“Two hundred and thirty fathoms from the adit; two hundred and seventy fathoms from the surface – two hundred and six by man-engine, sixty by ladders to the lode, and 48 more by ladders if we would reach the profoundest abysses of Levant!”
So runs W.C. Wildman's account of his descent of Levant Mine to witness the underground steam engine on the submarine shaft. Just in case you're confused by his fathoms and adits, he's descending 314 fathoms, 1,884 feet, from the surface into the deep levels out beneath the Atlantic Ocean, about 1,640 feet below sea-level to be precise. Or, if you prefer, about 550 metres.
It's a long way down and up to 19 years ago, April 1857 to be exact, the men did the whole thing on ladders but the introduction of the man-engine has done away with most of the ladder climbing. Just as well as the mine is now deeper! In 1876 Wildman rode the man-engine accompanied by Captain Henry Trezise, recalling that the Captain's father had been the first victim of the man-engine, crushed in an unwary moment by a descending step back in 1857. Mr Wildman is fascinated by the mine, his account is presented in 3 instalments and by the end of part two he has completed his ride on the man-engine and progressed as far as Engine Shaft. If you want a detailed account Wildman is your man!
Down they go, 360 feet on ladders down the engine shaft and then it's 1200 feet along the level – the irony of the word seems to amuse him – with the temperature slowly creeping up to something over 90 degrees. They're 1200 feet out under the Atlantic now (engine shaft is near enough on the edge of the cliff) and they reach another ladder climb, down another 10 fathoms in air that's becoming more stifling with each step. It's like climbing down a chimney but at last they reach the 240 level and set off for the end where three men are at work. Mr Wildman in fact admits that it's all getting a bit much for him and waits at the bottom of the ladder while the others go off to observe the winning of the tin in the deepest levels of Levant. Wildman is beat and he hasn't actually done any work, only travel to the workplace!
Back up the ladders they go at last finding themselves in “a whitewashed vault, lit with bright lamps and cheerful by dint of many voices – we were at the 210 fathom level and close to the engine.” They were in a cavern occupied by a boiler and by its side, a small horizontal engine and fly-wheel. Next to the fly-wheel is a winding drum and descending from it the wire-rope attached to a skip which will bring the ore up the diagonal shaft (other writers describe a vertical shaft). The cavern is some 20 feet high by 12 feet wide, the steam hisses and the bright lights illuminate the oily and sooty engineman, the reddened shaftman and the grimy visitors.
The 'signal bell' rings, George Eustice opens the regulator, nudges the fly-wheel off centre, and “off she goes” and within a minute the first loaded skip appears. And having seen the marvel they're now ready to return to “grass”. Wildman and his guide set off along the 210, 1500 feet back to the shaft along the tramway where boys – trammers – are pushing the loaded trams back to skip shaft. But the first tram isn't loaded with ore, its cargo is a large man wrapped in too much flannel, and likewise the next one. Mr Wildman is not the most unfit of the party after all. Now it's back on the ladders, this time going up, 360 feet up and a short walk along the 170 and, greatly relieved, they've reached the man-engine which will carry them to grass and blue sky. If these visitors are so pleased to see the man-engine think how it pleases the miner at the end of his core.
The underground engine on Old Submarine Shaft was the brainchild of Captain Henry Trezise, designed to furnish access the productive levels at 230 and below. Engine and boiler were both manufactured in St Just, the boiler being produced by Holmans in modules which were then assembled underground. Think of the noise of riveting boiler plates in that echoing cavern beneath the sea. When Mr Wildman visited, the engine was hauling tinstuff from the 250 to the 230, the engine and winder being situated on the 210. The shaft eventually reached a depth of 92 fathoms (562 feet) with the winder raising ore from 302 fathoms to the 210 level. The presence of the engine did nothing to improve working conditions in the mine: an already hot mine was made hotter and Frank Allum, visiting in 1887, reported that the temperature was usually 100 degrees in the mine. Smoke was discharged directly into the mine atmosphere and the engine's appetite for oxygen presumably worsened the already poor oxygen levels in which the miners worked. The engine was eventually replaced in 1897 when a new compressed air hoist was brought into use on New Submarine Shaft which had been sunk a further 1300 feet out from the cliffs to raise ore from the 350 to the 260.
This account is largely based upon three articles by A.C. Wildman, Editor of the Cornish Telegraph, which were published on 26 September, 3 October and 10 October 1876. Wildman's work is rich in classical allusion and far too long to be used in full and his obsession with the fog and mist which dominate his first piece probably did little for the reputation of West Penwith as a tourist destination. Additional material came from:
Cyril Noall, Levant: the Mine Beneath the Sea, Bradford Barton, 1970
John Corin and Peter Joseph, Levant: A Champion Cornish Mine, Trevithick Society, 2013.