Many cultures have some form of ‘little people’, be they leprechauns, brownies, pixies, or other folk. The knockers are a specific form of ‘little people’, believed to derive from earth Welsh folklore. Considered the earliest inhabitants of Wales, the knockers taught the art of mining to the Britons.
If you think that sounds familiar, then yes. It’s possible that such legends inspired J. R. R. Tolkien when he invented the dwarves of Middle Earth.
But 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 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. 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.
In some legends, the knockers aren’t a separate form of fairy folk.
Instead, 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.
Others believe the knockers date back to the Roman era. In these legends, the spirits are the ghosts of Jews, used as slaves in the mines. 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.
The legends do contradict one another as to where the knockers came from. But they do have common points. Whatever their origins, knockers hated whistling. Miners also took care never to speak ill of the knockers, for fear of the little people causing accidents.
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 imported their stories of the knockers. The miners told their new co-workers tales of stolen tools and helpful warnings.
Cornish miners took the legends to California. Mineowners even paid the boat fare to bring more Cornish miners to the area, so sought after were the abilities in the mines. 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.
Nowadays, the tommyknockers only appear in the branding for a beer brewery in Idaho Springs, Colorado.
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. Perhaps spirits really did reside in the mines, on the lookout for impending disaster, but happy to ‘borrow’ tools out of boredom.
They’re 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!
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