Reading time: 20 minutes
Home in his bed…2
It’s around 7am on August 15, 1883. On 190 Fathom at Wheal Agar, off Agar Road, Pool, the night core is waiting to come to grass.
Unlike the nearby Dolcoath Mine, there’s no Man Engine here. Ingress to and egress from the mine’s levels are achieved by use of ladders, or riding in the cage.
Agar’s iron cage, also known as a gig or skip, was of a bespoke design, fashioned on-site for the particular contours of its own shaft. It had two compartments for miners to stand in, and wooden runners attached to the sides of the shaft steadied its passage.
There was no official carrying capacity for the cage, but riding on top was strictly forbidden. Notices prohibiting this practice had been posted in prominent areas around Wheal Agar, and several miners had been caught and fined.
It’s unknown if there was a barrier, or gate on the skip; probably not, if we consider the design of Wheal Dolcoath’s own four-man skip:
A journalist who rode down Dolcoath’s skip urged his readers to
Imagine yourself swung over a cliff half a mile high, and being lowered in an iron cage, to the bottom by a rope.Cornishman, January 12 1893, p6
At Wheal Agar the cage was lowered and raised by a whim engine, the rope being wound round a rotating drum.
The cage was watched to grass by a lander, who in this instance was John Long. He would notify the engineer on shift, John Harris, by means of a bell as to when he ought to raise, lower, and decrease the rate of the cage.
The whim-rope had indicators on it to inform Long what depth in the shaft the gig was at.
All this was standard mining practice, and in keeping with regulations.
However, in the early hours of the 15th, the whim-rope was discovered to be faulty.
Sub-agent Ralph Daniell, the man in charge that night (Captain William Trevena was at home), had the damaged rope removed and replaced with a steel capstan rope.
This capstan had a normal breaking strain of 40 tons. The weight of Wheal Agar’s cage, even containing a number of miners, was estimated at around 2-3 tons. Daniell later stated that he’d feel as safe riding in the cage with that capstan as being
…at home in his bed.West Briton, August 16 1883, p4
However, on the Saturday the capstan had been employed in lowering 20 tons of pumping gear underground. HM Inspector of Mines for Devon and Cornwall, Robert James Frecheville (1847-1930), was of the opinion that
It would be the duty of the managers to see that a rope after being subjected to such a strain was not used for raising men.Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
Also, the capstan had no indicators on it. Long, the lander, and Harris, the engineer, would be operating largely by guesswork.
As Frecheville observed, under the Metalliferous Mines Act (1872), this was illegal.
If Harris paid out too much when lowering the skip, the coils of capstan could develop a kink, severely weakening it.
Captain Trevena, the Manager, also said of the capstan that two months previously it had been discovered to be “unsound” and “corroded”, but had since been repaired. As Trevena was, on the 15th, at home in his bed, he was unaware of Daniell’s decision to use the capstan on the cage5.
Is it not your duty?
Daniell, assisted by Thomas Long (possibly a relative of John Long, the lander), and Samuel and William Osborne, attached the capstan to the cage some time before 6am. The checking of this rope was perfunctory at best; indeed, it appears that, at Wheal Agar, regular inspections of rope gear was no one man’s duty.
…could not say whether it was anybody’s business to examine the rope…Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
That morning, Osborne had
…looked over the rope casually…Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
The other Osborne, William, didn’t inspect the capstan at all. In any case, identifying a fault in this rope would have been challenging, caked as it was in layers of tar and grease.
Captain Trevena, though, asserted that
…it was the duty of the lander, with the engineer, to see that everybody connected with the cage was safe.Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
He was pressed on this statement at the inquest. Grenfell, the County Coroner, retorted that
You exercise a supervision over these persons…Is it not your duty to look to the ropes?Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
Trevena’s response to this is concerning now, and may have been equally so in 1883:
We do look at them [the ropes] occasionally. There was no particular time for examining the ropes.Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
7am, 190 Fathom, Wheal Agar. The cage has already returned one work-crew, or pare, to grass. It descends again. Now another group are ready to come up – well, most of them are. One miner has fallen asleep at his drill, and his comrades decide to leave him where he is.
Both compartments of the skip now have five men in them. A youngster, James Trengove, tries to get on but is turfed out by another young man, Francis Woolcock, 19, of St Agnes. Woolcock isn’t, you understand, concerned about the numbers in the skip: it’s simply not Trengove’s turn.
In any case, there’s no regulations, or limit, as to how many can ride in the gig at any given time. The only verboten act concerns travelling on the cage’s roof.
And, seeing as Ralph Daniell had been called to surface several minutes before (he had been due to ride with this pare), there’s nobody around to enforce this rule.
Thus, three men, including James Carbis of Gilly Hill, Redruth, scramble on top of the cage.
The cage is now carrying thirteen miners.
Away it goes.
There are hymns sung on the way up, which may have been led by Henry Thomas, 17, of North Country. Not only a scholar at his local Sunday School, he’s also a member of the Band of Hope.
In fact, many in the gig are religious men. Edward Dawe, 19, plays in the Redruth Mission Band.
Charles Trevena, 27, is a member of the Redruth Philanthropic Society, as well as being a teacher at Carn Brea School. He might be thinking about getting home to his wife and children.
Likewise Joseph Roberts, 43, of Illogan, a noted United Methodist Preacher.
Giving full voice in the cage with Woolcock, Osborne, Thomas, Carbis, Dawe, Trevena and Roberts are Paul Pope, 23, and James Caddy, 21, both of Illogan. There’s William Cavill, 27, from Redruth, and 19 year-old Thomas Richards of Mawla.
George Clemens, 27, and Thomas Cock, 18, live on Bullers Row, Redruth. Both are going home to widowed mothers.
Waiting at surface, hand patiently on the bell-rope to notify Harris when to halt the engine, is John Long.
Up the cage comes. The top two feet are now visible in the morning light. Long can see the tops of the miners’ heads. Waiting to go down on the gig is an elderly miner. He recognises Charles Trevena:
Well Charley, you are got up once more…
Once more.Cornubian and Redruth Times, August 17 1883, p7
Two other men, Lenten and Symons, are poised to take their spots on the gig.
Suddenly, Long “heard something going”:
…I glanced up to see what was the matter…one of the men, I cannot tell his name, said “What is that going up over head?” I perceived the rope was parting…
…Carbis was on top of the cage, and he sprang off, and at that same moment the cage disappeared. I looked over into the shaft, and heard the men give a despairing cry as the cage went out of view. I was so frightened that I felt my blood almost turn to water.Cornubian and Redruth Times, August 17 1883, p7
The cry was heard over fifty yards away.
In 1863, the West Cornwall Hospital for Convalescent Miners was opened on Blowinghouse Hill, Redruth, with an accident ward being added in 1871. By the 1880s, over 200 miners were being treated there annually7.
Tragically, Osborne, Clemens, Trevena, Pope, Caddy, Roberts, Cavill, Dawe, Cock, Richards, Thomas and Woolcock were beyond all aid. Those gathered by the pit-head knew they were doomed. They raised the alarm, and sent word to the nearby cottages8.
The violently plummeting cage tore off most of its runners and eventually overturned and crashed at 130 Fathom, where the perpendicular shaft turned underneath itself.
Miners at 190 Fathom heard the commotion and climbed up to 130. But they were already too late.
Over the next 24 hours, bodies were recovered from all levels, going as deep as 235 Fathom. That’s over 400 metres underground.
I’ll refrain from any horrific detail. In Wheal Agar’s makeshift mortuary (the carpenter’s shed9), shocked and grieving families had to be told which lifeless bundle, wrapped in hessian or ‘bal shag’, was theirs to bury.
Identification was nigh-on impossible.
Locking the stable door, after the steed has been stolen…10
Naturally, the disaster cast a pall over the communities of Brea, Illogan and Redruth. Reporters on the spot in these areas noted
…a sad exhibition of sorrow-stricken humanity…West Briton, August 20 1883, p2
Almost immediately, questions were asked:
- Why did the rope break?
- Why was the rope not properly inspected?
- Why, after the original whim-rope was found to be corroded, did the miners not simply come to grass by ascending the ladders?
- Why are there not regulations limiting the number of miners in a cage?
- Why were men riding on top of the cage when it is clearly forbidden by the mine owners to do so?
- Why was it originally feared that two other miners, Samuel Trevern and John Kent, both of St Day, had been killed? Their clothes had been found in the dry, and they were believed to have been on shift that night. In fact, they were both safe at home, and had clearly found a way of skiving off.
- Why was there not a brake, or system of safety catches on the cage? Such devices were regularly employed in mines elsewhere, both in the UK and Europe. Indeed, a Redruth man, Prisk, had patented a design.
The argument against this final suggestion went that many Cornish shafts weren’t perpendicular, and actually ran underneath themselves. To be fully secure, a safety cage had to operate in a perpendicular shaft.
However, in relation to Wheal Agar, this argument is fatuous. The rope failed when the cage was less than a yard from the surface, in a perpendicular part of the shaft. Had there been a safety device on the cage, the men would have been saved.
A mini-fever of safety-cage designs was engendered by the disaster, many being demonstrated at that year’s exhibition of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society11.
Many of these questions were raised in the sermon read at the funerals of Trevena and Clemens on Sunday the 19th. The Rev. J. W. Lane “respectfully” asked if the disaster might not
…lead to a more personal sense of responsibility on the part of the employers as regards the safety and comfort of all whom they employ…[had] the access of the miner to his work…hitherto occupied its proper place in the minds of the adventurers..?West Briton, August 20 1883, p2
Of course, none of the answers to these questions would bring back the deceased of Wheal Agar.
It was simply a case of being
The biggest question, however, was this:
Was anyone responsible for the deaths?
Thus the full inquest, to be held on Wednesday the 22nd, was
…awaited with great interest.West Briton, August 20 1883, p2
Under the Employers’ Liability Act of 188012, the families of the twelve miners were entitled to three years wages – if it could be proven that the owners of Wheal Agar were in some way responsible for their tragic deaths.
In other words, Ralph Daniell, the man in charge on the night of the disaster, was in trouble.
At the hearing, R. J. Frecheville, HM Inspector of Mines, demonstrated that the capstan rope was internally corroded at the point where it broke.
This rope was only subjected to the briefest of inspections before it was attached to the cage.
Regardless of the capstan’s faulty condition, such a rope should not, stated Frecheville, have been used when it was a question of miners’ lives being at stake.
Furthermore, the capstan had no depth indicators attached, in direct conflagration of the Metalliferous Mines Act (1872).
Daniell readily informed those present that it was he who had taken the decision to have the capstan attached to the cage.
In summing up, Grenfell, the coroner, stated that
If the jury considered the accident was caused by an improper rope being used to raise men to the surface, and that Captain Daniell had cognisance of such a rope being used for that purpose…he (the coroner) did not see how the jury could do otherwise than return a verdict of manslaughter against Captain Daniell…Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5
Crowds had gathered outside the Plume of Feathers.
It took the jury thirty minutes to reach their verdict.
That of accidental death. We can only imagine the reaction of those related to, and acquainted with, the twelve men.
The jury, stated the Cornish Telegraph, had
…arrived at a verdict in spite of the evidence.August 30 1883, p4
Daniell was later fined £2, with costs, for
…not having attached a proper indicator…Cornishman, September 27 1883, p8
to the fatal rope. That’s just over £190 today.
The bereaved families received donations from the adventurers of Wheal Dolcoath and such philanthropists as J. Passmore Edwards, as well as from humbler sources. Compensation was belatedly arranged14.
On his death in 1924 aged 76, Ralph Daniell was described as being “highly respected” in mining circles15.
The Wheal Agar Disaster of 1883 was a catastrophe
…in respect of the loss of life and the manner of it, is without a parallel in Cornwall.West Briton, August 16 1883, p4
Many thanks for reading
- For more information on walking tours in the area, go here: http://www.carnbreaparishcouncil.gov.uk/Trails_29180.aspx
- The main narrative of this post is taken from the following newspaper articles: Cornish Echo, August 18, 1883, p5. Cornishman, August 16, p8. Cornubian and Redruth Times, August 17, p7. Cornish Telegraph, August 18, p5, 23rd, p3, 25th, p5, 30th, p4. Royal Cornwall Gazette, August 17, p4-5, 24th, p4. West Briton, August 16, p4-5, 20th, p2-3, 23rd, p4, 30th, p6.
- For more information on the photographer John Charles Burrow, see my posts on him here.
- From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whim_engine,Levant–geograph.org.uk-_1050855.jpg
- Cornish Telegraph, August 25 1883, p5.
- From: https://cornishnationalmusicarchive.co.uk/content/cornish-brass-bands-redruth/
- For more on the hospital, go here: https://bernarddeacon.com/2020/06/05/the-miners-and-womens-hospital/. Several weeks previous to the disaster, a miner from Wheal Agar, James Nettle, was treated there after falling ten fathoms. He never recovered (from the Cornish Telegraph, August 2 1883, p3). For more on the hazards faced by miners in the 1800s, see A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, The Cornish Miner, 3rd ed, George Allen & Unwin, 1962, p203-45.
- Telegrams from Redruth reached major newsrooms across the UK that same morning, and the first reports of the disaster could be read that same day: for example, the Sunderland Daily Echo, August 15 1883, p3. Cornwall’s newspapers first ran the story on the 16th.
- Not the Plume of Feathers, as the plaque which opens this post erroneously claims.
- The Cornishman gives its verdict on the various recommendations made in the Press as to miners’ safety, September 27 1883, p8.
- From a supplement to the West Briton, September 13 1883. A design can be viewed at Kresen Kernow, ref. X1163/8.
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employers%27_liability_act_of_1880
- From: https://www.mindat.org/photo-825293.html
- The Cornubian and Redruth Times of September 14 1883 (p7), notes a disaster fund in existence at Wheal Agar.
- West Briton, May 22 1924, p6
3 thoughts on “The Wheal Agar Disaster of 1883”
Thank you this is a good piece of History. Do you have any more information on John Long as he may be my Great Grandfather. John Kendall Long who was a miner from St Day
Terry, thankyou for your message. Sadly I have no further information on John Long, the Lander at Wheal Agar. I’m always careful to include any settlements that are mentioned in connection with the people I write about, but in this instance the newspapers are silent on where this Long came from.
Thank you for your reply my Longs were in St Day I have a large tree for them the only Thomas Long in my tree died as a baby so perhaps as you mention he may be a brother to John then not my line Your article on Wheal Agar Mine was very good thank you Regards Terry