THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

85 posts categorized "Science and environment"

22 August 2017

Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

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Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) was a major figure in the flourishing scientific culture of Enlightenment London, serving as both President of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Physicians. However, his greatest legacy lies in his vast collections of books, manuscripts, specimens and other objects, which after his death became the bedrock of the new British Museum, the ancestor of the British Library.

Sloane’s collections were particularly strong in natural history, medicine and travel, but their overall scope was astonishingly broad. Ongoing research into different parts of his collections is gradually uncovering more detail about their richness and variety. One product of this work is the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue (SPBC), a free and fully-searchable online database that records over 35,000 printed items from Sloane’s library (and counting).

To take just one example of the research possibilities provided by the SPBC – Sloane was a collector of “strange news”. “Strange news” was news of unusual or dramatic events, such as earthquakes, freak weather, monsters or medical marvels, usually accompanied by a supernatural interpretation, such as divine judgement or demonic influence. It typically appeared in the form of short printed pamphlets, bearing titles that promised accounts of “strange”, “miraculous”, “wonderful” or “extraordinary” events to their readers.

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Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange news from France… (1678), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘c 626’. (BL 8755.c.27.)

The SPBC lists 57 items with titles containing even just the word “strange”, alongside “news/newes/relation”. For instance, one pamphlet of “strange news from France” owned by Sloane provides an account of a storm of fist-sized hailstones that destroyed everything except – significantly – a Protestant church. Another of “strange and true news” tells of severe weather across the Midlands that saw snow smother some and floods drown others, depicted as God’s judgement for wickedness. A third relates a nine-foot-long winged serpent that terrorised the people of Essex – complete with frightening illustration.

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From Sloane’s copy of The Flying Serpent, or strange news out of Essex… (1669?), A1v. (BL 1258.b.18.)

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Title-page of Sloane’s copy of Strange and true news from Lincoln-shire, Huntingtonshire, Bedford-shire, Northampton-shire, Suffolk… (1674), bearing Sloane’s catalogue/shelf number ‘N 788’. (BL 8775.c.67.)

“Strange news” was part of a diverse and sophisticated culture of news in early modern England. Although this era saw the birth of the printed newspaper, which generally contained foreign or domestic politics, this was far from being people’s only source of news. Strange news was another – and very different – kind of news in circulation. Its popularity came partly from its raw sensationalism, but also from its supernatural explanations, which appealed to a religious and superstitious culture.

But why did Sloane, a man of science, collect strange news, which represents such a different mental world? Although it is impossible to be certain, there are several clues. Sloane once said he was curious about “very strange, but certain, matters of fact” – in other words, unusual natural phenomena – and accounts of dramatic earthquakes, storms and floods (if not of giant flying serpents) may have appealed to this desire to explain the bizarre-but-true. He may also have been interested in collecting the pamphlets’ supernatural interpretations specifically to expose them as false, as it has been argued that he acquired other objects for this purpose, such as “Quacks’ Bills” (dubious medical adverts) and “magical” tokens. Whatever the reason, Sloane’s collecting of “strange news” indicates that he may have been at the forefront of the Enlightenment, but his interests were not restricted to the products of the new science.

Edward Taylor
PhD placement student, Sloane Printed Books Project

Further reading:
Delbourgo, J., Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane (London: Allen Lane, 2017) – including discussion on Sloane’s attitudes to magic and the supernatural.
Mandelbrote, G., ‘Sloane and the Preservation of Printed Ephemera’, in G. Mandelbrote and B. Taylor, eds, Libraries within the library: the origins of the British Library's printed collections (London: British Library, 2009), 146-168.

27 June 2017

A botanical excursion in Wales

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On Sunday 27 June 1773 at Chepstow, a party of botanists were clambering about ‘on the Steep nacked Bank by the Side of the Wye not far from the Castle’, hunting for plants.  The species identified included wild cabbage (Brassica maritima) on Chepstow Castle, madder (Rubria tinctoria) and stonecrop (Sedum rupestre) “upon the Rocks on both Sides of the Wye above and below the Bridge at Chepstow”, and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) on the river bank.  They may have been too intent on their botanising to notice that two other members of their party were getting stuck in the mud of the tidal river. The artist Paul Sandby recorded this mishap in his 1775 aquatint, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire.

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Paul Sandby, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire  British Library K.Top.31.6.f. Noc

This expedition took place between 25 June and 16 August 1773.  The members of the party were Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Daniel Solander, Reverend John Lightfoot, The Hon. Charles Greville, Paul Sandby, and possibly also the Swiss geologist and meteorologist Jean Andre de Luc. The itinerary, recorded in Lightfoot’s journal, covered much of the coast of South Wales from Chepstow to Milford Haven and St David’s.  The purpose of the expedition was primarily botanical but there were also artistic aims. 

Sandby had made a tour of North Wales in 1771 and his subsequent enthusiasm for Welsh scenery must have been well known to his friends. While the scientists explored the vegetation, Sandby was taking views of the many castles along the Pembrokeshire coast. They were at St Quintins on 5 July where Sandby sketched the Castle gatehouse and the botanists found mint, Mentha longifolia, “by the Mill going to St. Quintins Castle a mile from Cowbridge, and in a wet marshy meadow on the left going to the Mill, found Ranunculus lingua” or Greater Spearwort.

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Paul Sandby, St Quintins Castle British Library K. Top.47.50.b .Noc

The party was at St Donat’s on 6 July. While Sandby drew the landscape and castle, the botanists were exploring the cliffs, caves, and crevices at nearby Nash Point where they found the ferns Asplenium marinum and  Adianthum capillus veneris “upon Nash Point facing the Sea, several Patches of it, but upon very high inaccessible places”.

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Paul Sandby, North West View of Saint Donat's Castle British Library K.Top.47.43.b. Noc

Sandby depicted the view up the Neath River on Wednesday 7 July while the scientists were making a new botanical discovery for the county of Cheiranthus sinuatus or Sea Stock “a quarter of a mile before you come to Breton Ferry, on a Sandy Bank, on the right-hand side by the Road Side from Bridge End”.

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Paul Sandby,View up the Neath River from the house at Briton Ferry British Library K.Top.47.46.c. Noc

This expedition had an unexpected outcome for Sandby’s career.  Later the same year, Banks was approached by the artist P. P. Burdett who wished to interest the scientist in his ‘secret’ printmaking technique as a way to reproduce Banks’s collections from his voyage with Captain Cook.  Banks did not take up this offer, but Greville subsequently paid Burdett £40 for the description and passed it on to Sandby.  This was the technique Sandby developed and named aquatint, and his first set of prints, published in 1775, was of the views in South Wales taken during the summer tour; the set was dedicated to his companions, Banks and Greville.

Ann Gunn
Lecturer in Museum and Gallery Studies, University of St Andrews

Further reading:
A transcript of Lightfoot’s  journal is in the Natural History Museum and it was published in 1905 by H. J. Riddelsdell, ‘Lightfoot’s visit to Wales in 1773’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 43 (1905), 290-307
Gunn, A. V., The Prints of Paul Sandby (1731-1809): a Catalogue Raisonné , 2015 Turnhout: Brepols / Harvey Miller

 

18 May 2017

Loveable Oak Trees

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Oak trees provided essential material for warships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the ‘wooden walls’ that defended the British Isles from invasion. But they inspired an affection that went far beyond an appreciation of their usefulness. Ancient oaks were treasured and preserved into extreme old age. Landowners were reluctant to cut them down, poets addressed verses to them, artists relished the chance to delineate their swelling trunks and shattered branches. Some went further and treated them as objects of worship.

Writers from this period state that their forefathers, the Druids, worshipped the true God in oak groves before churches were built – hence it was reasonable to see old trees as ‘natural temples’.

Oak trees were also credited with being the sites of the first parliaments, and  symbols of resistance to overweening authority. One famous tree, the Swilcar Oak, is given a speaking part in a poem by Francis Mundy about Needwood Forest in Staffordshire (1776). He shakes his tresses, spreads his bare arms to the skies, and begs the axeman to spare the young oaks growing around him. Horace Walpole claimed that an ancient tree was an image of liberty, since in a country ruled by a despot it would be appropriated for timber.

  Talking Oak

'The Talking-Oak' by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale from Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1905) 556*.a.3/6 Noc

Another vocal tree was the ‘Talking Oak’ of Alfred Tennyson’s poem of that name (1837-8).  Its narrator confides so much in the old oak tree that the tree replies, and tells him that the woman he loves is superior to all the other young women he has seen in his five hundred years of life. What is more, because she also talks (and sings) to the tree, he can testify that his love for her is returned.

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Robert Pollard after James Andrews, An East View of Yardley Oak (1805). British Library K.Top XXXII Online Gallery Noc

 

There are many portraits of famous old oak trees.  The Yardley Oak was the subject of a poem by William Cowper (1791-2), who wrote that his idolatry of the tree had some excuse, because of the precedent set by the Druids.

Cowper writes lovingly of the giant bulk of the tree, its sides embossed with excrescences that have developed over many years. Such features also appealed to the artist Samuel Palmer, whose 1828 drawings of the oaks of Lullingstone, near Shoreham in Kent emphasized the human-like belly, shoulders and sinews of the ancient trees.

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Samuel Palmer, Ancient Trees, Lullingstone Park (1828). Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.


For Jacob George Strutt, who produced 40 portraits of trees for his Sylva Britannica (1822), 21 of them oaks, old trees were ‘silent witnesses of the successive generations of men, to whose destiny they bear so touching a resemblance, alike in their budding, their prime, and their decay’.

Do we still feel the same way about oak trees today?

Christiana Payne
Professor of History of Art, Oxford Brookes University

Further reading:
Christiana Payne, Remarkable trees via the British Library's new digital resource Picturing Places
Jacob George Strutt, Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, distinguished for their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty. Drawn from nature and etched by Jacob George Strutt (London: J. G. Strutt and Colnaghi and Co, 1822)
Christiana Payne, Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870 (Sansom and Company, 2017)
Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)

 

25 April 2017

William Close - “one deserving of remembrance”

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How does one describe a surgeon, apothecary, hydraulic engineer, inventor, antiquarian, musician, artist, author and editor who was also responsible for saving the lives of the children of his village?  However,  'a little slender man, very clever, but rather changeable... and one who devoted himself assiduously to his professional duties’  is the only contemporary comment which remains of Dr William Close (1797-1813).

The Furness peninsula at the turn of the 19th century provided an interesting environment for a man with Dr Close’s enquiring mind, and he supervised the medical welfare of a variety of people in that region, including agricultural labourers, miners, and factory workers.

Infectious diseases were inevitably rife, and the young were particularly vulnerable, so in 1799, only three years after the development of the vaccine against smallpox, Close inoculated all the poor children of the nearby village of Rampside at his own expense (despite not being a wealthy man).  Within five years, small pox was duly eradicated from the area.

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 This image is copied from one of Close’s engravings of Furness Abbey used to decorate the cover of The Antiquities of Furness.

Close was also interested in the history of his neighbourhood and was keen to record and preserve local landmarks for future generations. He illustrated and supplemented Thomas West’s The Antiquities of Furness (1805) from his house at 2 Castle Street, Dalton in Furness.  The building is now marked by a blue plaque

Close 2

 Plate indicating the improvements to trumpets suggested by Close reproduced from the Proceedings of the Barrow Naturalists Field Club.

Music, in particular the improvement of brass instruments, was another of Close’s passions.  Volume XVIII of Proceedings of The Barrow Naturalists’ Field Club gives a thorough account of his progress (though this perhaps somewhat over-estimates the lure of such a topic!).

Close was clearly a polymath, his interests ranging from methods of improving the permanency of black ink to the development of safer types of explosives and land drainage technology.  He gave evidence of his research in the form of detailed letters to journals of various kinds.

Sadly this far-seeing man died of tuberculosis on Sunday 27 June 1813, aged just 38.

P J M Marks
Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections

Further reading:
Damian Gardner-Thorpe, Christopher Gardner-Thorpe and John Pearn ‘William Close (1775-1813): medicine, music, ink and engines in the Lake District’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2004 Dec; 97(12): 599–602. 

Picturing Places - English Landscape Bindings by Philippa Marks

18 April 2017

Captain Ross muses on the ice

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Captain, later Sir, John Ross was one of the first Royal Navy officers sent by Sir John Barrow in search of the Northwest Passage. Barrow, presiding over huge Naval resources after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was determined the Navy would finally discover the fabled Northwest Passage and, in turn, underscore Britain’s oceanic prestige to the world. Fitting out ships with crews of distinguished war veterans Barrow began one of the most significant non-military campaigns in the Royal Navy’s history and Ross represented one of the most trusted officers at his disposal.

Leaving London’s docks on 18 April 1818 Ross set out to chart the Arctic coast of North America but the captain took with him significant personal interests in the icescapes, peoples, flora and fauna he would encounter on the journey. Indeed, Ross’s account of the voyage, published in 1819, is notable for the various scientific and anthropological studies he relates, as well as his musings on the shape and form of ice. Some of Ross’s depictions of the ice are reproduced as accompanying illustrations to the text, including the two ‘Remarkable Iceberg(s)’ illustrating this post.

A Remarkable Iceberg (Ross June 1818)

 ‘A Remarkable Iceberg, June 17th, 1818’ from Ross, J. (1819), A Voyage of Discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in his Majesty’s ships ‘Isabella’ and ‘Alexander’ for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. G.7399

Ross’s icescapes are grand and sublime, overawing the crew with their stature and beauty in the light of the Arctic summer. The text and other illustrations for the publication also show how this sublime beauty can easily become a source of terror, as the ships and their crews become imperilled by the power and capriciousness of the Arctic ice. This ability of ice to shift dramatically from sublime beauty to source of terror is played with to great effect in Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Published the year after the return of Ross the novel highlights how modern men can be overpowered by natural forces still beyond their control.

 A Remarkable Iceberg (Ross July 1818)

‘A Remarkable Iceberg, July, 1818’ from  Ross, J. (1819), A Voyage of Discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in his Majesty’s ships ‘Isabella’ and ‘Alexander’ for the purpose of exploring Baffin’s Bay, and enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. G.7399

Despite making good progress in the summer months Ross turned around and headed home after entering Lancaster Sound. Ross claimed he saw mountains blocking further passage into the Sound but other members of his crew did not have the chance to verify Ross’s sighting. It is possible that Ross saw a mirage and took this as good reason to turn back for England, but could it also be that his musings on the ice had spooked him? It is possible, Ross’s illustrations show his awareness of the fragility of human bodies and ships to the overwhelming power of the ice, but then it is also possible Ross genuinely believed the Northwest Passage would not be found that way – or indeed any way.

Whatever the reason for his return from the Arctic, Ross’s decision earned him the ire of Sir John Barrow who was furious his captain had returned after posing so little challenge to the Passage. He would attack Ross, directly and anonymously, through the rest of his career and was delighted when Ross’s second in command, W. E. Parry, contradicted the reports of his captain. Barrow’s search for the Northwest Passage was not yet finished.

Philip Hatfield
Lead Curator for Digital Mapping

Further reading:
For more musings on Icescapes, see Philip’s Picturing Places essay, ‘Icescapes: Printing the Arctic’.
Hatfield, P.J. (2016), Lines in the Ice: exploring the roof of the world, London: British Library Publishing
Potter, R. A. (2007), Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818 - 1875, Seattle: University of Washington Press
Williams, G. (2011), Arctic Labyrinth, Berkley: University of California Press

21 February 2017

Enclosed Herewith: Specimens of Ore from the Kuria Muria Islands

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Recently the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership programme discovered an unusual enclosure in some India Office correspondence:  four small specimens of ore, contained in a little pouch.  Where were these specimens from and how did they become part of the India Office Records?

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17: pouch containing four specimens of ore Noc

The specimens were given to Lieutenant-Colonel William Rupert Hay, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, by some inhabitants of Al Hallaniyah during Hay’s visit to the island on 7 April 1947.  Al Hallaniyah is the largest of the Kuria Muria Islands, a group of five islands located in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Oman.  The islands were presented as a gift to Britain by the Sultan of Muscat in 1854, and they became the responsibility of the Government of Bombay in British India.  They were highly valued for their guano deposits, which were exhausted by 1860, following a brief but intensive period of extraction. The islands became part of the British Aden Colony, but for administrative purposes were placed under the control of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 17a: four specimens of ore from Al Hallaniyah Noc

Although the islands were long regarded by the British as being of little strategic or commercial interest, their status and administration became a topic of discussion between the India Office and the Colonial Office during the 1930s.  This was mainly in relation to Aden’s separation from British India, but also because of the establishment of a strategic air route from Aden to Muscat.

The reasons behind Hay’s visit to the islands in 1947 are not entirely clear, but he appeared to take a personal as well as a professional interest in the islands.  Following his visit he submitted a short article to The Geographical Journal (the journal of the Royal Geographical Society), which was published later that year.  Hay was also curious about the properties of the specimens that he had received at Al Hallaniyah.  A few days after his trip, in a letter to Eion Pelly Donaldson at the India Office in London, Hay wrote: ‘I forward herewith the specimens of ore handed to me on Hallaniyah Island.  If there is no objection I should be grateful if you could kindly have them analysed and let me know the result'.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 21: letter from the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf to the India OfficeNoc

The specimens were duly sent to the Geological Survey and Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum) in South Kensington. After an initial inspection the specimens were identified as being crystals of iron pyrites, and were deemed not to be of commercial value.  Donaldson informed Hay of the results and added ‘[w]e will keep the specimens here for the time being, unless you want them returned’.  Presumably Hay did not express any interest in retaining the specimens, which have remained with the correspondence ever since.

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IOR/L/PS/12/2106, f 13: letter from the India Office to the Political Resident in the Persian GulfNoc

Images of the specimens will be made available on the Qatar Digital Library website later this year.


David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Coll 6/39 'Kuria Muria Islands: Administration and Status of', IOR/L/PS/12/2106
John Gordon Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, ’Omān and Central Arabia, 2 vols (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India, 1908), II, pp. 1043-1045.
William Rupert Hay, ‘The Kuria Muria Islands’, The Geographical Journal, 109 (1947) No. 4/6 (April-June 1947), 279-281.

  

15 November 2016

A little embarrassing: Britain fails to prevent Barclay Raunkiær from exploring Arabia

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The British did everything in their power to thwart the journey of a young Danish explorer into the heart of Arabia in 1912 – but ended up helping him by mistake.

The Danes had a history of exploration in the Arabian Peninsula going back to Carsten Niebuhr in the 18th century. In 1911 the Royal Danish Geographical Society decided to revive that tradition by mounting a new expedition.  One of the members was a young Danish student, Barclay Raunkiær, whose father, the botanist Christen Raunkiær, gives his name to a system of plant categorisation still in use today.

The Society duly informed the British Government of their intentions. However, the British viewed the expedition as an unwelcome intrusion into their imperial sphere of influence, and decided that it should be prevented.  The British claimed that as they could not guarantee the safety of their own officers and travellers in the region, they could not offer any assistance or protection to the Danes either.

As a result, the Society abandoned the scheme, despite the fact that money had been raised and plans were well advanced. Nevertheless, Raunkiær decided to make the journey himself, and after passing through Ottoman territory, he arrived at Kuwait in January 1912.

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Telegram from the Government of India to the Political Resident dated 1 March 1912 asking the Resident to give ‘a hint’ to the Sheikh of Kuwait
IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 75. Noc

The British Government of India responded by giving instructions to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  that ‘a hint’ should be given to the Sheikh of Kuwait that no assistance should be given to Raunkiær. Without the Sheikh’s support the expedition would be impossible. British officials also monitored the Dane’s movements in the region and passed on information.

It came then as a considerable surprise to the British some months later to learn that the expedition had been a complete success. Raunkiær had made his way from Kuwait to Riyadh and back to the coast at Bahrain, ‘in a somewhat dilapidated condition’, collecting important geographical, ethnographic and botanical information on the way.

IOR-L-PS-10-259, f 48.

India Office minute: the Royal Danish Geographical Society’s gratitude was ‘a little embarrassing’ - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 48. Noc

 

Worse, the Royal Danish Geographical Society sent a letter thanking the British Government, particularly mentioning the valuable assistance given to Raunkiær by two British Political Agents, Shakespear at Kuwait, and Lorimer at Bahrain. An India Office minute records that after all the obstacles the British had placed in the way of the Danes it was ‘a little embarrassing’ to be thanked in that way, and in the circumstances there seemed to be nothing for it but ‘to put on the best face we can’.

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Part of Captain Shakespear’s report on Barclay Raunkiær, 9 March 1912. It was ‘regrettable’ that the Government of India had not made their objections known sooner - IOR/L/PS/10/259, f 42. Noc

The British Government wanted to know what help, exactly, Lorimer and Shakespear had given the expedition. Lorimer was quickly exonerated, but Shakespear was forced to explain that he had given the Dane his ‘good offices’ and permitted the Sheikh of Kuwait to assist the expedition because instructions to the contrary had not arrived in time. He had also thought that Raunkiær’s limited mapping skills showed he was more of a botanist than a geographer, and he had satisfied himself that Raunkiær was not acting on behalf of either the Turks or the Germans.

Raunkiær himself, weakened by his exertions, died in Copenhagen in 1915. He was 25.

Martin Woodward
Content Specialist, Archivist British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership  Cc-by

Sources:
London, British Library, File 1202/1912 'Arabia:- Travellers. Capt. F. F Hunter. Herr Runkiar (Danish Expedition). Capt Shakespear.'. IOR/L/PS/10/259.
Barclay Raunkiaer, Through Wahhabiland on Camelback (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969).
See also: Desert Encounter: Knud Holmboe 

 

 

04 October 2016

Poldark, put your shirt on! An 18th Century description of a Cornish mine.

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In the British Library there is a fascinating manuscript, compiled in 1779, recording a journey across southern England.  An anonymous gentleman set out from London “on the 1st day of July 1779”, and went all the way to Cornwall “with a single horse chaise”.

Upon reaching Cornwall, the traveller decided “to gratify a curiosity of visiting one of the tin & copper mines which lay scattered on the roadsides”.  This caught my attention because one of my guilty pleasures is the TV series Poldark.  Aidan Turner (the actor who plays Ross Poldark) frequently removes his shirt while toiling in the rugged, rocky interior of his mine.  Not surprisingly, the 1779 account of a Cornish mine is completely different.

To begin with, the anonymous traveller of 1779 had to wear copious amounts of clothing before he was allowed down the mine.  In preparation for the descent, he... “immediately went to the room of one of the Captains (that is a person of rather greater confidence than others) where [he] furnished myself with a dress consisting of worsted stockings, pair of trousers, flannel shirt, waistcoat sleeved, flannel night cap & hat.  Having procured some candles & taken a small quantity of gin to prevent injury from my new habit, set forth for the shaft” .

The gentleman traveller estimated that the mine was 430 feet deep, and he described it as a murky, unforgiving, water-filled place, strewn with mud and clay.  A steam operated pump that the traveller called a “fire engine” was used to draw water out of the mine at a rate of a hundred gallons per stroke.

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Fire engine used to pump water out of a Cornish tin and copper mine in 1779. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.447.

 

The descent into the mine happened at a terrifying proximity to the fire engine mechanism, which perpetually pumped water out of the mine, and inevitably spilled water while it operated.  There was “a large quantity of water flowing over so as to compleatly wet every part of the dress through & endanger the candles going out... the engine sometimes working so close as to make it necessary to keep the cloathing as close to the body as possible; when [we] had descended half way the water from above flowd so fast that our candles were once or twice extinguished to one, though the number[of candles] was about eight”.

At the bottom of the mine “[t]he ground [we] had to walk along where the vein of ore formerly lay consisted of mud or clay considerably over my shoes, & roof so low as to make it necessary to stoop the whole distance...”  It seems that Cornish mines were places where men had to dig about in the mud, and not rock-walled caverns where swarthy men struck hammers against chunks of stone.  At the end of his visit, the traveller “came to a flight of ladders placed so as to form an angle, & it was with some degree of pleasure I revisited daylight after an absence of two hours”.

 

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Ladders leading out of the mine. BL-Mss Eur Mack Private 91, p.451.

 

The traveller continued his journey to Redruth, and stayed at an inn called the King's Head, where he ate a “Cornish pye formed of meat parsley onions apples cream &c” for his evening meal. Unlike the miners he left behind, life was good for this gentleman. I wonder if he looked a little bit like Aidan Turner?

 

King's Head Redruth

Photograph of The King’s Head, Redruth, 1900s (now closed).  Image courtesy of cornishmemory.com

 

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia


Further reading:

“A Description of a Cornish mine” was taken from pages 442 to 455 in an account of a journey across the south of England by an anonymous traveller, 1779. British Library, Mss Eur Mack Private 91.

Foster, Patrick. “Poldark star Aidan Turner swaps topless scything for semi-clad mining in new series.”  The Telegraph, 22 August 2016.