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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Death & disease in Poldark country

Levant Mine (Wikipedia Commons, John Gibson)

While I was holidaying in Cornwall recently, we visited the National Trust’s Levant Tin Mine - very Poldark! It was on this part of the Cornish cost where the Trust worked with the BBC to recreate the scenes familiar to viewers of the Poldark TV series, using what remains of the industry’s buildings along with some computer generated imagery to add what has long since disappeared.

Appalling working conditions

Working conditions for the miners must have been horrendous - hot, humid, noisy and with poor ventilation, working with picks and hand-drills by the meagre light of a tallow candle. Unsurprisingly, many developed debilitating lung diseases over time working underground. And that was without the dangers of rockfalls, using explosives or climbing up and down precarious ladders in the dark.

Arsenic chimney on the Levant mine site

But you didn’t fare much better on the surface. The conditions for “bal maidens”, the name for the women who worked above ground (bal being Cornish for mine), were just as unpleasant. Their job was to break up the ore, sort and wash it - and this held its own dangers.

A visual display in one of the outbuildings on the Levant mine site spells out the risk to women’s health as a bal maiden.

Risks for a bal maiden

  • Eye injury as a result of flying debris

  • Hearing problems due to the noise of the mine’s workings

  • Skeletal problems from bending and excessive physical exertion

  • Lung disease - TB or “consumption” was more prevalent in mining communities

  • Sores from arsenic fumes from chimneys (see photo) as it was burned off the ore

  • Toxic poisoning from working with substances like arsenic and lead

  • Anaemia, sometimes fatal, as a result of heavy menstruation caused by poor diet and working with toxins

So all in all, not much fun wherever you worked!

Thanks to the National Trust and its renovation work, Levant Mine is now a pleasant, interesting and picturesque place to be in 2019.



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