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Dangerous Places

Searching for anything specific in old newspapers is one of the hardest tasks that an historian can try to do. The reason for this is that, by their very nature, the papers contain news items. Trying to maintain focus for one specific topic is all well and good for research, but it does mean missing things and hence research slows down and becomes a series of tangents; progress is therefore usually a bit like Tarzan swinging through the trees.

For very many reasons, mines are dangerous places, not just the obvious problems underground, and the huge bits of kit used at surface. And, just like abandoned spiders’ webs can trap unwary flies, mine workings can trap unwary travellers.

In April 1852 four people were going from St Just to Penzance in an open carriage. On reaching the common land to the east, the horse, perhaps realising hazards ahead, became ‘restive’. ‘Restive’ soon became panic, and the horse, plus carriage and occupants, bolted. At this point the vehicle had reached the abandoned workings of Wheal Fortune and the wheels on one side of the carriage ran over the corner of a shaft. While being comparatively shallow, just 27 fathoms, it contained 20 fathoms of water up to the adit level. One of the male passengers decided to jump out of the carriage to try to check the horse. Unfortunately he did this at the point that the carriage reached the shaft and he disappeared down it, head-first. Remarkably he hit some timberwork in the shaft and rebounded into the adit!. A miner, possibly from the nearby Balleswidden Mine, helped extricate the man and brush him off. Apart from a scratched forehead the man was fine, and set off for a less interesting trip to Penzance.

Another trap for the unwary was discovered in March 1873. Late one Saturday night the engine-man at Wheal Owles (most likely the stamps at the Grouse section at the eastern end of the Kenidjack Valley) heard screams from outside. Being somewhat concerned that someone could have been caught up in the machinery, he stopped the engine and went outside. Luckily he was not presented with the blood and gore he was perhaps expecting; he was however met by the curious sight of one Henry Bottrell, miner and rather drunk, in the engine pond. Bottrell was having problems keeping his head out of the water but was, apparently with some difficulty, rescued from his rather damp situation.

Another danger, literally out of the blue, was reported in September 1843 at Parknoweth Mine, just south of Botallack. Thomas and James Bennetts and Richard Downing were working about 110 fathoms from surface during a thunder storm when lightning apparently struck the hoisting chain going down the shaft. All three received an electric shock and ‘for a short time, were deprived of their senses’. Luckily none received any other injuries.

Amazingly, this event was duplicated at Carnyorth Mine, to the north of Botallack, in November 1868. The latter storm was described as ‘one of the most tremendous thunder storms known in St Just’. The shock from the lightning strike travelled 50 fathoms down the shaft; here it struck Henry Boyns in the arm while Hugh Lanyon was rendered speechless. Both men thought a gun had been fired at them. The shock was reported to have travelled another 300 fathoms underground, though there were no shafts this deep in the area, and then 300 fathoms along a tramroad. At this point Richard Angwin received a shock to the foot and William Tresise to the chest; apparently everyone working underground received a shock. The storm was not done however. Above ground lightning struck the engine house at Carnyorth where it split one of the springbeams, knocked the stairs ‘to pieces’ and damaged windows, roof and stack. A man called Archer, who was working at the stamps, was knocked backwards while the arms of the round buddle were knocked away.

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Theft from mines

Theft from mines has been a consistent feature throughout the history of Cornish mining and a rather odd case was reported from Wheal Tolgus in March 1833. On the 16th February John Reynolds, one of the tributers, had raised some copper ore and left it near the shaft where he had been working. The following day some of the ore was missing but there was some evidence in the form of footprints leading 20 yards from the ore pile to a hedge; a potential clue was that some of the marks had been made by someone with a wooden leg. Near the end of the prints Reynolds found a couple of stones of ore of the same sort that he had been raising. Eventually Athanasius Bray and Augustin Seller were indicted for the crime; both were miners at Wheal Tolgus and Bray had a wooden leg. The two later admitted to the offence and were sentenced to 15 months imprisonment with hard labour, most likely at Bodmin gaol.

 

Batrachian rocks!

In the West Briton of March 1889 a letter was published in reply to a report regarding the finding of a live toad in solid rock. During the 19th century a number of similar reports on this theme were published in the Mining Journal. This particular incident was in reply to the finding of a toad in a railway cutting at Saltash. No theories had been published as to why batrachians should be found in this way. The letter referred to North Pool Mine when a toad was reportedly found in whole, unbroken rock, thought to have been recovered from a depth of 100 fathoms. The toad was said to have lived for a ‘considerable’ time after being taken to the account house, following which it was sent to the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

 

19th Century melodrama!

In the West Briton of March 1889 a letter was published in reply to a report regarding the finding of a live toad in solid rock. During the 19th century a number of similar reports on this theme were published in the Mining Journal. This particular incident was in reply to the finding of a toad in a railway cutting at Saltash. No theories had been published as to why batrachians should be found in this way. The letter referred to North Pool Mine when a toad was reportedly found in whole, unbroken rock, thought to have been recovered from a depth of 100 fathoms. The toad was said to have lived for a ‘considerable’ time after being taken to the account house, following which it was sent to the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

 

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