the advent of gunpowder use in the mines, before dynamite and reliable fuses. Apparently the early fuses were made from bird quills, thin hollow tubes that were filled with gunpowder then joined together to extend the length. So, the sequence was …. fill, join, light, run! Hell’s teeth, utterly unpredictable in duration of burn which explains many of the accidents caused by explosion.

And then there was the water, everywhere there was water, dripping off the rock roof, glistening off the slimy walls, and occasionally a gushing sound from one of the many vertical shafts below us as the 300 year old drainage system continued to do its job.

Although revealing, this was not a pleasant experience and I was glad to get out into the fresh air and stand upright at last. My upper body had almost locked at a 30 degrees angle but thankfully the safety helmet had saved me multiple times from anything worse.

I now wandered around the surface buildings, though I had to admit they had far less of an impact on me. Workshops, winding rooms, electric generators, a tool storage, and an excellent museum were really all from the 20th century, a far cry from 100-200 years earlier, highlights in the slide show below.

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Compressed air driven hammer drills had replaced the chisel, dynamite with timed fuses had replaced gunpowder and quills, and lift cages had replaced precarious ladders and ropes. It still looked gruesome work however, but added to my learning experience of how my Cornish ancestors lived and were affected by changes in technology across the Industrial Revolution. The steam driven engines that were developed in succession by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, followed by James Watt in 1765, and then in 1812 when Richard Trevithick created the most efficient high pressure steam engine in the world named “The Cornish Boiler”, all for pumping water from mines. William Bickford from Camborne the inventor of the safety fuse in 1831 replaced the quill fuse, then dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel in 1870, and soon after the creation of gelignite by the same man …. all increasing safety and reducing accidents in the mines. And a final example, the development of the “man engine” by Michael Loam in 1842 was a mechanism of moving ladders and platforms to make it safer for miners to climb or descend from one level to another. See how it worked here:

And so to the ultimate question, had this visit to a preserved site, dating back to The Industrial Revolution, enhanced my understanding of the lives of my Cornish ancestors alongside the earlier research I’d done into Bal Maidens? What do you think?


Categories: 1700s, Cornwall, Industrial Rides, Waters

Tags: , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Going down a mine is always a good way to understand how bad working conditions were.
    I often wonder how historians and genealogists will reflect on life in 2019 in two hundred years time. Will they be similarly horrified by our conditions? Human development is about progress so I guess they probably will!

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  2. How awful would their lives have been, stuck under the ground for hours each day. A miserable existence. But important to acknowledge that WAS their life, they did what work they could find.

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  3. I am sure it did to answer your question.

    I am very happy I never had to be a miner; I could not have done the job.

    Thanks for sharing

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  4. My Cornish ancestors were all seafaring folk or connected to the sea in their industries of choice. This meant they were far more mobile and travelled away from Cornwall to make their way in the world. Mariners faced as many risks but at least they weren’t trapped in such confined spaces whilst they worked. Such a revealing experience for you, Dr B.

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    • Thank you. Some of the mariners of 1700s and 1800s must have had hard lives and horrendous experiences too.

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      • A couple were lost at sea – but in general the men seemed to live quite long lives. The health hazards for women at the time were somewhat different though as generally the biggest risk to their health was childbirth.

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      • I’m finding records of some of my family who were Bal Maidens and blogged about one of their stories. Women had exceptionally hard lives too.

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  5. I’ve been on some mine tours and think it would be a horrible way to make a living. I’m sure you got a deeper understanding of your ancestors’ lives by going underground. One of my relatives suffered a blinding in a mine blast in the California gold rush (before TNT, I realize now). They used to have a mining “festival” in Silverton with boring contests and such. I’d bet something like that could give one a taste for just how physically demanding the job was.

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  6. Terrifying working conditions. How lucky we have been to live and work in the 20th/21st centuries.

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  7. You must have much more empathy with your forefathers now that you have experienced their workplace first hand. People did what they had to, to earn a living back then. Very interesting. My dad, the farmer/rancher, took a job in a coal mine when he was a young man as the money was good. He lasted two days. He soon realized he needed fresh air and open spaces. He always said it was the worst two days of his life.

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    • Well said Darlene, I have an unrevealed personal history. I left school at 16 and got a job in a local tannery trimming stinking cow hides dripping blood and maggots together with sheep skins salted in brine. After a month I learned the value of education, moved on and never looked back!

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  8. I enjoyed reading about your experience down the mines… It reminds me of my school visit to the coal mines in Belgium, just a few years ago. I was about 10 or 11. A terrifying experience. I remember having to squeeze through narrow tunnels, too small and low for us to stand up in. The only way through was crawling. Confined spaces still make me feel queasy, a recipe for claustrophobia… I suppose the fun part was the class photograph taken at the end. Our faces blackened by the coal, it’s hard to see who’s who. Photographs were still in black and white those days..


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    • I think doing this sort of thing opens our eyes to the lives of our ancestors, much more interesting that just researching dates and certificates! And …. thanks for your comment too 🙏

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