WHEAL OWLES. St. Just, Cornwall. 10th. January, 1893.

The mine was owned by Thomas Bolitho, Sons, and others and twenty lives were lost through an interruption of water from the Old Wheal Drea workings which belonged to the same mine. Captain Richard Boynes was the manager of the mine and Thomas Tregeare the underground agent at Wheal Owles, but Captain Boynes had been ill for the previous two or three years and had been unable to visit the mine. Thomas Tregeare had surveyed and dialled the plans and plotted the Cargodna workings, which were those in use at the time, on a small rough plan which he used for working purposes. The workings were laid down by Mr. Boynes on the large plan of the mine. The working plan did not show the position of the old workings but the large plan showed the workings of the Cargodna (which was part of the Wheal Owles workings at the time of the disaster), The Buzza, Flat Work, Wheal Boys, Wheal Grouse, Corpus Christi, Wheal Edward, Wheal Drea and Wheal Gendal. All these workings had been abandoned and full of water to the adit level for many years. The Wheal Drea and Wheal Owles workings were the nearest to the Cargodna workings and the nearest part of the lay respectively to the west and east. The course of the lodes in the Cargodna working ran approximately north-south. The Cargodna workings ran to the south about 50 to 80 fathoms, the deeper levels being the longer where they intersected a vein which ran about south-west and north-west and on which the level had been extended towards Wheal Owles.

Mr. Tregeare surveyed the workings every four months and, as he was aware of the presence of water in the old workings, he took what he considered to be the necessary precautions. He talked the matter over with Captain Boynes and he always cautioned him to be careful when drivings were made. He went through all the working places on Thursday 5th January and the other agent, John Laggna, went through them of the Friday before the disaster. Neither of them noticed anything that indicated that they were approaching water and they took the pan of the old workings to be correct and directed their actions accordingly. He also took the workings of the Cargodna to be correct and as laid down on the plan by the manager. Thomas Tregeare stated:

In making my surveys and plotting them I have not made much allowance for the variation of the needle (magnetic meridian). I have not checked my surveys by tieing from an upper level in the shaft, down through the far in workings to the lower levels, back along them, and up the shaft to the starting point. When plotting my surveys I make allowance for the measurements on the underlay in accordance with the angles taken by means of a quadrant. This was my practice in the Old Wheal Drea workings also. I cannot say what the practice of my predecessors was. I know two or three e of my predecessors they were all practical men, who rose from being miners. Their experience was, I believe, local, and only at this mine in some instances, while in others they had experience as Agents at other mines. I have myself been dialling at this mine more or less for 15 years. I produced my working plan an there is a longitudinal section but there is no transverse section.

On the morning of the accident, Thomas Tregeare and Captain Laggna were underground to measure up the men’s work. Captain Laggna changed his clothes in the engine-house and left him at the count-house while Tregeare was changing his. They then met at the shaft and went underground together. On the way to the shaft they met the shaftsman Newton, who told them that there was pump split in the West Wheal Owles Shaft. This delayed Tregeare about fifteen to twenty minutes. He went on and was about 20 yards from the shaft when Captain Laggna called him and told him to hurry up. He ran to meet him and was told that they had holed water at the 75. He had been told by men who had come up while he was at the top of the shaft.

They went down the shaft with the pitman and met others coming out. They got to two or three fathoms below the 30, and found that the water was up to that point. They then went to the surface and Tregeare sent a pitman down Wheal Owles Shaft to see if anyone had escaped that way but he found no one.

It was felt that anyone working below the 30 fathom level who had not already escaped had lost their lives. Steps were taken to find the names of those who were in the mine and it was found that twenty had perished. On the morning of the accident forty men went underground at about 7 a.m., and had been at work about two hours when the accident occurred. All the men employed in the 55 Fathom Level came out safely but none of the eight men employed in the 65 Level came out. Of the eight men employed in the 75, four, two trammers and two fillers, came out alive after having been close to the shaft when the inrush occurred. None of the men employed in the 85 came out alive.

The men who died were:

  • Thomas Allen aged 23 years, miner,
  • Lewis Wilkins Blewett aged 20 years, trammer,
  • Peter Dale aged 24 years, miner,
  • William Eddy aged 20 years, miner,
  • Thomas Ellis aged 36 years, miner,
  • John Edwards aged 37 years, miner,
  • John Grose aged 54 years, miner,
  • Thomas Grose aged 22 years, miner,
  • John Olds aged 25 years, miner,
  • William Roberts aged 24 years, miner,
  • James Rowe aged 22 years, miner,
  • John Taylor aged 30 years, miner,
  • Mark Taylor aged 22 years, miner,
  • Charles Thomas aged 38 years, assistant trammer,
  • James Thomas aged 38 years, miner,
  • William John Thomas aged 15 years, wheeler,
  • Edward White aged 44 years, miner,
  • James Williams aged 25 years, miner and
  • Richard Williams aged 27 years, miner.

There were several survivors who gave their accounts of the disaster. James Hall, a miner who had worked at the Wheal Owles for the last seventeen years told the Mines Inspector the day after the accident:

I was at work in the mine yesterday at the 55 fathom level. I went down the Cargodna shaft, leaving the surface about 7.30 a.m. It took me about a quarter of an hour to reach the 55 fathom level. I had started work about half an hour in my working place (a stop on the back of the 55 fathom level, in the Cargodna lode) when I hear a noise, which I first thought arose from a sollar giving way. I had two boys with me and I called them to jump down to the level from the sollar on which they were working, and I did so myself also. I then recognised that it was water which was rushing down through the stopes &c. to the levels below. I saw no water as it was at a lower level it came in, but I can say at which, of my own knowledge. Out lights were extinguished by the air current. I got the boys into the wagon and pushed it out to the shaft. It thus being on rails acted as a guide for me. The boys then took the ladders and climbed safely to grass. I went down three ladder lengths below the 55 fathom level to see if I could assist anyone and remained down about 20 minutes, after which I climbed to grass. There was water falling down the shaft. The other men and trammers working near the end of the 55 came out with us safely. I saw no person below the 55. Those who were saved from the 75 had come up to the 55 before I got to the shaft. I did not actually see water in the mine, but I know it was water because I dropped a stone down the shaft and heard the splash. The water at that time was perhaps about 13 fathoms below the 55. I climbed leisurely, and dropped a stone about every 10 fathoms to see where the water was, and I think it was about 15 fathoms below me. It seemed for some time to rise nearly as fast as I climbed. At the adit level, I met Captain Tom Tregeare on his own way down. I asked him what the water was and he said he did not know. I told him that it was rising quickly, he then went down to see where it was, and I went up to grass. I had no knowledge, nor idea of any danger from water. There was no rumour of any such thing among the men, had there been we would have ceased work long since.

William Charles Granville stated:

I am a filler working at Wheal Owles. I was in the mine yesterday when the water burst in. I was engaged, along with Richard Blewett, in the Platt close to the shaft and under the 75 fathom level. About nine o’clock I heard a roar like thunder. Our candles were extinguished. We made for the level (the 75), on reaching which I followed Blewett to the shaft, and we climbed to the 65 fathom level. Blewett there tried to light his candle, but his matches were extinguished by the wind. We made our way up to grass in the dark. No water reached where I was. We made our way out as quickly as we could, thinking our lives were in danger. I know nothing further with regard to the accident.

Richard Lutay was also in the mine and said:

I am a trammer working at Wheal Owles. I was at work there yesterday in the 75 fathom level. I happened to be close to the shaft about 9 o’clock, when I heard a noise as if caused by a wagon in the 55 level. I then heard a rush like water into our level. I then heard a louder sound, and rush of wind put out our lights. We (my comrade and I) were going along the level at the time, and we got about 10 fathoms in. We both turned back, and by the time we reached the Platt at the shaft the water caught us up. I shouted to Granville and Blewett, who were down in the Platt filing our stuff into a skip, and they came up. We were all in the dark. We got to the ladders as soon as we could and came up to grass, but before I reached the ladders the water was pouring down the shaft from this level. I saw water coming on to the level before I lost my light. It seemed to gradually increase, but did not reach us in a big body. I could hear it pouring down through the gunnisses further in. This level was quite dry previously, and we had only been out with a full wagon about five minutes from the end of the level. A strong rush of wind accompanied the water.

Benjamin Hoskin was a miner at work at Wheal Owles and said:

I have worked there about 33 years out of the last 36. I was at work at the 55 fathom level of the Cargodna shaft, having entered the shaft about 7.30 a.m. My companion and I were about to repair a tram-hole, “shoot” or “mill” as they are called, having removed a couple of wagons of stuff out of the way, when I heard a noise like an explosion. I thought at once that it was water breaking in. I called to my comrades to come on. They, however, went inwards along the level, whereas I went outwards and made my way to the ladders in the shaft. Then (my comrades) afterwards came out with the others. They went inwards in consequence of getting confused, as we all were in the dark owing to the rush of wind caused by the water extinguishing out lights. I made my way up to the 45 where I saw three men, one of who had a light. I then called to them to come on quickly, and went straight up to grass myself. I thought the water was closer to me than proved to be the case. I did not actually see the water. I knew it to be water from the rush of wind and hearing it pouring down the workings. I did not know that any of the workings were near dead water. Had I known it I would not have worked there. The water came from below the 45 level. I cannot say at what point it broke in, but I think it came from the 65 fathom level.

Thomas Tregeare stated that he thought it was the Wheal Drea workings that had been holed and the water came from these. These were connected with the Boscean Old Workings, so that, in order to pump out the water from the Cardona workings, it would be necessary to provide an inflow of water from the Old workings. The pumps at Weal Drea when they were working had 8-inch plungers with an eight and a half foot stroke which worked at three strokes per minute. At Boscean there were nine-inch plungers with a ten-foot stroke which worked at seven strokes per minute. The water rose about 6 feet between 11 a.m. on the day of the disaster and 11 a.m the following day after and the water appeared to have found its level in both sets of workings.

Mr. Martin, the Inspector stated:

Having learned during my inquiry, when plotting the surveys, no allowance had been made for the variation of the magnetic meridian, and that they were laid down from the meridian originally marked on the plan when prepared in 1841, it at once appeared to me that the accident was to be accounted for in this way, and I consequently requested that a corrected plan should be prepared which was done by Messrs. Henderson and Son, of Truro. This resulted as anticipated and demonstrated satisfactory how and where the mistake arose. I called at the mine when passing through St. Just on the 28th September, previous to the accident, being accompanied by Mr. E.E.V. Stokes, and saw Mr. Thomas Tregeare, the chief Agent, in the absence of the manager Mr. Boynes, who had been invalided and confined to his room for some time back. having had the position of the workings pointed out to me and explained on the plan in the Court House, I drew attention to the fact that they appeared to be working between two ranges of old workings containing water, and in no very great width of ground, and I mentioned that they would need to be very careful. I also asked if they were quite sure of the accuracy of their plans, and was answered in the affirmative, Captain Tregeare saying that he was quite so, and that the manager was most particular about the plan, which he allowed no person but himself to interfere with, as he was rather “plan-proud”. Captain Tregeare showed us a rough working plan of the Cargodna workings, which he kept up by himself, for his own guidance, but this did not include the old workings from Wheal Drea. Not feeling satisfied that I had altogether grasped the exact positions of the relative levels in the two sets of workings, owing to the two different datum lives from which they were reckoned, I requested Mr. E.E.V. Stokes to again visit the mine and go into the plans thoroughly, to see exactly how they stood. He accordingly visited the mine on the 1st November, and does not appear to have had any doubt raised in his mind to their accuracy. He had also been underground and made a general inspection of the mine on the 18th July.

Having, in accordance with the instructions, reported to you, in view of the general demand from the neighbourhood for a public inquiry, directed that proceedings should be instituted against the persons responsible for the inaccuracy of the plans. The manager was consequently, on the 5th April, charged before the justices, Messrs, the Rev. John Tonkin, J.P., ands C Rose, J.P., at the West Penwith Petty Sessions (Penzance), with having contravened the 19th. Section of the Metalliferous Mines Regulation Act, 1872, by not having an accurate plan of the underground workings of the mine.

The defendant being confined to his bed by continued illness was represented very ably by Mr. Bodilly, solicitor, of Penzance, who set up a somewhat peculiar defence that he (the defendant) was ignorant of the effect of the magnetic meridian, and that consequently under the exemption which ids expressed in the section he was not liable. Except as a technical and legal defence, I very much question the defendant admitting such to be the case, as it is too fundamental a principle for a person of his apparent ability and experience in planning to be ignorant of, and I think it is due to the manager to state that the plan which was prepared by him in 1841, when the mine was first commenced, 130 years before it was required by legal enactment, was well got up, neatly drawn, and apparently highly credible in all respects other than the unaccountable oversight of omitting to allow for the variation of the magnetic meridian.

The Bench took time to consider their decision which was reported at length in the “Western Morning News”  of Monday 17th. April.


At a special sitting of the West Penwith magistrates, at Penzance, on Saturday, Rev. John Tomkin and Mr. C Rose gave their decision in the case heard of the 5th. inst. against Mr. Richard Boyns, purser and manager of the Wheal Owles Mines. The charge was of having kept inaccurate plans of the mine. Mr. A. Archer, of Truro, prosecuted on behalf of the Treasury Mr. G.L. Bodilly, of Penzance, defended.

The Chairman said in this case the facts were very simple, and indeed were practically admitted. The defendant was not only one of the principal owners of, or shareholders in, about was also the Purser and principal agent of the mine. He had himself kept the plan of the workings of the money and such a plane it was admitted to have proves seriously inaccurate. The defence raised was that defendant had been ignorant of the inaccuracies and that under the section such ignorance was a good d defence. The section on question (after providing that the Owner or Agent shall keep an accurate plan and that he shall on request produce such plan to the inspector) continues thus:

If he (1) fails to keep such a plan as is prescribed by this section or (2) willfully refuses to produce it or (3) willfully withholds any portion of such plan or (4) conceals any part of the workings of the mine, or produces an imperfect or inaccurate plan, unless he shows he was ignorant of such concealment, imperfection or inaccuracy, he shall be guilty of an offence against the Act.

The defence was very ably to contend that the exception (i.e. the words “unless he shows he was ignorant” &c.) applies not only to the fourth or last division, but also to the first and other preceding divisions of the offences under the same section, and that, therefore, ignorance in this case constituted a good defence. As to the facts relating to such ignorance, it was not for one moment suggested, even by the prosecution, that there was a willful intentional inaccuracy the inaccuracy in question seems to have arisen from the defendant having left the plan without making allowance for the continuous magnetic variations, the result being that the plan was wrong to the serious extent of considerably over 100 feet in the distance shown by it in the present and older set of workings.

We have no hesitation in saying that we do not believe, and indeed the prosecution did not allege, that the defendant was aware of to what a great extent the omission to make the necessary allowance had rendered his plan inaccurate but his attention had been called on more than one occasion to the existence of magnetic variations and the fact of their affecting plans, and it was necessary for us to decide the point, we should feel some difficulty in finding that we were satisfied that the defence had shown “ignorance” within the meaning of the section.

In arriving at a decision as to whether any offence against the Act has been committed at all, a distinguished form the question of the degree of, or the punishment for, the offence, if any, we have endeavoured not to allow ourselves to be influenced, on the one hand by the fact of the very terrible accident referred to by the prosecution, or, on the other hand, by the facts as the defendant’s integrity, his well-known interest in the mine and miners, the deep pain occasioned on him by the accident, and the present state of his health, which were mentioned by the solicitor, and which are well known to us, and cannot but call forth sympathy with him at this time. After a careful consideration of the whole scheme and spirit of the Act, and the wording of the Section (which it must be admitted is obscurely drawn), and of the other Sections (particularly Section 32, which throws some light on it, and the distinctions made in places between “offences” and “willful offences”) we are of opinion that as a matter of law words “unless he shows he was ignorant,” &c., do not apply to the first offence under the section, and that ignorance, even if proved up to the hilt, would not in this cases be a good defence, and that, therefore, an offence had been committed against the Act by the defendant in his chatter of Agent of the mine, and we inflict a penalty of £15.

There was no appeal and no inquest held on this disaster.


The Mines Inspectors Report, 1892. Mr. Joseph Martin.
The Western Morning News, 17th April 1892.

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

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