A problem “up-country” settlers have with the Cornish is knowing when to take them seriously. No race on earth is as dedicated to the “wind-up” as is the Cornish Celt, and more Englishmen and other “furriners” have gone back across the Tamar convinced of the truth of some amazing or unlikely story, than it takes Redruth men to change a light bulb. Miners are in a league of their own when it comes to giving misleading information or false directions. Of course, political correctness is making such things almost a criminal offence, and practical jokes and the like are now frequently described as “dangerous horseplay”.
In 1586 Thomas Beare, the Bailiff of Blackmoor, described the humour of the tinners as outrageously juvenile, and showed how they could keep a joke going all day and half the night. If a stranger was sent to the tinwork to stand in for a regular labourer, the tinners would invariably send him to a next tinwork to retrieve a barrow or other piece of gear which they alleged had been borrowed. When the man asked at the next tinwork for the barrow. they would send him down to the valley to the next one. saying that they had loaned it to them. and so on. until the poor man had walked over half of Blackmoor. When the exhausted worker returned at dusk, confused, hungry and dispirited, the tinners would think this extremely funny, falling about with laughter. If a tinner was foolish enough to say to another man on the tin stream: “Kiss my arse!” The whole company of tinners would grab him, remove his trousers, scrub his backside with gravel and sand till it bled, and then pronounce it clean enough to kiss. A stranger calling a fox, cat, rat or owl by its correct name would empty the tinwork, as the whole workforce carried him to the nearest pub, where he was forced to buy beer for all the tinners present. A cat must be called a “rooker”, a rat was a “peeper”, an owl a “broadface” and a fox a “long tail”.
Cornish tinners appeared to enjoy life despite their poverty, and their humour and whole hearted involvement in “winding-up” outsiders clearly helped them to cope with their hard lives. The many deceptions and concealments practiced by tributers (miners) on mine captains, to get a better price for their tin. or a better percentage of its value, and the tricks played on those officials by tutworkers to aet a better price for their “pitch” were made famous by Dr. Hamilton Jenkin. The point is that these “dishonest” practices were always accompanied by humour on both sides, as the miner and the captain each tried to outwit the other. Such stories are reminiscent of one of Beare’s from the 1580s. An inexperienced man was sent by his master, a local aentleman. to stand in for the regular man at the tinwork. At the end of the day the tinners gathered to divide up the tin stones in need of stamping. The pile would be divided equally between the ten or a dozen tinners who were partners in the work. Each man would then take his share away to have it stamped. The gentleman adventurer would be entitled to an equal share. The tinners would make a very large pile of worthless but impressive-looking stones, and invite the newcomer to take this big pile to his master. In his ignorance the servant would proudly carry away this large pile of useless rock, the tinners assisting him by pushing the stones into his bag, filling his pockets, down the front of his shirt and anywhere else they could. The man, proud as fire, carried his loot to his master, who whilst congratulating him on his diligence, smiled, knowing he had been robbed.
In recent years, South Crofty, Geevor and even “ships that pass in the night”, like Wheals Concord. Jane and Pendarves. had their store of hilarious stories and practical jokes. Howard Mankee, a mine captain at Crofty, was involved in scores of incidents that illustrate the peculiar and outrageous sense of humour of the Cornish miner. On one occasion the 340 level day shift went down as usual at 6.45am. and at 8.45am., when Howard arrived on the level the whole group was ensconced on the croust seat, eating, drinking and laughing. Each machinernan, trammer, timberman and trackman had set his watch to 11 o’clock, croust time. Needless to say Howard went berserk at the sight of his men relaxing when they should have been working. With innocent protestations they all referred to their watches, and then, to confirm the time, one switched on a “radio” with a tape recording of the 11 o’clock “pips” and news. Howard, forgetting the impossibility of receiving radio signals underground, listened incredulously, took off his watch, shook it, and shouting about where the **** the time had gone, ran wildly back toward the station. The miners quickly disappeared into every dark corner of the level. When the enlightened Howard returned, angry and vengeful, he failed to locate a single miner. Stories of “traditional” punishments for habitual thieves, making of “rat pasties” for pasty thieves, removing the whole lengths of hose whilst machinemen were drilling, or lengths of track with trammers inside, or of high-pressure hoses into underground toilet air vents, and a score of other pranks and acts of revenge against malefactors, were commonplace. Miners are expert at the “wind-up” and “set up”, and some can be of the most elaborate kind. One poor mine captain was tricked over a period of months into believing that the whole of 380 level was a sink of low sexually deviant practices. Halfway through his investigation into the “affair”, with nearly 20 miners in his office baying him on, he suddenly realised it was all a “set up”. Some of the best examples of such Crofty humour are contained in Howard Mankee’s biography: A Miners Tale. Freddie Sedgemore, a miner who first went underground at Crofty in 1927, has often told me, of how he and his mates could hardly wait to get to work because they had such fun. His wife confirmed this, and said he always came home from work chuckling over some character or some incident at the mine. Geevor Mine had the same atmosphere, with the antics of larger-than-life characters and outrageous practical jokes constantly keeping the workforce amused. Just as in the days of Thomas Beare, 400 years ago, mining is considered to be fun – as well as hard work!