Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Mining

By A. Bernard Knapp; Vincent C. Pigott et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 10

A risky business

Death, injury and religion in Cornish mining c. 1780-1870

John Rule

ABSTRACT

By the early nineteenth century, the tin- and copper-miners of Cornwall made up a settled occupational community. Although rapid expansion of the workforce continued until a peak in the mid-1850s, there was by then little of the ‘frontier’ about the long-settled mining villages. On the contrary, their way of life was the outcome of generations of tradition-building and, in addition to the shared experience of mining as a distinctive activity, included other cultural characteristics, the most important of which was an attachment to the chapel culture of Methodist revivalism. In general the living standards of the miners and their families were not set by the working-class standards of the time, which were especially poor and depressed. Wages were generally good but individually subject to fluctuation which meant that occasional experience of material hardship was widespread. Even more common was hardship of another kind: Cornish metal mining was probably the most dangerous occupation of any pursued by significant numbers in nineteenth-century Britain. The toll of men, both young men through accident and older men through lung disease, was extreme. This chapter discusses some of the ways in which the mining community responded to this situation, in particular the role of religion in providing consolation and acceptance, while at the same time reinforcing its own claims to be the only means of understanding risk and tragedy. Analysis is made of the broadsheets which were produced after mining accidents, and which provided a ‘narrative’ of suffering, redemption and, sometimes, the working of providence, over a message of the need for perpetual spiritual readiness for death or bereavement. The role of funeral ceremonies and of fatalism as expressed in ‘black humour’ is also considered.


INTRODUCTION

Around the tin and copper mines of Cornwall there had developed by the middle decades of the nineteenth century what was probably the largest long-settled metal-mining community in the world. It is also one of the best-documented mining communities of that era, with written sources of all kinds.

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