"WHO ARE THE KNOCKERS ?"
CHARLES KINGSLEY in his "Yeast: a Problem," asks this question--Tregarra answers,--"They are the ghosts, the miners hold, of the old Jews that crucjfled our Lord, and were sent for slaves by the Roman emperors to work the mines: and we find their old smelting-houses, which we call Jews' houses, and their blocks at the bottom of the great bogs, which we call Jews' tin: and then a town among us too, which we call Market Jew, but the old name was Marazion, that means the bitterness of Zion, they tell me; and bitter work it was for them, no doubt, poor souls ! We used to break into old shafts and adits which they had made, and find flue old stag's-horn pick-axes, that crumbled to pieces when we brought them to grass. And they say that if a man will listen of a still night about these shafts, he may hear the ghosts of them at work, knocking and picking, as clear as if there was a man at work in the next level."
In Notes and Queries will be found some learned discussions on the question of the Jews working the Cornish tin mines, as though it were merely one of tradition. That the Jews farmed the tin mines of Cornwall and Devonshire is an historical fact, of which we have evidence in charters granted by several of our kings, especially by King John. Carew in his "Survey of Cornwall" gives some account of their mode of dealing with the tinners. Hence the terms "Jews' houses," given to old and rude smelting works,--many of which I have seen,--and hence the name of "Jews' tin," given to the old blocks of tin, specimens of which may be seen in the Museum of Practical Geology, and in the museum of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, at Truro. "Atall Sarazin" is another term applied to some of the old waste-heaps of the ancient tin mines. -
"The Jews," says Whitaker (" Origin of Arianism," p. 334), "denominated themselves, and were denominated by the Britons of Cornwall, Saracens, as the genuine progeny of Sarah." Be this as it may, I have often heard in the mining villages--from twenty to thirty years since--a man coming from a distant parish, called "a foreignerer;" a man from a distant country, termed "an outlandish man;" and any one not British born, designated as "a Saracen."
But this has led me away from the knockers, who are in some districts called also "the buccas" Many a time have I been seriously informed by the miners themselves that these sprites have been heard working away in the remote parts of a lode, repeating the blows of the miner's pick or sledge with great precision. Generally speaking, the knockers work upon productive lodes only; and they have often kindly indicated to the trusting miners, where they might take good tribute pitches.
To Wesley, Cornwall owes a deep debt. He found the country steeped in the darkness of superstitious ignorance, and he opened a new light upon it. Associated with the spread of Wesleyan Methodism, has been the establishment of schools; and under the influence of religion and education, many of the superstitions have faded away. We rarely hear of the knockers now; but the following occurrence will show that the knockers have not entirely left the land:--
One Saturday night I had retired to rest, having first seen that all the members of the household had gone to their bedrooms. These were my daughters, two female servants, and an old woman, named Mary, who was left, by the proprietor, in charge of the house which I occupied.
I had been some time in bed, when I distinctly heard a bedroom door open, and footsteps which, after moving about for some time in the passage or landing, from which the bedrooms opened, slowly and carefully descended the stairs. I heard a movement in the kitchen below, and the footsteps again ascended the stairs, and went into one of the bedrooms. This noise contiued so long, and was so regularly repeated, that I began to fear lest one of the children were taken suddenly ill. Yet I felt assured, if it was so, one of the servants would call me. Therefore I lay still and listened until I fell asleep.
On the Sunday morning, when I descended to the breakfast room, I asked the eldest of the two servants what had occasioned so much going up and down stairs in the night. She declared that no one had left their bedrooms after they had retired to them. I then inquired of the younger girl, and of each of my daughters as they made their appearance. No one had left their rooms--they had not heard any noises. My youngest daughter, who had been, after this inquiry of mine, for some minutes alone with the youngest servant, came laughing to me,--
"Papa, Nanny says the house is haunted, and that they have often heard strange noises in it."
So I called Nancy; but all I could learn from her was that noises, like that of men going up and down stairs,--of threshing corn, and of "beating the borer" (a mining operation), were not uncommon.
We all laughed over papa's ghost during the breakfast, and by and by old Mary made her appearance.
"Yes," she said, "it is quite true, as Nanny as a told you. I have often heard all sorts of strange noises; but I b'lieve they all come from the lode of tin which runs under the house. Wherever there is a lode of tin, you are sure to hear strange noises."
"What, Mary I was it the knockers I heard last night ?" "Yes; 'twas the knackers, down working upon the tin--no doubt of it."
This was followed by a long explanation, and numerous stories of mines in the Lelant and St Ives district, in which the knockers had been often heard.
After a little time, Mary, imagining, I suppose, that the your ladies might not like to sleep in a house beneath which the knockers were at work, again came with her usual low courtesy into the parlour.
"Beg pardon, sir," says she; "but none of the young ladies need be afraid. There are no spirits in the house; it is very nearly a new one, and no one has ever died in the house."
This makes a distinct difference between the ghost of the departed and those gnomes who are doomed to toil in the earth's dark recesses.[a] The Cornish knocker does not appear to be the "cobal" of German miners. The former are generally kindly, and often serve the industrious miner; the latter class are always malicious, and, I believe, are never heard but when mischief is near.
[a] "Some are sent, like the spirit Gathon in Cornwall, to work the will of his master in the mines."--Mrs Bray's Tradilians of Devonshire.
Who was the spirit Gathon ?
"The miner starts as he hears the mischievous Gathon answering blow for blow the stroke of his pickaxe, or deluding him with false fires, noises, and flames."--A Guide to the Coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Mackenzie Walcott, M.A.
Carne, in his "Tales of the West," alludes to this :-- "The miners have their full share of the superstitious feelings of the country, and often hear with alarm the noises, as it were, of other miners at work deep underground, and at no great distance. The of the barrows, the sound of the pickaxes, and the fall of the earth and stones, are distinctly heard through the night,--often, no doubt, the echo of their own labour; sometimes continued long after that labonr has ceased, and occasionally voices seem to mingle with them. Gilbert believed that he was peculiarly exposed to these visitations; he had an instinctive shrinking from the place where the accident had happened; and, when left alone there, it was in vain that he plied his toil with desperate energy to divert his thoughts. Another person appeared to work very near him: he stayed the lifted pick and listened. The blow of the other fell distinctly, and the rich ore followed it in a loud rollinng; he checked the loaded barrow that he was wheeling; still that of the unknown workman went on, and came nearer and nearer, and then there followed a loud, faint cry, that thrilled through every nerve of the lonely man, for it seemed like the voice of his brother. These sounds as ceased on a sudden, and those which his own toll caused were the only ones heard, till, after an interval, without any warning, they began again at times more near, and again passing away to a distance."--The Tale of the Miner.