Tales from End to End
The Mine Visitor’s Tale
by J. R. Leifchild (1855)
Botallack Mine is really one of the greatest sights in Cornwall, to a visitor curious in the triumphs of art and industry. The mine was formerly only worked for tin, and was nearly abandoned in 1841, when copper was found. Standing below the cliff and looking up from the sea, the view is fearfully grand.
To gain even the entrance of the mine is no slight matter. You have to pick your way down to a small counting-house, half-way between the summit of the rock and the ocean and there find the mining agent who will accompany you. Having obtained permission and guidance, you attire yourself in a woollen mining dress, and putting on a large felt hat and tying three or four candles to your buttonhole, you walk along a while and gain the trapdoor entrance to the mine and you set your feet on the staves of the first ladder.
Quickly losing sight of the daylight, you depend on candles alone and after descending two or three ladders, almost perpendicular, you are indulged with a momentary halt on a platform, while your sturdy guides wonder at your weakness. Now, again, place your best foot downmost on the ladder, have a candle stuck in cap front, and be as bold in your down-going as any prudent man can be.
Another ladder? Yes, another and another! Well, but what are you to see at the bottom of all these ladders? You may turn into a level, i.e., a side gallery, and soon find that you are in one of an apparently endless series of galleries some six or seven feet high. It is no pleasant thing to find many of these galleries terminated by dismal trap-holes, which lead to nothing but headlong destruction!
Just step over the rough stones and the awkward holes, and just stoop down under the depending lumps of rock overhead. Your progress in a mine is never equal or similar but is ingeniously compounded of walking, stooping, crawling, crouching, descending, climbing, creeping, and grumbling!
Pray, have no fear of those unknown abysses, but thinly covered over with planks, which you must cross every now and then in these levels. True, the planks are shaky and slippery and slight, but the quicker you get over them the better. As to the hot, sickly, damp vapour which floats about you, made visible by your candles, it can’t do you much harm for one short hour of a single day. Perhaps, if you had to breathe it eight hours every day, as a miner, you might justifiably grumble, but go on now, the perspiration will do you good! As to the mud, tallow and iron drippings which are visible on clothes, cap and face – why, though not cosmetics, they are harmless.
And now, as you rest on a piece of broken board carried for your convenience, you inquire the distance you have come. You are impressively informed that you are 120 feet below the sea level, vertically; and horizontally 480 feet below low water mark! Proud moment this to you – never to be enjoyed in any other mine! Why, boats are sailing over our heads, while still deeper down, human beings are working under our feet!
But what makes the rock so damp and dripping here? Why, the sea percolating through it. That little log of wood up yonder has been plugged in to preserve the development of a positive hole upward to the ocean! ‘Pray, guide, how many feet of rock between us and the sea?’
‘Why, gentlemen, about three or four feet at that plug there.’
We listen to the sound of the ocean. It has a melancholy majesty – it has a spiritual impressiveness in it. It does not threaten but subdues into humility and meekness.
From ‘Cornwall: its Mines and Miners’ by William Hoskin (Longman 1855)