Ertach Kernow - The Levant Disaster

Earlier this year there were commemoration events held to mark the 175th anniversary of the East Wheal Rose mining disaster in 1846. In that tragedy 39 miners lost their lives due to torrential rain flooding the mine workings. It would be 73 years before anything close to those sort of numbers would be lost again in Cornwall. On 20th October 1919 thirty-one men were killed at the Levant Mine in what would become the second worst accident in the history of mining in Cornwall.

The success of Cornwall’s mines following increased industrialisation was due to the introduction of steam engines used for pumping out water. This meant that the shafts were driven progressively deeper, and tunnels and galleries stretched increasingly further from the main access shaft. Miners were often totally exhausted by the time their long shifts, or rounds as they were called, were over. The Dolcoath mine became the largest and deepest mine in Cornwall with its ‘New Sump Shaft’ reaching a depth of 3,300 feet.

In this article I am indebted to Alponse Esquiros (1812-1876) a French author who wrote ‘L'Angleterre et la vie anglaise’ published in five volumes between 1859-1869. Fortunately, a portion including Cornwall and Its Coasts was published in English in 1865. Speaking to the Reverend Hadow vicar of St Just who observed ‘I have seen many widows amongst the miners, but not a single widower’. Miners of the time did not on average live beyond 40 years old.

Levant Mine Cross Section (main part)
Henri François Alphonse Esquiros circa 1869
Levant Mine, St Just 1907
Cornwall mine ladders

Sir Humphry Davy of miners safety lamp fame did not have a big influence on the safety of Cornish miners with that invention. Naked flames were common as flammable gases where not an issue in Cornwall’s mineral mines. However, accidents and death from other sources were common, profit by mine owners and shareholders often paramount over safety and the wellbeing of miners. Accidents included commonly blocks of rock that had become detached and fallen crushing or inuring miners and explosives with charges that were considered failures suddenly exploding in men’s faces. At St Just, Monsieur Esquiros met in the street at least a dozen blind and disfigured miners. Then there were the issues of descent and ascent from the mineworking to the surface. After a round of eight hours at a tunnel face often including crawling back to the access shaft, men were left exhausted, especially given the heat. Reaching the surface could take a miner an hour and one slip could result in him plummeting to his death. The images of ladders seen now in photos taken at the end of the 19th century by photographers such as J C Burrow show shorter ladders and platforms. At one time there were none of these, with the ladders being long and very perpendicular. 

As industrial technology improved into the 19th century with more efficient steam engines, they could also be used for other purposes beside draining the mine and powering the stamps that crushed the ore. The introduction of the Man Engine or Power Ladder as it was initially known made a big difference to miners descending and ascending the shafts. This was not a Cornish invention as they were used in the silver mines of the Harz Mountains in Saxony, Germany. However prize money offered by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society encouraged Michael Loam to design one for the Tresavean Mine at Lanner, Redruth. After being installed in 1842 it was initially run by a waterwheel, soon afterwards being run by a steam engine with a stroke of 12 feet. Travel time in each direction was reduced from an hour to twenty-four minutes, with the incentive for the mine owners being production was increased by twenty percent. Tresavean Mine at that time was the deepest mine in Cornwall at some 1,800 feet. There were two types of man engine, a double rod installed at Tresavean and single rod considered safer and more widely used. The man engines operated by the movement of the beam engine making a rod with attached platforms for men to stand on moving up and down. When the platform reached the top of its stroke the miner would jump onto a platform (single rod) or another moving platform going in the same direction at that moment (double rod). There they would wait until making the jump again until reaching their destination.

Single rod man engine
The man engine at Dolcoath Mine
Professor M L Moissenet obituary
Cornish tin mining 19th century - Climbing ladders

Although many mines did not install a man engine due to the cost involved by 1859 at least six had. This were at Tresavean (311 fathoms) United Mines (311 fathoms) Fowey Consuls (330 fathoms) Levant (240 fathoms) and Dolcoath (284 fathoms). The shallowest of these five at that time was Levant at over 1400 feet, a fathom being six feet, and Dolcoath at 1,700 later very much deeper. These five were highlighted in an important work by Professor M L Moissenet entitled Description Des Man Engines published in Annales Des Mines in 1859. He came out broadly in favour of installation with a preference for the single rod system. He considered them far better than some installed in Belgium coal mines and that few mines in France would benefit from them due to shallow depths.

The Royal Commission on mines had in 1862 determined that they were beneficial for the health of miners. The effect on heart and lungs were positive and men of an older age could therefore work at greater depths than had been possible previously. The climb to the surface after a shift was recognised as a cause of death due to over exertion. No accidents relating to the use of man engines had been reported to that point, but this would change with increasing numbers coming to light. Man Engines were installed in a total of sixteen mines throughout Cornwall with consideration for several others, but not carried out.

Maintenance of man engines were perhaps not all they should have been, with many owner putting profit over safety, and this led to disaster at Levant. Other mines had moved on to other forms of transporting miners although even these had issues leading to death including at Botallack in 1863 with the loss of 9 men. Levant was the last mine in Cornwall to operate a man engine and the mine as whole was in serious decline. Up to 1919 four men had been killed on the Levant man engine since it had been installed 62 years earlier in 1857. There was also a serious accident in 1908 resulting in numerous injuries. Increased concern about mine safety and the state of the man engine led to many miners leaving Levant including man engine machine drivers. Some of the older more experienced miners had noticed a vibration and unexplained creaking noises some weeks before the tragedy causing talk amongst themselves and reports to management.

Levant Mine, St Just c1910
Newspaper image showing Levant Mine 1919
Levant Memorial
Newspaper image 1919 reporting the disaster

It was the afternoon of 20th October 1919 when any safety devices that were in place on the man engine failed, resulting in tragedy. Men who had travelled upwards in the man engine noticed that nobody else was coming to the surface. It was seen the rod carrying the platforms had parted from the beam and collapsed down the shaft. At 360 feet the rod broke in half destroying the sills and with thirty men plummeted a further 270 feet wrecking platforms as it went along with the men standing on them. It was total carnage and something survivors would remember with horror for the rest of their lives. Many men and boys who were fortunate to survive had horrific injuries. The newspapers throughout Britain contained stories of the disaster and the efforts of rescuers including the heroism of surviving miners.

The investigation into the disaster concluded it was accidental due to fatigued metal. Families within the mining community knew this was a whitewash letting the owners off the blame for their lack of maintenance. Payments to the families who lost husbands and sons were not as they should have been, although collections throughout Cornwall had been made in good faith to support those families who had lost breadwinners. The mine remained open and did not close until 1933.

It’s popular now days to quietly moan about health & safety, but disasters such as this caused through owner and management apathy justifies much of today’s industrial safety legislation. In 1970 the BBC interviewed survivors in the Yesterday’s Witness series. Listening to elderly folk recalling the event, speaking about their family and friends who died, can at times be most poignant. Links to this can be found on our website homepage at www.cornwallheritage.com

Anita Murley, the last surviving widow heard in the interviews

Link to the video uploaded on the Association for Cornish Heritage YouTube Channel - The Levant Mining Disaster 1919.

The BBC Yesterday's Witness video is already in the public domain as is the audio interview by Cornishman Ted Gundry, which forms part of his publicly accessible archive. This video brings these elements together in one video for convenience of readers. We acknowledge and thank the BBC and the Ted Gundry archive.

Ertach Kernow - The Levant Disaster
Ertach Kernow - The Levant Disaster
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