Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Tales from the Tin Mines

Archaeological evidence indicates that the mineral resources of Cornwall and West Devon have been exploited for over 3,500 years. The Romans extracted the ore from tin streams to supply the Empire across northern Europe. Extraction continued in early and later medieval times reaching its peak in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when, as a result of the rapid growth of pioneering copper and tin mining, the landscape of Cornwall and West Devon was dramatically transformed. Its deep underground mines supplied two-thirds of the world’s copper. The substantial mining remains seen today in the south west of England make this is a unique landscape. The Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape was given World Heritage Site status by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in July 2006. Legends from the mines have become indelibly written into the lore of the land which bears testimony to the past as much as the engine houses that survive across the south western peninsula of England.

Inhabitants of the Mines
St Just is the most westerly town in mainland Britain and the nearest to Land's End, and although the identity of the Saint has long been forgotten, the legacy of this mining centre of the Penwith peninsula lives on with disused engine houses littering the coastline of Cape Cornwall. Miner's were superstitious men and many strange beliefs grew around the copper and tin mines of Cornwall.

Cornwall's deepest mine is 1,000 metres deep and some run for great distances under the sea bed, some levels so close that miners claimed to be able to hear the rumbling of boulders being moved by the tides above their heads. Copper and tin have been extracted from Cornwall since the Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago and it would seem that since prehistoric times the act of removing this material was considered a ritual act. Tales of the supernatural arose around mines and miners as people who were revered in the act of entering the earth, the abode of the gods, and retrieving the ore of these precious metals to manufacture high quality weapons, cauldrons and ornamental metalwork, over many, many hours and days to be later cast into wetlands and rivers as votive offerings to underworld deities.
The chimneys of Levant Mine from Pendeen Watch.
(Sheila Russell - Wikimedia Commons)
Most, if not all, underground mine workings possess tales of supernatural entities. Most mines are said to be haunted by the spirits of the victims of the many accidents that were commonplace when mining was a crude, labour intensive activity. The Cornish mines are no exception, acquiring tales of hauntings right up to recent times. At Wheal Vor, near Breage, north west of Helston, a forewarning of accidents would occur in the appearance of a white hare. This white hare normally appeared above ground in one of the engine houses but the miners never managed to catch it. Small black dogs were also said to haunt the place. Following the death of a man and boy who were sinking a shaft when a charge of explosive blew up prematurely. There bodies were so badly mutilated that they were no longer recognisable and were hastily shovelled into the furnace of the engine. Since then the small black dogs started to appear.

The sprites of Cornish mines, particularly in the Land's End peninsula, are known as the 'Knockers'. Miners treated the Knockers with respect and it was believed that anyone who was disrespectful to them would suffer bad luck. When a mine closed it is believed that the Knockers lived on in the abandoned mine. The activities of Knockers is recorded at Ballowall and Balleswidden mines near St Just, and the Rosewall and Ransom mines at St Ives. Generally the Knockers were benevolent and their tapping guided human miners toward productive lodes provided they received a portion of the miners lunch, usually the “hoggan” from his pasty, or “fuggan”, a piece of his cake. Some believed they were the spirits of Jewish miners, introduced into the Cornish mines since the time of the crucifixion, as they were never heard working on the Jewish sabbath. Others claimed they were not the spirits of Jewish miners but of those who had crucified Christ who could be heard gently singing in the mines on Christmas Day, Easter Day, All Saint's Day and the Jewish Sabbath.

According to an account by Wiliam Bottrell in A Tinner's Fireside Stories, the faery miners who worked in Ballowall mine were; “miserable, little, old, withered, dried up creatures; the tallest of them no more than three foot six or thereaway, with shanks like drumsticks, and their arms as long, or longer, than their legs. They had big, ugly heads, with grey or red locks, squinting eyes, hook noses and mouths from ear to ear. The one older and uglier than the rest seemed to take the lead in making wry faces and all sorts of mocking tricks. When he put his thumb to his nose and squinted at Tom, all those behind him did the same. Then all turned their backs, stooped down, lolled out their tongues and grinned at him from between their spindle shanks.”

The miner Tom Trevorrow had insulted the Knockers by refusing to leave the hoggan for them. The old miners had told Tom that the levels he was working on were more infested with “knackers” than any other part of the mine. These mischievous sprites were seen on many occasion running around the blacksmith's shop and going down the Buck Shaft that entered the current level he was working in. The shaft was so named because of a black buck-goat, or Bucca in the shape of one, was seen to go down the shaft but never found below. The term Bucca can mean hob goblin, or imp and corresponds to the Irish “puca”, English “puck” or Welsh “pwca”.

The Tinners' Way, known as the Old St Ives Road, is thought to have been an ancient trackway
traversing some of West Penwith's loneliest and wildest uplands. Thought to start at the Neolithic axe factory at Kenidjack castle cliff, running to the trading port of St Ives and the Hayle estuary, tin and copper ore were no doubt transported along this track which passes many ancient Cornish sites.

Carn Kenidjack, The Hooting Cairn
By St. Just, not far from Cape Cornwall and the sea, is a flat, sinister tract of land between Chun Castle and Carn Kenidjack. Known as The Gump (Cornish for 'moor', we are told), a place said to be haunted by witches and demons, a place where the piskies used to hold their merrymakings andnlead mortals astray. It is here that An' Pee Tregger encountered the pisky on her way home to Pendeen from Penzance market on Hallan Eve, the nearest Sunday to Halloween.
Carn Kenidjack from JT Blight

A tale of The Gump tells of a strange light seen on the rocks of Carn Kenidjack by two miners on their way home across the moor from the now abandoned Morvah mines. As the sun was setting the two miners decided to take the shorter route past the Carn. Darkness had quickly fallen by the time they had reached the rocks. Lights flickered amongst the rocks and the miners could see large forms moving about the Carn and heard a demonic three-men's song ending with a piercing hoot. A hooded horseman on a black horse rode up behind them and told the miners he was going up to the Carn to watch the wrestling. Some strange force compelled them to follow the horseman.

They didn't know the horseman but recognised the manky black horse from their mine. On reaching the Carn they found themselves amongst giants with painted faces who formed themselves into a circle. Two of the giants stepped forward to wrestle when someone called out for a light. The horseman, now seated on the ground, pulled back his hood to reveal his eyes ablaze with light. The two miners realised it was the devil himself who had led them there. One of the wrestlers was hurt in a fall and lay motionless on the ground. The crowd hailed the victor while the two miners tended the loser. As he lay dying they said a prayer for his soul when suddenly the hill was plunged into total darkness. A strong wind blew around the petrified men, which then suddenly stopped and returned the Carn back to moonlight. The giants had all disappeared. The men could see a huge black cloud rolling out to sea, in its midst the eyes of the devil continued to shine brightly. The two men could not find their way off the hill until sunrise the next morning.

The Tregeseal Barrow is an oval mound of an unusual entrance grave type known as a Scillonian Chambered Tomb. The Scillonian group of entrance graves is so called because the greatest concentration of the tombs is found on the Isles of Scilly. Similar entrance graves, consisting of a narrow entrance leading into a rectangular burial chamber covered by a small round stone cairn, are also known in Brittany and the Channel Islands.

Overlooking the rugged granite cliffs to the south of Cape Cornwall, facing west toward the setting sun, is the prehistoric funerary cairn known as Ballowall Barrow.

Ballowall Barrow
Ballowall Barrow, or Carn Gluze or Gloose, is one of the largest and most complex of the prehistoric funerary monuments that cluster along the West Penwith coastline. Situated one mile west of St Just it is thought the barrow was constructed by local communities to provide a striking tomb for the dead with a spectacular sea-cliff vista.

Ballowall Common has been heavily exploited by miners for the many lodes of tin which underlie this area, and the monument was long been concealed and thus protected beneath mine waste. The large, multi-phased monument is unique. No other monument of this type has so far been identified in Cornwall although during the 19th century the Cornish antiquarian William Copeland (WC) Borlase mentioned the excavation of another cairn nearby which showed some similarities in construction. Unfortunately no trace of this second cairn now survives.

It is probable that a conventional Neolithic Scillonian Chambered Tomb was the first structure here, followed in the middle-Bronze Age by a central cairn and cists. Finally, a collar was incorporated into the original mound and chamber of the entrance grave. The top of the cairn is now missing but persists to a height of almost 10ft. The barrow was lost after being used throughout the Neolithic and Middle Bronze Age. The 67 ft diameter cairn lie hidden for generations under the spoil from local tin mining activity.
Ballowall Barrow overlooking The Land's End  (pic: author)
The excavations by WC Borlase in 1878-79 uncovered middle Bronze Age urns containing cremated bones in the cists. Borlase, a native of Penzance and great, great, grandson of the naturalist and antiquary Reverend William Borlase (1695-1772), produced his Naenia Cornubiae in 1872 from Blight's and Dr Borlase's notes, a valuable record of Cornish megalithic monuments.Yet,  unfortunately, by today’s standards, his excavation record of Ballowall Barrow is inadequate and unreliable; there are many discrepancies in the accounts of the work, and many of the finds are now lost making interpretation of the site difficult.

Local tales suggest that the mound was exposed and recognisable as such perhaps not long before Borlase’s investigation. Borlase is said to have been drawn to the site by tales from miners returning from work at night who had reported seeing strange lights burning on the neolithic Ballowall Barrow on the cliff top. These mysterious lights were interpreted as dancing faeries.

St. Helen’s Oratory
Among all these old mine works and tales of the supernatural is St Helen's Oratory, the remains of 6th century chapel at Cape Cornwall near the tip of West Penwith, in a field known as Parc-an-Chapel (the Field of the Chapel). The chapel can be seen from Kenidjack Head to the north and Carn Gloose to the south.

St Helen's Oratory, Cape Cornwall (pic: author)
Cape Cornwall was long considered to to be the “true Land's End” (Pen Kernow) until accurate mapping proved otherwise. However, it is without doubt from the Cape that the best view of Land's End is be had and without having to fight your way through the crowds.

The existing stone chapel is a Scheduled Ancient Monument situated on land recently acquired by the National Trust. Archaeological recording during conservation works in 2001 identified it as a derelict agriculture building standing on, or near, the site of a Medieval chapel or oratory. Conservation works used existing rubble to rebuild the structure we see today.

A now lost Chi-Rho marked stone found on Cape Cornwall near this location suggests a Christian site may have been in existence here from the 5th century, but it is uncertain when the first chapel was established on the site. The inscribed stone was reportedly thrown down the vicarage well in St Just, presumably where it remains. A Latin cross of 4th century type was ploughed up from the abandoned Cape Cornwall mine leat and subsequently erected on the gable of the present building.

A chapel on this site was first described by Dr William Borlase in the mid-18th century, described as 45 feet long and 12 feet across, with a window toward the altar. The dimensions and orientation of the present construction are quite different from those given by Borlase which may be due to the result of several rebuilds since the 18th century.

Borlase thought that the Cape may have originally been called "the promontorie of Helenus" named after Helenus, son of Priamus, who arrived here with Brute and was buried on the Cape but the sea washed away his sepulchre long ago. Understandably, Borlase seems to have (erroneously) based his reasoning on classical cultures of the east Mediterranean as was topical at the time. However, it is possible that the name 'Helen' may derive from a missionary who founded the site; the island of St Helen's (Enys Elidius) in Scilly also has an early Christian chapel named for St Elidius.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

J T Blight, Week at the Land's End, 1861. (Reprint 1989).
William Bottrell,Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, 1873.
William Copeland Borlase, Naenia Cornubiae, 1872. (Reprint, 2010).
CW Dymond, Cornwall's Ancient Stones: a Magalithic Enquiry, Oakmagic, 1999.
Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1903. (Reprint 2012).
John Michell, The Old Stones of Land's End, Garnstone Press, 1974.
Craig Weatherhill & Paul Devereux, Myths & Legends of Cornwall, Sigma,1994.
Craig Weatherhill, Belerion, Alison Hodge, 1981.
Craig Weatherhill, Cornovia, Alison Hodge, 1985.
St Helen's Oratory: Archaeological Recording during repair works, LUDU, Cornwall Council and the National Trust, 2011.

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