‘No labourer whatsoever undergoes greater hazard of peril or danger, nor in hard or coarse fare and diet doth equal him: bread, the brownest; cheese the hardest; drink the thinnest; yea commonly the dew of heaven; which he taketh either from his shovel, or spade, or hollow in his hand… He spends all day (or the major part thereof) like a mole or earth-worm underground, mining in deep vaults or pits, as though he intended (with noble Sir Francis Drake) to find a way to the antipodes’ yea, a nearer, and so to surpass him: for it is sometime of that profundity, that notwithstanding the country (so they term the earth over their heads) is propped, posted, crossed, traversed, and supported with divers great beams of timber to keep them in security, yet all is sometimes too little; they perish with the fall thereof notwithstanding.‘, Westcote, p.53.
The above is an excellent description of the old Dartmoor tinners and the perils which they faced on a daily basis. Is it therefore no surprise that attached to their work were numerous superstitions and portents, all in the hope of them returning safely from their day’s labour? Many of the old tinner’s beliefs can be found both in Devon and Cornwall as the miners tended to migrate between mines.
Firstly we come to what probably was the most common belief amongst the tinners; that of the ‘knockers‘ (although these little buggers are predominately found in Cornwall) or piskies. Just imagine you were a miner back in the days when belief in the underworld and its collection of unearthly residents was commonplace. Everyday you ventured forth into the dark and dangerous bowels of the earth which these creatures called home. Once down in the depths you then started mining out what they would have considered to be their mineral wealth. In their eyes this act may well be viewed as theft and one which needed some kind of vengeance. Would it therefore not to feasible to attribute any mishap or accident to these beings?
“In the dark night of earth, ‘midst gloomy caves
The miner toils; a weary, anxious lot:
Dangers that menace life or limb he braves,
But turns with terror from some haunted spot
When loose mould betrays the Pixey near,
The stamp of tread of tiny active feet,
Or the shrill cry or laugh rings in his ear;
Hasty he seeks a distant safe retreat,
While to his fev’rish mind the slightest sound
Awakes new terrors from the depths around.”
As can be gathered from the lines above the presence of the piskies could be determined by the sounds of metal against rock or tiny feet paddling up and down the adits. There could even be the chilling sounds of their laughter any of which would send a shiver down a miner’s back. So with such strong belief in the malevolent underworld spirits it’s not surprising that a range of superstitions grew up, especially those which didn’t encourage the appearance of those creatures.
Having spent many hours down the old mines of Dartmoor I can vouch for the fact that there can be heard what could be taken for unnatural sounds. In the darkness the dripping of water, the wind whistling down an adit, the creaking of the old timbers or maybe the scurrying of some small rodent are but a few examples. Fortunately today the belief in supernatural beings is nothing like it was and therefore the imagination in not fired up into thinking such things. However, for the ‘old men’ of the mines who firmly believed it’s not hard to see why they feared such sounds.
On the other hand there were those who said the piskies were often helpful little souls insomuch as their knocking would lead the miners to ore lodes or even warn of impending danger. That is providing they were left a tiny morsel of food for their troubles.
Occasionally there were thought to be guardians of the mine who lived above ground, one such example being the raven which guarded the old Roman Mine in Chaw Gully. This particular raven was said to be the one that Noah released from the ark?
Mrs Bray in her book; “A Description of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and The Tavy” mentions several superstitions that were to be found amongst the Dartmoor tinners. She noted how at some mines horseshoes would be attached to parts of the mine in order to deter witches or as some believed Satan himself. Likewise it was a big no-no for any miner to whistle whilst working underground, possiblly the sound would attract unwelcomed and unearthly visitors.
It was also inviting disaster for any miner to work on the day and eves of Midsummer’s Day and New Year’s Day along with the Sabbath. Certainly on Christmas eve it was supposed that the piskies gathered down the mines to hear the midnight mass. Why such ungodly creatures would want to hear a Christian mass is a puzzle/ Could it be a superstition brought about by the Church to ensure the miners did attend midnight mass? To prove the point of working on the Sabbath she serves us with this strange account: “Three men were at work late on a Saturday night at the South Devon Wharf, when suddenly they saw issue from the rock a large ball of fire, which with a rumbling noise rolled on towards them and in its approach assumed a variety of forms, sometimes that of a human figure, then of a church with arched windows etc. etc. The men were dreadfully terrified and calling to their recollection that the Sunday had commenced, they fully believed that they saw and were pursued by the Devil.” pp. 255 – 260.
It is also noted that on Midsummer’s Day and new Year’s Day flags called a switch would be flown or a bush erected on the engine house or other tallest building at the mines. Apparently to commemorate the opening of the tin trade with China which probably began in the late 1600s.
Another strange and inexplicable superstition was that if a miner came across a snail down in the mine they were supposed to drip a blob of candle tallow next to it. Likewise it would be inviting disaster to carve the sign of the cross down in the mine. There is one account of a miner carving crosses along a series of adits so as he could find his way out. He was immediately sent back to change them into another shape. Could this stem back to the fact that a Christian symbol appearing in the realm of the piskies may well offend them?
It was not unheard of to plant a rowan tree near the entrance of a mine, the idea being that the tree warded off witches and other such evils.
There was also a deep-seated belief that should a miner meet a hare on his way to work then this was viewed as an omen of impending misfortune. In some cases the miner would simply turn around and make off for home rather than risk life and limb working down the mine.
Whilst it was considered to be inviting disaster to let a female go down a mine it was considered lucky to name a mine after a female. Such examples being; Wheal Ann, Bertha, Caroline, Elizabeth, Ellen. Emily, Fanny etc. etc.
Slightly off topic but whilst reading Mrs Bray’s piece in tinners she mentions a curious testimony to the wildness and remoteness of the parts in which some of the miners would have worked: “A very old woodcut… exhibited a whole pack of hounds harnessed and laden with little bags of tin, travelling over the mountains of Dartmoor; these animals being able to cross the deep bogs of the forest in situations where no roads, and where no other beasts of burden could pass.,” p.255.
Now, I have managed to find the woodcut that she refers to which can be seen opposite. Here you can clearly see a pack of dogs with small packs on their backs. This woodcut dates back to 1556 and it appears in an early book on mining by Georgius Agricola called De Re Metallica. What is puzzling is the fact that I can find no reference to dogs ever being used to transport small packs of tin on Dartmoor. Was this just a case of her seeing the woodcut and assuming that this method of transport applied to the Dartmoor tinners? Or as she clearly mentions Dartmoor and the deep bogs of the Forest was this correct and dogs were used?
Bray, E. Mrs. 1844. A Description of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and The Tavy. London: John Murray.
Northcote, R. 1908. Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts.
Westcote, T. 1845. A View of Devonshire, Exeter: William Roberts. Exeter: James G. Commin