With excited conversation and loud cries of joy filling the air as the workers walked home to the village, I left Pumblewood at the mine after he reminded me of my own duty to Elys; that I should speak with her father. A most terrible aching filled my chest and stomach as I walked home. The good news from Edwin Malby could not rid me of it. If Elys’ father refused my entreaties, I was unsure what I should do. It would, of course, mean that Elys’ employment would end, no matter what and in that, I worried for her future.
Fortunately, Elys had journeyed into Mullians town on her weekly shopping trip for our supplies and taken my aunt with her, bathchair strapped to the roof of the coach. They always stayed the night at the ‘Fisherman’s Friend,’ so as not to tire my aunt, and then returned the following day.
So it was that I returned to Condurrow House in a state of mixed feelings, hoping that my visit to the village would be a success and after I would celebrate in style with a large Porter ale and crumbling slice of pork pie. After dressing in my best brown check trousers and tan jacket, I carefully placed the new fashionable hat of the day, a felt Derby, on my head and looked at the result in the mirror. It was then I realised that a gift for Elys’ mother had been forgotten in my haste to attend to my dress. I remembered that Elys picked roses from the garden every morning and so I rushed downstairs to the kitchen. With much haste, I took the roses from the vase and wrapped the stems in a napkin. My pocket-watch gave the time at 6.00 of the evening as I shut the front door and descended the steps.
It took less than fifteen minutes to reach the village, and with heart racing, I walked in front of the tavern where several of the men were sitting drinking and playing dominoes. As I acknowledged them, I heard the whispering and saw the knowing looks. Respectful as they were, I was acutely aware that if the interview went poorly, I would be the cause of many conversations at the mine. Determined in my pursuit, I kept my head high, and within a few minutes, I was knocking at Mr. and Mrs. Penlerick’s cottage.
“You be welcome at our humble home, sir. Please come in and sit in our parlour. Talan be awaitin’ your pleasure.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “Please accept these roses from my garden. Elys picked them this morning.” I inclined my head and removed my felt derby as slow as was acceptable to show respect to a lady.
She took the flowers and held them to her nose, closing her eyes as she did and radiating a smile so broad that filled me with happiness knowing I had pleased her. As I stepped into the parlour, Talan rose from a hearthside chair and shook my hand. Mrs. Penlerick left us and closed the door as she retired to the kitchen.
Talan pointed me to the other chair by the hearth. He didn’t speak but chose to light a clay pipe that lay on the mantle above the fire. As smoke curled up to the low ceiling, he sat and breathed deeply.
“I knows you are here to ask permission for Elys’ company and also knows you to be a fair and honest man. Such a man, even though a related one to that Silas Dench, is the right and proper gentlemen that would treat Elys with kindness and proper attention.”
I silently cursed my wicked uncle's name. His cruel actions against my mother and aunt and indeed his disregard for the safety and well-being of the workers would be linked to me forever.
Talan puffed on the pipe and eyed me wisely. Tall but stooped, his lined weathered face and calloused hands told the story of his hard working life. Bright but half-closed hazel flecked eyes spoke volumes and nothing but warmth and understanding radiated from them. He extended a long, strong arm, the forearm so hairy with black and white hair, and rested his hand on my shoulder. With a light but firm warning with low voice, he said, “Let you know, sir, Elys is our only child and God knows what would happen should you ever harm her.”
His fingers gripped my shoulder briefly, and with a nod of my head, I acknowledged his warning with serious thought.
With a thumping heart and dry throat, I rose and shook his hand warmly. I must say that the relief showed on my face as I tried to put a manly expression on the situation. My cheeks were aglow, and as Mrs. Penlerick came back from the kitchen, carrying a small wooden tray with tea and cake, I felt as one with them. After placing the tray on the small round table under the window, she invited us to sit and take tea.
“You be puttin’ that pipe away now, Talan. No need to show such bad habit to our guest. You save that until you be drinkin’ ale at the tavern later.”
Talan nudged me with a grin that he hid from his wife. “You see that bein’ home means givin’ up all rights to bein’ the head o’house after you marry, sir.”
“Talan, that be enough of you. Tis’ not fttin’ to make such remarks to a gentleman who be just callin’ on Elys. Now sit you down and be of good manners.”
It felt good to exchange grins and knowing looks for I felt a bond between Talan and myself as we waited for Mrs. Penlerick to pour tea and cut a delicious looking sponge cake liberally spread with strawberry jam. I was to be disappointed in not partaking of the cake or the tea.
A Loud knocking at the door and the sound of raised voices drew us from our chairs. Talan opened the door and Jack Penhaligon, engine house chargehand, stepped forward. On seeing me, he stopped and removed his cap. Behind him, a group of men, some of whom I had seen not one hour before at the tavern, stood with serious faces.
Penhaligon, out of breath and with heaving chest, spoke in fits and starts as he relayed his news. “Dear God, preserve us, Sir, but there be a collapse of such proportions I fear we may have death upon us.”
I took the man by the shoulders and shook him. “Tell me, what collapse? What of the men?”
“Collapse be at the bottom developed shaft. The captain will knows how many men.”
I waited not a moment longer. Talan was already in his jacket and threw mine to me. “We best be off.” He turned to the men as we left. “Are all men present?”
“I am sure they are,” I shouted as I began to run. I waved the men on. “Come on! The pump needs to work throughout in case we have a flood. We’d best be quick if we are to save lives this night.”
Over five years I had learned much about the engine house and pump that was the heart of the mine. If the pump stopped, water could flood the mine. If there were a collapse, the steam engine, and its condenser, might not be strong enough to keep pace with the flow of water. If the situation were grave, then the winding shaft below the head frame that was commonly used to haul ore up and onto the tramway, would be used to lower rescuers and bring up the trapped. All this ran through my mind as we raced for the mine. There was not one man less concerned than others for the lives of their fellow workers. The mine was our life – the men its blood.
It took but minutes to reach the cliff above the mine for we ran like the wind and with heaving lungs and dry throats that were sore with the cold air, we scrambled down the shingle paths to the engine house. Penhaligon led two men to the boiler house while the other men and I made for the mine entrance.
“Each of you take a *tallow and clay with you and light the devil’s hole,” I ordered. “We need to see if the shuttering and ladders are safe.” I gestured to Pumblewood, who had joined us. “You look after the engine room.”
Pumblewood nodded. “We have no water danger to the mine right now. There be just five men down and the water not too fierce. The thing be that the side wall behind them fell into the shaft and blocked their escape. The water be building up around them behind the fallen rock. One of them is injured bad.”
This I considered as good and bad news. An injured man, if crushed or bleeding bad, could die. Our actions needed to be swift and urgent. The good news was that the shaft the men were working was a new development and sloped deeply. This would then be widened and shored when the tunnel reached the desired length. Water was filling the worked area and would drown the men unless we could clear enough rock for them to be pulled through to safety. I allowed myself a moment of relief, knowing the mine itself was not in danger, not that the lives of five men overrode everything else in importance.
As I entered the entrance tunnel, I looked over my shoulder at Pumblewood. “Be ready with the hand pumps. Place hand pumps by the *adit drainer at the start of the development being worked and have the *bal boys ready to pump as soon as you can get a pipe into the water around the trapped men.”
Pumblewood left, a clearly worried look upon his face and I did hear him shouting at the young boys as I led the men to the core of the mine. The previous year I had installed *man ladders in the central pit, a new mechanical invention that quickened miners entry and exit from the work areas safely and saved much time. From the main pit, several shafts led off at different levels into ore faces still being excavated. There were others that had been finished with and these we back-filled with a barren rock. I had soon learned that mining was a dangerous profession and that young and old that worked it deserved much respect.
After reaching the round pit, the men spread out, some taking the ladders down while others trod around the top level. Each man made a ball of wet clay and plastered it to the wall or affixed his candle to a spike already driven into the wall. A tallow candle was pushed into the clay, and the wick was then lit.
Flickering light played off the walls as we mounted the ladders. Below us more light played ghostly shadows moving downwards to the bottom of the pit. It was with great trepidation that I clung to the ladder for despite having spent many hours underground learning my profession, I always feared the worst – of being trapped like the men we were attempting to rescue.
*Tallow candle - made from animal fat - later replaced by leather or cloth helmets with lights attached to dangerous carbide batteries
*Bal Boy - age 7-10 hand pumped water from certain areas of mine with feet in water all day
*Man Ladder - mechanical ladder that moved vertically
*Adit - used as an entrance or as an outflow for water to drain out and down cliff face or incline