The exceptionally mineral-rich Cornish bedrock has been mined since prehistoric times. But this activity reached its peak during the Industrial Revolution. During this period the Levant mine became one of the most important and productive of the many Cornish mines. But this activity has long since ended and the site now serves as a fascinating visitor attraction. I went there during my last trip and discussed the mine’s history and recent regeneration in my book.
The mine eventually reached so deep that it would take the miners up to 1 ½ hours simply to reach their work areas, and another 2 hours to get back again. This problem was eventually addressed in 1857 with the construction of an innovative lift system called the man engine. It consisted of a central column which would rise and fall by 12 feet. The column had steps every 12 feet and the mineshaft had platforms (called sollars) every 12 feet. The men would step on at the height of the engine’s stroke. They would then be lowered down where they would step off onto the surrounding sollar. The engine would then raise the column and the miners would step onto the next step, to be lowered down to the next solar and continue down the shaft. The man engine reduced the time it took to reach the deepest parts of the mine to 25mins, greatly increasing productivity. Or, at least, it did until one fateful day.
On the afternoon of Monday 20th October 1919 an iron strap that secured the beam to the wooden rod broke. The rod fell down the shaft snapping in several places. The failure occurred at the end of the first shift, when the lift was carrying more than a hundred miners. As it crashed down the central shaft it smashed its way through the platforms. Thirty-one men were tragically killed in the disaster. The youngest survivor, at fourteen, was William Lawry. He later wrote a shocking and vivid account of the disaster:
“No-one who was there will ever forget the day the last man-engine in the world broke and sent forty men plunging into the depths of Levant copper and tin mine.
Puny flesh mingled with the splintered wood and tons of rock that cascaded down the shaft. It was to take over fifty hours to get out the last man alive – and then he died. Altogether it was four days before the last of the thirty one bodies was recovered. […]
It was a typical end to another exhausting, back breaking shift. As they began the ride to the surface the young men did not even notice the slight trembling in the rod, the growing vibration which made itself felt through the feet of older men who knew it should not be there. For days there had been talk of the odd creaking coming from the metal fittings where the rod connected to the driving gear on the surface. Uneasily they still followed the almost hypnotic on\off pattern that had brought them rhythmically to daylight for half a lifetime.
Without warning the metal fitting at the end of the bobbing beam parted. The rod with one hundred men on its steps – fell down into blackness. The lower section stayed in one piece. The jarring twelve foot drop sent men flying. Hurled them against the rocky sides of the shaft. It threw some men onto the sollars – one man died from a blow to the head. […] The rod smashed through the safety catches that were supposed to prevent it falling more than ten or twelve feet. The impact, as it sliced downwards […] broke it into a splintering telescope of timber that rattled from side to side of the shaft, brushing men from their perches like flies and pulping them into terrible destruction.
The miracle that saved the men below was the slight narrowing of the shaft six hundred feet down. Here, the debris jammed so solid that scarcely a pebble fell beyond the blockage into the thousand feet pit below.
On the surface it was sometime before the extent of the tragedy was realised.
The only living thing in sight down the shaft was one man standing marooned on a sollar which had not been torn down by the falling rod. Rescuers ran down to the bottom of the cliff where the Levant headgear is perched and got into the shaft through a drainage passage. What they witnessed was beyond description. Men, timber and rock were all jumbled into a dreadful crush.
I was the youngest boy working underground, and was on the engine at the time of the disaster. Having been thrown forty eight feet and buried in the debris for hours, it was only through divine providence and the courage of the rescuers that I can write this today, fifty years later. […]
The Land’s End peninsula was plunged into mourning that lasted for months – for some the shock stayed for years. Every house for miles around had its window curtains drawn. Almost every family had lost a father, husband or son, a cousin, uncle or brother.”
On another occasion he said “My last memory was a blow on the head. The man riding below me and the man I had worked with, was found dead and the man above me was dug out with his neck broken. He was on top of the rubbish that was covering me. I was the youngest and I suppose I was the luckiest, because there was nobody above me that got out and the last man below me was killed.”
But he didn’t survive unscathed. His daughter later commented that “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.”
Robert Penaluma described how “I was thrown on my chest upon the sollor. […] I was not hurt except that a piece of timber struck me on the leg. For about three hours I was down there before I could come up. Then I walked up the ladder through the pumping engine shaft, to the surface. Before that I picked up Freestone, who was suffering from shock, and dragged him through a manhole on to the sollor upon which I was standing. He fainted in my arms.”
One man had almost reached the top when the man-engine broke and managed to leap to safety. He was one of the lucky ones, many didn’t survive.
One trapped miner was heard groaning under the rubble on Wednesday. A desperate rescue was undertaken to help bring him out alive. All through the day and night the rescuers frantically worked to try and reach out. His pained groans were still heard at 2pm on Wednesday, but this proved to be the last that was heard from him. By the time the difficult and dangerous work had succeeded in reaching him at 8:30 on Wednesday he had died; he was twenty-year-old Nicolas Hocking Thomas.
The last body recovered was that of Edwin Trathen, who was brought to the surface on Saturday. His was the fourth funeral to leave his home within a year. Another wife was widowed while seven months pregnant. Alongside the many grieving widows seventy-five children were left fatherless. Almost every family in the area lost someone in the disaster. In one single family, eleven brothers and sisters were left orphaned after their mother had died a few months earlier.
The man engine was never repaired rendering the mine’s deepest seams unreachable. The mine closed eleven years later. On the 80th anniversary descendents, friends and families of the thirty-one men who died met for a memorial service. Alongside the roll-call was read out a poem written about the disaster:
St Just, Pendeen and neighbourhood,
Will never forget the day,
When thirty-one poor miners,
Were suddenly called away.
This fearful accident occurred,
On Monday at Levant,
And many a home is fatherless,
Through this terrible event.
The Man Engine was at fault, they say,
Whilst bearing human freight,
Though very near the surface, smashed –
And sent them to their fate.
The awful strenuous hours that passed,
Whilst bringing up the dead,
And rescuing the wounded,
The thought we almost dread.
There were many willing helpers,
Came over from Geevor Mine,
To help the rescuing parties,
Which was merciful and kind.
The Doctors too, must have our thanks,
For attentiveness and skill,
In succouring wounded comrades,
Brought to surface very ill.
The Parson and the Minister,
Both rendered yeoman aid,
To alleviate the sufferers,
Christian diligence displayed.
Now in conclusion let me say,
To rich as well as poor,
Remember the widows and orphans,
Of those that’s gone before.
The following is the official list of those who sadly lost their lives (with ages in brackets):
J Vingoe Trembath , (25)
Edwin T. Trathen, (41)
Mathew R. Mathews (36)
Wm. J Harvey (43)
John Kevern, (44)
Nicholas Hocking Thomas (20)
William John George (47)
John E. Grenfell (52)
Tom Rowe (46)
Mathew Newton (61)
Peter Branwell (38)
Thomas Branwell (60)
Sampson Osborne, (48)
Hy. Andrews (46)
Wm. E. Waters, (31)
John T. Angwin (61)
William Henry Tregear (57)
S. J. Brewer, (18)
John Tonkin (52)
Geo. H. Eddy (45)
Ben Hocking (43)
Jas. Maddern (47)
Wm. J. Murley (29)
Nicholas J. Mathews (36)
John Wearne (29)
John Ellis, (34)
William. Henry. Ellis (47)
Edwin F. Pascoe (22)
James H Oats, (39)
Leonard Semmens, (25)