Hard life has gone west

29th August 2003 at 01:00
A visit to a former tin mine in Cornwall reminds Bob Fletcher of the hard-won achievements of previous generations

An archaeologist was excavating somewhere in the Middle East when he happened upon some ancient cuneiform written on a shard of pottery. It belonged to an early period and he was unable to decipher what the script meant. He sent the piece to the experts at the British Museum and, after some time, they responded. Even though the pot dated back to 3000BC, the ancient potter had written, "I don't know what the children of today are coming to!"

Cornwall can be the most delightful of places to go on holiday, especially when the sun shines. But it can also be one of the worst, particularly when it's wet. Somehow it makes the granite rocks look even more forbidding and, as the wind whips across the rain-drenched sand and treeless landscape, tourists are sent running for cover or left to their own devices.

On one such day we found ourselves going to the Geevor, a working tin mine until 1990, near St Just. Geevor's tunnels had been dug for centuries and eventually reached far out under the sea. The decline in world tin prices eventually meant it became uneconomic; now the metal is no longer mined anywhere in Europe, let alone Cornwall. Good thing, too, when we found out about the 18th-century working conditions of the young miners sent underground at the age of eight. They chipped away with a hammer and chisel at the steady rate of 1cm each hour, often 800m below the surface for at least 10 hours a day, with a tallow candle their only light.

At the end of the shift, they walked back to their homes three miles away and then, at harvest time, spent a few more hours in the fields. The life of the girls was only marginally better. In all weathers, their job was to smash the rocks to a powder once they had been hauled above ground. It took us a while to adjust to the light once we had returned to the surface - and this after a mere 35 minutes underground. It made us grasp the enormity of the undertaking - and it made us contemplate the lot of today's youth.

These children often went on to die in their late twenties - if they hadn't already drowned in a flash flood, or been crushed in a rock fall, or had their lungs ruined by the dust. Lack of sunlight meant many suffered from rickets. None became a grandparent. Time ran out for them like the tallow candles that hung in loops round their necks.

Once the weather improved, we returned to the sea. I looked at my own children. Their relaxed manner is light years away from the children of the mine, separated by 300 years and the introduction of mass schooling. Games of beach volleyball with their friends are interrupted by cards and surfing and Gameboys, and the occasional trip to the shop for some delicacy or other. They sleep in a clean, dry bed and awake to a satisfying breakfast.

They often choose what they eat.

Thank goodness we no longer see our children as a means of survival. Most of us now live a different sort of life from the children of Geevor. We should wonder at the hard-won achievements of previous generations. They have brought us to this point. Let's break the mould of the potter in Mesopotamia and be grateful for what our young people have become.

Bob Fletcher is head of Hobbayne primary school, London borough of Ealing

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