Paul Phillips and Tony Mansell have transcribed this interesting letter written by John Henry Benney in 1976 to his relation, Joy Stevenson (past Federation of Old Cornwall Society Dialect Recorder). It is largely as written with just a few minor alterations to aid understanding.
I went to work [in] Tin Croft mine in 1911 and shall always remember the first day. Mother made me a croust bag for my pasty which we carried inside our shirt so it would not get broken when going down the shaft. There was a gig or cage with six on the top deck and six on the bottom. Of course, me being on my first time going down a mine I felt very afraid and the old miners started to tell me strange tales about underground and about how many boys had been lost down there. We had to go to the mine store and get 1lb of Talla (sic) candles and outside was a pile of clay which we stuck in our miner’s hat to hold the candles. I got in the top deck and down we go about 300 in what might have been in less than five minutes. The miners were singing hymn tunes. We walked about 560 yards carrying steel drills and hammers and went to the stope were the tin and copper was. My job as a boy was holding the steel drill while the man with a 7lb Hammer hit it. One hit and I turned the drill around until the hole was five or six feet deep. I was afraid they would miss the drill, but they never did. Tin Croft mine was very warm and the miners would take down with them a keg which was like a small barrel of water. Miners did not live long in those days because of the dust from the tin stone what was bad for us all. I was one of the lucky ones. When drilling holes in the tin lode we would put the candles near where we were working, stuck with clay. After about six months I was allowed to work with the hammer, the handle was about 3 to 4 feet long. Sometimes you would be working in a tunnel seven feet high and 10 or 12 feet wide. When the holes were ready, they would half fill them with dynamite and put in a piece of fuse that would take maybe three minutes to explode the holes. Many miners lost their lives thinking all the holes had gone off. Many missed their way, missed their footing or their candle went out.
Tincroft Mine in Pool, where Tesco Supermarket was later built
The biggest funeral I have ever seen was at Troon, it was for a young lad that fell to his death at Tin Croft. Thousands of miners carried him to his grave singing all the way which at that time was the way of a miner’s funeral.
We had to climb ladders from one place to another and the light was very bad but as you know, we only had candles. My pay at the age of 17 was £3 per month up to the time I joined the army in October 1914. It’s hard to tell you or explain what underground was like but you ask at your library for the Cornish miner by A K Hamilton Jenkin: he was born at Redruth. It was first published in 1927, second edition 1948 and third in 1962. When your gran was at Dolcoath the mine had a big oven which was large enough to hold 200 pasties or hoggans for to warm the Bal maidens’ dinner. Many of them were very poor but they were generally proud and independent and, on the whole, shrewd, honest, respectable but rough in speech. In dress they were clean and neat. They wrapped their legs in woollen bands in winter and many envelop their faces and throats in handkerchiefs to not get sunburnt. The head dress was a piece of cardboard placed across the head with a curtain of print which fell down on the shoulders. Some wore a gook or sunbonnet which comes forward over the head in front. In wintertime some wore old stockings cut up for mittens for their hands. They wore a bodice called a garbolde and going to their homes they wore a white pinafore leaving their hessian towser or rough apron at the mine. There were very few bal maidens after the 1914-18 war, if any. The employment of women in any other office save that of the mine was very exceptional and there is no evidence that they worked underground. When I came out [of] the Army in 1919, I went to work at the Tresavean Mine near Lanner and all drilling holes by hand had gone. The machine had taken over, powered by compressed air. This mine closed down in 1927-28 but was at one time the richest mine for tin and copper in Cornwall.
Tresavean Mine near Lanner
I have heard my mother say that many of the children put their age on. Your gran’s pay when she started was 4/- [20P] per month working 7.00am to 5.30pm. Saturdays to four o’clock. There were no insurance stamps in those days but mother had two pence (just under 1P] taken out every month for the mine doctor so at pay day she had 3/10d (approx. 20P] to take home. Well, Mother worked there until she was 15 when her pay then was 12/- [60P] a month. Mother thought she should be getting more pay so she got a job on another mine called Carn Brea where the pay was 15/- [75P]. Now mothers job was with a long handled shovel keeping a grating clear as the tin stone was broken and crushed like sand and it was washed down with water and mother had to see that the grating was clear. Tin has to go through many processes and that was one of them. It was not too good when it was raining as all the roofs were leaking. They used to sing hymns as they worked. In them days your granny used to work in a shop. In those days you were someone very grand when Mother started at Carn Brea they were paid every fortnight. Grandfather Benny worked at a mine called East Pool when he and Mother started courting. Your Grandfather never work underground: his job was at the shaft head helping to get the tin ore out of the truck as it pulled up from below. Your grandfather was on night shift and the rope broke just as the miners came to the surface: one miner was saved. Father and his mate grabbed him just as the steel rope was breaking but 12 men were killed as the cage went to the bottom – 350 fathoms. Father did not work in the mine after that. But Father and Mother were married after that. Father went to work on a farm not far from Liskeard. I can’t remember the name, but his employer was a squire and I have heard Mother say when they had a shooting party there, there was always a brace of pheasant. The squire brought them around to his house and he rode up to the door and knocked on the door with his riding crop.
Now Joy, your grandfather [John Rundle Benney] was a great lover of brass bands and would walk miles to hear them. For over 30 years he was on the committee of Camborne Town Band and when he died, in 1946, 12 of the band including the band master played outside Barncoose Cottage and at the grave side at Illogan.
John Rundle Benney with his wife and children, one of which is John Henry Benney (rear row second from the right) (Photo: courtesy Clive Benney)
Your great grandfather, Joe Benney, use to get his living going killing pigs. He was a very big man, six feet 3 [inches], and lived near Carn Brea. Your other grandfather on gran’s side was Capt. Jim Evens, he was Captain at Tuckingmill Foundry making all sorts of mining machinery: he died 1916. My grannies all died before I was born (1896). I have often thought I would like to see them. I can see now Grandfather Evens, your great grandfather, smoking his clay pipe sitting by the old open Cornish fireplace. My Mother used to give 2½d [about 1P] to take to him an ounce of roll tobacco.
Your grannie used to wear a white bonnet and a towser which is Cornish for pinny made from bag material. My Mother told me I was always asking questions about her work at the mine. Your gran used to sing to us children of the songs she sang at the mine. But alas I can’t remember. Mother had 17 children and 12 of us lived. They had big Families in those day and 17 was far away from the Record. Your Grandfather Benney [John Rundle Benney] could not write or read. He told me he went to Bodmin with his brother [Richard Henry Benney (1)] to join the Cornish Police. My Mother learned (sic) him to write John Henry Benney [should be John Rundle Benney]. He went to Bodmin passed alright for health but when they asked Father to sign his name, he could not do it in front of the other policemen. Father never went to school. His brother “Harry” [Richard Henry Benney] could write and was in the Cornish Police for 30 years, such was life at that time. But I was never short of food. We always had a pig. Father used to kill two a year and mother would salt the pig away in a Cornish Bussa (2).
Love to You all, The Boys and Stanley
- Richard Henry Benney was a great grandfather to St Agnes historian Clive Benney who also became a policeman
- A bussa is an earthenware pot for salting food
Paul Phillips has a fond interest in Cornwall and all things Cornish and today he is the Federation of Old Cornwall Society Dialect Recorder, a post which he is most passionate about. In recognition of his work for Cornish Heritage, Paul was made a Bard of the Gorsedh taking the name Kaffler Rannyeth (Keeper/collector of Dialect).
Tony Mansell is the author of several books on aspects of Cornish history. In 2011 he was made a Bardh Kernow (Cornish Bard) for his writing and research, taking the name of Skrifer Istori. He has a wide interest in Cornish history and is a researcher with the Cornish National Music Archive and a sub-editor with Cornish Story: an Institute of Cornish Studies initiative.