Imagine working deep inside a mine in medieval Cornwall. Darkness is all around you, barely broken by the hot sputtering oil lamp. Breathing poisonous air, you have carved deep into an underworld of granite using simple handtools and brute strength. You are seeking precious ore for some greedy lord when suddenly an unearthly knocking sound starts to come from the walls and ceilings and the whole mine starts to shudder. It’s the knockers, the spirits of the mine!
Cornwall is a peninsula of ancient rock which juts out from the southern tip of Great Britain. When the continent Laurussia slammed into Gondwana during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, the complicated geology of colliding plates caused a massive intrusion of magma to push up into the native rocks. This magma cooled into huge swaths of granite which underwent extensive metamorphism and mineralisation during subsequent ages—a process which left the area which rich seams of various metals. Mining began in Cornwall by at least 2150 BC–when tin was critical to bronze making– and it continued until 1998 AD (and it could restart at any time in accordance with the schizophrenic dictates of the world economy). Various periods have seem particular flurries of mining activity—particularly the middle ages and the Industrial revolution, but the vocation has always been an underlying part of the Cornish character. The myth of the knockers is a major part of that tradition.
The knockers were conceived of as a fairytale race of hard-working dwarf-like miners. The height of children, the hardscrabble little men possessed the clothes and tools of underground laborers and the work ethic of supernatural beings. Although they existed slightly beyond human kin, the knockers could be occasionally apprehended at the edges of perception–where the light faded in the depths of the pit, or just around a braced corner. The knockers were thought to be pranksters. They would steal tools or put out lights. To some miners, the knockers were evil beings who would knock down the supports holding up the shaft. The majority of miners however thought were benevolent imps or even the spirits of miners who dug too deep and died crushed in the blackness. When the mine walls started to groan and pop, it was the knockers trying to warn the miners of imminent collapse.
There idea of magical miners was widespread in Europe. The Germans talked about the kobald–the goblin miners who poisoned the deep shafts. The Scandinavians believed in different races of dwarves. The tunnels beneath the burial mounds of Ireland were thought to be the haunt of leprechauns hoarding pots of gold. Yet of all these underground folks, the knockers seem to play the biggest part in the life of the Cornish miners. The men demanded that mine bosses propitiate the knockers in various ways. Individual miners took care to throw the last bite of their famous Cornish pasties to the knockers.
As the world changed the mining industry changed: Cornish miners emigrated to other lands to share their expertise (and to share the profits of new strikes). They played a substantial part in America’s mining boom and they brought their traditions with them to the mines of the new world. The knockers morphed into the tommyknockers, but otherwise changed very little in the copper, silver, and gold mines of the old west. As a remarkable post script to the age of Cornish-American mining, when a huge California metal mine closed in 1956 and sealed the entrance, the former workers petitioned the owners to reopen the door, so the tommyknockers could leave and seek new jobs– a request which was granted.