An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 14


FOR how far down below the surface the rights of the lord of the manor extend, has not I believe as yet been determined, so we may presume that it goes down as far as man can dig and sink his shafts. In a good number of counties in England there is nothing underground worth bringing up, and consequently such rights are not of much value. It is quite otherwise where there is mineral wealth, and it is from the coal or the copper or the tin that lies deep underground that the wealth of some of our landed proprietors comes. But there is this consolation for such as have nothing of great importance below the surface, that those who are deriving their large incomes from the beds or veins deep underground are exhausting their patrimony; coal and metal will not recover themselves as the surface soil will.

It has been my lot to live where the underground industry was great, in Yorkshire where were coalmines, and on the borders of Cornwall where were once great copper and tin mines; also in my youth manganese was extracted out of the rock on my paternal inheritance. I have had a good deal to do with those who have worked underground, and so may be allowed here to give some reminiscences connected with mining and quarrying.

Alack-a-day! As the old order changeth, one of the most fresh and delightful characters Old England has produced is disappearing. Cornish mining is almost at its end. Every week away from the peninsula goes a shipload of miners for whom their occupation is gone, and with them the old cap'n.

Well, what is our loss is others' gain! and he goes to another part of the round world to be there as a waft of fresh air, a racy and delightful companion, a typical Cornish Celt, every inch a man, strong in body, and as strong in opinions, a little rough at times, but with a tenderness of heart like that of a woman.

If we go along the great backbone of Cornwall, we find it a mass of refuse heaps—every here and there is a bristling chimney, an old engine-house, but all desolate; the chimney gives forth no smoke, the engine is silent. The story is everywhere the same—the mine has failed. Is the lode worked out? Oh dear no! There is still plenty of tin—but foreign competition has struck the death-blow to Cornish mining, and the Cornish miner, if he will not starve, must seek his future elsewhere.

Of course there are captains and captains; there is the clever, wheedling captain, who starts mines never intended to pay, of which the only metal to be found is in the pockets of the dupes who are persuaded to invest in them. I knew one such. He found a mine, and was very anxious to get up a company, so he "salted" it cleverly enough, by dynamiting tin into the rock. But the mining engineer sent down to see this mine and report on it to the investors was too shrewd for him. The projected mine was not in Cornwall, but in Devon. "Halloa!" said he, "how comes this tin here? It is Cornish metal."

So that mine never got on all fours.

In a great number of cases, in the large majority, in fact, the captain is himself the dupe, and dupe of his own ambition. Mining is a speculation; it is a bit of gambling. No one can see an inch into solid rock, and no one can say for certain that indications that promise may not prove deceptive. The captain sees the indications, the dupes do all the rest. If the lode proves a failure, then those who have lost in it come down on the captain and condemn him as a rascal.

But there are cases where concealment or falsification of the truth is actually practised. Caradon Hill, near Liskeard, according to the saying, is vastly rich in ore:

"Caradon Hill well wrought
Is worth London Town dear bought."

It has been mined from time immemorial, but is now left at rest, and has been deserted for some years. The tale is told—we will not vouch for its accuracy—that in one of the principal mines on Caradon the miners came on an immense "bunch" of copper, and at once, by the captain's orders, covered it up and carried on their work where it was sure to be unproductive. Down, ever more downwards went the shares, as the mine turned out less and less copper, and just as all concerned in the bit of roguery were about to buy up the shares at an absurd price, in burst the water and swamped the mine. To clear it of water would require powerful engines, take time, and prove costly. But as shares had fallen so low no capitalists could be found to invest, and there lies this vast treasure of copper unlifted, deep under water. "I tell the tale as 'twas told to me." Is it true? I cannot say—at all events it gives a peep into the methods by which the rise and fall of shares can be managed, and it shows how completely investors are at the mercy of the mining captains. But that there are rogues among the captains does not prove that roguery is prevalent, or that many are tainted with it. On the contrary, as a body they are thoroughly honest, but speculative and sanguine.

There is a certain captain who has great faith in the divining-rod. One day he was bragging about what he had done therewith, when an old miner standing near remarked:

"How about them eighteen mines, cap'n, you've been on as have turned out flukes?"

"I don't say that the rod tells how much metal there is, but that it tells where metal lies that is sure sartain. Now look here, you unbelieving Thomas, I'll tell you what happened to me. There was a pas'le o' fools wouldn't believe nothing about the divining-rod, and they said they'd give me a trial wi' my hazel rod; so I took it, and I went afore 'em over the ground, and at last the rod kicked, just like my old woman when her's a bit contrary. Well, said I, you dig there! and dig they did."

"And did you come on a lode, cap'n?"

"I'll tell you what we came on—a farmer's old 'oss as had been buried 'cos her died o' strangles. Well, I promise you, they laughed and jeered and made terrible fools o' themselves, and said I was done. I done! said I—not I; the divining-rod is right enough. Look, they buried the old 'oss wi' her four shoes on. The rod told the truth—but mark you, her didn't say how much metal was underground."

The endurance and coolness of the miner are remarkable. But an instance or two will show this better than by dilating on the fact.

At a certain mine, called Drakewalls, the shaft crumbled in. It was sunk through a sandy or rubbly matter that had no cohesion. When it ran in there were below two miners.

The entombment at Drakewalls took place on Tuesday, February 5th, 1889, and the two miners shut in by the run of ground were John Rule, aged thirty-five, and William Bant, aged twenty-one, the former being somewhat deaf. They had pasties to eat, and burnt their candles so long as they could keep them alight. They suffered most from cold and damp and want of water, their water keg being buried in the rush of sand. At one time, while they were discussing the chances of rescue, Rule said to Bant, "I believe they will come through. You never did any crime bad enough to be kept here"; to which Bant replied "No"; and Rule added, reflectively, "This would be a right place for Jack the Ripper. Us two cu'd settle'n—and ate'n too, if hard put to't." They were rescued on the night of Saturday, February 9th. The pitman, Thomas Chapman, had worked night and day without cessation from February 5th to the night of February 9th, and, moreover, was lowered eighty feet to where they were confined. None of the other men would undertake to descend, fearing lest the entombed men might have lost their reason in their long confinement. One of the most curious facts connected with the entombment was that the two men had not lost account of time, but knew almost exactly what day and hour it was. In reply to a question, they said, "It's Saturday midnight," and, as a matter of fact, it was about one o'clock on the Sunday morning.

Bant was found in a somewhat dazed condition. Not so Rule, who walked out with great composure, and the remark he made was, "Any fellow han' me a light and a bit o' baccy for my pipe?" and on reaching the grass he said, "I wonder if my old woman have got summot cookin' for me."

He was much surprised that all wished to shake him by the hand. "Why," said he, "what is all this about? I ain't done nothin' but sit in darkness."

Chapman received the Victoria medal for his devotion. He had to go up to town for it, and was presented with it by the Princess of Wales.

Very often the captains are sober, and teetotalers. But this is not always the case, unhappily; and some are temperance advocates on the platform, but something else in the public-house. There was an old chap of this description who was known far and wide for his ardent temperance harangues, and for the astounding instances he was able to produce of the judgments that followed on occasional indulgence. A very good friend one day went with him to prospect a promising new district. They entered to refresh at the little tavern, situated some twelve hundred feet above the sea, perhaps the highest planted public-house in England. The friend was amused to see Captain Jonas take the whisky bottle and half fill his glass, holding his hand round the tumbler to hide how much he had helped himself to.

"Halloa, cap'n!" exclaimed the friend, "I thought you took naught but water."

"Sir," answered Jonas with great composure, "us must live up to our elevation. I does it on principle."

Some of the Cornish mining captains have had experiences out of England as common miners. There is one I know who worked in the Australian gold-fields many years ago, and he loves to yarn about those days.

"We were a queer lot," said he to me one day; "several of us—and my mate was one—(not I, you understand)—were old convicts. But it was as much as my life was worth to let 'em know that I was aware of it. There were various ways in which a score against a man might be wiped out. I'll tell you what happened once. There was a chap called Rogers—he came from Redruth way— and he let his tongue run too free one day, and said as how he knew something of the back history of a few of our mates. Well, I was sure evil would come of it, and evil did. Things was rough and ready in those days, and we'd tin buckets for carrying up the gold, and sand, and so on. Well, one day when Rogers was about to come up the shaft, by the merest chance, one of them buckets was tipped over, and fell down. I went after him down the shaft, and that there bucket had cut off half his head, and cut near through his shoulder. You wouldn't ha' thought it would have done it, but it did. Bless you, I've seen a tumblerful of water knock a man down if the water didn't 'break,' as they call it, before reaching the bottom of a deep shaft; it comes down in one lump like lead."

After a while he went on—"I had a near squeak once, the nearest I ever had. When we were going to blast below, all men were sent up except the one who was to light the fuse. Well, one day there was only myself to do it. I set fire to the fuse, and away I went, hauled up. But somehow it didn't go off. I thought that the water had got in, so before I reached the top and had got out, I signalled to be lowered again. I had just reached the bottom when the explosion took place. The rocks and stones went up past me in a rush, and down they came again. How it happened that I escaped is more than I can tell you; but God willed it; that was enough for me. I was back with my shoulder to the rock, and the stones came down in a rain, but not one any bigger than a cherry stone hit me. But I can tell you the men above were frightened. They couldn't believe their ears when I shouted; they couldn't believe their eyes when they saw me come up without a scratch. Folks say the age o' miracles is past. I'll never say that; it was a miracle I weren't killed, and no mistake."

"Well, captain," said I, "and did you make a fortune out at the Australian goldfields?"

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye.

"I went out with half-a-crown in my pocket. When I came back I'd got just one ha'penny."

"But all the gold you found?"

"That had a curious way of leaving me, and getting into the possession of my mate—him who'd been a convict. He grew rich, he did. I didn't. Well, I came back with experience."

"And now, cap'n, what are you going to do?"

"There's nothing going on in the old country. I'm off somewhere over the seas again. Can't help it. I love dear old England, and blessed old Cornwall above all, but if they won't or can't support me and my family I must go elsewhere."

Alas! this is too true. The mines are nearly all shut down. In one parish alone, that of Calstock, there were twenty-two in active operation a few years ago, now not one.

The miners are scattered over the world. They are gone to South Africa, to Brazil, to the Straits Settlements.

But where are no mines, there are quarries. Oh! the delightful hours spent in boyhood in old quarries! In picking blackberries where the brambles grow rank over the heaps of rubble and ripen their delicious fruit against the crumbled stone that radiates the warmth of the sun! In groping after fossils in the chalk quarries of the South Downs, delighted in being able to extract a fossil sponge or a glistening shark's tooth!

Nothing so unsightly as a new quarry, a wound in the face of nature, yet nothing more picturesque than one which is old, all the scars healed over by nature.

And then, again, what haunts old quarries are for rabbits—and therefore also places in which boys delight to spend hours ferreting Bunny.

In connexion with a quarry I will venture to tell a story—curious, because showing a form of superstition not extinct. I tell the tale my own way, but it is fundamentally true—that is to say, it is quite true that the quarryman told it; and believed himself to have been victimized in the way I relate, though I cannot vouch for the exact words he employed.

I was examining for geological purposes a quarry in Cornwall that had been opened in the side of a hill for the extraction of stone, wherewith to metal the roads. Whilst studying the strata, I observed a sort of nick in the uppermost layer of rock, under the earth which rose above the surface of the rock some three feet six inches or four feet.

The nick was about two feet deep and the same breadth, and the sides were cut perpendicularly. It was clearly artificial, and at once struck me as being a section of a grave. There was no churchyard interfered with, so that I supposed the grave was prehistoric, and at once exclaimed to the quarryman engaged in the excavation that this was a grave. He put down his pick, and answered:

"Yes, sir, it is a grave what you see here, and what is more I can tell you whose grave it is, or was. And a coorious sarcumstance is connected with that there grave, and if you don't mind sitting down on that piece o' rock for five minutes, I'll tell you all about it."

Without paying much heed to the statement that the man made, that he knew whose last resting-place it was, I inquired whether any flint or bronze weapons had been found there.

"No, sir," said the quarryman, "nothing of the sort as far as I know; it was the head of the grave we cut through, and when we sent the pick into it, the gentleman's head came down into the quarry."

"Gentleman's head? What gentleman's head?"

"Well, sir, I did not know at the time. It gave me a lot of trouble did that head, or rather the teeth from it. If you'll be so good as to sit down on that stone, I'll tell you all about it, and I reckon it will be worth your trouble. It's a coorious story, as coorious a story as you have ever heard, I take it."

"I will listen, certainly. But excuse me one moment. I should like to crawl up the side of the quarry, and examine the grave."

"It's my lunch time, and I've nothing to do but to eat and talk for half-an-hour," said the quarryman, "so I'll tell you all the whole story, when you've been up and come down again. There be bones there. You'll find his neck; we cut off the head of the grave. But, whatever you do, leave the bones alone. Don't carry any away with you in your pocket, or you'll be just in a pretty way."

I made the exploration I required. I found that a grave had been cut in the rock. Clearly, when the interment took place, those who made the grave did not consider that there was a sufficient depth of earth, and they had accordingly cut out a hole in the rock, below the soil, to accommodate the dead man. Bones were still in situ. I could find no trace of coffin, but in all likelihood, if there had been one there, it had rotted away, and the gravelly soil from above had fallen in on all sides, and had taken the place of the wood as it decomposed. And if there had been a mound above the dead man, the sinking in after decomposition had caused it to disappear. There were bushes of heather above the grave, but nothing to indicate that a tomb had been in the place, as far as could be judged from above. Its presence would not have been guessed had it not been revealed by the operations of the quarrymen.

Having completed my observations, I returned to the bottom, and seated myself on the stone indicated by the workman. He occupied the top of another, and was engaged on a pie—an appalling composition of heavy pastry, potato, and bacon, grey in colour as a Jerusalem artichoke, and close in texture and heavy as a cannon ball. He cut large junks out of this terrible specimen of domestic cookery, and thrust them between knife and thumb into his mouth. As he opened this receptacle I observed that the gums were ill-provided with teeth, so that mastication must be imperfect. It is really extraordinary how the wives of working-men exhibit their ingenuity in proving "how not to do it." It is said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. If that be the case, it predicates either extraordinary personal fascination on the part of the wives, or really miraculous virtue on the part of the husbands, that any domestic attachment should subsist in the cottages of the agricultural labourer and artisan. Or is it that the wives are resolved to put the tenderness, the devotion of their men to the severest possible test, as cannon are run over a new suspension-bridge?

"You see, sir," said the quarryman, "when we cut that new slice we went slap through the head of the grave, and never knowed there was a grave there, till down came the head, like a snowball. It was my partner, James Downe, as was up there wi' his pick. Me was sitting here, and I'd just opened my bag for my dinner, when I heard James a-hollerin' to me to look out. I did look up, and seed that there skull come jumping down the side, and before I could undo my legs—I'd knotted them for my lunch, and had the bag open on my lap—down came the skull, and with one skip it flopped right among my victuals, and there it sat in my lap, looking up in my face, as innocent as a babe, so it seemed to me.

"Well, sir, I daresay you know, if you know anything and you seem to be a learned gentleman that there ain't a better preservative against toothache than to carry about a dead man's tooth in your pocket. Dead men's teeth don't lie about promiscuous as empty snail shells, and I'd often wished to have one. I suffer terrible from my teeth. I've been kept roving with pain night after night, and one ain't up to work when one has been kept roving all night, either with teeth or babies. Me and the church sexton ain't the best of friends. You see, I'm a Bible Christian and spiritual, and that there sexton is of the earth, earthy. I couldn't ask a favour of him, to accommodate me with a tooth if he haps to turn one up when digging a new grave. It is true we have got a cemetery of our own to the chapel, but it's new, and nothing is turned up there but earthworms. As this was the case I was uncommon joyful when that head came bouncing into my lap. I found the teeth weren't particular tight in, and with my knife I easily got a tooth or two out; I thought I'd be square all round, so I got out a back tooth—they call 'em molars up to the Board School—and an eye tooth and a front one. Then I thought I was pretty well set up and protected against toothache. I got my wife to sew 'em up in a bit o' silk and hung it round my neck. I may say this—from that day so long as I wore the dead man's teeth I never had a touch of toothache."

"And how long did you wear them?"

"Three days, sir."

"Not more? Why did you not retain them?"

"I'll tell you why, if you'll listen to me."

"Certainly. But what have you done with the skull?"

"Chucked it away. It weren't no good to nobody—least of all to the owner. And for me—I'd got out of it all I wanted."

"You have not the teeth now?"

"No. I kept them for three days and then chucked them away."

"Have you had toothache since?"

"Terrible; but I had what was wusser when I had the teeth."

"Well, go on and tell me what the wusser was."

"So I will, if you'll listen to me. Well, sir, I had them teeth done up in a bit of silk, and hung round my throat. The first night I went to bed, that was Saturday, I had the little bag round my neck. I hadn't laid my head on the pillow, before—but, I must tell you, I'm a Bible Christian, and a serious man.

I'm a local, I am, and I preach in our chapel, and am generally reckoned a rousin' sort of a preacher. For, sir, I knows how to work 'em up. Well, when you understand that, you will comprehend how astonished I was when I laid my head on the pillow, to find I wasn't no more what I ought to ha' been. In the first place, I hadn't gone to bed in my clothes, and no sooner was my head on my pillow than I was in a red coat and breeches and gaiters; and what is more, in the second place, I'd laid me down to rest, and I found myself astride on a saddle, on horseback, tearin' over the country, jumpin' hedges, tally-hoin'—me, as never rode a hoss in my life, and never tally-hoed, and wouldn't do it to save my soul. I knowed all the while I was doing wrong. I knowed I'd got to preach in our chapel next evening, the Sabbath Day—and here was I in a red coat, and galloping after the hounds, and tearin' after a fox, and swearing orful! I couldn't help myself. I believe my face was as pink as my coat. I tried to compose my mouth to say Hallelujah, but I couldn't do it—I rapped out a—but, sir, I dussn't even whisper what I then swore at the top o' my voice; and I had to preach at a revival within some few hours. It was terrible—terrible!"

I saw the quarryman's face bathed in perspiration. The thought of what he had gone through affected him, and his hand shook as he heaved a lump of pasty to his quivering lips.

"I tried to think I was in the pulpit; you must understand, sir, if at a right moment you bang the cushion and kick the panels—it'll bring down sinners like over-ripe greengages. But it wor no good; I was whacking into my cob, and kicking with spurs into her flanks, and away she went over a five-barred gate—it was terrible—terrible, to a shining light, one o' the Elect People, sir,—such as be I."

The man heaved a sigh and wiped his brow and cheeks, and rose with his pudding-bag.

"All the Sabbath day after that," continued the quarryman, "I wasn't myself. It lay on my conscience that I'd done wrong; and when I preached in the evening there was no unction in me, no more, sir, than you could have greased the fly-wheel of your watch with; and usually there's quite a pomatum-pot full. I didn't feel happy, and it was with a heavy heart and a troubled head that I went to bed on the Sabbath night." He heaved another sigh, and folded up his lunch-bag.

"Will you believe it, sir? No sooner had I closed my eyes than I was in a public-house. I—I who've been a Band of Hope ever since I was a baby. I've heard say I never took to the bottle even in earliest infancy, though it was but a bottle of milk, so ingrained in me be temperance principles. I've heard mother say she put a bit of sopped bread into a rag, and let me have that when a baby—so stubborn was I, and so furious did I kick out with my little legs when shown the bottle. It was the name, I reckon, set me against it. However, sir, there I was, just out of the pulpit at Bethesda, and in the 'Fox and Hounds' drinking. I tried to call out for Gingerade, but the words got altered in my throat to Whisky Toddy. And what was more, I was singing—roaring out at the top of my voice—

"'Come, my lads, let us be jolly,
Drive away dull melancholy;
For to grieve it is a folly
When we meet together!'"

The quarryman covered his eyes with his hands—he was ashamed to look up.

"If that wasn't bad enough, the words that followed were worse—and I a teetotaler down to the soles of my feet.

"'Here's the bottle, as it passes
Do not fail to fill your glasses;
Water drinkers are dull asses
When they're met together.

"'Milk is meet for infancy,
Ladies like to sip Bohea;
Not such stuff for you and me
When we're met together.'

"All the while I sang it I knew I was saying good-bye to my consistency, I was going against my dearest convictions. But I couldn't help myself, it was as though an evil spirit possessed me. I was myself and yet not myself. It was terrible—terrible—terrible!"

The quarryman swung his pasty bag and smote his breast with it.

"That warn't all," he continued, and lowered his tone. "There was an uncommon pretty barmaid with red rosy cheeks and curling black hair; and somehow I got my arm round her waist and was kissing her. Well, I don't so much mind about that, for kissing is scriptural, and Paul calls them kisses of peace. But these were not kisses of peace by any means—and there was the mischief, for I knowed my wife was looking on, and, sir, I knowed the consequences would be orful—orful—simply orful."

The quarryman's head sank on his knees, he clasped his hands over the back of his head, and groaned for full five minutes. Presently he looked up, pulled himself together, and continued his narrative.

"The worst of all is behind. I was very busy on Monday, as I was on Mr. Conybeare's committee. We were in for the election, and I'm tremendous strong as a Liberal, and for Home Rule, and I reckon I can influence a good many votes in my district of Cornwall. Well, sir, I'd been about canvassing for Mr. Conybeare very hard, yet all the while I had a sort of deadly fear at my heart that what I'd been doing, both hunting and drinking, and swearing and singing, and kissing the barmaid, would come out in public, or would be thrown in my teeth by the Consarvatives, and might damage the good cause. But no one said nothing about it on Monday, and towards evening my mind was more at ease.

"I was very tired when I went to bed, for I had been working, as I said, very hard indeed, and persuading of obstinate politicians is worse than breaking stones for the road, and far worse than converting of obstinate sinners. No sooner had I laid my head on the pillow than—will you believe it, sir?—I was in the full swing of the election. I didn't know it was coming on so fast. I thought it would be three weeks, but not a bit of it. They'd set up a polling place in the Board School, and there was I swaggering up to register my vote. There were placards—Unionist on one side, but I wouldn't look at them; on the other were the Radical posters—from Mr. Conybeare—and I knowed my own mind. If any man in England be true and loyal to the G.O.M. that's me. Well, sir, in I walked and gave my name. I knowed my number, and went as confident as possible into the little box of unplaned deal boards, and with my paper in one hand took the pencil in the other, wetted the pencil with my tongue to make sure it marked black enough, and then set down my cross. Will you believe it?—that sperit o' pervarsity and devilry had come over me once more, and I'd gone and voted Consarvative."

The quarryman staggered back, and I had just time to spring to his aid. He had fainted. I held him in my arms till he came round. I threw water over his face, and by degrees he was himself again.

"Orful! orful! wasn't it?" said he. "Well, sir, after that I would have nothing more to do with them teeth. They did it. I chucked 'em away; toothache would be better all night long than the trials I had to undergo when I had them dead man's teeth about me."

"But have you not dreamed since?" I asked, looking at the pasty which, when he fainted, I had taken in my hand.

"Yes, sir, often, very often; but then my dreams since have always been Nonconformist, Temperance, and Radical dreams—and them's wholesome."

"You said something about knowing who it was whose grave you had disturbed?"

"Well, so I believe I do. I did not know at the time, but afterwards, when I began to tell my story; then there was a talk about it and a raking and a grubbing among old folks' memories, and there was an old woman who said she could throw some light on the subject. Her tale was that about a hundred years ago, or more perhaps, she could not be sure, there lived at the Old Hall one Squire Trewenna. The Hall has been pulled down because of the mines, and the Trewennas are all gone. Squire Trewenna was a terrible man for hunting and drinking, and was, moreover, a regular rory tory Conservative. He was a fast chap, and no good to nobody but to dogs and horses, and before he died he begged that he might be buried on the brink of the moor where he'd ridden so often and enjoyed himself so much, and had killed a tremendous big fox in the last hunt he ever went out in before gout got to his stomick. And he said he wanted no headstone over him, that fox and hounds and horses might go over his grave. Well, folks forgot, as there was no headstone, where he lay, exact, and old Betty Tregellas says she believes what we cut into was Squire Trewenna's grave. I think so too, for how else was it that when I had those teeth about me I was so possessed wi' a spirit of unrighteousness and drinking and Consarvatism? I reckon you've had a Board School education and been to the University, and are a larned man. Tell me, now, am I not right?"