Life in the Mines-Coles


Life in the Parish

Included with the kind permission of John Coles, ©2001
J. Mosman, OPC

The predominant method of working in Cornish mines which was a form of ‘piece work’ where hard work and skill in recognizing (or gambling on the prospect of) a good lode would be rewarded by better money. Thus it was only natural that a family would seek to keep the money ‘within the family’ and use all the able bodied members to earn the family income.

It was perfectly normal for both young boys and young girls to start work as soon as they were strong enough to be of use. They would start on the surface sorting ore, and then the boys would move underground – in some cases as young as 8 years old – to help their father or older brother.

Their first work underground would probably be pushing simple barrows of ore to the nearest hoisting shaft, but this could be a long journey over very uneven rock, in the pitch dark with nothing but a candle.

As soon as they were strong enough to hold a rock drill, then they would hold this while father (or father and brother) would drive it in with hammers… after each blow the drill would be turned slightly to help clear the hole and stop the drill jamming in the rock.

In the 1860’s around half of all miners had started work at less than 13 years old, and around one in ten had started at 10 or younger.

It is hard for us to imagine just how hard this was… ‘Hard Rock Mining’ is just that … the granite is incredibly hard, and 18 inch (about 450mm) deep holes had to be bored in groups before being filled with black powder and blasted. Days of work before anything was blasted, then the rock had to be cleared, and the process started again. If they managed to drive forward 7 feet (2 metres) in a month they were doing extremely well. And often they were driving upwards, not forwards, or standing on a plank of wood balanced across a yawning chasm way below them as they drove the drill relentlessly for 8 hours or more a day.

Not only that, but the mines were well known for foul air, water, and intense humidity and heat… temperatures around 100 to 110 degrees F (approx 35 to 40 C if my head is about right) were common… and up to 135 degrees with steaming water gushing over them in some exceptional circumstances.

The “Hot Lode” at Great Dowgas Mine was counted one of the hottest in Cornwall, where visitors could endure only a few minutes, and at the Great Crinnis mine some shafts extended out under the sea.*

Very few Cornish mines made any (or much) provision for raising or lowering miners to work, so for the majority it was a question of walking to work, climbing anything in the region of 1,500 feet (450 metres) into the depths of the mine down ladders – carrying candles, rock drills, and hammers – then scrambling and walking through a warren of workings to the workplace for a shift of at least 8 hours (tutworkers, employed on a sort of standard wage, often worked the basic shift, whereas tributers worked as long a day as they could to earn more money)… then, utterly exhausted, returning the same way, climbing the ladders to grass, and walking home again in the cold night air, covered in sweat.

Not surprisingly, young children suffered frequent accidents – they did not have the musculature or stamina to maintain the incredible energy needed day after day in such conditions.

The peak of a miners life would be in his early twenties, when he was at his strongest. After that, the combined effects of arthritic complaints, injuries, lung complaints from inhaled dust, explosive vapour and bad air, and poor food all combined to shorten life… to be a miner aged over 40 was a rarity.

Two major changes came about in the 1870’s when moves were brought in to try and improve the inhumane working conditions.

The first of these changes – the Metalliferous Mines Regulation Act of 1872 – meant that it became illegal for children under 12 years old to work underground, and miners aged under 16 were not allowed to work for more than 10 hours a day… The fact that it was thought necessary to even write this into the act, makes you realize that young men and boys working 10 hours a day or more was obviously commonplace.

It was also made a requirement to improve safety on the climbing ladders where these were in a hauling shaft. There had been many accidents where ‘kibbles’ of ore had knocked miners to their death in a shaft.

Six years later, the Factory and Workshops Act gave protection to the surface workers, and stipulated that women and children were not to work more than 12 hours a day! However, the mine owners were unhappy that the act also banned night working on ore-dressing, which was a problem for them since much of the process relied on continuous working. It was cheaper and more efficient to keep steam driven processes (such as the stamps) going all night.

Not all mines were as bad…. In 1841 East Crofty employed 586 men underground and only 33 of these were under 18, with only 4 being under the age of 12. However, on the surface there were children of 8 working ore dressing operations, often with their hands in freezing cold water all day as they sorted worthless stone from the crushed ore broken up by their mothers and older sisters.

In many ways, by the end of the Nineteenth Century conditions had improved enormously. Many of the smaller mines were closed, and the bigger ones were employing men, rather than boys, and had started to install mechanized means of getting miners to work underground.

But the introduction of new working methods had its own perils… new dynamite was more efficient at blasting, but the toxic fumes were far more dangerous, and the introduction of rock drills meant that work could proceed four times faster… but it wasn’t realized until too late (about 1920) that the intense cloud of fine dust produced by the drills (driven by compressed air) and the incredible vibration had their own hazards – silicosis and early death, and ‘white hand’ which kills the nerves in the fingers.

The miners who survived all this were highly skilled, strong, and proud. You can understand why!


Please Note: *Mr, Coles did not refer to Great Dowgas or Great Crinnis mines in his original; however, since this is a site for St. Austell, this was changed. No other part of the article was changed in any way.

In the traditional parish of St. Austell, Great Dowgas mine was notorious for being “hot” – according to George Henwood, “the roof and sides of the workings are studded with minute crystals and efflorescence from the decomposing iron pyrites, the heat from which cause is so oppressive that a visit of a few minutes is all that can be safely endured.” Great Crinnis mine had tunnels that extended into the Bay, and miners told of hearing waves crashing over their heads as they worked.

Child labor was not confined to Cornwall; in the 1880 census for Bay City, Michigan, USA there is an 11-year old boy listed as ‘head of household’ – and his profession was miner. (He was the sole resident in that dwelling.)



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