Decorated initial D

iscussing the fundamental way factory work differed from mineral extraction, Raphael Samuel points out that “mining and quarrying were distinguished from factory labour by the fact that they were, first and foremost, sweat and muscle jobs; and little that happened in the nineteenth century impaired their labour-intensive character” (34). Of all British mining work, Cornish mining for copper and tin proved the most difficult and dangerous — even more so than coal mining. First of all, these metals were found in extremely hard rock, forcing “the Cornish miner [to] inch his way forward by painful degrees . . . and progress in boring them was slow: ‘one, two or three feet in a week, or a few inches daily is often the whole amount of the united operations of twenty or thirty men’, wrote Joseph Watson in 1843” (34) Above ground women and children separated the ore from rock and hammered it into powder, but the men deep beneath them worked in appalling conditions — conditions enabled by the invention of steam pumps to remove underground water.

Miners had to contend with little oxygen, toxic dust, fierce heat, and a long, dangerous journey to the rockface. “In the deeper levels the air was so thin that the miner’s candle could only burn with difficulty. Dust was another hazard which grew more deadly in its effects from the increased use of gunpowder and the metallic dust of drilling” (35).

In a copper mine the worker had also to contend with great heat. The ‘fast ends’ which the tutworker encountered at the blind extremities of a shaft were possibly the most murderous mining conditions in the world, with so little oxygen in the air and so much heat that it was impossible to work for more than twenty minutes at a stretch (to recover, the worker had to take an hour’s rest and bathe himself repeatedly before he was fit to resume his stint). The temperature in the United Consols Mine at Gwennap was said to be as high as 125 degrees [Fahrenheit].

The long, exhausting climb down “involved long hours of toiling up and down perpendicular ladders. There were mines so deep that ‘not less than three hours’ were said to be expended on them, and an hour’s journey each way (according to the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, writing in 1861) was typical” (35).

As Samuel points out, Cornish engineers, who “pioneered most of the major advances in mining technology,” brought the Cornish pumping engine “to every part of the world.” Their inventions enabled the discovery and mining “from the deepest levels,” but they did very little to “lighten the miner’s work load” (35) or make his brutally hard work safer.

Related material


Samuel, Raphael. “General Editor’s Introduction.” Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers. History Workshop Series. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Last modified 26 May 2018