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Camborne miner reveals conditions working underground 60 years ago

By bevcoumbe  |  Posted: November 22, 2013

  • Giuseppe with other Italians who came to England in the 1950's to work in the mines.

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A former Camborne miner, one of the first Italians to work thousands of feet underground at South Crofty Mine, has been speaking about his life 60 years on.

Giuseppe Amenta, known as Jo, and his wife, Gladys, recently embarked on a special tour of Italy to mark their diamond wedding anniversary.

The young Sicilian, then 18, came to England at the invitation of the then National Coal Board who travelled to his home town, Palermo, near Sicily, to recruit workers for mines back home.

“I used to race push bikes and came to Britain to save up for two years so that I could return and continue my racing career,” he said.

Now, 60 years on, he calls Cornwall his home, saying he has no regrets despite surviving some of the harshest conditions working underground.

Having arrived in Sheffield in 1952 in the middle of a miner’s strike over pay, he was quickly transferred to Cornwall.

“They didn’t want Italian’s down the mines because of the strike action. They found work at South Crofty where I remained for just under 33 years.

“It was extremely tough,” said the father of two, “There was no health and safety in the 1950s. We used wire to hold our boots together. We had to buy our own gear.

“You had a pick axe and shovel and you worked in a space that was three feet wide and six feet high, the work was hard. A lot of men fell ill because of the conditions. When you were drilling you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face the air was foul and thick with wet dust.”

Giuseppe was one of 20 Italians who arrived at the Cornish mine, with that figure soon doubling as the workforce grew to keep up with the demand for tin.

He said: “I worked alongside people from all over the country, Wales, Ireland, the Midlands and north. There were so many dialects underground.”

The men worked a six day week until the 1960s when health and safety rules came in. Guiseppe dug for tin in Robinson’s shaft which stretched under the Heartlands.

“I could walk for miles underground to Parc Bottom, North Roskear, Brea village, Barncoose, Illogan and Tolgus. The lowest I have worked is 440 fathoms (2,640ft). Many couldn’t cope with the heat and physical work.”

He even recalls having little or no training when he was handed his first detonators and dynamite and asked to blast rock.

“I was with a team of four Italians and we were told to just get on with it. We had no idea how long to cut the fuse wire and I bit the end of the detonator with my teeth to place it into the dynamite, I did that for four years, I was never shown any other way. It’s amazing that I am still here.”

Determined to prove himself, the young miner even used library books to teach himself new techniques.

“I was called a lot of names, there was a lot of prejudice in the 1950s. I was told that I was creating too much waste while I was breaking the tin.

“Gladys got a book on mining in Africa and it showed me how to break a ‘stope’. In my first two weeks (using the new method) I broke 68 fathoms. The engineers called me a liar, they couldn’t believe that I was drilling 26ft holes by hand in a single day.

“They sent in time and motion people to look at me and after two weeks they accepted what I was doing.”

His amazing work rate impressed mining officials all over the world who came to South Crofty to marvel at his feats underground.

“People came from Switzerland, South Africa and Brazil, and teams from the School of Mines in Camborne to watch how I was doing it. They even came to me to be trained.”

He was also put in charge of safety, ensuring the men were not at risk from falling rocks.

“It was extremely dangerous, if the rock collapsed it could cut you in half. You couldn’t use props to support the walls, I had to test the ground every day, looking for cracks and water seeping through.”

Many of his colleagues died down the mine and he was seriously injured in three accidents, cutting his wrist and finger.

“I struck my ankle with a pick axe. I didn’t realise at first. My mate noticed blood on the ground. he noticed blood on my foot. I removed my boot which was filled with blood. I was off work for six days.

“A few people died of heat exhaustion, one man was smoking near a newly blasted area and there was an explosion. Not all of the dynamite had gone off in the first blast and his face was badly damaged. He spent seven months in Bodmin Hospital and died a few years later.”

He even recalled helping one miner who lost his finger while tipping a wagon loaded with tin.

“I found his finger and chucked down a hole. They came looking for it to take it to hospital. I had to tell them that it was gone.”

Having left the mine in December 1984 Giuseppe embarked on a new career teaching judo and karate, which was popularised by the infamous martial arts expert of the time, Bruce Lee.

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  • Minty54  |  November 28 2013, 7:05PM

    Just to clarify the above. Mr. Amenta gained his 6th Dan Black Belt in 1984, so has practised the martial arts in one form or another since the 60's.

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  • Big_Ger  |  November 22 2013, 7:32AM

    Oh dear!! " Having left the mine in December 1984 Giuseppe embarked on a new career teaching judo and karate, which was popularised by the infamous martial arts expert of the time, Bruce Lee." Bruce Lee was "famous" not "infamous." Bruce Lee did not popularise Judo and karate, both of which are Japanese arts. Bruce Lee was Chinese and taught Kung Fu (Jeet Kune Do.) If Mr Amenta started doing martial arts in 1984, he would not have been doing it in the time of Bruce Lee's influence, as Bruce Lee died in 1973!! But apart from that, an interesting article.