My great grandfather, William Waters, was born in 1841, and by the time of the Census 1851 he was 9 years old and working in a Cornish tin mine alongside his father, Joseph. When the 1891 census was taken he was 49 years old and working in a Cumbrian iron ore mine with his son, William jnr who was 18 years old. By the 1901 Census William snr was dead ……… at 59 years of age. He was lucky, the average life expectancy of a miner in the Redruth area in 1841 was …… 28yrs – 4months! And a letter with analysis to the West Briton in January 1839 outlines the life expectancy of miners being 11 years fewer than that of men in other occupations. Rock falls, drowning, falls from ladders, explosions and the deadly deterioration from silicosis all contributed to miners deaths in the St Austell area.
Multiple generations of my ancestors lived and died around Redruth and St Austell across at least 300 years. These were some of the thoughts at the front of my mind as we parked the car at the Geevor Tin Mine near St Just.
Dr C tootled off to the coffee shop for an hour on her daily “text-fest” with Nepal as I paid my entry fee for the self guided tour above ground and a guided tour below. I had only a few minutes before going underground so the mine buildings would have to wait until later.
After introducing himself and gearing us all up with long coats and hard hats, our guide led us away from the buildings and towards the sea for about 100 metres to the entrance of Wheal Mexico, a shaft from the mid 1700s. A few introductory words later, he opened the stout wooden door and led us into a black hole. He was the only one with a dimmed lamp and he asked us not to use our phone torches as it would spoil the effect.
We continued around twists and turns, occasionally stopping to examine different coloured rock walls or observe a half boarded hole we were told went down for hundreds of feet, with miners being lowered on ropes with hammer and chisel as their only tools in the 1700s.
And then there was the water, everywhere there was water, dripping off the rock roof, glistening off the slimy walls, and occasionally a gushing sound from one of the many vertical shafts below us as the 300 year old drainage system continued to do its job.
Although revealing, this was not a pleasant experience and I was glad to get out into the fresh air and stand upright at last. My upper body had almost locked at a 30 degrees angle but thankfully the safety helmet had saved me multiple times from anything worse.
I now wandered around the surface buildings, though I had to admit they had far less of an impact on me. Workshops, winding rooms, electric generators, a tool storage, and an excellent museum were really all from the 20th century, a far cry from 100-200 years earlier, highlights in the slide show below.
And so to the ultimate question, had this visit to a preserved site, dating back to The Industrial Revolution, enhanced my understanding of the lives of my Cornish ancestors alongside the earlier research I’d done into Bal Maidens? What do you think?