LEVANT TIN MINE. Pendeen, Cornwall. 20th. October, 1919.

Man-engine in Dolcoath Mine by John Charles Burrow (1852-1918)
From: ‘Mongst mines and miners, or, Underground scenes by flash-light : a series of photographs, with explanatory letterpress, illustrating methods of working in Cornish mines. OCLC 16854040. Scan by uploader from reproduction in The Cornish Mining Industry ISBN 0-85025-334-9, page 28., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12247111

The accident was the worst in the annals of Cornish mining. It occurred at about 3 p.m. on Monday 20th. October and was caused by the breaking of the man-engine by means of which the men were raised and lowered into the mine.

The mine was one of the oldest in Cornwall and was on a cliff facing the Atlantic Ocean in the Parish of St. Just in Penwirth, just over six miles from lands End and about one and a half miles north of Cape Cornwall. It was established over 100 years before. Major Oats of the Company gave a description of the geological features of the mine.

The mine is worked on two systems of lodes, the one system of bearing about W. 28 deg. N. and underlying South about 20 deg, the other system having a bearing of about N. 30 deg. W. and an underlie of N. 20 deg. These lodes are in granite in the inland section, but pass into killas or shale before reaching the face of the cliff. The junction of the killas and granite is approximately parallel with the cliff, and at the surface about 150 levels inland, but the junction dips towards the sea and the 278 fathom level is almost under the face of the cliff.

Also almost parallel with the cliff in the killas is a greenstone dike which can be traced from Gurnard’s Head to the North, to the Longships Lighthouse off the Land’s End to the south, and at different depths in the mine. This greenstone dike, which is of considerable width, is very hard and not congenial, the lodes in every instance being squeezed up and not very productive in passing through it.

The lodes have now been worked on to a depth of 350 fathoms and for a distance or rather over half a mile under the sea, but the productive part is west of the greenstone so that to obviate driving numerous levels through this non-productive part, the bottom of the mine is worked through land shafts which are down 278 fathoms along a main 278 fathom level, and below this by means of an underground shaft known as the submarine shaft about half a mile out under the sea and sunk from the 278 fathom level to the 350 fathom level.

It is probable that the lodes were worked to a certain extent earlier, but there is no record until the mine was taken up by a local company which started work in 1820. This company, which was said to have started with a capital of £400 worked until 1871 during the first twenty years profits amounting to £170,000 were made and divided from the production of copper.

There were several shafts sunk into the lode, one of which was equipped with a man-engine. it was the collapse of this engine which caused the accident and resulted in death and injury to the men. At the time of the accident, it was the only man-engine that was at use in the County.

The manner in which the engine was introduced into Cornwall is described in Hunt’s British Mining, p.684 and it is seen that the first engine of this type was installed in the Tresavean Mine in 1842, the second was installed in the United Mines in 1845 but it was not until 1857 that the man-engine at the Levant Tin Mine was installed. At that time it was installed at a depth of 170 fathoms and was worked by a Cornish beam single-acting engine.

The man-engine shaft was further sunk to the 230 fathom level and a new balance beam was installed at 200 fathoms level to help the beams above take the extra weight. The man-engine extended to that depth in 1888-9 and in 1897-8, it was further sunk to the depth of 266 fathoms and it was at this depth when the accident occurred. The original Cornish engine had been replaced by a compound tandem engine in March, 1893.

The design of the men-engine was similar to the working of the Cornish pumping engine and consisted of an engine at the surface operating a quadrant or T-bob, to the nose of which was attached to a long pitch pine rod 9 inches square, joined in sections and traversing the length of the shaft. The rod had a reciprocating motion from the engine in a slightly inclined axis, up and down. The stroke of the rod was 12 feet but instead of being used for raising water, it was adapted for raising and lowering men. They stood, one at a time on steps fixed at uniform intervals to the rod when the rod was moving in the direction they wished to go, or on platforms called sollars fixed in the shaft when the rod was moving in the reverse direction. The distance of the steps and sollars was governed by the length of the stroke of the rod. The platforms were arranged so that at the top and bottom of the stroke they coincided with the steps of the rod. In travelling the shaft, the men stepped alternately from one step to sollar or from sollar to step. The rod normally made five up and down strokes per minute and the men could be raised and lowered at the rate of 60 feet per minute, the time tale to ascend or descend being 300 fathoms in half an hour.

The weight of the rod was balanced by balance bobs attached to the rod. Three of these were placed in the shaft at 24, 110 and 200 fathoms and two, which weighed 20 tons, were at the surface where fine adjustments were made by putting on or taking off weight. It was arranged so that there was always an unbalanced weight rod hanging on the quadrant at the surface in order to ensure that the rod was always in tension and to stop any tendency of the pitch pine buckling.

The steam engine at the surface was a horizontal single compound condensing engine with a 5-foot stroke. the high-pressure cylinder was 18 inches in diameter cutting off the steam at five-eighths and the low-pressure cylinder 30 inches in diameter. The vacuum averaged 25 inches. the motion of the engine was communicated to the rod by a pinion wheel on the crankshaft with 14 teeth meshing into a spur wheel with 96 teeth. On the spur wheel there was a crankpin to which was attached a connecting rod which was also attached to the top of the quadrant. the stroke of the connecting rod was 12 feet.

The engine usually ran with a condenser in operation but when the men were on the rod, the condenser was cut out. The engine was just able to operate the rod with 30 lbs. of steam per square inch. The balanced load amounted to about 14 tons. When the shift of 150 men were on the rod their weight increased the unbalanced load to about 24 tons.

There were provisions to catch the rod in the event of it breaking. Eight catches or “sills” which were made from stout pitch pine beams were fixed in the shaft and eight catch pieces or “wings” were securely fixed to the rod and so disposed throughout the length of the shaft so that when the rod was at the bottom of its stroke, there was a uniform small space between the catches and the wings.

The rod was attached to the quadrant beam at the surface by two strap plates 16 feet 3 inches long, 6 inches wide and one and three-quarters thick, called “caps”, bolted with 11-inch bolts to the rod. The “caps” extended through a space in the end of the beam and were secured by a gib and cotter above the snout pin fixed in a pedestal on the beam. The rod ended about one inch below the pin.

In the report of the Royal Commission of Metalliferous Mines and Quarries, 12th. June, 1914, the Commissioners state-

Then old-fashioned men-engine by which men ascend and descend on platforms fixed to a moving rod, from which they stepped on to another series of small platforms at corresponding levels on the sides of the shaft, is still used in one or two cases, but we understand that it is regarded as a survival from the past, and those which are still working at the Levant Tin Mine in Cornwall and at the Great Laxey Mine in the Isle of Man, are the only ones brought to our notice.

The use of man-engines for raising and lowering men is, as we already observed, almost obsolete. The following provisions on the subject are included in the Special Rules in force in the Cornish district-

78. In all future man-engines or additions to existing men-engines, whenever it is reasonably practicable, there shall be a fixed platform or sollar, not less than 2 feet long by 2 feet wide, one each side of the shaft, and immediately opposite each step of the men-engine, when it is at the top of the bottom of its stroke. Where the solar in any existing men-engine is less than 2 feet long and 2 feet wide there shall be a handle or bar to hold on by while standing on it.

79. There shall be a height of 6 feet 6 inches without any obstructions above each sollar, so that men shall not require to stoop when standing on it.

80. Where there is any hole or trap-door at a sollar a handle or bar shall be provided to lay hold of.

81. No person shall leave a trap-door open at any of the sollars.

82. there shall be easy means of signalling to the engine-man from every sollar.

83. No person shall signal to the engine-man, save in case of necessity.

84. Every fixed platform or sollar shall be provided with fend-off boards or funnel boards underneath, or a hinged board to lift.

85. A handle shall be fixed to the rod above each step, so that it can be conveniently grasped by a man or a boy.

86. Not more than one person shall ride on a step at one time.

87. No person shall be allowed to carry tools when riding, save for the purpose of repairing the man-engine or man-engine shaft, except the pitmen and timberman.

88. A competent person shall be appointed to examine the men-engine frequently, and see that all the catches, steps, sollars, fend-off boards, trap-doors, fences and handles are kept in a fit state of repair.

We consider these provisions adequate and we understand that accidents are extremely rare. It is, in our opinion, hardly necessary to make any general regulations by statute regarding men-engines, but we think that the prohibition against carrying tools except for purposes of repair and inspection might be inserted in the Act, and that there should be a daily inspection of the machine and that are part of the inspection should be made in the same way as in the case of other means of ascending and descending the shaft.

In 1889 a Dry Changing-house was brought into use together with a connecting tunnel to the man-engine shaft. This tunnel enabled men to get off the men-engine, four fathoms below the surface, instead of at the surface and walk into the dry without exposing themselves to the weather after coming from the hot mine.

At the start of the shift, a record of names of all the men descending was made by a clerk stationed at the entrance to the tunnel through which the men passed to get to the man-engine.

The accident occurred when the man-engine was almost fully loaded with men ascending from the mine. the breakage occurred on the upstroke when the man-engine rod was within 18 inches of the top of its stroke. Up to that time, the man-engine had worked smoothly and nothing occurred that caused the slightest alarm or indicated that anything was wrong.

The rod fell with its load of men a distance of 10 feet 6 inches to the catches. Unfortunately, owing to the swaying of the top portion which was the loose, the rod, in falling, got out of line and this resulted in the wings only partially engaging in the sills. The supporting timber fixed across the shaft carrying the top sill failed to hold, the second wing at the 38 fathom level only partially engaged the catch and sheered the front portion off, leaving no support for the wing, the 3rd., 4th., 5th., and 6th. catches failed but the 7th. and 8th. at 210 fathoms and 230 fathoms, held the rod but were severely compressed. At the same moment, the rod was also brought to rest by striking the floor at the bottom of the shaft.

Unfortunately, when the “cap” broke, the rod broke at a point 60 fathoms below the “cap” and the 60 fathoms of rod, carrying 30 men fell 46 fathoms to the 70 fathom level destroying all the platforms as it fell. Had this rod not broken, it is possible there might have been no fatalities.

The rod broke at a point 14 feet below the 24 fathom balance bob and a few feet above the connection bob to the rod. The rod at this point was 9 inches square and the fracture showed that the wood was of perfect quality. The only reason for it breakage was the upper portion swaying free by the braking of the cap near the quadrant at the surface.

The bodies of the men were recovered in the following positions in the shaft, seven just above the adit level at 24 fathoms from the surface, 4 from just below the adit level, one on the first step above the 24 fathom level, two just below this step, two at the 38 fathoms level, nine above the 60 fathom level and three below this level and one at each of the 70, 80 and 110 fathoms levels.

The last body was recovered on the morning of the 25th, October. The uninjured men were able to get put by the ladders in the shaft to the levels and then to the surface by the ladders in the pumping shaft

Those who were killed were:

  • Mathew Newton aged 61 years,
  • Peter Branwell aged 58 years,
  • Thomas Branwell aged 60 years,
  • Sampson Osborne aged 48 years,
  • Henry Andrews aged 46 years,
  • W.J. Hocking aged 41 years,
  • J.T. Angwin aged 61 years,
  • W.E. Waters aged 31 years,
  • William Henry Tregear aged 57 years,
  • Stephen J. Brewer aged 18 years,
  • John Tomkin aged 52 years,
  • G.H. Eddy aged 45 years,
  • Thomas Rowe aged 46,
  • Benjamin Hocking aged 43 years,
  • John Ellis aged 34 years,
  • William Henry Ellis aged 47 years,
  • Edwin Francis Pascoe aged 22 years,
  • W.L. Harvey aged 43 years,
  • Nicholas J. Mathews aged 36 years,
  • John Kevern aged 44 years,
  • James Maddern aged 47 years,
  • Nicholas H. Thomas aged 20 years,
  • John Wearne aged 29 years,
  • W.J. George aged 47 years,
  • M.E. Mathews aged 36 years,
  • J.V. Trembath aged 25 years,
  • W.J. Murley aged 29 years,
  • E.T. Trathen aged 41 years,
  • J.H. Oats aged 39 years,
  • J.E. Grenfell aged 52 years and
  • Leonard Semmens aged 25 years.

Those who were injured were:

  • William Rickard aged 41 years,
  • W.J. Lawry aged 14 years,
  • A. Nankervis aged 44 years,
  • Sydney Branwell aged 20 years
  • Lionel Angwin aged 27 years,
  • W.J. Nicholas aged 19 years,
  • C.A. Freestone aged 24 years,
  • John Semmens aged 15 years,
  • Thomas Maddern aged 45 years,
  • Joshua Hosking aged 32 years,
  • Gilbert Semmens aged 25 years,
  • Thomas Ninnis aged 30 years,
  • Joseph Semmens aged 56 years,
  • T.G. Williams aged 24 years,
  • Martin Murrish aged 15 years,
  • J.H. Johns aged 25 years,
  • Sydney Dennis aged 22 years,
  • Richard Warren aged 53 years and
  • Thomas Agwin aged 32 years.

A full investigation took place and the caps which were made of faggotted iron were tested at the Sheffield Testing Works was found to be not uniform in quality owing to the method of manufacture.

The inquest and inquiry was opened in the Levant Mining Company’s Offices an occupied two full days and conducted by Mr. Edward Boase, H.M. Coroner for the Western District of the County. All interested parties were represented and the jury brought in the verdict that the men died due to-

Accidental Death, the cause being the breaking of a strap plate due to fatigue of a defective part of the metal.

The method or raising and lowering men by this method at the mine was abandoned and the men went in and came out by the ladders in the shaft, pending the sinking of a vertical winding shaft the Company were thinking of installing.

The Report of the disaster was by Mr. H.A. Abbott, one of His majesties Inspectors. It was presented to The Right Honourable Edward Shortt, M.P., His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department in December, 1919.

Information supplied by Ian Winstanley and the Coal Mining History Resource Centre.

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