Many cultures have some form of ‘little people’, be they leprechauns, brownies, or pixies. The knockers are a specific form of ‘little people’, believed to derive from early Welsh folklore. Considered the earliest inhabitants of Wales, the knockers taught the art of mining to the Britons. They’re now more closely associated with Cornwall.
Tin mining in Cornwall is around 4000 years old, and the Cornish traded tin with the Romans. So much human activity in the mines gave rise to these tales of miniature figures underground, passing on warnings or causing harm.
Let’s explore the mines and get to know the knockers a little better. Hit play below to hear the podcast episode, or keep reading!
What function do the knockers perform?
Also known as the Knacker, Bucca (Cornwall), Bwca (Wales) or Tommyknocker (US), the knockers derive from similar origins as leprechauns and brownies. Legends claim they’re only 2ft tall and live underground. They dress like miners and steal unattended food or tools.
Mining was incredibly dangerous work. Poisonous gases, pools of water, and collapses provided plenty of hazards on a daily basis. If you saw the second season of Poldark, you’ll know how perilous Cornish tin mines could be. Naturally, miners were constantly alert to the sounds of cave-ins. Creaking earth or timbers would strike fear into their hearts. Such ‘knocking’ was attributed to the knockers.
According to some legends, the knocking came from the knockers attacking the supports to bring the ceiling down. These knockers are malevolent spirits and cause more than simple mischief. Similar knockers appear in Laura Purcell’s creepy Gothic novel, Bone China.
In other legends, the knocking acts as a warning of an impending cave-in. These spirits might like practical jokes, but they took the safety of the miners very seriously. Their knocking alerted miners to danger so they could leave unsafe tunnels.
These knockers might even appear in front of miners they liked. Miners also took care to leave part of their dinner, usually a Cornish pasty, for the knockers.
The knockers as ghosts
Some don’t believe the knockers are part of the fairy folk. In these legends, they’re the ghosts of those lost in tin mine accidents. These helpful spirits passed on warnings, and miners left the last part of their pasties as a thank you for their protection. In these stories, the spirits offer assistance to save miners from suffering the same fate.
The Wheal Roots Mine, now known as the Poldark mine, is believed to be Britain’s deepest mine. Most active between 1720 and 1780, it was largely abandoned by the 20th century.
According to Haunted Britain, the mine boasts swirling mists that materialise in photographs. A brown-clad figure once materialised and then vanished in front of a visit.
Apparently, a long dead miner roams the tunnels. He’s heard, though not seen, and a paranormal group captured a stream of foul-mouthed abuse on a recording.
In one tale, a woman known as Dorcas died and began haunting a nearby mine. She took a fancy to one of the miners and followed him around. Dorcas kept saying his name to get his attention. One day, she said it so often that the miner left the mine to find some peace.
Shortly after he left the tunnel where he’d been working, the ceiling collapsed. While Dorcas wasn’t a knocker, her actions certainly saved this particular miner.
Others believe the knockers date back to the Roman era. James MacKillop notes the legends that the spirits are the ghosts of Jews, used as slaves in the mines (2004: 286). Yet more stories claim the knockers are those who weren’t good enough for heaven but not evil enough for hell.
That said, I’m sure plenty of those early miners would consider the mines a form of hell.
I even found mention of one belief that the knockers drew attention to rich new seams with their knocking. In these stories, the knockers use sound to indicate where the seams can be found.
Patricia Monaghan prefers this origin story, explaining “their knocking [grew] louder when miners came near a rich vein of ore” (2004: 273). In these tales, the knockers only bothered with the rich mines still boasting plenty of tin, and they didn’t haunt mined-out tunnels.
According to Seeks Ghosts, a man bought a house in Cornwall. He asked his servants who made the noise. They told him it was the knockers. It turned out a massive tin lode lay under his house, so they were letting him know it was there.
The legends do contradict one another as to where the knockers came from. But they do have common points. Miners didn’t whistle in mines for fear of offending the knockers, though “singing in mines was acceptable” (Monaghan 2004: 273).
Monaghan also notes that knockers hated crosses, so miners took care not to wear them, or even to leave their tools in a makeshift cross (2004: 273). Miners also took care never to speak ill of the knockers, for fear of the little people causing accidents.
And if anyone heard the knocking outside a mine? It was a sure sign of impending death. In some tales, the person who heard the knocking was the next to die.
The knockers move to the New World
Welsh miners moved to western Pennsylvania in the 1820s. As with any group that moves to a new land, they took their stories of the knockers with them. The miners told their new co-workers tales of stolen tools and helpful warnings.
Cornish miners took the legends to California. Their mining abilities were so sought after that mine owners even paid the boat fare to bring more Cornish miners to the area. Yet the new workers brought demands of their own. They wouldn’t enter new mines unless managers assured them the helpful spirits were present.
In America, the knockers became the tommyknockers, lending their name to Stephen King’s creepy novel (aff link).
According to Ronald James, a belief in the tommyknockers in Nevada lasted well into the 1930s. A corresponding belief in Cornwall died out by 1900. Some miners even made statues of the spirits from clay and left them in the mines to guard the tunnels.
Even as late as 1956, a large Californian mine closed and descendants of the original Cornish miners asked the owners to free the spirits to work elsewhere. Strangely, the owners agreed. One can only wonder where those tommyknockers ended up. (Methinks that’s a supernatural sitcom waiting to happen)
Nowadays, the tommyknockers only appear in the branding for a beer brewery in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
Are the knockers still there?
It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the truth behind the knockers. Maybe miners simply learned to listen for the telltale creaking of a roof on the point of collapse. Attributing the sound to protective spirits could make working in such hellish conditions more bearable.
After all, this is a period before workers’ rights and trade unions. The miners needed some sense that someone was watching out for them and their safety.
Perhaps spirits really did reside in the mines, on the lookout for impending disaster. Maybe they ‘borrowed’ tools out of boredom, or they did a little mining of their own.
Knockers are a fascinating remnant of superstitious belief, lasting well into the 20th century. Long may they guard the deep and dark places of the earth.
Had you heard of the tommyknockers? Let me know in the comments below!
MacKillop, James (2004), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monaghan, Patricia (2004), The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, New York: Facts on File.
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