When South Crofty tin mine closed in 1998 a gaping hole was left in our community, not only for the miners and their families but for the whole of Cornwall. It was the end of an era. In recent years the Canadian company, Strongbow Exploration, has made positive steps towards re-opening this iconic mine. But in all honesty mining in Cornwall has changed forever. So, wherever we can we need to try and record that heritage.
Maurice ‘Mac’ McCarthy, also known as ‘Yorkie’, became a miner at South Crofty mine in the 1980s, when, as he puts it times were good and prices for tin were high. He has kindly shared some of his fascinating, hilarious and often irreverent memories of his time underground with me. I have edited them a little, just for clarity but by and large this is the story of his time at South Crofty as he remembers it – warts and all . . . you have been warned.
“I wasn’t born into tin mining, but I am originally from South Yorkshire where I had eight cousins, all coal miners. They shifted more coal over a pint or two in the tap room of the local pub than the then National Coal Board ever received. So I learned and understood the terms and phrases they used, although I had never worked a day down a mine in my life. But all this mining folklore came to good use when I blagged my way into a job as an ‘O.C.’, an On-Call contractor down South Crofty Tin Mine. “
On the very first day Mac went underground he had to try and pretend that he was an old hand at it. To blend in he copied what the other men did, such as testing their helmet lamp before strapping the battery pack on with a belt. When they entering the cage, the rickety lift to take them down to working level, he recalls feeling the jolt as it started to descend, taking him into the dark below. Mac says that when the break to the cage was released and gravity took hold the men would all say goodbye to that last glimpse of daylight.
“An OC man was a labourer, he could be told to do anything from repairing track, which meant replacing broken lengths of railway line underground, to helping a ‘machine man’, a skilled driller, who’s other teammate was off sick that day. Working as a machine man’s mate was highly prized. If you worked hard and proved your worth he may possibly tell other machine men. Then you might be offered a job as a teammate for a machine man as he drilled his 16 hole ‘cut’ ready for blasting. You could then be on some contracts that quadrupled your wages.”
At that time in South Crofty work was plentiful and skilled hard rock miners were in demand, but Mac explains most of the men also had other sources of income, such as a part share in a fishing boat. This meant that if word spread that ‘the bass was running’, he says that perhaps half the work force wouldn’t turn up for work the next day. They would call in sick and go fishing instead. That meant that there would be plenty of work for the casual OC boys.
The ‘Grizzly’ Incident
“Underground you were never supposed to work alone, you should always have a team mate with you. However, as with all rules, sometimes the guys would get careless in pursuit of that bonus for driving an end deeper, or filling 21 wagons with rock and ore and dumping it down the “grizzly”. Filling 21 wagons or tubs was the magic number in order to earn good bonus. Trammers were often accused of inventing ‘paper wagons’, that is putting more full wagons on his tally sheet than had actually been filled with ore, collected and dumped down the grizzly. So the mine managers would sometimes send a man down to check the tally. He would sit in the dark, out of sight, with his helmet lamp off, counting how many full wagons went past him in a shift that day. You never knew who he was, or where he was, or even what level he was on. But if he was spotted it spread around the mine like wildfire.”
Once the ‘end’, the surface that was being mined, had been drilled and blasted the rock and ore was cleared by the trammers on their night shift, so that the area was ready for the drillers to return in the morning. The trammers used either a machine called a ‘mucker’, a ride on mechanical shovel that ran into the end on rails that were laid down that evening, or they did it by hand using a ‘bango’, a long handled shovel. The rock and ore was shovelled into the tubs or wagons that were then connected to a battery powered locomotive. Once all the tubs were filled the whole load was driven from the end along a series of narrow tunnels, on track that was often buckled or had come loose, back to the ‘grizzly’.
“The grizzly was a grid of iron girders forming a square with holes as wide as a man’s body. It was placed over a shaft that threw the rock down to the bottom of the mine from where it was taken up the ore riding shaft to the surface for treatment and crushing. If a rock was too large to fall through the grizzly a trammer would connect himself to a safety harness, climb onto the grizzly and beat the rock with a sledge hammer until it went through the space made by the girders. Both trammers was supposed to ride on the locomotive to the grizzly and work as a team to tip the load. But in practice to make bonus one stayed at the end to load wagons whilst the other drove the train of full wagons as fast as he dared to the grizzly and tipped the tubs in by himself.
On one occasion we were not far off making the target, but it was almost time to pack up, clean the track out of the end and leave it ready for the day-shift drillers. I had tipped a large rock onto the grizzly and it wouldn’t go through, so I climbed up onto the iron grid without the safety harnesses as it slowed you down putting it on. I hammered at the rock with a sledge hammer and eventually on a downward swing it fell through. I overbalanced and both my legs went down the gap behind me. I flung out my arms and stopped myself from falling down the shaft to the bottom of the mine. But I lost both my wellington boots and almost the contents of my bowels. Falling through would have probably been fatal.
After that I never failed to put my harness on before climbing onto the grizzly, better to not make target than to not make it home that morning.”
There were of course strict rules to ensure the safety of the men while they were working but from Mac’s perspective it seems that these were frequently bent a little, either to save time and effort or because they were in some way impractical. And even with the stringent safety measures accidents were still fairly common.
What comes across most of all, however, is the miners’ wicked sense of fun, an opportunity to wind someone up was rarely missed, perhaps because the work was so dangerous.
“Working as a trammer on night shift I was following a very experienced and methodical day shift driller. His 16 hole cuts were blasted inch perfect. He was famed for his precise work. He demanded the end be completely emptied of rock and ore on his return the following morning, all trace of rails removed and the area made safe. If this wasn’t done to his satisfaction he could become a very unhappy man and he was a big strong chap you didn’t want to upset.
This driller had a length of white painted wood he used to measure the exact width of his drive end so as he followed the ore seam his drive was perfect. On one occasion, in order to get our own back, we would cut a bit off the end of his measure each night or substitute it for a wider one painted white like his was. This made his drive bow in and out in width as he followed the ore. Usually no one else’s was so straight as his, it was a pride thing with him. He couldn’t understand why he had lost his perfect drive and we never let on.”
The Loco & the VIP
The locomotive was a ride-on electric powered beast which when their shift ended the trammers would climb aboard and ride it back to the man riding shaft to take the cage to the surface. The loco would then be put on charge for 8 hours. There wasn’t space for everyone to catch a ride however so sometimes the men would get a little inventive to avoid having to walk . . .
“Often it was a long walk back from where the men had been working. So a long drill steel, which looked like a metal lance, was inserted into the back of the loco. Up to four men could stand, one behind the other, on the steel shaft and the two trammers would stand in the cab, so six guys would hang on for all they were worth while we rode the locomotive at full speed back to the man riding shaft. It was more fun than any roller coaster standing on that drill steel, holding the shoulders of the guys in front and hurtling back to the shaft to go home.”
The heat underground could be incredible, anything between 30 to 40°c, so Mac explains that you more or less worked in old shorts and boots all day, sometimes less . . .
“One of the hottest areas was known as ‘Cooks Kitchen’, on my level 290, it was very hot and there was a wide bend that the locomotives all used. On one side of this bend there was a huge hole dug almost a century before and known as the Gunnis. It was so wide and so deep that a helmet lamp light beam would not reach the other side nor illuminate it’s floor. So when a locomotive passed pulling wagons every pedestrian had to stand in a shelter cut into the rock on the side opposite to the Gunnis.
One day we had a message on the notice board telling us that ‘all miners are to wear the cotton overalls provided’ as we had VIPs touring the mine, including a lady peer. We were told ‘you must wear coverings whilst this tour is being conducted’. That day I was repairing some buckled track at that bend in Cooks Kitchen. The sweat was pouring from us and we had these uncomfortable, wet, hard cotton overalls on. Just after lunch break we saw a collection of helmet lights walking down the drive towards us. “Look out boys here she comes”, someone said. And sure enough the mine manager and his VIP’s walked up to us.
We told them we had just finished relaying new tracks and from the other direction came a fully loaded locomotive, it’s wagons pulling ore. We advised the VIPs to stand well back in the safety refuge whilst the loco went through, so they and us stood out of the way, watching the locomotive approach. It is considered bad luck to whistle underground but you can sing and the driver had a beautiful tenor voice, known throughout Cornwall, and could often be heard singing as he worked.
That day his rich deep voice resounded above the noise of the electrically powered locomotive as he sang ‘Trelawney’ at the top of his lungs. All twenty helmet light beams from the men, the VIPs and the Honourable Lady Peer of the Realm focused on the driver as he drove through Cooks Kitchen, somewhat slower than normal.
He stood to attention and saluted military style as he passed and we saw that he was completely and unashamedly naked, except for his helmet and boots. We miners burst out laughing, the VIPs all turned aghast to the honourable lady peer, who studied his passing with great interest and a beaming broad smile. We were never asked to wear those horrible overalls during VIP visits ever again.”
Because of the physical strain and the incredible heat a wise miner made sure he had plenty to drink, Mac took at least a couple of plastic 5ltr bottles filled with clean tap water to work with him to try and keep hydrated.
“Back at the shaft it was a lot cooler and wetter as the air rushes down the mine shaft, so waiting for the cage to arrive you put on a t-shirt, jogging bottoms and yellow waterproofs. When the cage arrived the eager, less experienced, or those with waterproofs on climbed into the first lower deck of the cage. The old hands waited until the cage was lowered enough for them to squeeze in the top compartment. Men being men they often poured the contents of the water bottles onto the guys below and occasionally the contents of a couple of guy’s bladders followed, much swearing and laughter ensued on the ride up to the surface.”
Back on the surface the men went to the battery room and deposited their helmet, lamp and battery to be recharged and then went to the locker room known as the ‘Dry’. The lockers had hot air blown through them so the men could put their wet mining clothes in one locker and they would be dried for the following shift. Then they went to the showers to wash.
“It was expected that you could ask a man to scrub your back to get the ingrained dirt out. It wasn’t a gentle back wash, it was a scrubbing brush job. But one guy always insisted on entering the showers in his underpants and this was seen as odd, because no one really bothered or was shy in the showers. We just wanted to get washed, changed and go home.
So one day he came in the showers and his old underpants were ripped off him to howls of protest. It turned out that he wasn’t built any different to any of us but we fell about laughing all the same. During Helston Flora Day he had partaken of too many pints of ‘Spingo’, a potent beer sold in the Blue Anchor pub. He had then decided to have a tattoo done. He had two enormous eyes tattooed, one on each buttock, so he could say he had eyes in his backside. Once sober he checked his new tat in the mirror and was appalled to see the tattooist had made them look cross-eyed and his cheeks made a smiley face.”
The men kept their surface cloths in the ‘clean-side’ locker, so once they had showered they could put on warm, clean clothes to go home in. The following shift, when they returned to don their mining gear, Mac says that the mud and dirt would have dried to a hard crust, they had to beat their clothes against a wall so they could put them on again, ready for another day’s work.
Mac did share some other brilliant anecdotes with me about his life underground and I plan to share them another time, but this overview of a day in his life underground seemed a good place to start. I’ll let him have the last word . . .
“I hope this gives you some idea of the hard work, the harsh conditions and the fun had working underground with a great bunch of guys. I haven’t mentioned the fun the drillers had, how they once hid my locomotive, which was like hiding something the size of a car, or what happened when the end was ready to blast early. Letting off explosives and some rather near misses. . .”
That’s for next time.