A Tinners Fireside Story
Tom Trevorrow and the Knockers
A story in the cornish dialect
by William Bottrell (Old Celt)
“Do let’s have the droll, Uncle Bill,” said I, and he related as follows,— “From the time Tom was old enow to handle a pick and showl he had lived in Trecrobem, and worked in Wheal Reath, till twenty years or so ago, when work fell slack here, and some bals were knacked (stopped). Then he went to Santust (St. Just) to look for a job and found work in Ballowal. Most people have hoard of that queer old bal, that was worked before The Flood, they say. There the old men’s works, weth their deep open coffans (pits) may still be seen, jest as they left them, only wash’d and run’d in a good deal one may suppose. ‘l’hat old bal, everybody in Santust will toll ‘e, have always been haunted with knackers. And the burrows, in crofts and cleves around, are swarman with them, and weth spriggnns, wherever anything belongan to the old bal was burred. There these sprites keep overlastan watch, though all the old men’s tools or treasures may be gone to rust, earth, and dust. One don’t often see them, ‘tis true, but only break ground near them and they’ll show their ugly faces, as many have known to their cost.
Tom and his eldest boy went over and worked a few weeks, to see how they liked the place and people before removing his wife and family. They liked the Santusters fust rate. They’re a capital set of’ red-tailed drones, only give them their own way; but you will soon find out that one must either fight or be thorough friends with them ‘one and all.’ Tom took a house in Letcha—handy by the hal. When his family were moved, he and the boy worked together on tribute, and worked hard makan double cores. ‘When it came near pay-day, the boy, for want of rest, gave out, and his father worked on alone.
Tom had heard the knackers workan, away at a distance, all the time he had been there, and took no notice of their noise, but now that the boy stopped home, they came nearer and nearer every day, till he cud hardly hear the sound of his own tools with the din and clatter of theirs. As far as he could judge by the sound they were only two or three yards off, in the level close behind him, carryen on all sorts of underground work. Some appear d to be wheelan, some showlan, others boran; he could even hear them swab out their holes, put in the tampan, and shut (blast) like a pare (company) of regular tinners. Shuttan wasn’t in vogue in their time, but they’ve learnt et.
One night—I think et was only two or three before servey. day—Tom got quite savage to hear their confoundan clatter, with their squeakan and tee-hee-an in a mockan way, if he made false strokes, or a clumsy blow; and, being a devil-may-care sort of fellow, he, without thinkan of anything, throwed back a handful of small stones, towards the spot where they seemed to be workan, and called out at the same time without stopan or lookan up, ‘Go to blazes, you cussed old Jews’ sperrats; or I’ll seat (knock) your brains out, I will, ef you ain’t gone from here.’ The words were no sooner out of his mouth than a shower of stones fell upon and around him, and frightened him most out of his senses. Still, Tom resolved to work on till mornan, and, in about an hour, when his candle was burnt down and he stopped to light another, he sat down to eat the rest of his fuggan and touch pipe a few minutes. Tom had all but frnished his supper, and bean hungry, could have eat more, when he heard ever so many squeakan voices sing out, from away some fathoms back in the level,—
“Tom Trevorrow! Tom Trcvorrow.
Leave some of thy fuggan for Buucca,
Or bad luck to thee, to-morrow!”
Fust of all he cudn’t well make out any words, but his own name. He thought of the old sayan. ‘What the fool thinketh, that the bell clinketh.’ he knew that sounds heard underground often seemed to be words, like Buryan bells of a weddan day ringan, ‘Poor man, undone!’ or ‘Go thee ways’t home with ragget-tail Jone!’ Then he tried again if they wern’t as much like some old rhymes that children sing, such as,—
Got pain in his belly,
Eaton green slones for supper!"
But no, the devil a bit; for the more and closer he listened the plainer be heard the knackers, or some other sprites among them singing the same. Only when he had eaten all there was slight change and they sung, —
“Tommy Trevorrow, Tommy Trevorrow!
We’ll send thee bad luck to-morrow,
Thou old curmudgeon, to oat all thy fuggan,
And not leave a didjin fur Bucca!”
And so they kept on singan, squeakan, and tee-hee-an, in going back in the end till they were out of hearan. Tom was somewhat scared; yet he felt so tired and drowsey that he could sleep in a pullan (shallow pool). The poor fellow had worked hard and been at it nearly all day and all night for the last week. ‘When he had smoked out his pipe he leant back? thinking to take a doze for only a few minutes. But when he waked up all was quiet. He rubbed his eyes, and, lookan away in an end, where it was nearly dark, he seed scores-of knackers restan on their tools. They were miserable, little, old, withered, dried-up creatures—the tallest of them no more than three foot six, or there away, with shanks like drum-sticks, and their arms as long or longer than their legs. They had big ugly heads, with grey or red locks, squintan eyes, hook noses, and mouths from ear to ear. The faces of many were very much like the grim viseages on old cloman jugs, so Tom said, and more like those of brutes than Christians. One older and uglier than the rest - if possible - seemed to take the lead in makin wry faces, and all sorts of mockan tricks. When he put his thumb to his nose and squinted at Tom, all those behind him did the same. Then all turned their backs, stooped down, lulled out their tongues, and grinned at him from between their spindle shanks. Tom was now much scared. He noticed that his candle was burnt down to the clay, and knew that he must have slept nearly two hours.
“Good Lord, deliver me,” said he, risan to light another candle; and all the kuackers vanished by the time he was well on his legs. They seemed to melt away, one into another, changan shapes like curlan smoke, Tom, feelan hisself very stiff, tired, and cold, from bavan slept so long, dressed and mounted the ladders. He was hardly able to crawl to grass. In the blacksmith’s shop, where he had stopped a few minutes to change and warm hisself, he told other men who wore there, putten on their underground clothes, what he had seen and heard. The old tinners told am that they warn’t at all surprised, because the levels he worked in were more infested with knackers than any other port of the bal. ‘Many a night.’ said they, ‘these troublesome sperats have ben sen whiskan round the black-smith’s shop and gwean (going) down the Buckshaft, near by, and that do enter the level thee’st work in. This shaft es so called, because a black buck-goat, or a bucca in shape of an, was seen to go down there, but never found below.’
The tinners, one and all, blamed Tom for havan anything to do or say with the knackers in an unfriendly way, and toll him that as et was an old custom he might as well have left a bit of bread on the ground for good luck.
When Tom got home he went to bed at once, that he might have a good rest. His wife fed and nussed him well, with the best she cud get for am to eat or drink, in high hopes that, before many days were passed, they would take an more an twenty pound for tin.
Tom dedn’t say a word about the knackers to his wife nor boy, for fear to scare them, nor dedu’t think much more of the buccas.
Next mornan Tom got up like a now one, fresh as a rose. After a hearty breakfast, he and his son started for bal. Now it happened to be Corpus Chris, and the boy was loath to go - he wanted to be off to Penzance, with other youngsters, to see the fun of the fair. “Come thee way’st along, my son,” said Tom, ‘I know thee art still tired, but cheer up a bit; Midsummer’s day will soon be here; then thee shust (shalt) have a shellan and, ef we get a good start (start), two or three, to go to the games and, dash my buttons; ef I too don’t go down to Priest Cove, and try a hitch at the wrestlan! I could used to show as good play, and throw as fair a fall, as any man of my size,” And so Torn ded - he would often show me and others how to give the hugg, play with the back crook, and so furth.
I don’t see for my part why wrestlan, huirlan, and other old manlike games should be allowed to die out for a set of sports more suitable for women than men, and I hold that wrestlan es as good as boxen, and every man should know how to defend hisself. One don’t know what may turn up. ‘Tes all stuff and nonsense what old women say about the wickedness of such sports. I’d rather see a boy of mine with black eyes and bloody nose every day, than for am to run from one of his size.
Arrivan at the bal, first thing on entering the level, Tom noticed that some
of the temberan was bulged a great deal and ready to give way. They put in new
planks, and, as Torn thought, made that all secure for the time. Whilst they
were at it he again heard the knackers workan away in the end, but dedn’t
mind them. Then to get up some tin-stuff from below, they went to work in the
adiit level, on the Buck lode, to secure around and repair a winze (a small
shaft with windlass) that was nearly all run’d in. Whilst he put in new
tembar, the boy was kept at the winze-brace (windlass and tackle). When drivan
the lafte or boards, Tom plainly heard the knackers workan against him; he had
to put in new tembar in the manner of spillan. The ground seemed some what
dangerous. The longer he was workan the nearer the knackers were coman towards
him, until he saw the ground move before the lafts where tho sperats worked;
he then called to the boy, ‘Pull me up, quick, wind away for dear life, my
son!’ By the time he was got up to the winze-braces, the ground began to
tumble in. He had the rope tied around his body. Runnan back in the
adit-level, he unwound it from the winze tree, and untied it from his waist.
Yet he came very near being killed, for he hadn’t got clear of the rope five seconds before whim, rope, and all, went down with the run. Tom, poor fellow, looked around dismayed, to find that all his tin-stuff, which was put on the winze plat, with tools and all, had gone down with the rest; so he lost his tin there and below. All his labour and time was gone for nothan.
he had to live many weeks on subsist (money advanced) and went to another lode to work in an end to tut-work (piece-work), and there, too, he was most put mad with the knackers - they wed come into the level close behind, and go on with all kinds of work, and nobody could have wes (worst) luck than followed am. He went to look so wisht and felt so bad that he had to leave Ballowal; for, go wherever he might about that old hal, the knackers were for ever tormenting am, till they fairly drove ‘n away, and he came back to Lelant no better off than when he left.
And here he had still bad luck doggan am for years. He had to work to the farmers for a long spell, and, as we all know, every tinner would just as soon go to the workhouse, or union; and for my part I’d rather be tied to a bull’s tail, and suffer the rest, than do either one.”
Having refilled his pipe, my old neighbourcontinued “As many bals were then stopped, and a number of hands discharged from others, all the time going from bad to worse, Tom had to live, as he cud, by farm-work for three or four years. He got all out of heart, to be all the time dung-dabban, and to see his children as ragged as colts; besides he had bad speed many ways; some said he was bewitched, and advised him to see the pellar, who came round once a fortnight. Tom thought that no use, because the conjuror won’t ‘good ‘e,’ as he do call it, unless he’s well paid. Tom’s wife made a good bit of money by spinnan and knittan. Unknown to her husband, she took her knittanwork, and went over to the high road, one day, when the pellar, in going his rounds, visited St. Ives. She hadn’t ben long in the lane before he came by.
“I’m waitan to speak wh’y,” said she; “but I’m afeard et wan’t be any use, because we’r very poor.”
“I know.” replied he, “that you have had a long run of bad luck, and it will be all the harder now to turn it, but don’t be out of hopes; I'll see Tom and do what I can for ‘e. I see you’re a good knitster; so you can make me a few pairs of warm stockans for winter’s wear.”
The conjuror remained alone with Tom a good while, each time he came round. What he did to ‘good ‘e’ esn’t known, because whatever’s done to hinder a run of bad luck, or to break a spell of ill wishan, must be kept secret or no cure can be effected. In two or three months, however, Tom’s fortune had a turn. Several youngsters left for America and made room for other hands. Then Tom, to his great content, went to minanwork again. In a short time, instead of looking as wisht, ragged, and dirty as ‘Billy-be-damned,’ or ‘Old Jy,’ who lived in a hole in a hedge, he and his family once more got decent meat and clothan. The pellar had the credit of doing them good, whether he deserved it or no; at any rate his promises put them in better heart, and that was some help. Tom’s wife was overjoyed when he went to minan again; because she always took delight when her good man came home from bal to hear him tell her and the boys what he had done that core, and about his prospect of havan lots of tin agen next pay-day. The lads were most interested when Tom worked to tut-work, driven an end, as you’ll see.
An old boryer, hammer, gads, and other tools were kept under the chimney-stool, that Tom might show them the plainer what he’d hen doan. Now you must understand that Tom believed hisself to be as good a miner as was to be found in Cornwall. He would often brag that he cud break more ground at the same cost than any other man in the bal. His mind was always so occupied about his underground work that the form of his end was always before him. And most every night. after supper and whilst smokan his pipe, he wed work his core over again with Betty, and she, to humour him, would begin with.
“Well, Tom. my son; and what hast a ben doan to-day?”
“What use for me to tell ‘e; I can never make thee understand anything,’ he’d say; “but look here boys!” At the same time he wud take the fire-hook, stick, or anything, and, quite pleased, draw out the form of his end in the back of their old-fashioned, open chimney, and all would be told to look on. say nothan, and learn. When he had marked out, to his mind, how his end stood he would say to his wife,
“Now thee cust see the end es about square as a was this mornan, take the boryer and show me where thee west go for a hole.
“Well, I shud put down a hole there,” she wed say, pointan with the boryer in the most seemly place to her.
“Now gos’t away, thou great Paddy! I tell thee, Betty, thee dosen’t knaw any more about such work than a Buryan man!
Thee west never lam anything! Give me the tools,” he’d say, and show them all, with pride sure nuf, how he’d stand and strike the boryer in the different positions ground es subject to, and so he wed keep on for hours.
One day above all, whan they lived in Santust, Tom came home highly pleased, and told his people he had done a wonder~ ful core. After supper he lighted his pipe, as usual, took up the fire-hook, and drawed the form of his end as he found it in the mornan.
“Now, I bored a hole there,” said he, pointan with his hook, and gauv en plenty of powder, and a ripped am forth and back like a boat-cove, and tore great rocks out of am as big as heusen.”
“Lor, Tom, hold thy tongue cheeld; I can hardly believe thee,” said Betty.
“Well, a es truth what I do tell thee. Then - now look at this, Betty - I went there, for another hole,” said he pointan, “and it tord’n like mad, and left am as square as a chest, all but a piece in the bottom. Then I went down there for a side-hole, and that end now es as square as a door, I tell thee. And now, Betty, the end es squared, where west thee go for the next hole? Here, take the tools to thee; es thy turn to show one a bit now; a es hard ground, mind, none of your farmers’ men can break that.”
“Well, I shud put down a hole there,” said she, piacan the hook in the most likly place. Then Tom, with a look and voice of great contempt wed say, “I told thee there was no wale (seam) there; thee may’st shut (blast~ away a ton of powder in that hole and then a wedn’t heav’n, a wed make a rouse (report) hard enow to frighten away all the chalks (choughs) in Carn Glase, and then a wedn’t heav’n. I tell thee again, all of the puwder that went down in the Royal George wed be no good in that hole. Thee must lev’n look down more—just so, or else a wed only be a stand to waste powder in.”
And so the simple contented household wed pass night after night till bed-time.
But one evenan they nearly came to grief by Tom shuttan his holes over again. Be came home late in a terrible splutter, sayan he had done a very bad core— he had shut a hole three times, and a blowed away in a rug (crevice) each time.
“Et was a hole near the bottom, Jan,” said he, takan the hook as usual and havau drawn the position to his own satisfaction.
“But I shud think,” said the boy, “that a was a hawfil bad place to come’ to strike et, faather.”
“Thou great noddy! Doesna know that a good man can bore a hole anywhere? Hold the hook there,” said he, puttan it into his hands, “and I’ll show thee how to strike ‘n.”
Tom turned round, snatched up the hammer in a great hurry, threw it back in order to make a stroke, knocked down Betty, missed the hook, and nearly broke Jan’s arm.
Betty, though on the floor, screamed to see the boys white face, and when she saw the blood running from his arm and felt it on her own face she fainted. And Tom, seeing them both on the floor, paced up and down calling out, when he tried to rise them, “Oh my dear Betty and Jan; I’d rather shut the hole twenty times over again than kill thee and the boy; rise up do e, my dears.”
They soon got round. The fright was worse than their hurt.
The way in which Tom and his wife amused themselves is not singular among
tinners, who, as a rule, take great pride in their work, and pass hours
showing their family or comrades how they worked the last cores, and what they
purpose to do next.”
“Well, did Tom’s good luck continue?” I asked.
“Pretty steadfast; he and his sons had neighbours’ fare,” the old tinner replied. “When his elder boys became men they had pretty good sturts (start from a paying tribute), saved money, and went to America, and they did so well over at Mineral Point, Galena, or somewhere that way, that they sent home enough to keep the old couple in comfort, and to bring the younger boys out to them, where they, with hundreds more from here about, are making another Cornwall for “one and all.”