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  • First Knocker Record from Wales August 19, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Knockers (aka knackers) were the tiny mine spirits described particularly in Cornwall and in Wales. They were sometimes said to be helpers, sometimes hinderers, and sometimes they warned of disasters in the pit. On this last point Beach links here to his description of a nineteenth-century mine disaster in Wales at Morfa. They arrived in the United States via Welsh and Cornish miners and became there Tommy Knockers where they continued to be reported until relatively recent times. The following extracting is interesting not because it is particularly ample, or because there are any revelations but because it is, to Beach’s knowledge, by far the earliest reference from Britain to mine spirits: naturally any corrections should be sent to drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. It appears in a book in 1691, but the quotation was taken from a letter written by one John Lewis in 1656, so this dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

    We have in this county several silver and leaden mines, and nothing more ordinary than some subterranean spirits, called knockers (where a good vein is), both heard, and after seen, little statured, about half a yard long; this very instant, there are miners upon a discovery of a vein upon my own lands, upon this score, and two offered oath they heard them in the day-time.

    A couple of interesting points emerge here. First, the knockers are overwhelmingly associated with finding new minerals, so they are very much ‘helpers’. Second, it is very rare in accounts to actually have descriptions of knockers. Usually they are, as their name would suggest, seen but not heard. However, here they are described as being ‘half a yard long’. Note that many folklore books claim that they are seen, but this just seems to be a rather desperate attempt to put a face to a name. In actual mine descriptions Beach has very rarely come across actual encounters with knockers.

    Note the Welsh word is coblynau that apparently meant ‘knocker’ too: though some ‘close’ Continental names that clearly do not kobold etc.

    Source: Richard Baxter, The Certainty of the World of Spirits (London 1691), 133

    Leif, 29 Aug 2016, Two descriptions of Tommy-knockers from long ago. The first, was written by Thoman Pennant on his visit to the collieries of Whitehaven, Cumbria, UK. Pennant, Thomas. A tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides. B. White, publisher. 1776. [p55-6] “The immense caverns that lay between the pillars, exhibited a most gloomy appearance: I could not help enquiring here after the imaginary inhabitant, the creation of the laborers’ fancy, ‘The swart Fairy of the mine,’ and was seriously answered by a black fellow at my elbow, that he really had never met with any; but that his grandfather had found the little implements and tools belonging to this diminutive race of subterraneous spirits.” The following appears on a footnote on page 56: The Germans believed in two species ; one fierce and malevolent, the other a gentle race, appearing like little old men, dressed like the miners, and not much above two feet high : these wander about the drifts and chambers of the work, seem perpetually employed, yet do nothing; some seem to cut the ore, or fling what is cut into vessels, or turn the windlass; but never do any harm to the miners, except provoked : as the sensible Agricola, in this point credulous, relates in his book, de animantibus subterraneis. ”

    Following is the passage from Agricola, in English translation: Proceedings of the California academy of sciences, fourth series  Volume 60, No. 9, pp. 89–174, 5 figs., 1 table May 7, 2009  Michele L. Aldrich1, Alan E. Leviton, and Lindsay L. Sears.  Georgius Agricola, De animantibus subterraneis, 1549 and 1556: A translation of a renaissance essay in
zoology and natural history’. [p 121-2 (p 502-3 in Agricola’s original publication)] “Finally, perhaps because it is pleasing to theologians, demons [Daemon subterraneus trun- culatus] are able to be considered in the number of natural subterranean animals, that live in cer-
tain mines. Moreover, the class of these creatures is divided in two. For there are those which are aggressive and terrifying to look upon, which are generally hostile and unfriendly to miners. Such was the one at the Annaberger mine, which killed more than twelve laborers with its breath, which is called a rose-halo. In fact, it emits its fiery breath from its open mouth. And it is
said to have been seen in the image of a horse possessing a tall head and neck and savage eyes. And the one at Sneeberg was of this sort: covered with a black hood, it picked up a certain labor-
er from the ground into the highest part of the large cavernous space, which was rich in silver, and placed his mutilated body in the Georgian mine. In fact, Psellus, when he classified the number of demons into six types, says that this kind is worse than the others, because the material of its skin 
is thicker. Certain philosophers call these and similar demons, which are harmful and wicked by nature, stupid and lacking reason. “Then there are weak demons, which some of the Germans, as also the Greeks, call hobgoblins, because they are imitators of humans. For they passionately ridicule joy: and they seem to do many things, but they do nothing completely. Some call them mountain devils, since they are common- ly noticeable in height, since they are certainly 3/4 as tall as a dwarf. Moreover, they appear as old men clothed in the manner of miners, that is, clothed with a shirt, and dressed with a piece of cloth hanging from their loins. These are not accustomed to do damage to miners, but they wander in wells and mines and although they do nothing, they seem to train themselves in every habit of laborers, now they dig cavities, now they pour what is dug out into vessels, and now they maneu- ver the hauling machine. Although in fact the dirt sometimes irritates the workers, nevertheless it rarely harms them. The hobgoblin never harms them unless it is first provoked by loud laughter or insults. And in this way they are not very different from demons, but they appear to humans much more rarely than those, since everyday they complete part of their work at home and they attend to their beasts of burden. Because they act kindly toward these for our sake and they are in the ancestry of humans, at any rate since they seem to be friends, the Germans placed a name on them, so they call them Gutelos: and you call them Trullis. Nevertheless these had a false sex of male or female and were in slavery among the other nations, especially among the Swedes. But mountain devils work chiefly in caves from which metals are already being dug out or there is the hope that they can be dug out. For this reason miners are not frightened by their labors, but they are more eager, recognizing an omen from them and they work more vigorously.“ What manner of implements and tools Pennant’s miner refer to? If his grandfather found them, the discovery would have taken place in the early 1700s.