The Levant Mine Disaster - The Day of Horror
William Lawry's eye witness account of 20th October 1919
No-one who was there will ever forget the day the last man-engine in the
world broke and sent forty men plunging into the depths of Levant copper
and tin mine.
Puny flesh mingled with the splintered wood and tons of rock that cascaded down the shaft. It was to take over fifty hours to get out the last man alive - and then he died. Altogether it was four days before the last of the thirty one bodies was recovered. The single rod man-engine was typical of those in use in the larger Cornish tin mine. A massive wooden rod with steps every twelve feet was suspended in the shaft and driven by a steam engine at the surface. Wooden platforms, known as sollars, were built into the side of the shaft.
To descend, the miner waited at the surface for the rod to reach the top of its stroke and then stepped onto the man-engine. The downward stroke of the man-engine rod carried him level with the next solar twelve feet below. Stepping quickly onto the first platform, he then waited until the rod rose again, before climbing back onto a lower step to be carried - on the downward stroke - to the next solar. Step on, down, step off, wait, step on, down, step off, wait - and so on until the bottom of the shaft was reached.
This was known as "riding the engine". It formed such a large part of their lives many came to regard the man-engine almost as a living thing.
Hundreds of them rode up or down the shaft - one above the other - all at once.
The routine was dreadfully monotonous, with greasy mud making everything very slippery under foot. The only light was from the candles which we stuck to our helmets with a dab of clay.
Sometimes we would sing while we waited and while we rode to the top - a fine sound when you heard all the men singing.
At that time there were such singers as the Georges, the Houlsons and the Strattons - all of them male voice choir members - working in the mine. To hear hymns such as 'Lead Kindly Light' and 'Abide With Me', coming up from the depths of the Earth was something out of this world.
It was all too familiar to the men of St Just who returned from the Great War in 1919 to their peacetime occupation and found the Levant mine still operating - kept going by young men and those who had been too old for military service.
The Levant rod had broken twice before - in 1892 and 1908 - but no-one had died then, although injuries had been severe.
That October day it was to be horribly different.
It was a typical end to another exhausting, back breaking shift. As they began the ride to the surface the young men did not even notice the slight trembling in the rod, the growing vibration which made itself felt through the feet of older men who knew it should not be there.
For days there had been talk of the odd creaking coming from the metal
fittings where the rod connected to the driving gear on the surface.
Uneasily they still followed the almost hypnotic on\off pattern that had brought them rhythmically to daylight for half a lifetime.
Without warning the metal fitting at the end of the bobbing beam parted. The rod with one hundred men on its steps - fell down into blackness.
The lower section stayed in one piece. The jarring twelve foot drop sent men flying. Hurled them against the rocky sides of the shaft.
It threw some men onto the sollars - one man died from a blow to the head.
But - by a miracle - no-one else was seriously hurt at the lower levels.
Above them was terrible carnage.
The rod smashed through the safety catches that were supposed to prevent it falling more than ten or twelve feet.
The impact, as it sliced downwards - through sollars and ladders - broke it into a splintering telescope of timber that rattled from side to side of the shaft, brushing men from their perches like flies and pulping them into terrible destruction.
The miracle that saved the men below was the slight narrowing of the shaft six hundred feet down. Here, the debris jammed so solid that scarcely a pebble fell beyond the blockage into the thousand feet pit below.
On the surface it was sometime before the extent of the tragedy was realised.
The only living thing in sight down the shaft was one man standing marooned on a sollar which had not been torn down by the falling rod.
Rescuers ran down to the bottom of the cliff where the Levant headgear is perched and got into the shaft through a drainage passage.
What they witnessed was beyond description. Men, timber and rock were all jumbled into a dreadful crush.
I was the youngest boy working underground, and was on the engine at the time of the disaster.
Having been thrown forty eight feet and buried in the debris for hours, it was only through divine providence and the courage of the rescuers that I can write this today, fifty years later.
I was working in level 278 - the long level - with Peter Bramwell, an older miner who was riding one step below me on the man-engine. I was to learn later that he had been killed.
The Land's End peninsula was plunged into mourning that lasted for months - for some the shock stayed for years.
Every house for miles around had its window curtains drawn. Almost every family had lost a father, husband or son, a cousin, uncle or brother.