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Levant Man Engine

Man Engine - The day men died for tin: How a revolutionary way of transporting miners to and from the surface ended in disaster.

Levant MineAlthough only ruins remain as a reminder of the once thriving mining industry, the history of mining is littered with examples of disasters, tragedy and accidents. The beautiful Cornish landscape conceals the heartbreak that once occurred under the surface of an idyllic coastline and countryside. The case of the Levant mine is one of most notoriety.

Levant was one of Cornwall’s leading mines, and the largest producer in the Land’s End peninsula. Records of mining Levant stretch back to the seventeenth century.Yet, the mine was first ‘worked’ in the 1790s and it undertook permanent production for copper around 1820, and later for tin after1852. Significantly, it produced substantial amounts of copper as recently as 1910 and was one of the last prominent copper mines in Cornwall.

As a method of transporting the miners up and down the mine, Levant had a ‘man engine’ (timber rods on which men were lowered and raised in the mine shaft), which was an invention introduced from Germany. Accordingly, men moved upwards and downwards, stepping on and off platforms on the rod. Yet, disastrously, in 1919 the fitting at the top of the rod broke and 31 men were killed and many more injured. Such a calamity and tragedy accelerated the decline and demise of the mine, which consequently shut down in 1930.

Significantly, the Levant engine - developed by Richard Trevithick and other Cornish engineers from the 1790s onwards - is the oldest surviving mine engine in Cornwall. It was designed by Francis Michell and built by Harvey & Co. of Hayle. This famous foundry established a reputation throughout the world in the nineteenth century for its construction of mining machinery.

The engine worked the mine uninterrupted from 1840 up until 1930, when production was eventually terminated. The man-engine tunnel gave access to the shaft where miners stood on timber rods which descended them deep down to a level some1800 feet below the surface. At this stage the rest of the journey to the work faces was by climbing down steep ladders and along roughly cut tunnels through hard rock. Following a long shift, the dangerous and meandering return journey from the hot levels exacted a price, especially on the more mature miners who were often cut down in their prime by inhaling dust into their lungs. Usually, three men, working in shifts, tended the engine. They were provided with a settle (wooden seat) and the engine house required no heating, other than that generated by the engine.

Interestingly, the name ‘Levant’ was viewed as a good luck charm among the Cornish miners and, indeed, miners throughout the world. And certainly good fortune befell on St Just and the surrounding locale up until 1919. Indeed, a colossal wealth of tin and copper was at their disposal. These deposits of metal were generated many millions of years ago by rising magma, heat and pressure emanating close to the surface of the earth, and enclosed in veins until discovered in the archaic cliffs. The local mining town of St. Just in Penwith, West Cornwall was literally built of stone - solid granite - and, moreover, great amounts of miner’s sweat. Its population increased three-fold over a period of forty-eight years between 1800 - 1848, with significant numbers of families seeking employment on the ever-expanding tin mines.

With its ore dressing floors and engine houses constructed perilously close to the edge of high cliffs, Levant was, in many ways, different to most other mines. Indeed in order to gain access to this dimly candle-lit mine, the men treked along a series of stone steps leading down to the ‘adit’ (a tunnel or horizontal drift) cut into the vertical cliff face some 150 feet from the surface. The adit in question led down to ladders in the skip shaft with levels extending out along the rich mineral veins located deep below the sea-bed.

On top of working a lengthy shift, men and young boys had to face the gruelling climb back up the ladders to the surface. However this state of affairs was to be radically overhauled. Indeed, at their monthly meeting in Levant Count house in August 1855, shareholders elected to introduce a new man-engine in the mine. This resolution was in many ways one which, in years to come, would have crucial consequences.

Levant Mine archAnd so a disastrous chain of events unfolded in October 1919 when the Man-engine at St. Just collapsed .The following few weeks saw the publication of many reports, meetings held and statements taken about the tragedy. The accident propelled the whole local community into a state of mourning. It should be noted that there were two drivers of the man-engine and it was a 19 year old by the name of Thomas Lawrey who was in command of the engine during the fateful afternoon of Monday 20th October 1919. Then, at 10 minutes to three in the afternoon, the man-engine suddenly sprang on to a quicker speed than normal and continued for three-quarters of a revolution before the huge crown wheel finally finished. It was abundantly clear that something of a quite serious nature was occurring. Tom desperately engaged the engine into reverse immediately shutting off steam. At that same moment a signal was received from the shaft to switch off the engine.

The mine manager, Captain Ben Nicholas, was some 50 yards from the man-engine shaft when he saw the engine come careering to a halt. The driver went to the engine house and was asked what the difficulty might be; he replied that ‘something has gone from the engine’. It should be explained that the top sollar (a platform in a shaft) in the shaft, from which the miners stepped into the tunnel leading to the ‘dry’ (a room fitted with steam pipes for drying miners’ clothes) is twenty-four feet below the surface. When the captain hurriedly sped to the dry, he was informed that the rod of the man-engine had parted. It was almost at the top of its stroke when it broke and collapsed down with over 100 men on it. Immediately the men who were fortunate to have survived gathered with others in the dry and quickly formed themselves into rescue parties. With great urgency ladders were fixed to the sides of the shaft, where sollars had been destroyed by falling rods and debris. Moreover, miners were placed in underground levels to give urgent aid. Initially four men with slight injuries were soon rescued and quickly taken to the surface.

Yet by eight o’clock that evening, no seriously injured miners had been recovered, but some men who were caught under piles of heavy timber at the 144 and 360 foot levels were, fortunately, still in voice contact with rescuers.

There are numerous examples of bravery and courage. One such story surrounds a miner called Mr T Ellis. Mr Ellis jumped from the broken man-engine rod and, with all his might, clutched to the side of the shafts as rocks, timber and debris hurtled down in all directions around him. When the debris finally finished falling, Mr Ellis held on to the signal bell wire and slid down 480 feet in the darkness of the shaft to level 80 and safety. Although he experienced a traumatic event he remained in the mine all night, lending a helping hand with the rescue operation.

As the rescue force gradually gathered speed, a young miner was being helped by a couple of men from the mouth of skip shaft. He was looking sick and suffering from shock. The man in question, William James Nicholas, was rescued from 228 feet down in level 38. A sense of joy was abound when one of the men aiding the young miner’s rescue realized that it was his son. (William James Nicholas's father was James Nicholas, my Great Grandfather )

Levant StacksGreat tales of heroism became rife and the efforts of the rescuers were relentless. Sadly, the women who worked on the surface, (known as Bal-maidens), and the women, children and relatives at home struggled on bravely, although many situations were, naturally, extremely distressing. For example, there were a couple of instances where two unrelated women had both lost sons in the Great War. After the mining disaster it emerged that brothers from the same families had been killed. Naturally, the atmosphere on the ground at the top of the pit was, as expected, very sombre. The surviving miners were profoundly apprehensive about the destiny of their fellow work colleagues. Glimmering candle light and shimmering lanterns brightened the darkness of the mines shaft as night fell and a crowd gathered to seek the latest news of casualties and fatalities. Crucially, up to thirty remained around the top of the skip shaft for the details from below. And when the bell chimed three times, it indicated that someone was ascending the shaft. Regretfully the miner’s bodies were brought to surface in the skip (an iron box used for raising mineral ore) accompanied by a member of the rescue party. One of the men that made an effort to remove the miners from the appalling accident was a certain John James. John was aboard the man-engine at the time that it broke and collapsed. However, as he was not critically hurt he decided to remain in the mine throughout the night with the rescue teams. In the face of adversity he sadly and solemnly went about the grim task of recovering several bodies.

The last victim, Edwin Trathen, was discovered on the Saturday some six days after the collapse of the man-engine. His body was brought to the surface from the 80 fathom level. He had been both the superintendent and organist of nearby Bojewyan Sunday School. Sorrowfully, Mr Trathen’s house witnessed four funerals within 12 months, including his wife who died a year earlier.

All in all the catastrophe that occurred at Levant Mine produced nineteen widows and left some seventy-five orphaned children to be cared for.

And so, the engine was the last to work on Levant mine, being used for the salvage of equipment from beneath the surface. It was nearly sold for scrap in 1935, but it was saved by Mr Jack Trounson. He generated the sum of £25 that was necessary to purchase the machinery. As a corollary, this led to the establishment of the Cornish Engines Preservation Committee (later changed to Society). Over the years, the society attained numerous other engines for preservation.

By 1966 all the society’s engines had been given to the National Trust. Later on, the Cornish Engines Preservation Society participated in a merger with the Cornish Waterwheels Society. As a result the new organization came to be known as the Trevithick Society. During intervals over the years, members have been lovingly restoring the Levant engine. Moreover the National Trust has restored the engine house and rebuilt the boiler house. These undertakings stand as a massive monument to those men who, all those years ago, lost their lives for tin!

Significantly, the enormous engine, still running on steam pressure as it did in the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries, is visited by a plethora of people every year. Most are usually captivated when witnessing the many tons of moving engine parts, that were once a familiar feature all throughout the Duchy of Cornwall.

If one chooses to visit Levant today it is possible to sample the atmosphere that existed in 1919. In particular, if one takes a journey underground it is possible to experience what life was like for the miners. The tunnels and shafts are narrow and pitch dark. One could imagine miners proceeding along tunnels with only a small candle used to illuminate the way. It is of interest that the names of miners are engraved on the mine walls which have probably been written close to a hundred years ago.

Ultimately, thousands call, year in year out, to pay a visit to the ancient engine house and to see the ‘old lady’ of Levant. More than 160 years of age and still a site of interest despite such a horrific history and painful past.

Acknowledgment to David Langsworthy for his excellent book ‘Man-Engine’ without which this article would not have happened. Thanks also to the equally informative National Trust booklet on ‘The Levant Beam Engine’.

This page was updated on 5 July 2006

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