A boy born in 1895 could be said to have been born at an unfortunate time. By 1914 he'd be 19 years old old and a prime candidate to be a soldier in World War One. This was the destiny fate had in store for Willie Tonkin who was baptised on 15 January 1895 in St Just Parish Church. Willie enlisted at Camborne on 28 September 1915. He had been working as a miner and was recruited straight into the Royal Engineers as Sapper 132437, graded as Tunneller's Mate in 176 Tunnelling Company. Like many sappers, Willie found himself in France within four weeks of enlisting.
Willie survived the war. He came home, by now married to Winifred, a girl he had met while convalescing in Eastbourne. They married in Penzance and in 1919 their son William was born. But on 20 October 1919 Willie's father, John, was killed on the Levant Man Engine. His older brother, John, had been killed in Geevor in 1911. For the Tonkins St Just was a more dangerous place than the Western Front.
After the death of his father Willie went back to work at Levant as a trammer where Ralph Ellis, one of his mates from 176 Tunnelling Company, was also employed. On Friday 13 August 1920 there was a serious underground explosion at Levant, a trammer was killed outright and three others died shortly afterwards of their injuries. Willie Tonkin died instantly, he was 23 years old. Those who died with him were Edward Williams (17) and his brother Nicholas Williams (26) and Richard Trembath. The first man on the scene of the accident was Ralph Ellis. Ralph never worked again, within a short time he had been committed to Bodmin Mental Hospital, where he died in 1933. He too had survived the war. He too had lost his father on the Levant Man Engine.
This is a shortened version of the profile of Willie Tonkin created for The Trench, an immersive, interactive, commemorative drama staged at Levant Mine in July 2016. It was compiled from Willie's service records, newspaper reports of the Levant accident and parish records. For video footage of The Trench go to: