Levant Mine and Beam Engine is located within the St Just Mining District; one of the most ancient hard-rock tin and copper mining areas in Cornwall. Copper and tin has been mined here for generations, and the mine workings of Levant extend over a mile out under the sea bed.
*** – History – ***
In 1820, the Levant Mining Company was formed with a capital of £400, though Levant Mine first appeared on a map in 1748. By 1836, 320 men, 44 women and 186 children were employed on the site. In Levant's first 20 years of business, £170,000 was made from mining copper. New technology was introduced to streamline production, and in 1857 the now-infamous man engine was installed. This engine carried men many fathoms up and down the mine, to and from work each day. In 1919, the man engine suffered a disastrous failure when a link between the rod and the engine snapped, killing 31 men. Levant experienced a steady decline and in 1930 the mine closed. The mine produced copper, the original focus of Levant's mining industry, tin, there are two tin-dressing floors at the mine, and arsenic, a lucrative but deadly by-product of tin ore
*** – Cornish Miner – ***
For much of its life span Levant had five or six hundred employees, men, women and children. A typical miner’s day was long and very hard going; a life under the sea was not easy and life above it was hardly better. 'Those who are not killed by accident perish of exhaustion and excessive toil; the rock is hard and the ladders are so long... They produce riches, and scarcely enjoy common necessaries themselves.' Alponse Esquirose
There were three ever present dangers whilst working in the mine under the sea: temperature, ventilation and climbing ladders. The temperature underground was extremely high to the extent that miners rarely wore boots as they would fill with sweat so quickly.
The rickety climbing ladders down the shafts were another cause for concern; one wrong step would send a miner plummeting down to the depths below. The only light was from a tallow candle stuck to the miners’ helmets with clay. These were easily extinguished by drafts that ran through the tunnels. There was also an ever present danger of rock-fall, either from a cave-in or blasting. Maimed or blinded men were a common sight in Cornwall in the 19th century.
The reality was in fact slightly different. Working outside would mean battling against wind, rain and fog, and when it was not one of those, it was all three. Waterproof clothing was also fairly unknown at this time so it’s hard to imagine that this work completely ‘brightened their lives’.
After the toils of the day, there was always the walk home. Having survived the shift without mishap the Levant miner spent up to half an hour ascending the man engine to the comforts of the ‘dry’ or changing room. On emerging from this in his outdoor clothes he faced a walk home which could be several miles over rough cliff paths.
The small cottages that now litter the countryside would have been very crowded and the shift system of the mines meant that ‘hot bunking’ was routine. A miner's diet was often very minimal: a cup of tea, perhaps made from mugwort, and a piece of barley bread sent a miner to work, with a hoggan (a baked pastry containing currants or figs and sometimes a piece of pork) for his croust or mid-shift meal. On his return his supper would probably be salted fish, potatoes and mugwort tea.
*** – Ladies of Levant – ***
It was usual practice to employ women and girls on the dressing floors at the mines in Cornwall, and Levant was no exception. It was one of the few mines to continue to employ them as late as the First World War. These ‘bal maidens’ worked on both the copper and tin dressing floors at Levant, where tasks were allocated according to strength.
The first dressing task undertaken by women and girls on both the copper and tin floors was spalling, or breaking rocks. Once the male surface labourers had broken the very largest pieces of mineral coming from below ground, older women and girls broke (or spalled) these blocks into fist sized nodules with long-handled hammers. On the tin floors, these pieces were then taken to the stamps to be pulverized. The resulting fine tin-stuff was then subjected to various washes to separate the ore from the waste.
The scene at the copper floors would be rather different, as most of the copper had to be broken by hand and could not go to the stamps. The spalled material was cobbed (broken to nut sized pieces) by mid-teenaged girls. The very youngest girls (usually about nine or ten years old) would begin work at the picking tables where they sorted the cobbed material.
Here they learnt to identify different types of ore, as well as their value. The purest pieces of ore were picked out and collected and the waste rock thrown into boxes on the floor. They would leave the mixed grade material on the table, and older girls would sweep this into barrows and carry it to a bucking mill. Here the very strongest girls and women stood at an anvil set into a table and pounded the ore-stuff to a powder. This was then taken on to the buddles for washing and separating. Initially, two teams of bal maidens worked at Levant; on the copper (cobbing) floor and at the Trewellard water stamps.
In 1841, these teams totalled about 60 women and girls, probably with about equal numbers in each. By 1844, a third team were working at the new steam stamps and the number of tin dressers had risen to over 100 by the early 1850s, giving a total number of bal maidens at about 140. From then the numbers of bal maidens began to decline.
During the 19th century the working day was 7am to 5pm (minimum) regardless of age, with much of the work done in the open air, or under very primitive shelters. Bal maidens worked in almost all weathers, only stopping if the water for dressing had frozen or had failed, due to drought.
The Levant bal maidens were paid 11-18s per month (depending on age). They stopped work on marriage, but widows or children of Levant miners were probably given preferential employment. Among the youngest recorded were 8 year-old Grace Bottrall (of Carnyorth) who began work in 1860, and 10 year-old Grace Trembath (of Bojewyan) who began in 1844 and was seriously injured at Trewellard Stamps in 1845.
*** – Visiting – ***
This is the only Cornish beam engine anywhere in the world that is still in steam on its original mine site. The famous Levant engine is housed in a small engine house perched on the edge of the cliffs. Restored after 60 idle years by a group of volunteers known as the 'Greasy Gang', it is a thrilling experience for young and old alike to see this old engine in action, with its evocative sounds and smells.
There are guided tours of the underground mine. The BBC series Poldark was filmed here. There is separate mobility parking, 50 yards from the mine. there is a level surface on the slope. Braille and large print guides are available. There is a sensory experience and an Induction loop. There are disabled toilets and wheelchair access to all surface facilities. Assistance dogs are welcomed. Steaming is usually every 15 minutes from 11 am.
*** – Facilities – ***
Location : Trewellard, Pendeen, near St Just, Cornwall, TR19 7SX
Transport: Penzance (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 7, 10, 10A and 240 stop at Trewellard (1 mile).
Opening Times : Currently Closed due to Coronavirus guidelines.
Tickets : Adults £9.00; Child £4.50
Tel: 01736 786156