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7 February 2011
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Tin miners Tourist brochures may paint a quaint image of mining life with picturesque cottages and stunning scenery, but a closer look at life below ground paints an altogether darker picture.

A Life Underground

Any job working below the earth's surface is potentially hazardous and tin mining in the south west was no different.

Bal maiden
Bal maidens were supervised by 'bal cappens'

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common place for children to be employed at the tin mines.

In 1839, 7,000 children were employed in Cornish tin mines.

Until the age of 12, young boys worked largely above ground, breaking up rock as it was brought to the surface.

Women, known in the trade as 'Bal Maidens', were also employed to perform similar duties.

Using small hammers, the women and children would break the ore down to manageable sizes before loading into trolleys and pushing it to the ore crushing machine.

Deeper underground

For the men who went down into the deep mines, conditions were, hot, oppressive and very dangerous.

Miner in cage
Cages were not a feature of the early mines

Miners were responsible for buying their own tools, candles, and dynamite an added strain on an already meagre wage.

There were no cages to haul miners up and down the shaft in the early days.

Instead mines were reached by ladders - sometimes stretching down for 100 feet. Not surprisingly, falls were commonplace.

Once at the rock face, conditions were almost unbearable, temperatures reached to 60 degrees Celsius.

At South Crofty Mine in the 1890s men were issued with six candles every day.

Air was in the mine was polluted by dust and fumes from detonated explosives and could barely sustain a candle.

In fact, some miners would chose to snub their candles out and work in complete darkness in order to conserve air.

The Dark Side

Mike Miucci was a miner after the Second World War, and remembers the dangers all too well.

Tin miner
The darkness could be terrifying

"It's terrifying because everything's had to look after yourself, because in the level it's got holes every twenty feet with boards on top."

"You had to be careful where you stepped - it was 100 feet deep."

He also remembers that some men died very young as a result of the conditions.

Mike says that he can recall "the dust in your lungs. And the pressure, the depth and the pressure when you blast, your ears when you drill."

"You lose your ears quick because of the awful noise. We never had any earmuffs in them days."

Safety Last

Despite safety improvements, conditions remained dangerous below ground.

The early ladders were replaced by gigs which transported men down to the subterranean world. These continued to be used until the 1930s but were still subject to accidents.

Miner on mine surface
Miners lacked today's safety standards

The Levant Mine Disaster of 1919 was one of the worst tragedies with huge loss of life caused by the collapse of the man engine and the miners' cage.

Maureen Jolly's father survived the disaster and remembers his horrendous injuries:

"He had about eight or nine crushed ribs, 38 stitches in his face, he lost all his teeth and he lost his hearing."

"One ear was very deaf, he couldn't hear anything... and it was about twelve months before he could even go to work again," recalls Maureen.

A Short Fuse

Explosions were another hazard despite new safety measures introduced in the 20th century.

The earliest fuses had been quills or lengths of straw, and were very dangerous.

Safety fuses were invented around 1830 and helped to minimise the risk of unwanted explosions.

The new fuses saved many lives, but misfires could still be deadly.

The Human Cost

Tin miner
Miners feared silicosis

Tin miners were prone to many different diseases as a result of working in hot, damp and dusty conditions underground.

Bronchitis, silicosis, TB and rheumatism were all common complaints for miners, making life expectancy short.

Few miners in the early days were fit to work beyond the age of 40.

Even in the late 20th century many tin miners died from silicosis caused by rock drilling.

Particles of mica dust punctured the miners' lungs - it was a terrible, wasting illness.

Anne Elsworth's father died of silicosis. "When my dad died he had enough lung to cover a threepenny bit," she recalls.


Arsenic workers
Arsenic workers had little protection from the poisonous by-product of tin

Rock falls, flooding and arsenic present in tin and copper mines were other hazards faced by miners on a daily basis.

Fatalities were a frequent and unsurprising occurrence.

Arsenic workers had little or no protective clothing, wearing only handkerchiefs and loose cloth wrapped around their faces.

Miners were prepared to risk life and limb because the pay was reasonably good down the tin mines.

Former miner Bob from Wheal Jane Mine recalls his days down the mines: "Wheal Jane was good pay... they would pay you for the first fortnight, what they call 'honours time', that's the ordinary wage."

"Then the end of the month miners would have all their footage. Then they would get the big pay day."

A Long Working Week

All miners, including the women and children on the surface would work a ten hour day, six days a week in the 19th century.

Although many miners and their families lived in cottages rented from the mining company, many would still have to walk several miles to and from work, in clothes wet with sweat from hours of underground toil.

Life for a miner was a far cry from the romantic view portrayed in so many of today's tourist brochures and the success of Cornwall's tin mining industry often overshadows the human cost.

Even in the 20th century Cornish tin miners worked long, hard hours, although the pay wasn't bad.

In the early 1980s a tin miner could earn £800 per week if he worked all hours.

But the boom years were over, and by the 1990s Cornish tin mining was no more. South Crofty was the last mine to close in 1998 - it was the end of an era.

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