The Man Who Photographed the Miners: J. C. Burrow in Cornwall and Wales

Part Two

(If you missed Part One, you can find it HERE)

Reading time: 25 minutes

The original cover of Burrow’s most famous publication, 1893

Distinctly remarkable…

1893 was an important year for John Charles Burrow. The photographs he took underground at the Dolcoath, Cook’s Kitchen, East Pool and Blue Hills Mines, were published in his ‘Mongst Mines and Miners. This work not only gained him recognition and celebrity in Cornwall, but also respect, and fascination, in the world of professional photography, and from the general public.

His photos, such as the one below, also brought awareness of the working conditions underground to many people living outside of the mining districts. I might add, they still do.

66 Fathom, Blue Hills, St Agnes. Three miners are hammering a new prop into position to support a lode of four to five feet. Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, AD460/1/35. This image originally appeared in ‘Mongst Mines and Miners

Examples of Burrow’s work were displayed in London that year at the 38th Exhibition of The Photographic Society of Great Britain, where he won a bronze medal for his efforts1.

Positive reactions to Burrow’s skill, and his results, were immediate. The Morning Post described his exhibits as “very interesting”2. Other reports were equally appreciative, and more detailed. The miner, as George Orwell wrote in 1937, is

…second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil…a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.

From The Road to Wigan Pier, in Orwell’s England, ed. Peter Davison, Penguin, 2001, p68

Therefore, anyone who can successfully, and faithfully, record the labours of an industry that makes civilisation possible, is also important. This was realised by the London Evening Standard:

…the underground pictures of Mr Burrow have supreme merit. The greatest difficulties to portray such scenes…snatched from the darkness of subterranean passages fathoms deep…by the skilful manipulation of limelight and magnesium lamp.

October 11, 1893, p2

The Times likewise noted that

…photographically considered and for their general interest they are distinctly remarkable.

This was actually quoted in the Cornish Post and Mining News of September 29, 1893 (p8), beside Burrow’s photo of the stull at 412 Fathom, Dolcoath Mine, Camborne:

Cornish Post and Mining News, September 29, 1893, p8. This image also originally appeared in ‘Mongst Mines and Miners

As we saw last week3, though Burrow took this shot in 1892, interest in it increased in the most tragic circumstances. In September 1893, the stull at 412 Fathom collapsed, killing seven miners working to repair it. Postcards of Burrow’s photo did a brisk and morbid trade in the Camborne area, and the image was also used by H.M. Inspector of Mines for the South West, Joseph Martin, during the inquest into the accident.

It was Burrow’s recognition in London, and the Dolcoath Disaster, that probably brought his abilities to the attention of the government.

There was trouble in North Wales.

O Arglwydd Dduw Rhagluniaeth: The Llechwedd Strike of 1893

North Wales Chronicle, May 27, 1893, p2

The Llechwedd Slate Quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog was the scene of a bitter and protracted strike from May to September of 18934. It began when a quarryman, Griffith Jones, was threatened with the loss of a day’s pay unless he returned to his work station. Jones, who had already worked seven and a half hours that day, refused, and went home. When he returned to Llechwedd the next day, Jones was told he had been suspended for his defiance. In a mass show of solidarity, the entire Llechwedd workforce, totalling 500 or so, downed tools, and vowed that

…we will not return to work without a distinct understanding that we shall all be allowed to return without a single one being left out, and that the present dispute be satisfactorily settled.

Qtd in the North Wales Chronicle, May 27, 1893, p5
Pay day, Llechwedd, 1890s5. Quarrymen hand-drilled underground in the pitch black with chains round their legs to prevent falls, often spending their entire working lives in the same slate chamber
Today, the Llechwedd Slate Caverns are a tourist attraction in Snowdonia

The quarry owner, John Earnest Greaves (1847-1945), let it be known that those on strike could consider themselves severed from his employ, and he furthermore reserved the right to employ only men he wanted to employ6.

John Earnest Greaves in 1897. From his Wikipedia entry

Thus were the battle-lines drawn, and were to remain as immovable as the Western Front for the next five months. Committees were formed, spokesmen nominated, and delegates presented grievances. In the first flush of optimism, the Quarrymen predicted a “short battle”7, and even had an unofficial anthem, the hymn ‘O Arglwydd Dduw Rhagluniaeth’ (‘O Lord God of Providence’).

The Llechwedd Quarrymen had the official, and financial, support of all quarry-workers in the Ffestiniog, Penryndeudrath, and Bethesda areas. Local firebreathing ministers took up their cudgels too, describing the “present fight” as

…one between gentlemanliness and oppression, justice and tyranny, capital and labour.

North Wales Chronicle, August 19, 1893, p7

The strike was also recognised by The North Wales Quarrymen’s Union, who gave the Llechwedd workers’ plight a nationalist agenda. The Greaves family was from England8, and while the Union was

…willing to respect aliens who might come amongst them, but if their object was to tyrannise over them and act towards them unjustly and unfairly, then it behoved them to lift up their voices against those aliens.

North Wales Chronicle, August 19, 1893, p7

(It may be worthwhile to point out to my readers outside of Wales that the Ffestiniog area was, and still is, proudly Welsh, and proudly Welsh-speaking. In 1893, all the Quarrymens’ meetings were conducted in Welsh, and their correspondence to the Llechwedd officials had to be translated into English before it could be read9.)

The Quarrymen also had the support of the up-and-coming young Liberal MP for Caernarvon Borough, David Lloyd George10.

Sadly, it was not enough.

Slate cutter, Llechwedd, 1893. Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, ref. AD460/24

Over 1,100 men, women and children formerly reliant on wages from the quarry were now without regular income. The strike, and by extension their plight, was dismissed in the Press as

…one of the most ridiculous in the annals of labour disputes…

North Wales Chronicle, May 20, 1893, p8

Greaves, by contrast, was portrayed as a

…most generous and considerate employer…

North Wales Chronicle, May 20, 1893, p8

(Indeed, the Chronicle‘s reporter was threatened with a “muzzle” by the strikers for airing such opinions11.)

Furthermore, The North Wales Quarrymen’s Union was condemned as a “beggarly organisation”, spouting “sheer nonsense”12. It was responsible for the “long weeks of suffering of the families of Llechwedd”13.

Perhaps understandably, with these conflicting voices, the community of Llechwedd became divided, and irrational.

North Wales Chronicle, June 17, 1893, p8

The Hospital in Newmarket Square, Blaenau, was senselessly vandalised by drunken quarrymen for no other reason than it having been founded by Greaves13.

Llys Dorfil, The Square, Bleanau. Formerly the Hospital. With thanks to Llio Wyn and Gareth Jones, Bleanau Ffestiniog UNESCO World Heritage page, Facebook

One man who crossed the picket line and went back to work was “severely condemned”14. What ‘severely condemned’ might be a euphemism for is illustrated by a serious assault on another ‘scab’. He was dragged from his workplace, beaten, and almost thrown over a precipice, where he would have

…met with instant death…

North Wales Chronicle, July 8, 1893, p8

Other men tried to return to work on false pretences. In short, hunger was beginning to win out over principles and, as the North Wales Chronicle of September 9th smugly noted, finally, the strike was “terminated in favour of the masters” (p8). It was later noted that prominent strikers had been refused readmission to the quarry, with many leaving the area15. With yet more gloating, the Press opined that

This result was inevitable from the very start.

North Wales Chronicle, September 9, 1893, p5

Maybe, maybe not. But was there not perhaps something in the quarrymen’s grievances? Was their discontent justified? Could something be done to introduce improvements

…into the quarrying, in addition to adding greatly to the pleasure the workman himself would derive in following his occupation.

North Wales Chronicle, December 1, 1894, p6

Certainly, H. M. Government thought so.

The Commission

The old railway station, Camborne, c1895. The new buildings are under construction on the left. Burrow probably began his journey here in 1893. Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, ref. corn05120

The then Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, commissioned an investigation into the Merionethshire Slate Mines (of which Llechwedd was one) in November 189316.

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1852-1928. From his Wikipedia page

The Chairman of Asquith’s Commission was Clement Le Neve Foster (1841-1904), the Inspector of Mines for North Wales. Both he and Asquith were probably already familiar with Burrow’s work. As we saw last week, Asquith had been kept abreast of the events of the Dolcoath Disaster – and possibly Burrow’s photographic association with its inquest – by Cornwall’s mining inspector, Joseph Martin. Foster himself had several mining links with Cornwall; what’s more, his father had been a founding member of The Photographic Society of Great Britain, which had awarded Burrow for his ‘Mongst Mines and Miners in 189317.

Whatever the reason, or whoever recommended him, someone must have thought it desirous to have the quarries’ working environments photographed, and Burrow was drafted onto the Commission for this purpose sometime in late 1893. It’s unknown whom he travelled to North Wales with, or whether he transported his cameras, plates, tripods, lenses, limelight burners, oxygen and hydrogen canisters, and magnesium flash equipment by himself. It’s possible he had the tools of his trade sent on ahead, but I can’t imagine Burrow letting his precious, and expensive, gadgets stray too far from his side. Even without this paraphernalia, the journey by rail would have been testing, with many changes from Cornwall culminating in a seemingly endless run of stops along the Cambrian line (Aberdovey, Llanbedr, Llandanwg, Harlech, Tygwyn, to name but a few), before the final change at Minfordd for the Ffestiniog branch line.

Victorian photographers were regularly lampooned for the amount of implements they required. From: To Photograph Darkness, by Chris Howes, Alan Sutton, 1989, xix

If Burrow did travel solo, it raises an interesting point: who did he get to position and operate his limelight burners? Would he have had to use an interpreter? How were his wishes conveyed to the quarrymen?

The Government’s subsequent Blue Book was published in 1895, under the lengthy title of Report of the Departmental Committee Upon Merionethshire Slate Mines; With Appendices. In the interests of brevity, this publication will hereafter be referred to as The Report.

Mercifully, The Report is not as dry a read as its title might suggest. On the contrary, it provides a fascinating snapshot of 1890s life in the quarries of North Wales in general, and Llechwedd in particular. And life was hard. There were no toilets for the workers, above or below ground; men used old workings as latrines18. Typhus was a threat, men slept two to a bed in filthy barracks, often in the clothes they worked in, and many cottages were damp, having been erected on undrained peat19.

Ruined miners’ cottages, Llanberis, Snowdonia20

Even travelling to and from work on the Ffestiniog Railway was hazardous to health. Men waited on damp sidings in cold, sweaty clothes, there being no bathing, changing or drying provisions at the quarry, before being crammed onto draughty carriages21. This of course exacerbated the many respiratory diseases associated with the inhalation of dust underground. Diet was poor, and the men existed almost exclusively on stewed tea. (Much was made, incidentally, of the miners’ diets, with public lectures on cooking and nutrition subsequently being given in the Ffestiniog district 22.)

I could go on, but this post is not primarily concerned with the working conditions of Victorian slate miners, as seen through the eyes of a 21st century Cornishman. Suffice that The Committee made forty-three recommendations for improvements. Perhaps The Report‘s key finding was that

…the occupation of the Merionethshire man is more risky than that of the average miner of the United Kingdom.

The Report, xvii

Following this, accidents, and deaths, are

…inseparable from the present method of working…

The Report, xv

They certainly were. From 1875-1893, 65 of the 163 deaths in the Merionethshire mines were caused by falls of ground23. In the slate chambers, which men gradually hollowed out over periods of years, the rock roofs could extend over a hundred feet above them, making dangerous runs of debris likely.

Luckily for the reader, Burrow was on hand to capture this perilous working environment:

Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, ref. AD460/23

Above is plate one, figure one of The Report. As Burrow was later to point out, this is the first use of a photograph in a Government Blue Book24. The caption read:

Steps in a worked-out chamber of Llechwedd Mine, for the ascent and descent of the workmen...

As we saw last week25, Burrow probably had his subjects (who, judging by their suits, are members of the Commission) pose in the darkness, with their candles and lantern extinguished. Such light could cause a ‘halo’ on a plate and ruin a take. Burrow would later etch a false ‘light’ onto the plate. What is immediately apparent however is the sheer height of the chamber, and the unsupported nature of the walls.

Here’s another of Burrow’s underground images at Llechwedd. Plate 2, fig 3:

Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, ref. AD460/22. A version is also displayed at the entrance to Llechwedd Slate Caverns today

The caption read:

Upper part of a working-place at Llechwedd…The man on the right-hand side, supported by a chain round his thigh, is using a crow-bar to prize off a block of slate…the man on the left is standing upon a little stage made of two boards, resting upon two iron pegs, and is boring a hole with a jumper…The manager is standing on the tram road…[which]…is fifty feet vertically above the foot of the working face. If the workmen depicted were to slip, they would tumble and roll over a rough and rugged face of rock of nearly that height.

If the written description of extracting slate in the main body of The Report (xii-xiii) doesn’t satisfactorily convey the dangers of slate-mining, Burrow’s photo delivers it, if you will, in black and white.

The Commission visited many quarries, including the nearby Oakeley concern. Burrow went too. Here’s plate three, figure five:

I am grateful to Mr Erik Scott, a quarryman of over twenty years in the Ffestiniog district, for providing me with this image.

The caption read:

Ladder, 86 feet long, erected in one of the chambers of the Oakeley mine in order to examine the roof, which is known to be insecure. The ladder is held in position and stiffened by the guy ropes.

Then there is this image by Burrow, which didn’t make the final cut of The Report:

Image courtesy Kresen Kernow, AD460/21

It’s a postcard, and is described as ‘hauling slate’: it must come from Burrow’s time in Wales.

My contact at Blaenau Ffestiniog Library, Carmen Martin, informed me they actually have postcards of Burrow’s underground images from the quarries. Obviously, Burrow’s plates had a dual purpose: the official, Government-sponsored one, and to make him some money. Equally obviously, Burrow must have taken more, unpublished images. Like this one:

Again,
I am grateful to Mr Erik Scott, a quarryman of over twenty years in the Ffestiniog district, for providing me with this image.

Slate-getters appear to be hand-boring in an underground cavern – from precisely which quarry, it’s uncertain. What other precious images might Burrow have taken? Sadly, many were lost after his death, under the most banal circumstances: the plates were actually used to build a greenhouse26. We can only cherish what we have, and hope for new discoveries.

…we do not yet know its fullest possibilities…

The book Victorian Slate Mining (Landmark Publishing, 2003), by Ivor Wynne Jones, who was a journalist and director of the Llechwedd Slate Caverns attraction, of course covers Burrow’s time in Wales. I am grateful that several people recommended it to me in the course of my research, and for anyone wanting a fuller picture of the industry at this time, go there27.

As with Burrow’s work in Cornwall, his work in the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog brought the realities of life underground to a wider public, not just through the publication of the The Report, but also through public lectures on the subject. Lectures which were, of course, illustrated by slides of Burrow’s photographs28. Needless to say, his images are still doing their job to this day. There may have been other men producing underground photography at this time, but none went as deep down, and therefore took as many risks, as Burrow. None contended with the challenges of heat and moisture that he did, and none, it must be said, produced such stunning results29. It was recognised at the time, and continues to be so.

Burrow once remarked that “we do not yet know” photography’s “fullest possibilities”30. Through a comprehensive biography of Burrow’s life, we may finally comprehend the fullest extent of his brilliant career. In Cornwall, his images in ‘Mongst Mines and Miners perhaps overshadows his work in Wales: I was certainly ignorant of his time there, and even the Archivist at Kresen Kernow told me he was unfamiliar with this aspect of Burrow’s profession31.

And there is much of interest. Did Burrow try his hand at painting, before photography32? What about his years as a rifleman for the DCLI33? Or, most tantalisingly, what about the story behind the images he took in a Bristol colliery in the 1890s34?

Surely the greatest photographer of Cornwall’s greatest industry is deserving of a full appreciation of his life and times.

Afterword

That many quarrymen were blackballed in the aftermath of the Llechwedd Strike of 1893 is still well known in Blaenau Ffestiniog. After publishing this post, I was contacted by a resident, Gareth Jones. His grandfather and brother, both prominent strikers, were accused, yet acquitted (to much public rejoicing) of assaulting others “who remained at work after the strike had occurred”35. They were represented by none other than David Lloyd George. Neither worked in Llechwedd again, one man suffering permanent exile to the Durham coalfields. I’ll remember this story as much as I remember Burrow’s.

Many thanks for reading

References

  1. As covered in the Morning Post, September 23, 1893, p5, Lloyd’s Weekly, September 24, 1893, p8, and the London Evening Standard, October 10, 1893, p2. The Photographic Society of Great Britain became The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1894 and is now, of course, The Royal Photographic Society. See: https://rps.org/about/history/
  2. September 26, 1893, p5. The Post, however, focused its praise more fulsomely on the “most artistic productions” of Italian pastoral youth by Count Wilhelm von Gloeden, who certainly had an interesting life, and career. See: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1101782/head-of-sicilian-boy-photograph-von-gloeden-wilhelm/
  3. See last week’s post on Burrow here.
  4. Those wanting a more detailed account of the strike are directed here: The Llechwedd Strike of 1893, by Ivor Wynne Jones, Llechwedd Slate Caverns, 1993. My summary is based on the reports contained in the following editions of the North Wales Chronicle: May 20, p8; May 27, p5; June 10, p5; June 17, p8; Juy 1, p8; July 8, p8; July 22, p7; July 29, p10; August 19, p5, 7; September 9, p5; October 21, p5.
  5. Image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tallmanbaby/48847787056/in/photostream/
  6. The Greaves family has owned Llechwedd Quarry since the 1830s. See: https://llechwedd.co.uk/tales-from-the-mountains/heritage. For more on John Earnest Greaves, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ernest_Greaves
  7. North Wales Chronicle, May 27, 1893, p5
  8. The patriarch of the Greaves slate dynasty, John Whitehead Greaves (1807-1880), had been born in St Albans. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Whitehead_Greaves
  9. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaenau_Ffestiniog#Welsh_language, and the North Wales Chronicle, May 27, 1893, p5.
  10. North Wales Chronicle, August 19, 1893, p7
  11. North Wales Chronicle, May 27, 1893, p5
  12. North Wales Chronicle, August 19, 1893, p7
  13. North Wales Chronicle, September 9, 1893, p5
  14. North Wales Chronicle, June 17, 1893, p8
  15. Liverpool Daily Post, May 7, 1894, p7
  16. Report of the Departmental Committee Upon Merionethshire Slate Mines (hereafter The Report), Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1895, vii.
  17. For more on Foster, see here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1912_supplement/Foster,_Clement_Le_Neve. For Peter Le Neve Foster’s involvement with The Photographic Society of Great Britain, see here: https://rps.org/about/history/
  18. The Report, xxix.
  19. The Report, xxi.
  20. From: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/538954280387175557/
  21. The Report, xxii, xxix.
  22. The Report, xxi. For the lectures, see the South Wales Echo, April 9, 1894, p2.
  23. The Report, xiv-xv.
  24. Cornish Post and Mining News, February 20, 1896, p8.
  25. See last week’s post on Burrow here.
  26. Chris Howes, To Photograph Darkness: the History of Underground and Flash Photography, Alan Sutton, 1989, p181.
  27. For an interesting review of this book, see: https://treasuremaps.weebly.com/reviews/victorian-slate-mining-by-ivor-wynne-jones. Jones’s obituary is here: https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/obituary—ivor-wynne-jones-2874794
  28. See the North Wales Chronicle, December 1, 1894, p6.
  29. Howes, To Photograph Darkness, p162-82.
  30. Cornish Post and Mining News, February 20, 1896, p8.
  31. Email correspondence, August 2, 2022.
  32. See: https://cornwallartists.org/cornwall-artists/john-charles-burrow
  33. See Burrow’s obituary in The Cornishman, November 5, 1914, p5.
  34. For example, Kresen Kernow, ref. AD460/25.
  35. North Wales Chronicle, October 21, 1893, p5.

3 thoughts on “The Man Who Photographed the Miners: J. C. Burrow in Cornwall and Wales

  1. Thank you. What a tough life! My Cornish great grandfather escaped to Australia only to discover mining run by the British was a tough life. This was in the tin mines of northern NSW.

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