Life of a Cornish Miner



Image of a Cornish Miner

Life of a Cornish Miner


                                                                                    1800 - 1870

Homeward Bound

As it was, only too frequently a man would set off from the mine in the darkness of a winter's night in the pelting rain, and, pursuing his intricate course amidst burrows and streams and unfenced shafts by the light of a glimmering lantern, would at last arrive at his journeys' end without finding any comfortable meal awaiting him.  "I have known instances", wrote Mr Jory Henwood to the Commissioners in 1842, "Where men who had to remain in an atmosphere of 96F whilst at their employ, at a late hour of the night had to walk three miles to their homes.  Some of them were too poor to be well clad, and after so frightful a transition of temperature and so long a walk against a fierce and biting wind have often reached home without a fire and had to creep to bed with no more nourishing food and drink than barley-bread or potatoes with cold water".

Some used to carry a miner's lantern, that is, a candle placed in an old "slowg" (miner's boot ,St Just) or a treacle-tin pierced with holes, others stumbled home in the dark as best they could.  It was at times like this that a miners wife would sit listening for every step, a candle burning dimly in the cottage window long after the rest of the population was wrapped in darkness and sleep.  Often in the darkest nights of winter, in a blustering gale, women would be out on the cliffs with lanterns, waiting for their husbands to come up.


The sort of home and conditions to which a miner arrived back after his work depended on many circumstances, but first and foremost on the character of his wife. This was especially true with those whose earnings were fluctuating and uncertain.  "You will find two men," stated a witness in 1864, "and one has a clean, decent, wholesome industrious wife, and that mans children will be kept, as clean and comfortable as possible.  Then one of the same 'pare' who had got a dirty, careless wife, and that family will be in rags, yet make the same earnings. There was one woman who has a husband and 4 or 5 boys who all work in a mine, and yet they have not got a chair to sit down upon, nor a cup or saucer in the place.  The bed would disgrace the poorest person in the kingdom".


That there were such cases is perhaps hardly to be wondered at when once considered the woman's task in a  household of four of five men living in a tiny cottage, one rising before daylight, another going to work at ten at night or arriving back to dinner at 3 in the afternoon, almost all requiring meals at separate times and "crowst" to be prepared for each.  In spite of all this, and the fact that in the poorer households the women themselves were sometimes out all day working on farms or the tin streams, the Cornish miner's home was generally clean and well ordered.  It was exceedingly rare, the Commissioners of 1842 noted, to meet with an example of squalid filthiness in any members of a Cornish miner's family.


The miner's usual dinner which he took with his family on his arrival home (if he hadn't been working first core by day), consisted of fish, generally salted, potatoes, and tea.  The latter, however, being very dear, the dried leaves of mugwort were frequently substituted for it.  This meal was varied sometimes by a slice of fried green pork (ie home cured bacon) with eggs and potatoes, or else a small lump  of meat put into a great dish of potatoes, little enough in many cases by the time 9 or 10 children had all had a share.


Pork used to be used everywhere to be more commonly eaten in the mining districts than beef or mutton, because many of the miners kept their own pigs.  On the whole, the Cornish miners ate far less butchers meat than other classes of labourer's. "we cannot afford more than 3 or 31/2 pounds a week, said one man, before the Commissioner.  With the miner, stated another witness, it is general a 'feast or fast'.  One day he will have his beefsteaks and his good living, and the next he will have his broth.  They live upon broth for some days after it, and they only throw in a bone or perhaps a bit of pork to make it.

The actual shortage of butcher's meat did not, perhaps, tell so much upon the miner's health as the roughness and unsuitability of much the food he ate, either through choice or necessity.  In many cases where the miner rose at 4.30 in order to get to the mine and be underground by 6am, his breakfast would consist of only a cup of tea and bread and butter.  As the price of wheat was formerly nearly double that of barley, both bread and pastry were made from the latter, wheaten loaves being generally indulged in by the working classes only at feats times or Christmas.  In earlier times neither food nor drink was taken by the miners underground, but at a later date it became the custom for the men to take down a "mossel" (ie bread and butter) with them, and in some cases a "kag" of water also.  On account of its convenience for carrying underground, many miners preferred the "hoggan" a solid mass of flour mixed with water and baked without any leavening - a heavy enough fare to kill anyone not accustomed to it from youth.


The following reminiscences of an old miner give a picture of working class life that pages of statistics couldn't.  "Everything was very dear, and the working people were half starved.  My father had the standard wages for surface hands, which was 2 5s a month, and I was earning 10s a month, so that 2 15s a month had to provide for five of us.  Four our breakfast we had barley gruel, which consisted of about 3 quarts of water and a halfpenny-worth of skimmed milk thickened with barley flour, a concoction which went by the name of 'sky-blue and sinker'.  We lived about half a mile from the mine, and I had to go home to dinner.  I can assure the reader that I was sometimes so feeble that I could scarcely crawl along.  For dinner we had sometimes a barley pasty with a bit or two of fat pork on the potatoes, and for supper a barley cake or stewed potatoes or turnips with a barley cover.  Everything was very dear, groceries such as raisins and currants were 10d a pound, tea 4s a pound and the common brown sugar 5d a pound.  I never saw such a thing at that time such as jam.  Barley was 2 per bag of 240 lb and wheat flour 4 per bad of 280 lb".

Setting up House

On returning home miners may just as often as not transfer one form of work to another, chiefly among these was building a cottage for himself and of clearing the land for a garden. The miners very seldom borrowed money in order to set about building these houses. The fluctuations in miners wages meant it may only be once or twice in his life the opportunity of getting to bring home 40 to 50 in a month or so (for tributers).  The whole thing depended on whether the miners wife had managed to live without deeply getting into debt. If they were badly in debt, every one of these "sturts" as the miners called them, was swallowed up in clearing their liabilities.  If this was not the case they straightway set about building a house in their spare time.

Sometimes 2 or 3 thousand tons per acre are thus removed from some spots before the ground is cleared. The leases were only the miners for the term of 3 lives  The most serious drawback, however to the miner owning his own cottage lay in the fact that he was thereafter tied to a fixed abode.  "A miner will travel (ie) walk, six or even 8 miles between the mine and his home twice in the day in cases where built a house near a mine which has ceased to give him work," wrote the Commissioners in 1842.

The cottages which the miners built varied much according to the character and means of their occupants.  Miners houses are much cleaner and more comfortable than agriculturists" stated one witness in Camborne in 1864,, In the Camborne and Redruth districts the modern cottages are well and substantially built, much better than those inhabited by labourers in the Midland counties.  They contain 2,3,4 or 6 rooms, the upper one being in the slanting, high-pitched roof.  Sometimes with 2 families living there.  They have usually garden plots before or behind in which vegetables and potatoes are cultivated.  The older cottages were for the most thatched and contained only 2 rooms.  Few, if any of the cottages at this time were provided with privies or possessed any system of under-drainage.  The floors were generally of lime ash and apt to be very damp.  Little room existed in the older and smaller cottages for the washing of clothes indoors, and hot water systems were of course totally unknown.  The water from most of the mines, is used for domestic purposes, and sometimes 50 women may be seen at once standing round the engine-house, washing the linen of their families in the warm water from the steam engine.

Except in districts where loose stone suitable for building was particularly plentiful, the miner generally built the walls of his house of cob or clod, that is a mixture of clay stiffened with chopped straw and beaten hard like concrete.  Houses built in this way had the additional advantage of cheapness.


Home life and family


In many cases the inside of the miners cottages were clean and spotless then as it is today, and the inhabitants, in spite of cramped conditions, a contented and happy lot.  Seated of an evening round the open heart, with a fire blazing furze, the whole family would be assembled, with perhaps a neighbour or two on his way to night core.  The Cornish miners are generally fond of children, and a father would often on such occasions take a child on his knees and amuse it by recounting stories of the knackers and small people who worked in the old mines of long ago, telling them how, when they were old enough he would take them to hear them and show them the rich places down below where the tin was sparklin like diamonds.  And then perhaps, placing the child athurt the knees and lowering it backwards and forwards by the arms, the father would croon to it some purely local nursery rhyme, such as only a Cornish miners child would appreciate -

Balance-bob work up and down,

Pumping the water from underground,

Over a while the inions (engine) do lash,

Scat the old man (or woman) back in the shaft.

So the old life would go on its simple, homely way, till ten o'clock came, and those who were working night core went off to bal and the rest of the household to bed.


Marriage & Children


Most of the miners often marry young, many of them at age 16, although as is frequent in Celtic communities the matter is often delayed till the circumstances of the girl with whom they have been 'keeping company' render marriage indispensable'.

Desertion however in such cases was rare, whilst prostitution was almost unknown in the mining areas.   As a result of early marriages, long families were general in Cornwall, and children consequently had to be sent to ground at 10 years of age, parents would not send them so early except for their necessities. Both in these children and their parents slight indispositions were often aggravated into fatal illnesses through the impossibility of taking any respite from their work.

As was to be expected under such conditions, the toll of infant mortality was also high. 55 deaths in every hundred in a mining parish are to be found under the age of 5 years.  A large proportion die from debility within the first year of their existence, and no one who has not seen these miserable specimens of humanity can have the slightest idea of their diseased appearance, small , think and shrivelled, with scarcely enough strength to cry, it seems sometimes almost a crime to attempt to prolong their existence.  Very frequently, under these conditions a doctor would not be sent for at all.  They say "Let the will of the Almighty work its way" - that is very common.   They say - "An infant of this size a medical man cannot do much for"

Those that did survive seemed for the most part unaffected by hereditary disease, and, until they had been for some time working underground, were strong and healthy.

"You see the children in Wendron parish going about without any stockings or shoes and the picture of health, though they lived in the wildest of places".  Those on the surface have the appearance of robust health, those who go underground soon become pale and show signs of impeded development.

"When I visited a large school for miners children at pool, I have never seen a more healthy lot of children collected together.  The children and young women who are employed in picking the ore on the surface have remarkably clear,bright,healthy complexions.  The married women who are seen in the cottages are also very healthy looking".


The Cornish Miner by A K Hamilton Jenkin, M.A