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The East Wheal Rose Disaster-A Forgotten Flash Flood


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  • Location: Camborne
  • Location: Camborne

The largest lead mine in Cornwall was East Wheal Rose, situated near Newlyn East. On the 9th July 1846 disaster struck when a violent thunderstorm caused millions of gallons of water to pour into the mine. Thirty nine miners lost their lives and it was the worst mining disaster in Cornish mining history.

An account from the West Briton !7th July, 1846

TERRIBLE DISASTER AT EAST WHEAL ROSE AND NORTH WHEAL ROSE MINES - THIRTY-NINE LIVES LOST. - On Thursday, the 9th instant, a most disastrous occurrence took place at East Wheal Rose and North Wheal Rose lead mines, in the parish of Newlyn, which resulted in a lamentable loss of human life, and the destruction of much property. The following account, derived from personal inquiries on the spot, may be regarded by our readers as affording correct information respecting this sad calamity. To those who are unacquainted with the locality, it may be desirable to state that East Wheal Rose mine is situated in a capacious vale, or kind of basin, at the bottom of several hills, which arise around it somewhat in the form of an amphitheatre. These hills are principally killas, and the mine workings run from north to south, in what is provincially termed flucan, and in some places through the blue clay slate formation. Towards the northern part of the sett the valley narrows into a ravine, through which a stream, after running by the workings, is continued to the river Gannel, and thence to the sea at Crantock. The distance from the sea is five or six miles, and the fall of water supposed to be about fifty feet. North Wheal Rose is immediately adjoining the sett of East Wheal Rose.

Between twelve and one o'clock on the day we have named, immense masses of black clouds overhung all the hills surrounding East Wheal Rose, and extended as far as the eye could reach in the horizon. A terrible thunderstorm commenced; the lightning was very vivid; the rolling of the thunder was at times awfully loud; and about one o'clock the rain poured down in such a lashing torrent as eye-witnesses state they never before saw in England. Persons who had been in South America state that they have known such torrents in those regions, but they never before saw such masses of water falling from the clouds in Europe. The consequence was that in an incredibly short space of time large streams of water poured down the hills surrounding East Wheal Rose, with impetuous force, and, uniting at the bottom, formed almost "a perfect sea of water," which rushed on from south to north in the direction of the narrow ravine we have mentioned, and directly over the area of the sett. Captain MIDDLETON (the manager of East Wheal Rose) says that about the time of the storm he was in the sawhouse, giving directions to have some timber cut for the mine. While he was there it began to rain, and in less than five minutes the water was descending over the hills in torrents. In a few minutes he sent a man for fifty surface men to watch the leats, to get them prepared, and see that all was right. He then sent a man to the counting house for his underground clothes; he changed his clothes and by the time he came out, the water was going down through the mine in a perfect sea, being one immense sheet of water. He had then three hundred men endeavouring to save the timbers, barrows, and other materials, as well as engaged in raising the shafts for the purpose of keeping the water from descending. By that time also their machines were fully employed in drawing men to the surface from Stephens's, Carbis's, Gower's, Davey's and Oxnam's shafts, which last has entirely run together. The water carried large pieces of timber and other materials out of the sett as far as Metha bridge. On the west of the mine a strong stone bridge had been built by the adventurers about two years since, one-half of which was carried away by the rushing flood of water. We have been informed by several who witnessed it, that the water came down upon the sett in such broad and deep waves that all efforts to keep it from some of the shafts were at length unavailing. The water, as it rushed towards the ravine, also deepened; and in this part, at Oxnam's shaft, it is said to have first entered the mine, although at Magor's shaft, and at other places, it also descended. The consequence was that the descent of water occasioned a rush of air throughout the mine, which blew out the candles, and left the poor miners in total darkness. Being much alarmed, those who were in favourable levels immediately proceeded to grass, where they assisted the men who were already engaged on the surface in attempting to divert the water, or to dam it out from descending the shafts and footways. Others of the miners, however, who were working in deeper levels, or who in ascending the shafts met with the water pouring down upon them, escaped with their lives with the greatest difficulty. As the kibbles descended in Gower's shaft the drowning men caught hold of them, and were drawn up in clusters, as many as could hold on. The men also frequently caught hold of the chains, and were drawn up; one man, it is stated, coming up with merely a finger or two hitched in the chain. At one time six men were drawn up holding on by the kibble; and when it again descended to the fifty fathom level, a man named HARRIS and two boys were washed out. Several men hanging by the kibbles are said to have been so exhausted that they loosened their hold, and fell down the shafts. In Michell's whim shaft some of the miners are stated to have climbed the open shaft by holding on to the casing, the water rising close to their heels as they ascended. Others saved themselves by climbing fathoms against the force of the water, which was streaming down upon them; and a number came up the manhole of Michell's shaft, from which the water was diverted. Between the fifty and forty fathom levels one man said he had climbed fifteen fathoms by the pumps and rods in Michell's engine shaft, upon hearing which the captain stopped the engine, fearing he should kill other men who might be climbing up; and the engine was not again put to work until it was ascertained that no more were coming up the rods. Some of those who have escaped assert that many more might have been saved, even from the lower levels, had they exerted themselves; but the sudden consciousness of danger, when the water first poured down, and their lights were put out, seemed completely to paralyze their efforts. We saw one man who escaped from the eighty fathom level with only a few bruises. It being fortunately relief time, there were not so many under ground as are usually at work, nor can the number who were below be correctly ascertained. It is supposed there were about two hundred, and of these the greater number escaped with their lives, though many of them were severely injured by the stones and stuff falling upon them. The wounded were attended to by Mr. VIGURS, of Newlyn, the surgeon of the mine. The distressing fact was, however, made known on the Thursday evening, that forty-two poor fellows were missing, being still in the workings of the mine. Of these four were found alive in some part of the fifty fathom level on the Friday morning, their names being WILLIAM ELLERY, THOMAS PHILLIPS, STEPHEN HARVEY, and EDWARD HOLMAN. Three of them were not much bruised when picked up, but the fourth, at the time of our inquiry, was confined to their bed.

Edited by weather ship
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