Part One ‘Mongst Photos and Photographers…
A few weeks ago, I took my son on a camping trip to North Wales. We weren’t especially fortunate with the weather, and anticipating this I had arranged what I’d hoped to be an interesting indoor activity: an underground tour at Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog.
At its peak, in the 1880s, the Llechwedd Quarry employed over 500 men, women and children, and annually transported over 23,000 tonnes of finished slate worldwide1. I emphasise finished slate, because, according to my tour guide, around 90% of what was brought to the surface by the quarrymen was classed as waste and consigned to the massive heaps we can still see in the area today. In other words, 90% of the miners’ efforts were for nothing.
Before descending 500ft, or 83 fathoms, the tour guide gave our party the obligatory health and safety briefing. Whilst talking, he made reference to an old photograph, displayed amongst a selection of slate-cutting paraphernalia (see above). A group of quarrymen (or pare in Cornwall) are hand-drilling whilst precariously balanced on a sheer face of slate. The chains around their thighs are a token gesture to safety: it’s a 50ft drop below. Standing officiously above them is the shift supervisor or foreman. This was taken in the 1890s.
As the image was so clear, clearer than the one above, I was surprised when our guide informed us that this photo had actually been taken underground. The miners were working in pitch blackness, and the foreman wore black so the workers could never know when he was watching them.
The image had been captured by means of flash photography. Now I was really interested.
To my mind, in the 1890s, there was only one man in the United Kingdom using flash photography underground, and you’d have to scour half of Europe to find another one2.
This, of course, was John Charles Burrow (1852-1914). And he was a Cornishman. But didn’t he only ever photograph Cornish miners?
Our guide at Llechwedd didn’t know who had taken the photo. Being familiar with his work, however, I was convinced that only Burrow could have done it.
On returning home, I contacted Kresen Kernow, and discovered that they had images by Burrow taken in slate mines – but the location, or provenance, of these pictures wasn’t stated. On speaking with the Archivist, David Thomas, he told me there wasn’t “much knowledge” of Burrow’s work in Wales, but, as the man travelled a lot, a visit there would not be untypical.
If Burrow had been to Llechwedd, why did he go there? Who sent him? When did he go there? How did he get there? Who went with him? What were his methods?
To begin to answer these questions, we need to trace the story of Burrow’s work in Cornwall: work which, in the words of David Thomas, made him.
…one of the world pioneers of underground photography…
Email correspondence, 2nd August 2022
Before he was twenty, Burrow had already found his life’s calling. Before he was thirty, in 1881, he was living in Camborne and set up as a “Photographic Artist”; his most well-known residence, and place of business, was “Camara”, on Trelowarren St.
In short, Burrow had over twenty years’ experience in the medium before producing his most famous work in the 1890s. And he was not working, as it were, in the dark. Burrow was in regular contact with other photographers, and was actively engaged in the main issue vexing the professionals of the time: how do you photograph in the dark?
It might be stating the blindingly obvious, but we know that Burrow was actively engaged with the current theories, debates, and conundrums because, simply, he succeeded in photographing in the dark.
He succeeded brilliantly.
To achieve this, allied to undoubted skill, tenacity, patience, and courage, Burrow used the very cutting-edge of photographic equipment for the time. It is less well-known that he had also been underground from a young age, and had personally vowed to capture mining life on its lower levels:
…my surprise at the difficulties and dangers of the miners’ work…led me to determine that whenever it became practicable I would show to the world what it meant to extract metals from the hard rocks so far below the surface.J. C. Burrow, interviewed in the Cornish Post and Mining News, February 2, 1896, p8
The opportunity came in late 1892. He was commissioned (or challenged) by the Camborne School of Mines to take underground scenes at the Dolcoath, Cook’s Kitchen, East Pool and Blue Hills workings. (Dolcoath was first, and remains the focus of this post.)
To his above resolve, Burrow carefully selected the tools of his trade. His lens of choice was new on the market, manufactured by Carl Zeiss in 18897. His camera, a Kinnear light bellows on a sliding tripod, would have been the latest, 1890s, model. For the flashlight, he used magnesium powder. This bright burning metal, only discovered in the 1850s, was seemingly invented for photography. A powdered – and at times volatile – variant, flashpowder, had only been patented in 1887. His plates were of the new (late 1870s) ‘dry’ variety; previous to this innovation photographers had to prepare slides on the spot, and the exposure time for them could be excruciating for any sitter.
To this formidable armoury, Burrow contrived what may have been a personal touch. He decided to take several limelight burners to Dolcoath with him, in order to more comprehensively illuminate his tableaux. Limelights, popular at the time in theatres, required an operator and canisters of oxygen and hydrogen to burn a light-emitting block of quicklime. Burrow may have heard of the application of limelight to photography via the professionals’ grapevine. Or, possibly, he was personally well-versed in the properties of limelight: in November 1892 he used limelight displays for an evening’s entertainment of the Barncoose Board Schoolroom.
Such was the novelty and interest surrounding Burrow’s commission to photograph underground at Dolcoath, his adventure was serialised over three weeks in The Cornishman. The reporter is probably William Thomas, a lecturer at Camborne School of Mines. These articles carry something of the flavour of the Victorian reportage of a newly-discovered land, society, and people; clearly the vast majority of The Cornishman‘s readers had little in-depth knowledge of Cornwall’s primary industry.
Both parties – Burrow’s, and the Dolcoath workforce – show equal amounts of fascination for each other. The sight of Burrow’s equipment, camera, flashlight, tripod, limelight and pressurised cylinders of oxygen and hydrogen excites no little curiosity. Likewise, the mining natives’ rhythms of speech and dialect are dutifully recorded: one miner had just
…clunked some tay to keep un from chacken weth thust after chowen es crowst…
Qtd. in The Cornishman, January 5, 1893, p7
Before proceeding, Burrow’s party, comprising a guide, Thomas, and two or three School of Mines students (there to learn their trade, and carry equipment), have to ‘go native’ and don miners’ outfits and hard hats. There was to be no posing in Sunday best here. This was a necessity: like many a trip to a strange land, danger might lurk around any corner…
When Burrow and his companions visited, Dolcoath was the deepest, and richest, tin mine in the world. With around 1,300 employees and an engine-shaft over 455 fathoms (or half a mile) deep, this was a subterranean land of mystery and riches. For example, at 412 fathom the tin-lode was valued at £600/fathom. That’s over £53,000 today.
The risk in Burrow’s venture is evident before they have even descended: there was a delay due to blasting, and the area of the mine they are to visit, at 300 fathoms, has to be made safe. Even then, the method of descent is anything but secure. Burrow, his equipment, and party travelled down in a skip or gig, an “oblong iron box on wheels” with an open front, that normally carried up to four men. Their journey sounds like the scariest rollercoaster ride in history:
Imagine yourself swung over a cliff half a mile high, and being lowered in an iron cage, to the bottom by a rope.
The Cornishman, January 12, 1893, p6
This being done in pitch blackness, down an open rock shaft, with full knowledge that skip ropes have failed, and men had recently plummeted to their deaths . As Thomas observed, with fine understatement,
One could be excused feeling timorous…
The Cornishman, January 12, 1893, p6
This journey must have left a similar impression on Burrow, for he decided to photograph the skip, containing Joe Semmens, Dolcoath’s timberman, and a young companion. Here it is:
With yet more understatement, Thomas noted that Burrow merely “secured” this photo. But we must remember that this image, to my knowledge the first ever taken underground at Dolcoath, may have been one of several attempts by Burrow to ‘secure’ it. He had to, by candlelight, set up his camera, have his assistants position and operate the limelight burners, and pose the sitters for a blinding, smoking, magnesium flash exposure of two to four seconds, all the while contending with heat, water, and vapour threatening to spoil his efforts. And this was a relatively straightforward shot. I always wonder how he photographed Dolcoath’s Man Engine:
For this, Burrow used yet more limelights, and a triple flashlight; he also had to get the miners to extinguish their candles before taking the shot, and stand, eyes open in the blackness, waiting for the flare. Candlelight caused an eerie glow, or halo, on the plate negatives, and could ruin a take. Burrow, with his eye for authenticity, later scratched a ‘candle’ on to his negatives..
How he positioned himself, his assistants, and his camera, to get the shot, is unknown. One can only imagine the difficulties, and marvel at the result.
Burrow also had the nature of his sitters to contend with. Besides never whistling, one of a miner’s many underground superstitions concerns light. It is considered unlucky to leave a light burning when you leave an area of the mine, with fire and explosions being a constant fear. Also, too much light in a level will discourage work by illuminating hazards normally concealed in darkness24. This gives us some impression of the twilight world Burrow revealed: the men who reside there actually fear light, and prefer the shadows.
Burrow’s subjects were “astonished” to hear that the light generated by his burners was the equivalent to 400 of their candles, but their guide remarked that “it would not do” to have such “strong” light underground.
And so the expedition continued on its precipitous route, dropping equipment into pools, banging heads, avoiding yet more blasting, and marvelling at the miners’ labour26. Another trip down in a skip, followed by passing the equipment to each other down a rickety ladder (all by candlelight), and the party came to 412 Fathom, the deepest, hottest, and richest area of the mine. Here Burrow photographed the impressive oak stulls, supporting a mass of attle, or waste rock, above the level. No photograph had ever been taken at this depth before, anywhere:
It was noted that this image would appear in Burrow’s forthcoming book, ‘Mongst Mines and Miners27. Tragically, it would also be reproduced for very different reasons.
Abide With Me: the Disaster of 1893
One Wednesday, September 20, 1893, a pare of eight men descended to 412 Fathom, Dolcoath. They had been instructed to repair and strengthen the stull, a new piece of lumber having been sent down ahead for the purpose28. The stull was judged to be stable enough, but only “suspiciously” so29. It had been thought best to carry out the repairs prior to their need being serious and the stull itself truly dangerous. Indeed, one miner had been on that level only a day before, and remarked it as being so safe that
…I should not be afraid to sleep there 12 hours.
Qtd. in The Cornishman, September 28, 1893, p6
He was lucky. At around 1pm, for reasons never conclusively ascertained, the stull gave way. 110 cubic fathoms of waste rock crashed onto the eight men. That’s a displacement of 678 tons. The force of the blast was so great it knocked over and badly injured other miners working in the vicinity. An empty tram was knocked off its wheels, coming to rest on top of an unfortunate tinner.
Two hours later, the alarm was raised at grass, and rescue parties began work immediately. There was 14 fathoms, or 28 yards, of unstable debris blocking the level from both ends. The men doing the digging knew their efforts would be all but futile. One miner remarked that
…I would not give a pipe of ‘bacca for any of them.
Qtd. in The Cornishman, September 28, 1893, p6
And the operation was truly grim. By Friday night, the smell of decay underground was so bad that disinfectant was sent for. As the rubble was worked through, severed limbs were discovered. A day after the accident, one trapped man, William Osborne, was heard, but could not be reached in time. The hymn he was singing, ‘Abide With Me’, turned to groans, and then silence. It was later sung at his funeral.
Relatives of the eight haunted the shaft; in one instance it took four miners to subdue an hysterical mother. Prayers were regularly offered in the many Methodist Chapels of the district. At night, it was said that dogs made “hideous noises” in the streets of Camborne.
Seven men were killed: William Osborne, John Pollard, Charles White, John Jennings, Frederick Harvey, James Adams, and Richard James. Most left families, and all were God-fearing men. It took until Thursday October 12 to recover all the bodies.
One survived, with little more than a few scratches. Richard Davis (or Davies), 20, was rescued after forty hours underground, and staggered into his house in Troon, like a ghoul, early on the Friday morning. Here he is:
(Davies must have understandably given up mining. A Cornish Story article on the history of Holmans shows him as a member of the Works Choir in 1924.)
This was the worst disaster in the history of Dolcoath Mine, and directly led to
…the formation of a County fund to provide adequate assistance for the bereaved in the cases of fatal accidents in Cornish mines.
Cornish Post and Mining News, October 6, 1893, p7
The official inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. Burrow’s photo of 412 Fathom, taken nearly a year previously, was used at the hearing by H.M. Inspector of Mines, Joseph Martin. (Martin had been keeping the then Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, abreast of events.) It was compared to sketches made of the accident, and exonerated Dolcoath’s Captain, Josiah Thomas, of any charges of negligence toward his men. All the inquest proved was how
…elaborate are the precautions which are taken at Dolcoath to ensure the safety of the miners…
Cornish Telegraph, October 12, 1893, p4
Burrow’s photo also proved morbidly popular with the public too, and copies, as postcards, were “eagerly snapped up” as memento mori from his Trelowarren Street shop. In fact, such was the demand for Burrow’s image, the Cornish Post and Mining News published it twice, with the following caption:
What Burrow made of all this is unknown. It’s very possible he was already making preparations for his next commission. In North Wales.
PART TWO Will be here soon.
Meanwhite take a look at Francis’s – The Cornish Historian Blog