My grandfather made his living in the water; he would often get a knock at the door from the police to say there was a body floating in the Clyde. Being a strong swimmer his job was to fish the poor person out of the river. But full-time he worked waist deep in water down the pits. This was during the 1920s where working conditions had improved little since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The development of the deep mines, saw men and women working in desperately hot and cramped space; and during the mid-19th century this raised tensions between the genders, as the men often worked unclothed. There was a particular moment of controversy, when women were pictured working topless because of the heat. Many of the men complained this was immoral but there was suspicion that they didn’t believe women should be working in the pits at all, not least because they felt they depressed wages.
Coal has received most historic attention in terms of industrial development and of course industrial strife. Less is known of the importance of tin mining. There is a certain awareness of its history in Cornwall, but as Richard Skinner’s poem Dark Nook, and the research behind it shows, it was a feature in the Isle of Man as well. And unsurprisingly, like the experience of the coal industry, conditions were just as bad. However, you had to be lucky in the first place just to get the job. “I am Egbert Clague./I come every morning from Agneash/hoping for the nod from the bargain man.” When you did get the ‘nod’ it took you, “two hours to descend the ladders,/…The hole to go down is just two foot by two,” It was dangerous work and there was no compensation for accidents, so when Egbert’s legs are crushed, his wife has to work on the Washing Floor, sorting the ore from the stone. “It’s worse work than the mine—/she has no more feeling in her hands./I’ll be joining her there soon.”
Richard explains the research he carried out on a recent trip to the Isle of Man:
“I found the island to be a beautiful place full of myth and folklore but I hadn’t realised how much mining had gone on there, and over such a long period, too. The Great Laxey Mine was by far the largest on the island and comparable to some of the famous Cornish tin mines. The first shaft was started in 1824 and sunk to a depth of 247 fathoms (1482 feet). The next 30 years saw a further three shafts sunk. Miners worked two shifts—6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm—but when production peaked in the 1870s, mining carried on 24 hours a day. Cheap foreign imports hit the company hard and the mine eventually closed in 1914.
Miners worked in a team of six led by an ‘elder’ who would agree an amount per day with the ‘bargain man’, who represented the mine, and would split the money with the rest of his team. If you were ill or injured, you didn’t get paid anything. Gunpowder explosions were the most common cause of accidents. Some miners fell down shafts, others were killed by falling rocks or timber. Carbon dioxide—or ‘blackdamp’—was a constant threat. Heavier than air, it would settle at the bottom of the mine. Explosive methane, found in coalmines, was not present in the Great Laxey Mine so the miners could carry candles, the flickering of the flame alerting them when oxygen levels were running low.”
Finally, don’t think that tin mining is any less important today and that it doesn’t have a large social and environmental impact. As a report by Friends of the Earth stated: “If you own a mobile, it’s probably held together by tin from the Indonesian island of Bangka. Mining is wrecking the environment and every year it claims dozens more lives.”
Richard’s poems have been published in HARK, The Interpreter’s House and Magma and longlisted for the National Poetry Competition. His full collection, ‘the light user scheme’, is published by Smokestack (2013). His new pamphlet is ‘Terrace’ (Smokestack) published in April 2015. He is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.
I am Egbert Clague.
I come every morning from Agneash
hoping for the nod from the bargain man.
It takes two hours to descend the ladders,
our tallow candles round our necks
like white asparagus.
The hole to go down is just two foot by two,
the spokes like blunt knives,
the blackdamp smelling awful. We chip
and hack until we see the sparkle
of the rich extraordinary,
haul it up through smoke to the adit.
One day, they brought me up
in the dead box, my leg crushed.
The Captain of the Mines
came in person to the cottage and said,
‘We can’t give you anything
and that will have to keep you.’
My wife Brenda is on the
Washing Floors now, sorting ore from stone
ready to ship to Swansea.
It’s worse work than the mine—
she has no more feeling in her hands.
I’ll be joining her there soon.
Meantime, I grow veg, read and
visit the village chapel on my sticks
to pray our Sooki will one day flee.
When I’m alone, I kneel and whisper,
‘The affection you get back from children
is sixpence as change from a sovereign.’