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Levant mining disaster
Cornwall has a very proud mining history, which goes back all the way to the Early Bronze Age (over 4,000 years ago) and still continues with the extraction of china clay in Clay Country.
The physical evidence of this historic industry – the engine houses, shafts, spoil heaps, sky-tips, pan-kilns, miners’ cottages and more – can be seen in and around so many of our communities. Such is the international significance of the remains of historic deep-rock mining, that ten distinct landscapes across Cornwall are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “placing Cornish mining heritage on a par with international treasures like Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.”

There are regular reports about possible new mining enterprises, such as the potential for lithium and other minerals, which would obviously be great for the local economy.

Unlike today, mining activities were the economic bedrock for so many places over the last two or three centuries. Taking my own community as an example, in the early twentieth century, half of local men worked in the clay pits and this underpinned the identity of their very being.

But Cornish mining cannot be viewed simply through a prism of nostalgia and the iconography of derelict mine buildings on our picturesque coast. Life was centred around hard physical and sometimes dangerous work. In some research that I have done, I came across numerous examples of miners who lost their lives in work accidents or bore serious injuries. Many others struggled because of occupational diseases.

At this time, it is important that we mark the centenary of the terrible disaster which occurred at the Levant Mine, near Pendeen and St Just, on 20th October 1919. The “man engine,” a steam-driven system comprising a long rod and attached platforms for transporting men up and down a shaft, collapsed as dozens and dozens of miners were being brought to surface after a day’s work.

A total of 31 men were killed and most left widows behind, along with over eighty children between them.

The contemporary report in the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph newspaper was particularly powerful:

“The tragedy was the work of an instance. Something snapped – perhaps an iron cap or bolt – and what has been described as a living pillar of men, dropped down the man engine shaft, crushing many to death, mangling more with debris of breaking wood and metal – the beam of the man engine, the ladder ways in the side of the main shaft, and the platforms cut in the side of the shaft.”
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By Dick Cole. Published on 26th October 2019.
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